Staff writer

With fears of Y2K problems hovering over airplane trips, many travelers are booking cruises to welcome the new millennium.

The nation’s major travel agencies, for their part, are trying to cash in on the demand, with various package tours that promise unforgettable memories, they say.

In addition to Y2K-related anxieties, an emerging tendency among Japanese to prefer leisurely trips has boosted the popularity of cruising, says an official at Hankyu Express International, which is organizing a voyage to greet the New Year aboard the liner Nippon Maru somewhere between Hong Kong and Singapore.

Nippon Travel Agency is offering a voyage on the five-star cruiser Asuka, which will take passengers to the dateline in the Pacific Ocean to greet the earliest arrival 2000.

Despite apparently exorbitant prices, ranging from 1.2 million yen to 6 million yen, the 29-day voyage has been attracting many elderly couples, company officials said.

Nippon Travel is also offering nine other special turn-of-the-century tours, including a cruise to Tonga, which will command the earliest on-the-ground view of the millennium sunrise, the company believes.

The special moment is not, of course, being celebrated only on luxury cruisers.

Japan Travel Bureau is offering tours to see the first sunrise of the new millennium from behind Egyptian pyramids, in the midst of the Sahara, or over the Himalayas.

For the six- to 10-day tours, with prices ranging from 418,000 yen to 698,000 yen, some 350 people have applied, including 150 on a waiting list, JTB spokesman Tsuyoshi Kurata said.

JTB is also offering optional extras specifically to celebrate the moment. Its New York office on the 33rd and 34th floors of a building commanding a prime view of the countdown at Times Square will be open to JTB customers for $100.

It also reserved a restaurant on the 69th floor of the Westin Stanford Hotel in Singapore exclusively for JTB customers to watch the first sunrise.

Meanwhile, for couples wishing to get married on New Year’s Day, Kinki Nippon Tourist can arrange wedding packages in 14 countries for around 1.2 million yen per couple. Most couples are planning to go without relatives and friends, said Hiroyuki Nakamura of the firm.

Brasil Torismo Co., a travel agency specializing in South America, has introduced a voyage package that includes a New Year’s Day view of Antarctica. The 10-day tour, ranging in price from 675,000 yen to 1.33 million yen, is getting good responses from a range of ages, said Hiroko Yamamoto of the company.

However, she said the once-in-1,000-years-occasion is not necessarily good for travel companies.

Because some hotels in Brazil are asking outrageous prices for the upcoming New Year’s holiday season, her company had to withhold some of its regular tours, Yamamoto said.

The situation is very similar for other travel agencies that target experienced travelers with specific tastes.

“We’re deliberately avoiding the season,” said Hideji Amano of R&A Tours Co., which specializes in arranging trips to far-flung places all over the globe but does not do packages.

It is normally difficult to get cheap air tickets in the holiday season. Amano said that with Y2K anxieties coming on top of that, he could not expect many customers in the upcoming New Year season.

Having said that, however, he acknowledged that the company is organizing an Antarctica cruise with a countdown party.

As usual, many hotels are also planning millennium events for New Year’s Eve.

Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel is planning a countdown party. Some 90 percent of its guest rooms are already reserved for the last night of the millennium, higher by 20 percentage points than normal.

Dai-ichi Hotel Tokyo, which is planning parties and a free champagne service for New Year’s Eve, said its rooms are also being rapidly reserved for the night, a hotel spokesman said.

He admitted, however, that rooms at its annex, whose rates are cheaper than those in the main complex, have been reserved mostly by businesspeople on stand-by for possible Y2K problems.

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