China's military weapons

Meet the ‘professional’ air buffs willing to pay over the odds to get far from the madding crowd at China’s biggest air show

  • For hard-core enthusiasts paying extra for an early bird ticket intended for industry representatives is money well spent
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2018, 10:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2018, 1:29pm

For Chinese military buff Meng Yong, forking out the equivalent of US$1,000 to attend the country’s biggest air show as a “professional” was money well spent.

Although the 54-year-old has actually taken early retirement, buying an early-bird ticket – which in theory are reserved for trade visitors, such as aerospace executives, diplomats and arms dealers – allowed him to explore the stalls at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition during the relatively quiet periods before the weekend rush when the event is open to the public.

“It’s my first time taking part in the air show. I am so excited,” said Meng, who flew 1,800km (1,100 miles) from his home in Shandong province to the show ground in Guangdong.

“I had been longing to visit the show since it first kicked off in 1996. But I didn’t know how to buy tickets until I made a friend in Shenzhen [a southern city close to the site of the show in Zhuhai].

“He is a military enthusiast and regular visitor to the air show. He taught me how to do.”

Meng is not the only lay enthusiast to pay more than the going rate for a professional ticket.

The cost is 2,000 yuan (US$290) for the three professional days between Tuesday and Thursday, or 1,000 yuan for a one-day ticket, compared with 500 yuan for a one-day ticket on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, when the show is open to all comers.

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While the equipment on display and the aerial displays are the same whenever you visit the event, the ticket quota for the professional days is only 10,000 compared with 80,000 before on-the-day sales for the weekend.

For Meng, who officially attended as a “trade visitor” from Tancheng county’s price bureau, his former employer, it was money well spent.

“I would rather to pay more because public days will be much more crowded than the professional days,” he said.

But despite taking the budget option when it came to travel and accommodation, the total cost of his three-day visit still came to 8,000 yuan.

“It’s not a luxury trip at all,” Meng said. “I have to squeeze onto a crowded bus to get here every day, because the hostel I stayed in is more than 10km away.”

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The popularity of the show is such that Zhuhai, a relatively small and compact city with just 66 star-rated hotels, experiences heavy demand for rooms, which in turns leads to soaring prices.

Beijing-based military commentator Zhou Chenming said that wealthier visitors to the show, including some of his friends, prefer to stay in the nearby tourist and gaming hub of Macau and travel there by boat.

“All four-star hotel rooms [in Zhuhai] are fully booked even though prices have trebled,” he said.

Lower down the scale, rooms at the Starway Bihai, which organisers recommended for members of the overseas media, rose to 800 yuan a night, compared with the usual price of 200 yuan, during the six days of the air show.

Walk-in visitors may find themselves paying even more. One such visitor who turned up at reception of Tuesday, the first day of the air show, was told by staff that they would have to pay 1,000 yuan a night for a room.

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For visitors on a budget there are various ways to save money. For example, Zhou said, four people could club to together to rent a single room at a local farmer’s home for about 400 yuan a night.

Meng said he was staying at a private hostel where he was charged 320 yuan a night compared with the normal price of 68 yuan.

“It’s still worth the money,” he said. “It’s a rare opportunity for military enthusiasts to get a glimpse of so many advanced weapon systems – including warplanes, commercial aircraft, drones, tanks, missiles and radars – over the three days,” said Meng, as he inspected a Chinese air force Y-20 military transporter.

For him there was only one cloud on the horizon: “It’s just a pity that the Russian Knights and Swifts, as well as Britain’s Red Arrows and the European Wingwalker teams, were all absent this year.”

The absence of these international aerobatic teams probably does come down to money.

Military insiders have said that organisers had not invited them to the biennial event this year because of budget cuts that resulted from growing concerns about an economic slowdown and the impact of the trade war with the US.