Once upon a time, most American tourists in Asia huddled together on package tours. The cultures and languages were just too daunting for them to strike out on their own.

But today, such travelers are increasingly sophisticated and willing to go on their own or with smaller tour groups (often as few as a dozen people) to offbeat destinations."It's not like 20 years ago when nobody spoke English in Asia, and when visitors needed a guide who would also be their translator. Now it's easy to go on your own," said May Leung, the manager of Seattle-based Advance Travel.

Leung says many of her clients are seeking bargain air fares to Asia, not travel advice: "They've done their research. They're sophisticated travelers, and they know where they want to go."

From Mongolia to Malaysia, the Asian tourism industry has boomed and is catering to vacationers and businesspeople with better air service, a flotilla of luxury cruise ships, high-class hotels and the widespread use of English.

Also growing are the "soft adventure" tours - everything from mountain-biking in Mongolia to traveling the rivers of Papua-New Guinea.

And for an increasing number of Asian-Americans, Asia is a place to travel to find family roots.

Travel to Asia by Americans has remained strong, despite the lingering recession in the United States and competition from cheap fares to Europe.

"A lot of Asia's popularity has to do with its exotic appeal and the very high quality of service, particularly in hotels," said Graham Hornel, former director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Asian Travel Association, now a travel-marketing consultant.

"But other than China, where the big group tours remain strong, the trend in Asia is swinging to smaller groups and independent travelers."

From the Seattle area, and much of the West Coast, two of the big destinations for leisure travel remain Hong Kong and Bangkok, say Advance Travel's Leung and Pramila Luthra, manager of the Asian Sky Travel Service in Seattle. (Both specialize in Asia travel.)

Hong Kong always draws shoppers, particularly before Christmas; Bangkok is a destination in its own right and a gateway to much of Asia, including Nepal.

Indonesia, including Bali, is attracting a growing number of American vacationers; for businesspeople, Japan remains high on the list.

For the truly adventurous trekkers (including those who've already "done Nepal"), remote Bhuthan is becoming a choice destination, said Luthra of the Asian Sky agency. The long-secluded country, a jumble of 20,000-foot-plus peaks, is wedged between China and India.

For businesspeople, the stampede is on in Vietnam, although U.S. restrictions on trade with Vietnam are limiting Americans' access.

Some Americans prefer the comforts and organization of a cruise when they visit Asia.

More cruise lines are entering the Asia market, and Singapore is aggressively positioning itself as the hub for Southeast Asian cruises, said Hornel. Seattle-based Windstar Cruises is becoming one of the big players; it began seven-day cruises out of Singapore last month and is now offering year-round operations in Southeast Asia.

Most of the Asia cruises are upscale - don't look for Caribbean-type bargains.

"An Asian cruise doesn't attract the first-timer (on a cruise) or novice traveler. But it's an easy sell for someone well-traveled who's looking for something unusual," says Janet Olczak, owner of the Seattle-based Cruise Specialists travel agency.

Air fares to Asia from Seattle and other American cities vary widely, thanks to the major airlines' practice of quietly selling seats that would otherwise go unused to ticket wholesalers (also known as consolidators).

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Consolidators then sell the tickets, either to travel agencies or directly to the public, at rates well below airlines' published prices.

Ask your travel agent to check on a consolidator ticket. But be aware that there may be more restrictions on such tickets, and the schedule may not be as convenient. However, the savings can be considerable; consolidators can offer roundtrip Seattle-Hong Kong tickets in January on major airlines for less than $800.

More than for almost any destination, travelers should shop around for tickets to Asia: check with the airlines; check with a travel agent; check newspaper ads; check with a consolidator (although most consolidators sell only through travel agencies, some sell directly to the public and run "low-fare" ads in newspapers).

As usual, be a cautious consumer: ask about the rules on changing a flight or canceling and try to pay with a credit card, which gives some protection under federal fair-credit laws if something goes wrong.

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