Welcome to the future
Stephen McCarty Travel Editor
The country is rebuilding its infrastructure, even in remote areas, to house more people and industries
THERE IS NO escape from the expanding presence of the mainland in the daily lives of consumers from Saskatchewan to Sydney.
Driven by the most rapidly expanding economy on the globe, China comes to us, and looms over us, via shipping lanes, financial markets and telecommunications. China makes more clothes, heels more shoes and puts together more toys than any other country, according to Inc.com.
It is the world's largest producer of television sets, CD players and mobile phones; computer design and assembly is a burgeoning industry and, yes, the mainland is finally running all those Flying Pigeon bicycles off the road with the help of no fewer than 120 car manufacturers.
Michael Smith is more familiar than most with the figures that tell, eloquently and directly, the story of China's rebirth as an economic powerhouse. The HSBC chief executive told The New York Times of his amazement when the bank recently predicted that mainland assets would surpass those of the United States by 2034.
'When I saw that, I said that can't be right, and I went back to the economics guys,' he said.
They confirmed the projection. In industry after industry, China is on the threshold of becoming the world's biggest producer and market.
Part of the reason is that multinationals are setting up shop in the mainland to avail themselves of a cheap and inexhaustible supply of labour. Those same companies are also giving themselves a tangible presence in China by moving key personnel into the cities.
And they are not the only ones on a modern-day long march to China. The mainland is the fifth-ranked country in the world in the number of tourists received a year.
Even as far back as 2001, China hosted 58.94 million tourists, an increase of 37.96 per cent on the previous year, said the China Daily. According to Shao Qiwei, director of the China National Tourism Administration, China will become the world's largest tourist destination by 2019.
Inbound tourist numbers are expected to grow at an annual rate of 8 per cent from this year to 2010, a period encompassing the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Expo two years later. By 2019, the mainland will be receiving 137 million visitors annually.
Whether guests arrive for business or pleasure, China has a challenge or two to meet. Where will it put them all? And how will they make their way around?
Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts sees these developments as a chance to expand on the mainland from its 19 properties to at least 32 by the end of next year.
'With China's ascendancy as a world economic power, more two-way investment and trade has ensured the great potential of the mainland's tourism and hotel market,' Giovanni Angelini, the group's chief executive and managing director, told China Daily. Most of the hotels will be built in regional centres such as Haikou in Hainan, Baotou and Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, Guilin and Dongguan.
The InterContinental, Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza will have at least 80 hotels operating in Asia in the next couple of years, and half will be in China. Best Western, the world's largest hotel chain, has targeted China as its key brand-growth zone, and expects to be running 100 properties on the mainland by the end of next year.
The Hyatt, which operates five hotels on the mainland, has 11 under construction and another six at the planning stage. Beijing Yintai Centre, which will contain a 237-room Park Hyatt (the leading Hyatt brand) on the upper floors, will open later this year. The company expects to have about 40 properties in Greater China, including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, by 2013.
Most of the guests filling these rooms will descend on China courtesy of a wide range of airlines. That means a civil aviation rush to accommodate more carriers operating more flights - Qatar Airways recently celebrated the first anniversary of its Beijing service by adding a fourth weekly flight to Doha - and also to build more airports. In the past six years, said
interairport.com, China's 130 airports have recorded an average growth in passenger numbers of
13 per cent; in 2004, they handled more than 100 million passengers, a number exceeded only by US airports.
With air ticket prices dropping as budget airlines sprout, the General Administration for Civil Aviation of China (CAAC) predicted air-traffic growth of 10 per cent annually for the next few years, with increases foreseen in the economically developed east and in the harsher provinces in the west of the country.
That means a host of new regional airports on the radar, some with multiple runways. But nowhere is airport infrastructure development more pronounced than in Beijing, where an expansion project is bringing into play a third runway, a new terminal building and 100 new airfield aprons. Capacity will increase from 35 million passengers a year to 60 million - still not enough to meet the capital's requirements.
The CAAC has indicated the need for a second and possibly third airport to handle the 150 million passengers expected to travel to or from the city annually by 2020.
And the airborne hardware? That too will have Chinese characteristics in the shape of the ARJ21 turbofan aircraft, the mainland-made regional jet now in production and expected to enter the global market in 2008. The ARJ21 advanced regional jet, with a capacity of 70 to 90 passengers, is the result of demands for an aircraft that can operate relatively cheaply, especially in the country's rugged, mountainous interior.
But executives whose plans extend no further than a weekly commute between Beijing and Shanghai might want to let the train take the strain. Xinhua said the government had given final approval for a long-anticipated high-speed rail link.
The express railway, designed to allow speeds of up to 350km/h on 1,320km of track, will help alleviate the already heavy air and rail traffic moving between China's two largest conurbations. The line, work on which could begin this year, is expected to cut rail travel time between the cities to less than five hours from 13. What a paradox: just as China expands across every global horizon it becomes smaller than ever.