For the frequent traveler, there is a stark dichotomy across the world. Almost without exception, traveling with an Asian carrier to any Asian airport is a pleasure. In contrast, using any airline domiciled in Europe or North America with passage through airports in that part of the world is stunningly inconvenient.
Your plane for one – the Asian carriers’ jet, like its European counterpart, was assembled either in Seattle or in Toulouse, France, but it is a million miles away from the aircraft you are used to flying within Europe or North America. Plonk yourself down on a suspiciously comfortable seat and there is the large television panel with an array of entertainment. Great food, courteous service. And then you remember, this is the “economy” class, which beats the “business” class on any European or American airline.
Deplane and walk past the immigration without much fuss; as you reach the baggage belts you are shocked to find your checked-in baggage already there. Then you look up and see rows of baggage belts in either direction, all quietly whirring away and depositing their contents with an almost sinister efficiency.
Recovering from the shock, you recall the last time you traveled through an airport in Europe or North America: how long it took to go past the immigration counter; baggage that turned up an hour after you arrived at the belt, if it did at all; and the airlines that almost inevitably go on strike at the most inconvenient moments.
When you leave the airport in Shanghai and can get to the main city 30 kilometers away within eight minutes on the superfast magnetic levitation train, you cannot help but notice that the actual technology for this wonder comes from Germany. Yet, there are no such trains in operation anywhere in Europe, let alone Germany.
Surely this is because, here in Asia, we are in the biggest cities you say. Then you go and land at one of the smaller airports – say Guangzhou, just north of Hong Kong. At a cinch, it is double the size of Munich’s airport, and when you get out to the city it is not very different in the quality of infrastructure compared to Shanghai. What about the rural areas? Well, drive from Shanghai in virtually any direction and the first time you see roads that are any worse than those around the city you are a good 200 kilometers away. And even there, the roads are better than many American motorways.
Yeah alright, so the Chinese truck driver barreling towards you looks like he hasn’t slept in three days (very likely), and there is the occasional car wrapped into the milestone on the side of the road; but none of that detracts from the sheer robustness of the infrastructure.
It isn’t just the airports and highways. Walk into a hotel in any Asian city and you are likely to be greeted by a bewildering array of the latest electronic gadgets and equipment all seamlessly integrated into the controls next to your bedside. Check into a hotel in New York or Paris (and much worse, London), and for the privilege of paying 200% more than your Asian room rate you will likely be greeted by an old hotel room housing a cathode-ray television and archaic room controls.
Wait a minute, you say, cathode-ray TV? When is the last time you have even seen one of those anywhere in Asia – be it the local coffee shop or your friends’ homes?
Step out from your hotel and your cab or the local underground will be no less impressive in terms of either newness or the scale of technology. A friend told me recently that after 10 years of living in Hong Kong he remembers the local subway (underground/tube or whatever else you want to call it) network (in this case the MTR) being delayed only once; in his native London, he said, he’d be lucky not to have a delay at least three times every week. So the Asians have mastered the ability to combine reliability and low prices with good performance. Ouch, that sure hurts your ego.
In an Asian city, if your cab driver doesn’t speak a word of English there is no reason to panic – whether in Seoul or in Hong Kong, all you need to do is to press a button and presto there is a chap on the wireless doing all your translations for you to the driver. Free, of course.
“Translations”, you say. That would be a nice feature to have when you want to speak in English in New York, for example.
Then you duck into a tailor’s shop to see whether a new suit can be made. Sure, says the shopkeeper, a mere US$200 and two days for a bespoke suit; against $500 and more for an off-the-peg European brand that uses lower-quality material. Walk into any shop across Asia and two things immediately hit you square in the eyes – the quality of service and the sheer promptness with which you get everything.
Two days for a suit? You could be waiting longer for your creme brule in a Paris cafe, and then end up paying $30 for the privilege.
As you walk around what looks like a social housing project in Bangkok, Seoul, Singapore or Hong Kong you glimpse a few food stalls. “Surely these must be dangerous,” you say, until you spot the queue of customers patiently waiting for their turn. What is more, the queue has more than a few “expats” who couldn’t live without their daily visit to these stalls selling succulent local cuisine.
And then the last observation sinks in. Every single Asian city is heaving at the edges, with millions of people. Yet, crime rates are negligible and social tensions appear well under control. A far cry from the banlieu of Paris or the Turkish quarter of Berlin, for example, not to mention the public housing nightmares of Chicago or Detroit.
By the time you have done a tour across the Pacific Rim, a manner of despondency sets in. How on earth are these countries still considered “developing” when their standards of living and technology are barely available in the Western world?
That’s when you remember India. “Ah!,” you say, believing that here is a country that will perpetually disappoint on its infrastructure. Abysmal roads, gridlocked traffic, poor sanitation and those positively lethal curries.
Really? As you approach the airport at Mumbai and if you somehow tear your eyes away from the slums that seem to have crept straight onto the runway, the first thing you notice is the mass of flyovers that appear, quite literally, to have cropped out of the blue. Your journey to downtown in an air-conditioned cab takes an hour, not the three hours it used in a rickety old Fiat cab on the last trip.
“Surely Mumbai must be the exception,” you say. “Other Indian cities will be worse.” Well, no luck on that account. Whether it is the national capital Delhi or the southern city of Chennai, the improvements over the past 10 years are significant, and almost to a fault, efficient.
Even the famously lackadaisical government appears to be in a tearing hurry. From a target of 4km of new roads every day barely three years ago the target was reset at 20km per day in the middle of last year. According to independent reports, the actual progress is over 30km per day. Okay, it’s a big country, but it looks to be getting an awful lot faster to go from one end to another.
Sanitation seems like a worry until your roadside food vendor proffers a bottle of mineral water with the just-cooked delicacy. The food waste behind the stall seems to disappear quietly and efficiently into a new drainage system.
As for those lethal curries, forget it. Indians still eat the most inhumanly spicy food on earth (IMHO), but the inevitable trips to the bathroom and/or the doctor for your episode of Delhi-belly appear to have been banished almost magically. The cuisine map is now richer and food quality has improved dramatically alongside.
It is not the gargantuan dams of China or the super-efficient underground in Singapore that impresses you, but rather the fact that even the most economically backward parts of Asia have taken growth to be their mantra. What’s more, they have the financial muscle to push it through.
With that, your despondency turns to depression. How, you ask, can the “developed” world ever regain its luster?
For a start, all American and European cities will have to reinvest hundreds of billions into their cities to rejuvenate the existing infrastructure. Then the states/smaller countries will have to connect the cities to the rest of the region, install new technology infrastructure, focus on customer service and improve productivity to new heights to compete with the Asians.
Ah, but a minor detail intervenes. Who has got the money to do all that? Well, let us raise taxes you say. Problem is, no one in your country is making much money in the first place so raising taxes will simply drive consumption down and drive the deficit wider. Well, let us borrow the lot you say. Trouble is, no one has the money to lend to you at your abysmally low rates. Except the Asians – who you then recall can play tough once in a while.
And that’s about when you reconcile to the inevitable future – Asia with its apparently permanent advantage on infrastructure and operating efficiency leaving Europe and North America ever further behind. Nothing appears to have the ability to reverse this trend.