Turning further to the East
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW which way to turn when planning your diving holidays for 2010, look first at your wallet, compare it with the wish-list that inevitably comes of reading DIVER every month - and then have a word with the experts.
Who are these experts No one knows the market better than the UKs specialist dive travel operators, particularly those that cover wide enough swathes of the globe to have
a good overview. Sure, they have holidays to sell so their opinions are subjective, but because they work with so many hotels, dive centres, liveaboards and customers every day, they have an unparalleled feel for the market.
Whats more, as some travel businesses went near or actually to the wall last year, the tour operators are more conscious than ever of the need to get it right for you. So what do they think the main factors will be in planning your 2010 trips
Many people are looking for something new or something different, with healthy corals and good fish populations, says Rachel Horsfield, Assistant Manager of Divequest, one of several operators with brochures that grow more like coffee-table books by the year. The number of times I hear I dont want to do the Red Sea ever again is quite astonishing!
People are just waking up to Bali, and of course the hottest ticket in town is Raja Ampat [in eastern Indonesia], the epicentre of biodiversity and, judging by reports of our group trip we ran there with Martin Edge, simply the best diving on Earth!
Clearly, value for money is always going to be very important. This doesnt equate to cheap by any means, but people will seek to know that a good service on a scheduled airline, maximum diving and comfortable, quality accommodation doesnt have
to be a bank-breaker.
The value for money theme is echoed by other operators, such as Angela Mackintosh, Director of Scuba Travel, five-times winner of the DIVER Tour Operator of the Year Award (and the last company to dissuade you from enjoying all that the Red Sea has to offer!) 2009 was tough for everyone, and our customers have demanded that their money goes further, she says.
Angelas advice is to ensure that you go with an operator that wont spring any nasty surprises by hiding costs beyond the advertised package price.
She also stresses the importance in the current climate of financial guarantees: As part of AITO [the Association of Independent Tour Operators] and holders of ATOL 5667 [Air Tour Operator Licence], were able to offer people booking a holiday with us 100% financial protection, she says.
This is going to be a key part of booking a holiday in 2010, as many companies continue to struggle with the aftermath of the credit crunch.
Whether or not you book with Scuba Travel, the advice is fundamental - if a tour operator cant show you valid AITO, ATOL or ABTA credentials, dont show it your money!
ROOTING FOR THE RED SEA is Emma Wright of Oonasdivers, though in one respect shes thinking small in 2010. As the area becomes more popular, the liveaboards have increased in their capacity, taking on average 20 divers per charter, she says.
However, Oonasdivers can still offer small-group charters of up to just 14 aboard the popular Juliet in the northern Red Sea - a rare luxury!
Emma reckons easier and more direct access to Sudanese waters will be another feature of 2010.
Regaldive Director Andreas Elia picks up on the theme of getting away from it all: People will be looking for value, but want to dive away from the crowds. Saying this, convenience is becoming more and more important, and accessibility of a destination will also be a key consideration in holiday choice. The days of planes, trains and automobiles for divers has gone.
The liveaboard market will continue to develop and expand, as more and more divers take up this flexible style
of diving holiday, reckons Andreas, and destinations such as Saudi Arabia, previously closed off to the outside world, will start to develop as more mainstream diving destinations.
Dan Lion, Diving Product Manager of Longwood Holidays, believes that divers who have tried the DIY approach to holiday booking as an economy measure may be thinking again.
Were noticing a swing back to divers spending a bit more to get a bit more, he says. In light of the economic climate, many looked to bag
a bargain in 2009, only to find that they had poor standard of accommodation, no assistance in resort, paid more for their diving than they would if they had booked through a dive specialist, and had to pay extra for hold baggage, in-flight meals, transfers and so on. Not such a bargain after all!
Booking with a specialist and paying a bit more for your holiday still represents great value for money, with great service to match.
OK, he would say that, but there is little doubt that even specialist operators have the volume and connections to get good deals on your behalf.
WHEN IT COMES TO destinations, divers keep being pointed east, to the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and beyond.
Dive Worldwide covers a lot of the globe. Oman is still a growing market, with new hotels and dive centres opening in Salalah, says its Director Teresa Bennett. There seems to be a surge of luxury liveaboards in Indonesia, with more remote areas such as Maratua becoming accessible. Bali is definitely seeing a revival, and with competitive
air fares from many of the Asian carriers this is an affordable option.
In general, Asia offers good value for money, and competitive air fares will ensure that places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are popular. Also, new resorts and liveaboards are enabling the more remote islands of the Maldives to become accessible.
Government policy to build a network of guest-houses on the Maldives inhabited islands and open up the more remote atolls is calculated to drive prices down in a part of the world that was becoming increasingly luxury-oriented.
With more air traffic through the Singapore hub, and the emergence of cheaper airlines such as Air Asia, long hauls east grow ever more attractive for divers. This brings some of the worlds most lip-smacking reef and wreck sites into sharp focus, and we look at both Bali and the remote Maldives in more detail in this issue.
South-east Asia is definitely ranking very high on the hit-list again for Snooba Travel, agrees Nikola Greifeld, who runs the company. Destinations
in the Far East may not be bargain-basement, but she agrees with a number of her counterparts that cheapness is not the priority for many divers.
From the enquiries and bookings Im getting for 2010, people dont seem to be price-driven at all, but rather concerned about getting the most direct and easiest flight connections, she says.
Airlines that have some kind of system for extra luggage allowance for dive gear in place are undoubtedly winning over those who dont, even if the airfares are more expensive.
Weve waited a long time for airlines to start seeing diving baggage allowances as useful marketing tools - ever since DIVER started campaigning on the issue in the late 1990s, in fact.
However, tight baggage limits will remain a problem in 2010. Operators may be advising us to go east, but the most generous allowances are still for travellers westbound - to the Americas.
Many people will find the solution at journeys end: The reduction in luggage allowances means that divers will have to hire equipment abroad more often, confirms Emma Wright of Oonasdivers.
She doesnt see flying getting any cheaper, either. Due to the collapse of XL Airways in 2008, the general condition of charter flights, increases in government taxes and ATOL cover have all contributed to flight price increases - flight consolidation and general conservative attitudes to holiday allocation too. Its no longer easy to find cheap flights unless you book well in advance, rather than trying to find late deals, she warns.
FLIGHTS PREOCCUPY Ultimate Divings clientele too, according to its Director Tom Blake.
He says that price is a big factor, and not least cost of rental equipment, but other key topics that customers are talking about are luggage allowances, direct flights and the need to avoid stopover hotels; lack of flights to Marsa Alam [Red Sea], and charter flights not matching liveaboard departures, leading to stopovers or flying via Cairo.
Airlines, their routes and their baggage policies are something that always gets asked about, agrees Divequests Rachel Horsfield. The Singapore Airlines A380 is regularly requested and, of course, a generous baggage allowance is crucial for divers and photographers.
Continental Airlines recently introduced a fee of $50 to check a second bag, so I would always look for a carrier that is more generous that flies to the same destination.
Finally, if you hung on in the hope of finding a late holiday bargain in 2009, you may not find this strategy quite so effective this year. The cheapest deals for 2010 are to be had now! says Kate Phillips, Regaldives Product Manager. Last-minute deals in the latter half of 2010 will not be so prevalent as in 2009.
Some people will have missed out on their holiday in 2008/9, and may well decide to save up a little longer to ensure that they get the holiday of a lifetime.