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Yes, still number one

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaWhy readers picked Bangkok and dropped Beijing. They sent a clear message that it is human engagement, not hi-tech wizardry that travellers seek. Who won and why. Spot some of our 2015 Award Winners.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Mourner places flowers at Erawan shrine in central Bangkok

Lady places flowers over mourning wreaths at the Erawan shrine in central Bangkok/ photo: Vijay Verghese

BANGKOK’s unassailable No.1 rank as our readers’ Best Holiday Destination in Asia for 2015 is a resounding vote of confidence for a city that has teetered on the edge for some years, plagued by perverse politics, insurance-crimping travel advisories, conference cancellations, highwayman taxi drivers, and now, the Erawan shrine blast.

While our May-July vote preceded this tragic, but hugely unifying, event, it showed the resilience of this embattled city to rise up against the odds, just beating the usual favourite Bali whose otherworldly charms never cease to captivate travellers, and rightly. It was like pent up fizz pouring out of a shaken beer bottle, a year of relative calm encouraging voters to opt for a vigorous, fun, racy, and accessible destination.

The attack on the Brahma statue – which escaped almost entirely unscathed – was put down as a miracle and further evidence of its protective powers. It was said to have helped end worker deaths at the construction site of the erstwhile Erawan Hotel. Captured on live phone footage, the blast brought the country together in an instant of grief, bringing out the best in people as passersby rushed to aid victims.

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At the adjoining Grand Hyatt Erawan, the shaken general manager, Gordon Fuller, taking in the enormity of the event, threw open his hushed marble lobby for the injured in full view of startled guests. Everyone stepped in to help. It is perhaps this spirit of compassion and caring, momentarily trumping commercial practicalities, that helped Grand Hyatt as a group rank the No.1 Hotel Brand in Asia as readers opted for humans over hi-tech, and heritage over humbug. Again, while this incident came after our poll, it reveals an underlying management ‘attitude’ that is progressive and open-minded. Hospitality is about people not hardware. And in an Internet age where hotel managers are wraithlike abstractions, seldom seen and never heard, human interaction has been hugely welcomed.

{In an Internet age where hotel managers are wraithlike abstractions, seldom seen and never heard, human interaction has been hugely welcomed....

What is abundantly clear on our 2015 Best in Travel Poll is that brands are created by people, not just products and abstract logos. It is a bottom-up process, not top-down. It was apparent that when readers voted in individual hotels they particularly liked, they also tended to vote for the parent brand. Simply put, if you like the kids, you assume they come from a good family. The more kids you like, the greater the respect for that family.

City rankings impacted strongly on the performance of local hotels. Popular destinations like Hong Kong and Taipei, lifted all with the rising tide, while others, like Beijing, left many fine hostelries heaving helplessly like beached whales. Why? Because smog, pollution, traffic, and excessive flight delays have taken their toll. This is not a recipe for happy campers or business traveller votes.

Meanwhile, cities like Singapore (No.2 for Business) – where Changi Airport returned to its No.1 spot worldwide, and Singapore Airlines swept all our airline awards (Overall worldwide, Cabin Service, and Business Class) – boosted the ratings of their many varied hotels, from big to boutique. Iconic The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, sporting soaring fluted Doric columns – and an eye-popping view of the F1 night race – romped home with a No.1 in Asia for Conferences.

While Cathay Pacific and filled-to-capacity Hong Kong International Airport strained to deal with the knock-on effects of China flight delays and mounting passenger ire, which dented their ratings considerably, the enclave held on to its position as the Best City for Business in Asia. Efficiency, good signposting, great food, dependable taxis, and a swashbuckling can-do attitude, helped in this cause. The student protests of late 2014 seemed all but forgotten.

Yet, despite this seeming gain, the city slipped a few places on the Leisure scale. Arguably, shopping has become less diverse as big brands muscle in leaving local designers an endangered species. People travel to see, and buy, unique things, not wall-to-wall Euro-kitsch that can be picked up anywhere. More telling is the slowdown in Mainland visitors who have powered Hong Kong’s vast shopping engine thus far but now feel unwelcome and have less money to spend as the pilliwinks in once deep pockets tighten.

Parked in the heart of Central District, Hong Kong’s much-loved landmark, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, exudes a sense of stately pace and history with its richly veined black marble lobby and striking gold murals. It has had service to match through the years and, unsurprisingly, bagged the No.1 spot as the Best Business Hotel in Asia for the second year in a row, just ahead of its splendidly contemporary rival, The Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong, which commands an unsullied view of the harbour.

With its alchemy of unguents and potions, the breezy villa hideaway Banyan Tree Phuket secured a comfortable No.1 as the Best Spa Hotel in Asia. It was aided by Phuket’s No.3 as a Leisure bolthole. And as the Best Leisure Hotel in Asia, for the second year in a row, with steady reader interest in Vietnam, The Nam Hai, Hoi An – from Singapore’s classy GHM – romped first past the post. This is an exclusive but friendly escape along a fabled stretch of beach, with luxe villas, superb food and an expansive oceanfront pool just screaming for a pink bikini selfie.

Small was beautiful too. The wonderfully whimsical Hotel de l’Opera Hanoi, from the Accor family, secured a strong No.1 position on the Best Boutique Hotels in Asia chart with big performances by Hong Kong’s Luxe Manor (No.2) and Hotel Quote, Taipei (No.3). And when it came to Budget Airlines, there was just one leader of the pack, AirAsia, whose crimson uniforms and insignia have become a byword for affordable travel. As freewheeling CEO Tony Fernandes loves to say, “Now everyone can fly.” Our readers have agreed for the past eight years in a row.

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