Recent economic and political turmoil in Asia has not dampened card companies' enthusiasm for the region or the creditworthiness of its residents.

Visa International, MasterCard International, and American Express Co. all say they view the card-hungry countries of the region as prime turf.

"The pace of growth hasn't slowed down, even in this crisis," said Andre Sekulik, deputy president of MasterCard's Asia-Pacific region. Though some banks are skittish about issuing credit cards, he said, debit cards are thriving.

Despite downturns in several Southeast Asian economies, consumers continue to welcome new payment products, card executives said. MasterCard's Maestro debit card, introduced in 1993, now has 40 million cardholders in the region and expects 100 million by 2000.

"Growth of debit is 10 times as fast as credit card growth in the region," Mr. Sekulik said. In less-developed countries, less credit bureau data is available, and few consumers have enough credit history to qualify for revolving credit products.

"Fundamentally, Asia-Pacific is a debit market, and consumers here are very cash-oriented," said Mr. Sekulik, who is based in Hong Kong. Because of the need to credit-score some customers, "credit cards are for a small segment, and bank cards are for a large audience."

Visa has also pinned high hopes on the region. Last Thursday it announced the introduction of the Visa Electron debit card to the Asia- Pacific area. Fifteen banks in Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, and India have agreed to issue the card, Visa said.

The launching means "over one million point of sale terminals in the region become almost immediately available to Visa Electron cardholders," said Dennis Goggin, president and chief executive officer of Visa International's Asia-Pacific region.

Mr. Goggin said he anticipated 25 million Electron cards would be issued in the program's first year.

American Express introduced a product in Singapore last week. The blue card, a revolving credit card meant for younger people, is also available in Hong Kong, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

American Express feels "all the more committed to the region," said Toby Usnik, a spokesman. "We see it as a growth region, and we plan on being very active in the future."

During the political uprisings in Indonesia, American Express helped corporate card customers arrange special evacuation flights and lodging arrangements, and notify family members about their plans.

In Asia-Pacific countries, "a big chunk of our business is corporate travel and services," Mr. Usnik said.

He said charge cards represent a "large portion" of American Express' Asian card portfolio, but revolving credit products available in the region are also "doing well."

Mr. Sekulik said MasterCard has issued one million Maestro cards in Indonesia and is now rolling out three million more.

The only fallout from the Jakarta riots, he said, was a few destroyed automated teller machines and point of sale terminals that needed to be replaced.

"Business has to continue, and people still need access to their money," Mr. Sekulik said.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.