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Two decades of pointless piffle, predictions, and a few home truths

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaOur mutterings, prescient, moronic or just plain wrong, over 20 years. From SARS and Pui Pui the crocodile to hotel brands, mergers, space travel, the death of the hotel GM and the return of the Masked People fighting asphyxiation and garlic breath.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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The future can be confounding

Figuring out the future is a confusing business. We gave it a shot, perplexing many, and had some fun along the way/ illustration: Gary Larson

AS WE complete 20 years of publishing online — once deemed a futile and zany prospect — we thought it the right time to take an indulgent moment to peer down memory lane at our predictions, whines and mutterings in this column over all these years. So back to the future it is, to 2003.

MAY 2003/ HK THE WORLD'S CLEANEST CITY: The World Health Organization believes travel to Hongkong should be avoided at all cost. I agree. Travel to Hongkong should be free. Why pay when flights and hotels are empty? There are other good reasons to travel to Hongkong. You thought Singapore was clean. Wait till you see Hongkong. People wear masks, they wash their hands five times a day and any chicken that so much as coughs, attempts to cross the road, or has sweaty armpits, is history. A million chickens thought they could get away with bad breath. They were wrong.

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Forget "Man in the Iron Mask". Welcome to Hongkong, "World City", where for HK$4 you can be the Man in the Surgical Mask or, for HK$15, the Man in the Monkey Mask. This will prompt you to ask: "WHAT IN THE WORLD AM I DOING HERE?" It shows the Hongkong marketing slogan works. Visitors are encouraged to help keep the city clean. They can do this by donning a state-of-the-art N95 "monkey mask". This fits snugly over the nose and mouth and its heavy-duty moulded fibres can keep out everything, from germs and fried dofu fumes to fresh air and oxygen.

JAN 2004/ LATER ALLIGATOR: Hongkong for a moment has, well, a croc. Yes there’s Crocodile fashions which does a just-this-side-of-legal take on Lacoste, but I’m talking about the real McCoy. A saltwater crocodile. This lady's not in the zoo. She lives in Yuen Long. A former resident of a public housing apartment, she slipped away one day. Unlike Elsa the lioness, the Yuen Long croc was not born free. As a Hongkong resident she enjoyed full rights to luxuriate in a 100sq ft three-bedroom flat, subjected daily to weepy Korean sitcoms and ear-piercing karaoke gabble. At east it was air-conditioned. But she had been set free by her owner.

{Hotel design being what it is today, it is a minor miracle if any traveller can find a light switch or any other brilliantly concealed contrivance

The Hongkong authorities finally called in Australian crocodile hunting legend John Lever. So did Lever wrestle the croc onto the mat with his bare hands before teaching him the samba? Nope. He waded into the creek in an attempt to catch the croc with his bare hands. Legend or not, I can’t think of anything more dangerous. Yuen Long Creek is packed with enough industrial pollutants to melt a tank, not to mention the fish that, by now, have surely mutated into unknown life forms. Yuen Long Creek is what Baywatch Nights is made of — without the women and the cleavage but with all the scary music and large hairy men splashing about in dark, misty settings. (Pui Pui was later moved to the wetlands area).

NOV 2005/ BRAND WARS: Brands are powerful things. Take Volvo. Strap in your mother-in-law, hoist the car as high as your hernia will allow, turn it upside down and let go. The job's done. And, best of all, the car's fine. That's the power of brands. We see it in the ads. People know them, trust them, and buy them.

Automate those bug-checks please!

Now why didn't they just do this before we got masked and confined? / illustration: Gary Larson

The same is true of cities and countries. And destinations have turned to "branding" with a vengeance. Thus it is that everywhere you go these days you'll encounter a crocodile show, butterfly park, bird show and, sometimes, even a tiger show. What these large pussies are up to in Thailand makes the mind boggle but they're jumping through hoops rather than obsessing over ping-pong balls, thank heavens. Macau’s promotion of its charming “heritage trail” is a giant leap forward for this tiny enclave. Singapore needs to lighten up but are casinos the cure?

JUL 2007/ SAY NO TO NAIL CLIPPERS: There are some items you must never take onboard an aircraft. These might include knives, scissors, axes, and that terror of modern aviation, the nail-clipper. I can understand the travel imperative of carrying an axe onboard. Think of all the times you could have hacked your way through a throng of no-frills flag-waving tourists jamming the aisle to the toilet. But a nail-clipper? What deranged person brings this into an airline cabin?... Take this plane to Cuba or I'll clip your nails!

SEP 2009/ YAKKING ON BREATHLESS: I stood there breathless. She sashayed up, looked at me through soft beseeching eyes and slipped away, the tinkling bells on her feet tracing her passage through the snow. I would never see her again. It was now or never. Finally, the words wheezed out: “Let’s get back to 9,000ft.”  My taxi driver nodded. The shaggy yak lumbered away, her bells still jingling, and we sped down from the oxygen-starved Khardung La pass billed as the “highest road in the world” at 18,380ft, to the more civilised elevation of Leh (Ladakh) where, after a while, I was able to fill my lungs with something approaching air and walk six feet to the washroom without my head exploding.

My teenage son, at that critical age when kids finally string together one complete coherent sentence, seemed immune to the altitude. So we sallied forth and continued to bond — he with his MP3 player, and I with my bed. His sentence, when it arrived, was clear and to the point. “Chill dad,” he said, in a weak attempt at restraint as I attempted to gather our things to raft the Indus.

NOV 2011/ GOING POTTY: I was a little over fifty when the realisation dawned that I needed to do something special with my life — hug a tree, save the planet, or join Facebook. I headed to Tokyo. And there it was, awaiting me in a hushed, dimly lit chamber like some beckoning primeval Arthurian throne.

This was the first time I had encountered a Japanese toilet. I had no idea how to use one and the instructions, while generously detailed, were all in Japanese. I did what any intelligent male confronted by a do-it-yourself IKEA cabinet would do. I looked around for a hard object to bang my head upon. I prodded, pressed, cajoled and moved levers to no effect until I spotted the bidet sign. I hit the button and, voila… a gratifying stream of water gushed out with laser precision and splashed my enquiring face. Moral? Never peer into Japanese potties or mess around unless seated and meaning business.

APR 2013/ SOMEONE SHED LIGHT: There comes a time in every man's life when the call of adventure beckons, defining moments that chisel a man, taking him far beyond the threshold of pain to a place of quiet, numb exertion as he strives to overcome unspeakable odds. I felt panic welling up inside, and reached across to pick up the hotel phone to dial the operator. "I can't find the light switch," I said.

Hotel design being what it is today, it is a minor miracle if any traveller can find a light switch or any other brilliantly concealed contrivance. Here the light options were simply, welcomemoviereading, and romance. There was no single control for the bedside lamp. That would be Neanderthal. As new studies tell it, Neanderthals became extinct because they had far too large eyes — to absorb more light for the long winter nights — and this diverted critical brain processing power from more urgent exigencies like irate cavewomen with large clubs intent on bashing their men about the head. Less light can kill. Hence more light. Mankind has been preserved but I cannot turn off a bedside lamp.

DEC 2015/ SMOKING IN SINGAPORE: It is the ultimate irony that a nation that was among the first to crack down on smoking — having resolutely banned gum earlier and blocked Japanese musician Kitaro at Changi Airport in 1984 for his excessively long hair — is regularly submerged in a choking haze of Dickensian proportions (as Sumatran farmers slash and burn forests and old croplands).

Smoke gets in your eyes - mask up people

A visit to Singapore circa November 2015 possibly looked like this - if you could see - as the Indonesian smoke haze descended over the city

I travelled to Singapore to acquire that unique smoky flavour, best described as ‘rampant rainforest fire’, with lingering notes of car pollution, and melodic hints of tropical sweat, most intense around the armpits. I would have preferred hardwoods like Hickory or Mesquite, but this is what Indonesia serves up annually in what has become the biggest summer spectacle anywhere on the planet — despite have signed up in September 2014 to the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

OCT 2016/ THE BIG SQUEEZE: As Marriott completed its US$13bn acquisition of Starwood on 23 September 2016 to become the world’s largest hotel company with 30 brands, 5,700 hotels and 1.1 million rooms (166,000 of these in Asia-Pacific), it may have given some travellers pause. Not because the combined behemoth yearly serves 8.7 million burgers and 1.6 million sandwiches and uses up 116 million ounces of shampoo and 84 million toilet rolls, but because large combines usually work to force prices up. That’s the bedrock of business, and monopoly. And in several cities, Marriott's vast inventory now accounts for almost 50 percent of the market share.

JUL 2017/ AN AIR BLOCKADE? The blockade of Qatar by five Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, is yet another example of the fragility and, perhaps, futility, of a Middle East concordat. Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and the UAE have followed the Saudis in demanding Qatar change its ‘evil’ ways — by shutting down outspoken television station Al Jazeera, and abandoning its support for Iran and assorted ‘terrorists’.

While the intent is clear — to throttle dissenting speech and to isolate Iran, which is seen as a Saudi nemesis — several have been caught in the crossfire, including Qatar Airways, a frontrunner in aviation, that has picked up numerous global awards for excellence. It also just produced a record 22 percent increase in annual profit of about US$540m — an ebullient graph, now imperilled by the US electronics ban and a peevish Saudi stunt.

AUG 2018/ SPACE FLIGHTS: Do people really want to go up into the black beyond? The Pew Research Centre says the majority of Americans (58%) are disinterested in space travel for reasons of cost, fear or health. This finding is not surprising given that most Americans don’t hold a valid or current passport. Just over a third do.

Space is tempting enough but cost will remain an issue. And it may be overtaken by suborbital flights at supersonic speeds that may become a reality, at least for business travellers. With the exit of the Concorde late 2003, the supersonic aircraft shelf has remained egregiously empty. These are tough shoes to fill.

NOV 2018/ DEATH OF A GM: We all recall the dapper hotel general manager who shook hands with an endless stream of guests as he welcomed them to his particular piece of paradise. He knew many by name and they in turn warmed to his compliments, promising to return. That was how the hospitality business earned its brand plaudits, through face recognition and esoteric knowledge of a favourite drink or pet peeve acquired over a late night beer.

That cheerful, easy-to-spot, lobby-cruising GM is seemingly dead, interred by the very company that hired him to be its spokesman. And the person who now carries his weighty mantle is as hard to spot as the Phantom of the Opera, and equally disturbed, as he paces and frets in the bowels of some vast building focused not on guests but investors and spreadsheets and cost-cutting.

AUG 2019/ CLICK FARM CUSTOMERS: Loyalty, the buzzword for much of the ’80s and ’90s when brands strove to understand and closely identify with their audience, is being replaced by price incentives. It is something Facebook and Google encourage with relentless zeal, focusing on clicks rather than the ‘value’ of these clicks, many of them fake and instantly manufactured through ubiquitous click farms (that pay students a few cents per click to earn pocket money). The entire structure is a bogus. Research always comes before retail and unless a brand is visible and appreciated, quality bookings will never follow save at vastly reduced rates.

NOV 2022/ MANDATORY MASKS: With Hong Kong opening up and quarantines lifted, I wondered what might be in store for visitors to this fine city, my home of almost 40 years. Travellers will be glad to learn that masks of all colours remain popular and are mandatory. This protects people from toxic garlic fumes that can be particularly incapacitating at close quarters on the MTR.

There are other courtesies. In some countries you might get your hands and feet washed before entering a shrine. In Hong Kong, great reverence is accorded to tonsils and nasal passages. These get coddled and swabbed with religious intensity for a few days, starting with arrival at the airport where new washbasins bear the cryptic message: "Do not enter".

APR 2023/ JOIN AN UNCONFERENCE: The travel industry has a wonderful way of presenting things in confoundingly mysterious ways. Hotels are masters of this black art. Take terms like MICE (meetings), 'unconference' (unstructured meets where participants direct an impromptu discourse), or SMERF (not the villainous Bond SMERSH) that covers group travel for the 'social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal' segment. If flummoxed travellers are scratching their heads and reaching for their wallets, they are forgiven.

Posh terms sound expensive because they are. The non-speak goes on. For example, how might a hotel say: "We're not ready folks and don't have the foggiest when we'll get our act together." This seemingly intractable sentence has been reassuringly compressed into two words, 'soft opening'. The term simply means the hotel has not fully opened — in fact most of the stuff doesn't work yet — but it would like to start charging you money.

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