Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Amazing Race 16, Episode 11

Mascot of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo

Shanghai (China) - Pudong (China)
"Better City, Better Life"

The real clue to what was going on in the latest episode of The Amazing Race 16 in Shanghai was the life-sized Gumby-like figure visible in front of one of the buildings in the establishing aerial shot at the start of the episode, and more prominently behind host Phil Keoghan on the steps of the museum at the starting line: the mascot (pictured above) of the Shanghai World Expo that opened this week, and for which this and the previous leg of the race in Shanghai were de facto infomercials.

What does this mean for travellers?

Some pundits opine that world's fairs are passé. and unlikely to attract the same level of interest as, for example, those held in Chicago in 1893 or in New York City in 1964-65. They have a point: I suspect that few, if any, of my readers went out of their way to visit the the last "World Expo", in Zaragoza, Spain, in 2008. I probably wouldn't even have heard of the fair had I not happened to pass through Zaragoza (not as a primary destination but en route by Eurailpass from Portugal to France) just a few months before the expo opened.

Others say, "Yes, but this is China, and this is Shanghai." They, too, have a point. Over the last 20 years, Shanghai has reclaimed its place as the business, financial, population, and cultural center of the world's largest country and fastest-growing economy (despite competition on this last point from Beijing). A world's fair is the perfect showpiece event for an export-oriented global industrial powerhouse (as it was, of course, for Chicago in 1893 and New York in 1964-65). In part to balance infrastructure development and image burnishing between the country's two largest and most important cities, the Chinese government has spent even more getting Shanghai ready for the 2010 World Expo than it did in preparation for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

So make no mistake: The 2010 Shanghai World Expo is a bona fide big event, and the organizers are predicting a total of seventy million visitors during the four months the fair will be open. Beginning on opening day, crowds have been huge, and lines for most of the exhibits hours long. The current issue of the Atlantic magazine has a photo feature on some of the exhibit pavilions, and the Twitter stream of Associated Press Travel Editor Beth Harpaz, in Shanghai for the opening of the expo (and apparently on her first trip to China, judging from her surprise at the squat toilets and the need to haggle over prices), provides an illuminating series of snapshots.

For understandable reasons, the vast majority of visitors to the Shanghai expo are likely to be Chinese, not foreigners. It's incredibly difficult for Chinese tourists, even those with money, to get visas to travel to the USA, EU, or almost anywhere else in the the First World. To be clear, it's not that the Chinese government won't let its citizens out, as it once was, but now that we won't let them in -- even if all they want to do is spend their money at Disneyland. That's why the take at the gambling tables in Macau now exceeds that in Las Vegas. For frustrated Chinese would-be international travellers, the national pavilions at the Shanghai expo, bringing the world to China, are the closest many of them will be able to get to the foreign countries where they want to travel. In that sense, attendance at the Shanghai expo is also a barometer of how many billions of dollars in potential Chinese visitor revenues countries like the USA are losing through restrictive tourist visa and entry policies.

Foreigners, though, don't go to Shanghai, or anywhere else in China, to see images of their own or other countries, but to see and experience China itself. If that's your goal, there is no need to put up with the crowds and inflated hotel prices in Shanghai during the expo. Go there next year, when you can get the benefit of the infrastructure improvements and the glut of new hotel rooms, without the additional crowding and jacked-up prices. Shanghai is crowded enough in normal times, as the racers found in December when this series was filmed.

Overall, China is still a bargain. For one of the world's great cities, especially for an international business center where tourists are a small minority of travellers, Shanghai offers remarkable value for the hotel dollar even at the busiest times of year. The same is true for other major Chinese cities. But an unscientific sampling of Shanghai hotel prices on Ctrip and eLong suggests that prices in all price ranges have been raised perhaps 50% above normal levels during the expo.

For example, some of the racers go into the lobby of the Astor House Hotel to ask for directions. Like the rest of the historic buildings on the riverfront Bund, it's had its ups and downs. When the Bund was the center of the "International Settlement" in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Astor House was one of Shanghai's finest hotels. When I stayed there in 1989, its vast but decaying rooms were being used as hostel dormitories for a dozen or more backpackers in each suite, and it was one of the most important crossroads on the Lonely Planet trail through China. Today, renovated without being stripped of its period details, but still Chinese-owned and unaffiliated with any international chain, it offers classic colonial grandeur in a perfect tourist location with stunning views both down the Bund and across the river to the new highrise towers in Pudong.

But the visitors with the most money these days in Shanghai are business people, not tourists, and they want to stay on the other side of the river in those new highrises in the Pudong business and financial quarter (one of which has the highest hotel rooms in the world), not in the Bund historic, cultural, and shopping district. Compared to prices at international chain hotels or those in Pudong, rooms at the Astor House appear to be a bargain for tourists at less than US$100 per room per night including taxes. During the Expo, however, rates for the same roams have been raised to US$150 and up.

This leg of the race finished on the waterfront promenade in Pudong, looking back across the river at the Bund. Twenty years ago, the only way to cross the river was by ferry; most of the passengers were peasants going to and from their fields with laden bicycles and handcart loads of produce; and Pudong consisted almost entirely of market gardens growing vegetables and other food for the city on the opposite shore. Today, along with the steel, concrete, and asphalt city of Pudong, there are both highway and rail (subway/metro) tunnels under the river, and a new airport ("PVG") on the Pudong side linked to the Pudong business district 30 km away by a 500 km/h (300 mph) maglev train -- a tourist attraction in its own right.

See the links in this article for more advice and tips for travel in China. On the down side, the Chinese government is at least as sensitive to potential political disruption and the presence of outside agitators in Shanghai during the Expo as it was in Beijing during the Olympics. As a result, most of the changes in visa and entry rules and procedures put in place for the Olympics remain, or are once again, in effect through the end of Expo. In particular, (1) you can't count on being able to get a visa for the rest of the PRC in Hong Kong (it's sometimes possible, particularly if you go through a travel agency or tour operator, but you might be told you have to get your Chinese visa in the country of your citizenship), and (2) you will be asked if you have ever been convicted of any crime in any country, and if you say "yes" your visa application won't be accepted at all in Hong Kong and will be subjected to special scrutiny and potential delay or rejection even in your country of citizenship.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 2 May 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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