With new routes, infrastructure and a host of hotel openings, China is becoming the new playground for business travel, writes Jenny Southan, business travel editor.
It won’t be long until China overtakes the US as the world’s largest economy – according to research from Standard Chartered Bank, it will happen at some point in 2020. The Asian giant may be experiencing a slowdown at the moment – the most significant in three decades, in fact (fourth-quarter GDP rates were at 6.4 per cent last year, down from 6.8 per cent in 2017) but even this won’t be enough to break the force of its momentum.
China is also accelerating past the US in terms of air travel numbers (deemed as traffic to, from and within the country). Between now and 2037, the International Air Transport Association predicts that the country will generate one billion new flyers, taking the total to 1.6 billion, compared with 819 million in the US
today. Last autumn, Boeing said that over the next 20 years the country will need 7,690 new planes to satisfy demand – and by next year alone is opening another 74 civil airports, including Beijing’s new $13 billion Daxing International later this year. Initially it will be able to handle 45 million people annually, but by 2025 this will go up to 70 million.
The country’s biggest airlines are Air China (based out of Beijing), China Southern Airlines (headquartered in Guangzhou) and China Eastern Airlines (centred in Shanghai). But other contenders include Hainan Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, Shandong Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Tianjin Airlines and Sichuan Airlines. Travellers in the West may not even have heard of some of these, but not only are they providing important connectivity within the country, but to the rest of the world as well. And in many cases they are operating routes with no competition.
New air links that have emerged over the last year or so include Chengdu–London Gatwick with Air China (although it will be switching to Heathrow in the spring), Shanghai-London Gatwick with China Eastern Airlines, Shenzhen to London Heathrow with Shenzhen Airlines, and Changsha-London Heathrow, Shenzhen-Madrid and Xi’an-LA with Hainan Airlines. Meanwhile, China Southern Airlines has launched Wuhan-London Heathrow, Shenyang-LA, Guangzhou-Sanya-London Heathrow, and Guangzhou-Wuhan-San Francisco.
Although leisure travel will be a huge driver among the burgeoning middle classes, business travel to and from the country will be a major part of growth. In 2017, business travel spending in China totalled US$347 billion and is expected to increase 6.5 per cent over the next few years, according to the Global Business Travel Association. Travel management companies (TMCs) from the West have been taking steps to capitalise on this segment, with Carlson Wagonlit and AMEX Business Travel both launching joint ventures with local firms over a decade ago. Last year, Corporate Travel Management acquired Lotus Travel Group, making it the largest TMC in Hong Kong.
Being able to attract Chinese businesspeople holds great appeal for travel companies around the world, the savvy among them already taking steps to cater to their needs. For example, the Savoy and the Landmark hotels in London now accept payments through China’s leading online payment platform Alipay. Marriott International is rolling out Alipay facial recognition check-in and payments and across its hotels globally. Having websites available in Mandarin and even instant noodles available in the minibar are other ways hotels are trying to make Chinese visitors feel welcome.
With ever more guests – both domestic and foreign – needing places to stay, new hotels within China are opening on a daily basis. According to reports, more than 1,800 properties are under construction, with roughly 100 each for Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu. Among the international chains expanding here, Hilton comes out top, followed by Intercontinental Hotels Group and Marriott International. Part of Marriott International, hotels from its Bulgari and Edition brands opened in Shanghai last year, while the St Regis Hong Kong is coming in June. Mandarin Oriental is opening in Beijing soon and Rocco Forte’s Westbund hotel is coming to Shanghai this summer.
Last year, Forbes China published a list of the country’s top ten business cities: at number one was Shanghai, which was followed by Guangzhou, Beijing, Nanjing, Wuhan, Shenzhen, Chongqing, Suzhou, Qingdao and Hangzhou. However, for UK business travellers hoping to visit, securing an “F” visa isn’t particularly easy. Since November 2018, all applicants must attend a visa application centre in person and have their fingerprints scanned. They may also need to provide a letter of invitation.
Care also needs to be taken when spending time in the destination, as laws and customs differ from the West. As TMCs send increasing numbers of employees to China, factors such as online security are hugely important. AMEX Global Business Travel says: “We always recommend using a virtual private network (VPN). Not only can the secure internet connection help maintain cyber-security, but you also will be able to access sites that the Chinese government restricts its citizens from using, such as Twitter, Dropbox, Gmail and Facebook.”
It adds: “Security personnel may place your activities under surveillance. Hotel rooms, meeting rooms, offices, cars, taxis, telephones and internet use may be monitored on-site or remotely without your knowledge or consent. We always suggest encrypting your hard drive and using dual-password protection in case your device lands in the wrong hands.” Cultural challenges aside, China is a business destination that cannot be ignored. With that in mind, we should all start polishing our Mandarin skills.