Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Amazing Race 24, Episode 1

Santa Clarita, CA (USA) - Guangzhou (China)

This is the third “All-Star” season of The Amazing Race. As in seasons 11 and 18, all of the cast members have been in previous seasons of the show. This gives us, the travel voyeurs in the reality-TV viewing audience, a chance to see what’s different about how people approach their second or third trip around the world. What do they do differently after having had time to think about what went wrong the first time?

Season 24 of The Amazing Race began on a football field near Los Angeles. After watching the UCLA marching band perform the Amazing Race theme song, the racers were told to drive to the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and fly directly to Guangzhou, China.

Or, to be more precise, fly indirectly to Guangzhou, because that’s what the TV producers told them to do.

The producers of The Amazing Race figured out years ago that most television viewers aren’t interested in airport-fu. Just as when we are travelling, we want to get through the airport and on to our destination as quickly as possible. A race decided by a foot race, or by speed in completing one of the challenge tasks, will draw more viewers than one decided by skill at choosing airline routes and connections.

The amount of TV airtime devoted to airports in The Amazing Race broadcasts has declined, and the TV producers plan the race routes so that the teams are likely to end up arriving on the same flights.

On the first leg of each season of the race, the TV producers usually book blocks of seats in advance for the racers, divided between a couple of flights. From LAX to CAN (the airport code for Guangzhou still reflects the pre-Pinyin romanization of the city’s name, “Canton”), the TV producers booked the racers on connecting flights through Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific (CX) or through Taipei on China Airlines (the Taiwanese airline, IATA code CI, not to be confused with Beijing-based Air China, CA).

Given that neither Cathay Pacific nor China Airlines was given credit for a paid product placement, it’s noteworthy that the TV producers chose those indirect routes in preference to the daily LAX-CAN A380 nonstop operated by China Southern Airlines (CZ).

If there is any route on which it makes the most sense to choose a mainland Chinese carrier over competing Hong Kong, Taiwanese, or other foreign airlines, this is the one.

Guangzhou-based China Southern is by many measures the largest airline in Asia, and Guangzhou-Los Angeles is its flagship long-haul route. When CZ started serving this route in 1997, it was the first and only nonstop flight on any airline between Guangzhou and anywhere in North America, and it remains so today. When CZ took delivery of its first Airbus 380 double-decker superjumbo jetliners (the first Chinese airline to do so), the first international route on which they were deployed was, naturally, CAN-LAX.

I don”t think bigger is necessarily better, but on a 15+ hour flight, space to get up and walk around is important. And when there’s a daily A380 nonstop, why would you choose connecting flights on smaller planes on some other airline? Did I mention that CZ is often cheaper than its non-mainland-China competition?

Many foreigners still think of Hong Kong as the best gateway to to the rest of China, or at least as the gateway to the Pearl River Delta region. But it’s no longer necessary or even desirable to go through Hong Kong to get to the rest of China.

It’s much easier for a US citizen to get a visa for China in the US than in Hong Kong. You might be able to get a visa for the rest of China in Hong Kong, if you haven’t been able to get it in advance in the country of your citizenship. But applying for a China visa in Hong Kong should be a last resort, only if you are on too long a trip to get your China visa before you leave home.

There are direct flights between the Shenzhen (SZX) and Guangzhou (CAN) airports and many other cities in China. Shenzhen has only a few international flights to and from nearby countries, but Guangzhou has a growing number of direct long-haul flights to and from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, and North America.

Guangzhou is a far larger city than Hong Kong. Shenzhen and Dongguan each have roughly the same population as Hong Kong. All of these cities have excellent modern local and regional transportation infrastructure.

If you do find it much cheaper to fly into Hong Kong even though you are really trying to get to Guangzhou, consider taking a bus, train, or ferry for the last between Hong Kong and Guangzhou rather than a connecting flight. If you aren’t in a race, and especially if it’s your first visit to the area, I recommend surface travel to get a sense of the Pearl River Delta conurbation as you travel from Hong Kong through Shenzhen and Dongguan to Guangzhou.

Flight connections are marginally faster, but depending on exactly where you are going in Guangzhou, express buses from Hong Kong Airport may be the simplest way to get there with the fewest changes. Trains or ferries don’t go directly from Hong Kong Airport to Guangzhou — you have to change in downtown Hong Kong — but avoid the chance of road traffic delays.

Flying from Los Angeles to Guangzhou via Taipei (LAX-TPE-CAN) makes even less sense than flying through HKG. The route to the mainland via Taiwan route is noteworthy mostly just for the fact that it has recently become possible after a hiatus of many decades. The first flights between Taiwan and mainland China in 2005 were charters for Taiwanese managers of mainland factories to visit their families back on Taiwan on holidays and weekends. Regularly scheduled flights between Taiwan and mainland China resumed in 2008, but remain limited and priced high for business travelers.

I’ve been on trans-Pacific flights on Cathay Pacific and on China Airlines. Although I haven’t flown on China Southern, I have been on a trans-Pacific flight on one of the other major mainland-Chinese airlines, Air China. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly on any of them again, or go out of my way to avoid whichever was cheapest and/or most convenient.

Mainland Chinese airlines are typically the fastest, easiest, and cheapest ways to get from North America to those mainland Chinese cities with direct trans-Pacific service: Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai. To major provincial Chinese cities, the shortest, easiest, and cheapest connections from North America are typically via Seoul on either of the major Korean Airlines, Korean Air (KE) or Asiana (OZ). Korean Air serves more gateways in the USA than any other Asian airline, and more cities in China than any other non-Chinese airline.

I enjoyed my visit to Guangzhou. As the racers saw, it’s changing rapidly. The current conflicts over gentrification and displacement in San Francisco are nothing compared to those in the old urban centers of the new Chinese upper class, including Guangzhou as well as Shanghai and Beijing. If you have a chance, get there while it’s still a relative bargain.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 23 February 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I assume that the producers of The Amazing Race obtain any required visas long before the race begins?

Posted by: Scott, 28 February 2014, 12:38 (12:38 PM)

@Scott - Yes, the producers (or their visa service) obtain visas for all the cast members in advance, for all those countries the race will visit that require visas for U.S. citizens.

But they also obtain valid visas for some countries the race isn't actually going to visit.

These serve as decoys. When the racers get their passports back before the race, they know that they won't be going to nay country that requires a visa, but for which they don't have a visa. But they don't know which of the countries for which they have visas they will actually be visiting.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 28 February 2014, 13:03 ( 1:03 PM)
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