China Travel Moves Into Fast Lane
With the Lunar New Year travel crush fast approaching, this week seems like a good time to look at the changing face of travel in China and how to make best use of the nation’s state-of-the-art airports, high-speed rail and accompanying ticketing systems. This is one place where the contrasts are so sharp between 20 years ago and today that a person who leaped to the present from 1990s China might think he had landed in a completely alien country, so to speak.
Before we dive more deeply into China’s changing travel landscape, we’ll start with a big-picture number that would be mind-boggling if this were anywhere but China.
According to China Daily, Chinese are expected to make a staggering 3 billion trips between Feb. 1 and March 12, or around three trips for every person in the country. The Chinese custom of visiting relatives during the annual trip home is largely behind this huge figure, since many such relatives often live far enough away to merit a separate bus or train ride during the annual trips home.
I haven’t seen any numbers for the 1990s, but am sure they were a tiny fraction of what we see today. People of that era were far less mobile, often trapped in their hometowns for life by a centrally administered residence system that strongly discouraged mobility. If that wasn’t enough to kill any travel dreams of the mobile-minded, the equally restrictive processes for buying air and train tickets — which were expensive and often required permission from a person’s employer — would have kept just about anyone in their place.
Back then, getting around wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience anyhow. My memories of travel in China in the 1980s consisted most of smoke-filled, litter-strewn cars on trains teeming with humanity in every possible space. Air travel was off-limits to most back then, but even people lucky enough to have the privilege were often met with long, unexplained delays and service that was indifferent at best.
Luckily, all of that is in the past, and China now boasts state-of-the-art services for both air and train travel. The rail part of that equation is already booked solid for the upcoming holiday, but generally speaking, the service is quite punctual and efficient, and tickets are easy to come by. Anyone who hasn’t bought their Lunar New Year travel tickets yet can probably still find air tickets, though probably at twice their normal price, which is probably what scares away most cost-sensitive Chinese.
I talked with a few of my longtime China contacts to get their take on China’s business travel scene, and did find quite a few common themes on how to best get around in this day and age.
One of the biggest themes is the growing preference for high-speed rail, especially on the Beijing-to-Shanghai line. Regular travelers will know this trip can take as little as four and a half hours now, though you need to be careful when buying tickets, as some trips can take closer to six hours. Pretty much everyone I talked to said they now prefer to take the train anywhere for trips under six hours, which seems to be a cut-off for most people in the rail-versus-plane debate worldwide.
I definitely sync with this trend, and never fly between Beijing and Shanghai anymore. The biggest advantages are convenience, since you probably save an hour by not having to go through airport security, and also see much better punctuality. Of all the high-speed rail trips I’ve taken over the last couple of years, the worst delay was about a half-hour. Compare that to air travel, where delays of an hour are considered good, and my worst recent experience was a four-hour delay.
For those who like to work while in transit, the trains also allow you to go online from your PC by connecting to the internet via a smartphone-based hot spot. The one downside to that same mobile connection is that you do get the occasional loudmouth talking on the phone for long periods. You also tend to get more noisy kids running up and down the aisles of some of those trains, which can be a distraction if you’re trying to work. Then again, there’s also business and first class, which can remove some of those distractions.
In terms of ticket bookings, the larger companies tend to use a travel agent, whereas small businesses tend to do everything online. Nearly everyone suggested Ctrip for domestic travel, which I also use and which has pretty good English interfaces. One contact noted that his company, the local office of a relatively large multinational, recently dumped its travel agent completely and went to making all its bookings through Ctrip’s corporate app.
In terms of airports and train stations, no one was very excited about any of the new high-speed rail stations, which are often overcrowded and have pretty basic waiting areas. Airports didn’t rate too highly either, though a few people did have some praise for the pair in Shanghai. As a former Shanghai resident, I can confirm that those two are quite a bit more user-friendly than Beijing’s massive Capital Airport. But even that pair are nothing to write home about. One contact described Chinese airports in general as “too metallic” and “deprived of human touch,” in sharp contrast with Asia favorites like Hong Kong and Singapore.
One contact noted that it’s really possible to do everything from your smartphone these days if you download all the necessary apps and have mobile payments like Alipay or WeChat, as well as a virtual private network app for the occasional blocked site. All that means that travel in China today is fast approaching Western standards, and even passing them in the case of high-speed rail, giving people one less thing to worry about when doing business here.
Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com.
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