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Monday, Nov 25, 2002

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Of flyovers, Moulin Rouge and cows...

Rasheeda Bhagat


EVEN as the Dow and Nasdaq are on a northern journey, and the Shanghai indices are battling to hold on after three consecutive days of downfall, the feel-good factor in China's most powerful financial city — Shanghai — is evident everywhere.

One indication of this is that even though the Chinese New Year's Eve (February 1) is a good two months away, over 80 per cent of the tables in Shanghai's restaurants for the New Year night dinner have already been booked. It is estimated that a whopping five lakh people will dine in Shanghai's restaurants that night, with the average price for a table for 10 being over 1,100 Yuan (about Rs 6,500). Eating out is a popular pastime in Shanghai and the restaurants are full of people in quest to pamper their palates. If you're smart enough, you can find restaurants where at least a few menu cards are in English and one or two waitresses speak the language. Once you know how to avoid stuff like frog's legs, cow's intestines and pigs ribs, not to mention crow meat, Shanghai cuisine can be a gourmet's delight. Incidentally most Chinese beers are quite light compared to their Indian counterparts and can be downed effortlessly.

As far as the economic ratings go, after India, it is China on Moody's upgrade list. Last Saturday the rating agency gave the Chinese economy a thumbs-up with positive upgrades to both the Government and the country's leading banks. It has changed the ratings of the foreign currency bonds of the Chinese Government from `stable' to `positive'. Incidentally, as back home, here too the S&P rating agency is regarded a villain, as it had recently downgraded China after predicting that its dilly-dallying on the economic reforms front would halt China's economic growth.

And the feel-good factor, despite the swelling in the ranks of the unemployed thanks to the State-owned enterprises (SOEs) making heavy losses and some of them having to be closed down, shows in the number of Chinese tourists who are packing their bags and heading for foreign destinations. Of course India is hardly on their travel map, and we seem to return the compliment, as rarely do you see an Indian tourist on Shanghai's streets. But as far as exciting destinations like Paris are concerned, it has indeed caught the fancy of the Chinese traveller. By the way, the upwardly mobile young women of Shanghai seem to be keeping a close watch on the fashion scene in Paris. You can see this by the tasteful manner in which they dress, their artful make-up, well styled hair-do and the designer labels on the accessories they don. According to a report in the South China Morning Post, the number of Chinese visitors to Paris is expected to quadruple to two million in the next decade. And when they do this, they will be triumphantly displacing Americans as the French capital's number one tourist group.

And if many Indians feel proud that we are one of the biggest spenders in countries such as Singapore and Thailand, here is a humbling comparison with our rival emerging super power. An average Chinese tourist to Paris spends about 240 euros a day; nearly two-and-a-half times the 100 euros per day spent by an average European in Paris. So as the Paris Tourism Board rolls out the red carpet for Chinese visitors and is in the process of negotiating more flights between Shanghai and Beijing and Paris, it is keeping in mind that the Chinese visitors to the famous 113-year-old cabaret Moulin Rouge comprises nearly seven per cent of the total visitors it attracts.

So where do we come in the reckoning of the global traveller as well as the tourism promotion boards of the world? Sri Lanka and the South-East Asian countries are getting soft on us; that is if the Indian tourists can brave exiting from and returning to our cramped and atrociously managed airports. The sheer size of a Pu Dong (Shanghai's international airport) or Changi is overpowering enough. But add to it their impeccable maintenance. The clean carpets, the innumerable check-in and immigration counters. The eateries they offer to tired and hungry travellers, and above all, the efficient manner in which they are run take the fatigue out of the travel. As a group of international woman delegates to a conference in Shanghai make their way to the town of Suzhou, about 100 km from Shanghai, the Chennai-Pondicherry East Coast Road, of which we are so proud, appears like a toy in comparison.

The network of flyovers and freeways make over 80 per cent of the drive appear a song for our female van driver. A Danish woman keeps commenting on the cleanliness of the city, while I marvel at the mega road networks the Chinese have created in and around Shanghai. Only to be told, however politely and softly, by a Norwegian woman whose economist husband had recently come to Delhi on a business trip, "He says you have animals on your roads... I mean cows?," she asks.

We might turn up our noses any number of times at the ignorant Westerner continuing to harp upon snake charmers and cattle on Indian roads, but can we wish them away? It's lovely to see Amitabh Bachchan make it to Weekend FT, being described as the "most well-known actor in the world", after being interviewed at a swank and exclusive London restaurant by the financial daily. But such a high can last only a few minutes. After that, what?

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Of flyovers, Moulin Rouge and cows...

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