Asia’s Rail Tourism Renaissance

The proliferation of high-speed railways across Asia is driving an exciting revolution of train travel and shaping new tourism trends. Gary Bowerman jumps aboard.

Monday 2 October 2023 was a landmark day in the history of rail travel in South East Asia. As it eased out of Jakarta’s Halim station, the newly inaugurated Whoosh train confirmed Indonesia’s status as ASEAN’s first high-speed rail nation. Chinese-built bullet trains styled with a livery evoking Indonesia’s Komodo dragons scorch across the track at up to 350kph on a 142km railway connecting the Indonesian capital with the third city of Bandung.

Whoosh high-speed train, with "Whoosh" branding decal on its nose, passing over Kopo, Bandung. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Photograph taken by Naufal Farras

The 50-minute journey instantly became a tourism attraction. “We are seeing high demand by travellers from South East Asian countries to ride the Whoosh train,” says Pauline Suharno, President of ASTINDO (Indonesia’s Travel Agents Association) which partners with PT KAI (Indonesian Railways) to sell Bandung tour packages for passengers. Demand for these travel services is broad-based, she adds: “There are so many requests from students and corporations throughout ASEAN for the Jakarta to Bandung tour.”

Asia’s Five High-Speed Rail Destinations

The Whoosh service – which is likely in future to be extended to the second city of Surabaya – saw Indonesia became the 5th high-speed rail destination in Asia. The express journey began in 1964, when Japan unveiled its first shinkansen bullet train route between Tokyo and Osaka shortly before hosting that year’s Olympic Games. Sixty years later, the national network is still expanding. In March, actress Ayami Nakajo opened the first new section since September 2022, between Kanazawa and Fukui. Rail fans will have to wait a little longer for the opening of a highly anticipated Hokkaido line extension to the vibrant northern city of Sapporo, which has been delayed until 2030.

Japan's high-speed rail system has expanded throughout the country since the first shinkansen route opened in 1964. Image: Photo by robin inizan on Unsplash

South Korea’s high-speed rail network entered into service in 2004, and now connects cities from north to south and east to west. A record 24.3 million passengers jumped aboard Korea’s bullet trains in the first quarter of 2024. In 2007, Taiwan inaugurated a 350km high-speed rail line between Taipei in the north and the southern city of Kaohsiung. South Korea and Taiwan supplement their bullet trains, which travel through scenic interior and coastal landscapes, with seasonal services for tourists to explore less-visited regions. In May, South Korea offered seven new railway journeys to discover North Gyeongsang, Gangwon and North Chungcheong provinces in springtime. Also in May, Taiwan introduced Vivid Express, offering package train trips into the alpine forests of Alishan National Park.

The world’s largest high-speed rail network is in China, which unveiled its first bullet train just before hosting the 2008 Olympics. I boarded the 27-minute trip between Beijing and the coastal city of Tianjin in between reporting on the 2008 Beijing Games. Onboard all phone cameras pointed at the speedometer in each carriage and clicked in unison as it signalled a top speed of 350kph, marking it as the world’s fastest inter-city passenger train.

Across the subsequent 16 years, China has built-out a nationwide network, spanning 45,000km of track. This includes a cross-sea bullet-train bridge in the Taiwan Strait linking Fuzhou, Xiamen and Zhangzhou. The next milestone is slated for 2025, when the roll out will begin for China’s new CR450 trains, which can travel at up to 450kph.

Trending Train Travel in China

Rapid, punctual and comfortable rail connectivity is driving trip-planning choices, and converting train travel into a destination marketing tool. During China’s three-year-long pandemic isolation, cities began using bullet train access to attract domestic tourists. Train journeys became a trending topic on social media. Gen Zs posted on apps like Douyin and Xiaohongshu about the onboard activities and services – such as private cabins with flat-beds and bespoke meals ordered by phone and delivered to the train at one of its scheduled stops – they enjoyed on route to their destination.

Zibo-style barbecue. This style of barbecue comes from Zibo in China, a city which recently went viral for its open air markets. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Bullet train travel underpinned the emergence of Zibo, in Shandong province, as 2023’s spring travel hotspot. The local authority posted a video on Douyin about its open-air barbecue markets. It quickly went viral, and a social engagement campaign kicked in. A “Special Train for Barbecue” operated on weekends. As more young travellers arrived from across China, hotel rates were reduced for students. Room bookings in Zibo, previously an overlooked city by tourists, for the 2023 May public holiday rose 800% compared to 2019.

The Golden Tourist Line is similarly transforming tourism amid the beautiful landscapes of Guizhou and Guangxi provinces. The two-hour train ride entices young travellers to share their experiences online. Social posts hash-tagged “Travelling 1,300km to 6 beautiful places in 30 hours”, and “Challenge completed to taste all the amazing foods of Guizhou in 24 hours by train” have generated millions of fan engagements.

Reinvigorating Nature Tourism in Laos

Two popular Asian destinations are preparing to cash-in on the high-velocity excitement of rail tourism. India plans to open its first 250kph bullet train service, between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, later this decade. This will be followed by a high-speed railway connecting Thailand’s capital Bangkok with the Laos border. Here, it will meet the China-Laos railway, thereby connecting Thailand, Laos and China for overland travellers. Adding a little extra intrigue, Thailand will launch a new, parallel Bangkok-Vientiane train service in July, which will operate on a narrower track and at a much-reduced speed than the still under-construction bullet trainline.

Although not a high-speed train – its maximum speed of 160kph doesn’t meet the 200kph criterion – the China-Laos railway is the first phase of the China-South East Asia railway. A series of rail lines are ultimately planned to connect Kunming in southwestern China and Singapore – with services passing through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia.

China-Laos train, going over the Mekong river north of Luang Prabang, Laos. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The China-Laos railway was completed in December 2021, but cross-border trips were delayed until April 2023, once China had reopened its borders after Covid-19. In addition to bringing Chinese tourists to Laos, the train is a magnet for travellers from around the world. It runs from the Chinese border through the heart of Laos, with stops at Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, to the capital Vientiane, opening access to areas of spectacular natural beauty. 

“Accessibility is very important for developing nature-based and adventure tourism. More than 80% of Laos is mountainous and we have 20 national parks, but road infrastructure is not great,” says Inthy Deuansavanh, Founder of Vientiane-based Inthira Group, which operates eco-minded hotels and adventure travel experiences throughout Laos. “Every new tourism project now is within reach of the trainline, and we hope it will help Laos to be at the centre of adventure eco-tourism in South East Asia.”

Next Stops: Hanoi, Phnom Penh & Bali

As more domestic and international travellers embrace train travel, new tourist-related rail projects are frequently proposed. These include a Maglev (magnetic levitation) line on the Malaysian island of Langkawi, and a semi-high-speed railway connecting Cambodia and Laos. Meanwhile, after years of discussions, the first light railway for tourists on the Indonesian island of Bali could reach tender stage later this year.

Perhaps the most exciting of all is a long-mooted North-South railway in Vietnam. Starting at the Chinese border, the proposed bullet train route would zoom passengers from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south stopping at various coastal towns and cities. Doubts linger about the project financing and logistics, but if successful the railway would revolutionise tourism in Vietnam. The rush to buy tickets must wait, though. The first train won’t leave the station until 2040 at the earliest.

- Asia Media Centre