HK has the worst air pollution in Asia

Such was the verdict in our Business Travel Poll. We also got feedback on SARs and problems travelling to the US.

In this year's business travel poll - which was replied to by 472 of our readers - we did not just ask about airlines, and hotels. We took the opportunity to ask a few issues-related questions.

SARs again?

Of course, one of the central concerns of business travellers in Asia is SARs. We asked whether you thought it would disrupt business travel this Winter? Or else whether you thought some similar influenza-like disease would do so, such as bird flu? The answer was a resounding "no". We hope this does not signal complacency, but 414 respondents said they did not think SARs or a similar "influenza-like" diseases would disrupt business travel in the coming months. Only 58 thought it would.

Forget airlines, what about "air"

We also asked about another health issue: air pollution. All of us travel extensively around Asia's cities and we asked which of these cities had the worst air pollution problems. Respondents were allowed to nominate three cities. Topping this hall of shame was Hong Kong, with 188 votes, followed by Beijing (167 votes), Bangkok (114 votes), Shanghai (96 votes), Jakarta (77 votes), Manila (66 votes) and Bombay (30 votes). At the other end of the scale, was Asia's other key financial centre, Singapore which received a clean bill of health with just three votes. The result of this poll is a humiliation for Hong Kong. In most respects, Hong Kong has more in common with the capital cities of G7 countries - but where air pollution is concerned it enjoys the status of a less developed country.

US immigration problems

The other pressing concern facing Asian business travellers is homeland security in the US and the manner in which it has made flying to the US a less appealing prospect. Anecdotally, we had heard many Asians now found traveling to the US less convenient and we decided to dedicate a whole section of the poll to getting readers' feedback on this area.

We first asked whether the new measures made you less inclined to travel to the US on non-essential trips - such as holidays. Out of the 372 who responded to the question (we specified that only non-US passport holders should answer it), the majority said they were less likely to visit the US. Indeed, 232 respondents were less inclined to visit the US for non-essential trips (ie 62%).

We then asked readers to detail whether they or any family member had experienced problems travelling to the US in the wake of September 11 and the heightened homeland security. The feedback suggests that a lot have.

There were universally similar remarks about arrogant, and rude immigration officials in the US. One answered the question that he considered travelling to the US was definitely a problem because he felt like he was "being treated like a criminal", another cited a relative who had been detained for 12 hours and said another, "I find the extensive checks annoying, especially for those of us with a Malaysian passport."

One respondent noted: "On a vacation trip to the US with my family, my 17 year-old son was subjected to secondary security clearance that lasted an hour." And another had a similar gripe: "I have been singled out for special security screening on three out of three domestic flights in the US over the past year. I missed my LAX-JFK connection as a result of one such screening."

One investment banker who responded to the poll noted that his Indonesian clients had been kept waiting for three hours in Boston. In fact, the immigration officer initially laughed at the idea that the Indonesians were on a roadshow to raise money from the US.

Wrote another: "Finger-printing and photographing are always intrusive," and similarly another respondent remarked: "Just tolerating the long security lines is something you must prepare for in advance: mentally, physically and time-wise."

The remarks were not all negative (although, to be clear, about 99% were). One respondent replied: "I flew into New York last week and was out of JFK and in my hotel in Manhattan within 75 minutes. However, I did hear of people taking over three hours to get through Atlanta airport on their way to SIBOS."

There were also some concrete suggestions. One corporate executive wrote: "Apart from the attitudes at immigration, where power seems to have gone to their heads, I am also frustrated by the nonsensical government requirement to leave checked baggage unlocked. Having asked passengers if anyone could have interfered with the bags, neither airline nor government can guarantee the same once the bag is in the check-in carousel. It's not what can be taken out of the bags that is a concern, but what could be put in, like drugs, or worse, explosive devices. Passengers are now more at risk because of this stupidity than if the bags are locked and intensively screened or hand-checked and then locked. A daft rule that smacks of a knee-jerk reaction and lack of common sense."

After all the complaints, does it make a difference? That is to say, will the US suffer for the mistreatment of Asian business travellers? We asked those that had a bad experience whether it would impact their future business decisions relating to the US? The response was quite balanced, with 116 saying that it would, and 132 saying it would have no impact.

For the first time, we also asked respondents to give us their view on taxi drivers and traffic in the region. We asked you to tell us which city had the best taxi drivers. Possibly no surprise, but Singapore won this vote handsomely, gaining 206 votes to Hong Kong's 87 votes. Then again, as one wag commented, "Getting a taxi in Singapore is the tough part".

The result of our traffic question - "Which Asian city has the worst traffic problems?" - was equally conclusive. Bangkok was the resounding choice with 167 votes. Second was Beijing with 47 votes. Third was Jakarta with 40 votes. It will be interesting to see if Beijing closes the gap when we ask this question next year. It seems like Beijing's traffic gets worse by the day, and half an hour between meetings to account for bad traffic has become the norm.

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