Battle of the beaches

Direct flights are driving prices down as resorts compete for Australian business, writes Jane E. Fraser.

If you're thinking about a resort holiday, now is a great time to book. Overseas resort destinations are battling it out for Australian travellers, resulting in rock-bottom deals for favourites such as Fiji, Bali and Phuket.

"Many are discounting their prices to levels we've never seen before," says the general manager, brand, of travel.com.au, Lisa Ferrari. "Many Aussies would be surprised to see where their travel budgets can take them. Australians can head off to neighbouring countries for under $1000."

New flights are one of the biggest drivers of competition between resort destinations, bringing improved access and increased price competition. Fiji and Phuket have been among the biggest winners, with new services from Jetstar and V Australia. The Cook Islands is about to take a step up, with direct flights from Australia starting in two months' time.

The general manager of marketing at Escape Travel, Colin Bowman, says competition is resulting in "very favourable" pricing for Australian travellers to the south Pacific, as well as for staples such as Bali, Fiji and Phuket and other destinations around Asia.

"There's no doubt there are some great deals around at the moment, there's a lot of competition for the Australian traveller," Bowman says. "There have been some new routes opened up by airlines ... and then you add on top of that some great hotel deals. We are seeing a lot of hotels adding in things such as meals and activities."

Bowman says there is particularly good value to be found in family holiday packages, with deals such as "kids stay and eat free". And with the weather cooling and the winter school holidays coming up, many are expected to take advantage by booking in coming weeks.

The latest overseas arrivals and departures figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show the number of Australians travelling overseas is up about 18 per cent on last year, with more than 900,000 people taking trips in January and February.

Ferrari says demand has been particularly strong for Asian and south Pacific resorts, which are close enough to be suitable for short breaks.

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"We have seen many holiday resorts heavily discounting their products to attract Aussie travellers," Ferrari says. "Favourable exchange rates are boosting their popularity even more. In some cases it has become cheaper to travel overseas than domestically."

Ferrari says Hawaii is giving closer destinations a run for their money, thanks to cheap airfares and accommodation deals.

"We have seen airfares to Hawaii heavily discounted over the past six months due to an airline price war and, with discounted accommodation, Aussies have been able to snap up Hawaiian packages for less than $1000," she says.

Hawaiian Airlines was unable to provide passenger figures for commercial reasons, but a spokeswoman, Sherilyn Robinson, says the first three months of the year and forward bookings are well up on last year.

"There have always been great deals to Hawaii but never this many at once," Robinson says. "Travellers know a bargain when they see one."

Bowman says Vanuatu has also been popular, following last year's record number of Australian visitors. A spokeswoman for the Vanuatu Tourism Office, Sarah Anderson, says Vanuatu has been "very active" with marketing and will keep up promotional efforts throughout the year.

Perennial favourite Fiji expects to attract a record number of Australians this year - about 270,000 - with travellers seemingly undeterred by ongoing political tensions. Visitor numbers for February were up nearly 25 per cent on last year, helped by airline competition and a lot of money spent on marketing.

Political unrest is affecting visitor numbers to Thailand, with a spokesman for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Pongsak Kanittanon, saying it is unlikely Thailand will meet its target of 670,000 Australian visitors this year unless the unrest eases quickly.

Australian visitor numbers for Thailand were up about 11 per cent for the first three months of the year, based on figures from Suvarnabhumi Airport, but violent clashes in early April have put the brakes on.

Kanittanon says V Australia's new flights to Phuket will provide a boost but it is too early to measure.

Bali continues to be hard to beat on value, with short-break packages including flights, four nights' accommodation and daily breakfast available for less than $1000. Garuda Indonesia recently released its 2010 "Bali on any budget" brochure with the promise almost all prices were lower than 2009 prices.

The Cook Islands will be one to watch when direct Air New Zealand flights between Sydney and Rarotonga start on July 4. The launch will be backed by a combined Air New Zealand and Cook Islands Tourism marketing campaign to raise awareness of the destination.

While the flights are officially a four-month trial to test demand, Air New Zealand has expressed confidence they will become a permanent fixture. A lot of up-scale accommodation has opened on the Cook Islands in the past two years and the destination is likely to become increasingly popular with honeymooners.

For those who prefer their islands a little closer to home ...

Cheap overseas deals are hard to resist but there are plenty of bargains to be found in Australia, too.

"There are some great Australian packages around at the moment, particularly for places such as the Queensland islands," says Colin Bowman from Escape Travel.

Islands such as Hamilton and Daydream have been offering excellent value holiday packages, especially for families, he says.

Airfares within Australia have been at their lowest ever in recent months, with sale fares starting at $19 one way.

For accommodation, Cairns has consistently had some of the cheapest offerings but is getting plenty of competition from the Gold and Sunshine coasts. It is possible to get 4½-star accommodation on the Gold Coast for about $100 a night, or on the Sunshine Coast from about $110 a night.

Bowman says there are also a lot more cruise options from Australian ports than there have been in the past.

Looking for trouble

Check the latest travel advice for destinations such as Thailand and Fiji because their political situations and associated levels of safety can change quickly. While it is rare for civil unrest to extend to resort areas such as Phuket, travel through large cities and airports can be disrupted and, at times, dangerous.

For updates, go to smartraveller.gov.au and click on "Travel advice" for a list of countries.

It is also important to understand that most travel insurance policies exclude claims arising from civil unrest or any "act of war".

Travel insurance companies can also refuse to pay if you fail to follow official advice in relation to travelling to particular areas, or avoiding trouble such as political protests or severe weather.

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