Destination report: Chongqing

What the south-west Chinese city might lack in subtle charm is more than made up for by its dynamic, can-do capacity for business, as Paul Revel reports

A RECENT REPORT on noted that Chongqing’s imports and exports came in at more than US$30 billion for the first half of 2013, a 20 per cent year-on-year increase. For the same six months it reported US$820 million-worth of direct foreign investment deals signed, and a 12.4 per cent year-on-year rise in GDP.

Chongqing in south-west China is often described as a megalopolis, as the municipality has a population of around 30 million – estimates are varied – though in fact it’s not as dramatic as it seems: those millions live in a municipality the size of Austria, some if it rural, and the city proper is home to ‘only’ 6-7 million. Nevertheless it is vast and crowded – in the city, tower blocks march towards every horizon, and it’s an interminable fume-choked drive through urban sprawl before you encounter anything approaching countryside.

Chongqing is one of the five national central cities in the People’s Republic of China, and its centre lies on the point where the Yangtze and Jialing rivers meet. Despite a long history as a trading centre and treaty port, and being the country’s wartime capital from 1937-1945, Chongqing’s post-war international profile has been low-key. Many first learnt of the place following the 2011 murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, and the subsequent spotlight on political corruption in the region.

While Chongqing may not be on tourists’ wishlists – apart from as a departure point for Three Gorges river cruises – it’s certainly on the radar for big business. Ruby Li is FCM Travel Solutions’ general manager for the Greater China region. She says industry reports indicate that more than 300 of the world’s top 500 multinational companies have established a presence or have commercial links in Chongqing. “This has increased the demand for business travel services in the region from regional and multinational companies,” she says.

International hotel brands are expanding in the city with recent openings by Hyatt and Kempinski, plus a new luxury Banyan Tree resort and an ongoing Shangri-La project. In July, Hilton opened a second Doubletree property in the Wanzhou district. Other brands already established in the city include Radisson Blu, Intercontinental, JW Marriott and Sofitel.

The major booking websites list from around 75 to upwards of 100 hotels in the Chongqing region, while hotel industry analyst STR Global says there are currently another 19 properties in the pipeline – from pre-planning to construction – with around 5,000 rooms.

Patrick Ritter, general manager at the new Kempinski hotel, also cites the large number of Forbes 500 companies operating in the region, and says business growth is supported by the Chongqing municipal government simplifying application procedures for foreign investment. “This will remain the trend for some time, as the city’s foreign trade has maintained a good momentum this year and is expected to grow further,” he says.

Yates Fei, sales director for HRG China, agrees government policies are driving external investment and thus business travel. He also points out some eye-watering figures for the country as a whole: “Despite a slowdown, business travel spend continues to increase – it was US$18 billion in 2000, US$62 billion in 2010 and is expected to reach US$277 billion in 2020, according to the WTTC.”

Kempinski’s Ritter says Chongqing is a competitive marketplace but adds: “The current inventory of five-star hotels and the growth and new developments in this sector show how apparent demand is.” He also mentions the interesting prospect of “incredible strategic opportunities” for trade with Europe via trans-Eurasian rail links – whereby freight can travel by train from Chongqing via central Asia and Russia to Germany. “The rail line will offer a major shortcut to traditional maritime trade routes, cutting travel time to Europe from about 40 days by container ship to just 15 days by freight train,” he says.

Among the multinationals investing in the city, motoring giant Ford is building its third factory in the area, with production due to start in 2015. Cars are also a noticeable feature of the burgeoning consumer market, with the likes of Bentley, Aston Martin and Maserati having showrooms in the city, and Rolls-Royce due to open later this year. All this expensive hardware is highly visible on the crowded, jostling multi-lane arteries that run between the countless glassy skyscrapers and construction sites.

En route to Chongqing, I talk to Finnair’s commercial senior vice-president Allister Paterson, at the carrier’s hub airport in Helsinki. Finnair launched a four-times-a-week Chongqing service last year, followed by Xian – its fifth China destination – in June this year.

Paterson says China is a key part of the airline’s goal to double 2010 revenue from traffic between Europe and Asia, by 2020. He adds: “Our corporate customers on the Chongqing route are primarily from China, with European demand particularly from the Nordics and Germany.” Other airlines flying into Chongqing include Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific and China Southern.

English-speaking visitors will find that language is more of a barrier here than they may be used to in other business hubs around the world. HRG’s Yates Fei says: “Travel buyers should advise employees travelling to Chongqing, or other cities in China, to always have addresses of their hotel and office locations written in Chinese in order to ensure a smooth ride from one location to another.”

Even clutching numerous pieces of paper with my destinations clearly in Chinese, I’m not sure “smooth ride”, is how I’d describe my taxi journeys round the city, hurtling between lanes to a cacophony of car horns.

FCM’s Li adds that one of the main challenges for many US or European companies with employees travelling to China is they often have little idea of how the travel industry operates in Asia, and what complexities exist across countries. “For example, in Japan and China they have multiple global distribution systems and central reservation systems. Different airlines need to be booked on different systems. That’s why it’s important for corporates to work with a travel management company that has local market knowledge.”

The other issue travel buyers should be aware of, she says, is the “visa complexities” for incoming travellers. I can testify to this, and report that applying for a Chinese visa, especially last-m

inute, is a time-consuming and stressful process.

While travellers are unlikely to be eager to book a return trip for their next holiday, the place does have certain attractions. The high standards of gourmet restaurants and bars in the luxury hotels are complemented by the vibrant cuisine and nightlife at more traditional eateries and hang-outs such as those on the Nanbin Road.

And the 12th-century Dazu rock carvings are exquisite and fascinating, and well worth the three-hour drive. They were justly awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, and are miraculously well-preserved. They’ve survived centuries of weather – and avoided the ravages of the Cultural Revolution.

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