Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon

Here we are, already into the final days of January, which means the Chinese community all over the world is preparing for their Lunar New Year, ushering in the Year of the Wood Dragon.

Most people will plan their weddings and births around this period. The Wood Dragon is considered the most auspicious of mythical creatures in the Chinese astrological calendar; everyone wants a dragon baby, after all. I should know: In my immediate family, dragons easily outnumber the rest. I am not sure what it's done to the family fortunes, but at least we are still together in one happy horde.

It is with these hopes of auspiciousness, abundance and excitement that we in Asia-Pacific's travel industry welcome the Year of the Wood Dragon. Some are calling it Year Two of Recovery, and it will be the first year that will hopefully mark the return of the full engagement of China with the world, both inbound and outbound. 

Let's face it, the Chinese outbound engine largely sputtered last year and did not deliver as many had anticipated and hoped, and inbound was almost a non-story with so much uncertainty and barriers to entry.

It's a different story this year. But before we get to that, it's worth casting back in time to 60 years ago, when the last Wood Dragon swooped in.

Curious about what had happened in 1964, I asked ChatGPT to summarize the key events that happened in the world, in Asia and in travel, specifically. 

  • The Beatles arrived in America, the start of the British Invasion in the music industry in the U.S.
  • The Gulf of Tonkin incident sparked the escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.
  • China's first nuclear test.
  • Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) beat Sonny Liston for boxing's heavyweight crown.
  • Nelson Mandela's imprisonment began.
  • Kenya gained its independence.

Meanwhile, in travel that year: 

  • The Tokyo Summer Olympics; Japan stepped up tourism promotion.
  • The Boeing 727, intended for short- to medium-haul routes, entered service.
  • Walt Disney opened the "It's a Small World" ride at the New York World's Fair.

What does the dragon portend?

So what can we expect in this coming Wood Dragon year? Well, I am no fortune teller and neither is ChatGPT -- so that's one job AI won't be replacing anytime soon. But it does say, "The dragon is associated with characteristics such as strength, energy, creativity and passion. Wood represents growth, flexibility and expansion. Therefore, the Year of the Wood Dragon is often seen as a time of innovation, progress and positive change. It can be a time for taking risks and pursuing new opportunities."

New year, new possibilities

So what are the new opportunities to pursue in Asia in the new year?

  • China inbound. The Chinese government is going all-in on inbound. Visa waivers in recent months for countries such as Malaysia and Thailand will make it easier for travelers from Southeast Asia to visit. It has certainly been a hurdle for me, holding a Malaysian passport, and travelers post-2020 are less tolerant of such restrictions. So this year, I will return to China for sure. 
  • China outbound. Yes, everyone's been keeping their eye on that for years. But its return will be interesting, and different. There's a slowing economy and unemployment is high, so those who can afford to travel really want to and will have very high expectations, especially on the tech front. Tech innovation and customer adoption in China is insane -- they've had two to three years of living and playing within their own bubble -- so engagement has to be digital-first.
  • India is the new China. NYU professor Scott Galloway acknowledged this in his "Pivot" podcast and said he's planning his first trip there to explore the possibilities. India landed a spacecraft on the moon, and it has aircraft orders upward of 1,000. "Imagine the impact of that," Gaurav Bhatnagar, CEO of the online B2B travel distribution platform, said of the potential impact of that aircraft order. "This is inflection point, and it will be massive. A large working population with large purchasing power, and a Gen Z generation that thinks differently in how they travel but they are not decision-makers yet. It's a huge, exciting opportunity for outbound travel."
  • Generational shifts across Asia. Michael Dykes, vice president of market management for Asia-Pacific at Expedia Group, is a firm believer in demographics setting long-term trends. Gen Z already forms 25% of the population; add in millennials, you're talking up to 50%. "It's a huge population of people with potentially a very different set of values and a very different childhood, driving a lot of differences in the way that they will purchase and how they will make brand decisions."

These are just some of the broad strokes, within each are lots of nuances that dragon babies would have to burrow deep to discover.

'An exciting, confusing time'

As for taking risks: Well, the flexible Wood Dragon, being the bravest of creatures, will find plenty of things to experiment around, the first of which is AI, a generational shift in technology.

Bill Gates, in his notes for the new year, said, "The early years of a new age are often marked by lots of changes. If you are old enough to remember, think back to the beginning of the Internet. At first, you probably didn't know many people who were using it. But it became more common over time until, one day, you realized most people had email addresses, bought things online and used search engines to answer their questions.

"We are just at the beginning of this transition right now. This is an exciting and confusing time, and if you haven't figured out how to make the best use of AI yet, you are not alone. I thought I would use AI tools for the foundation's strategy reviews this year, which require reading hundreds of pages of briefing materials that an AI could accurately summarize for me. But old habits are hard to break, and I ended up preparing for them the same way I always do."

Gates continued: "If I had to make a prediction, in high-income countries like the United States, I would guess that we are 18 to 24 months away from significant levels of AI use by the general population. In African countries, I expect to see a comparable level of use in three years or so. That's still a gap, but it's much shorter than the lag times we've seen with other innovations."

He didn't mention Asia, but I'd stick my skinny neck out here and say Asia will leapfrog ahead in AI innovation and adoption, the way it did with social and mobile. 

For starters, the Singapore government has put its weight behind an approximately $50 million initiative to develop Southeast Asia's first large language model ecosystem catering to the region's diverse culture and languages.

Meanwhile, when Singapore unveiled its Lunar New Year dragon decorations in its Chinatown last week, it lit up social media immediately, with many saying it looked less dragon and more like Shrek or Japanese comedian Pikotaro.

Told you, it's going to be an exciting year. 


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