As I stood in the immigration queue at Delhi Airport in India just two days after I had departed Shanghai, I was mindful that I had just gone from one megacity to another, two giants that are leading what experts are calling the Asia Decade, or maybe even the next two decades.
In terms of population, both are pretty much on par: Shanghai has 24 million residents compared with Delhi's 19 million. You could say they are as different as night and day, yet there are similarities.
First, both of their countries still have some way to go toward opening their doors wide to inbound tourism, although visas have become slightly easier to obtain.
Of the two, India's the more improved. These days, you can get an e-visa pretty easily, and there are separate e-visa counters at immigration to facilitate entry. However, the rule that you can't enter again as a tourist within three months is slightly ridiculous. India's a big country and deserves to be visited by tourists more frequently.
The process of getting a Chinese visa requires much more paperwork, plus physically surrendering your passport, which can be a nuisance if you're a frequent traveler. But once you get the paperwork done, you're pretty much set.
A market in Delhi, India. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon
Second, you can see firsthand the rapid pace of development in both cities -- more buildings, more cars, more pollution -- and feel the boundless energy of a new generation aspiring to better themselves, yet still anchored in deep, rich and ancient cultures. And so in both cities you feel the sense that anything is possible. And yet, some things are just immovable.
If you've done business in both countries, you know what I mean. At a hotel conference recently in Singapore, a developer said, "With India, you need patience. With China, you need resilience."
You are also seeing more of what is called "Chindia" connections, Chinese companies investing in India: Alibaba in Paytm, the Indian mobile payments company that has established a travel vertical, and China's No. 1 OTA, Ctrip, which has invested in India's No. 1 OTA, MakeMyTrip.
You can see that one has a lot to teach the other.
Ctrip knows how to handle ultracompetitive markets. It meets competition head-on, knowing it has deeper pockets, and eventually buys its competitors. MakeMyTrip buying Goibibo was a classic example of consolidation and market rationalization.
Both countries also have mega secondary cities with bigger populations than some countries and with similar consumer behavior in terms of leapfrogging technology.
It was also interesting to observe that the two startups that won mention at the Phocuswright India Innovation Showcase were both Chinese companies: Mileslife and PKfare.
Another striking similarity is that both are huge domestic markets. According to the China National Tourism Administration, China's domestic travel market reached 4.4 billion people taking trips in 2016, an increase of 11%. In March, IATA called India the world's fastest growing domestic air market for the 22nd month in a row.
A storefront in Shanghai. Photo Credit: Yeoh Siew Hoon
Homegrown online travel brands have grown on the back of those numbers. At Phocuswright India, one sensed that local brands like MakeMyTrip, Cleartrip and Yatra were more focused on domestic source markets than on expanding overseas. The acquisition of hoteltravel.com by MakeMyTrip some years ago has largely been one of alignment with its India-related business rather than an expansion to conquer new markets.
Yatra CEO and co-founder Dhruv Shringi has always maintained that since there's so much to do in India, why look abroad? And now Yatra's striking out in corporate travel, while Cleartrip is making aggressive moves in the tours and activities space locally.
It is Chinese brands, though, that are showing more appetite for expansion beyond their shores. Ctrip offers a classic example of a brand that has built absolute dominance at home and now must conquer new lands. Its acquisition of Skyscanner was its latest move to globalize, and you can bet this Chinese travel giant's appetite for expansion will continue to grow in the next couple of years.
Beyond Ctrip, other Chinese travel brands are expanding. Alibaba Travel declared at a recent travel conference it wants to be the biggest travel company in the world in five years, and HNA is building a travel and tourism empire through acquisitions of airlines, hotels and travel agencies worldwide.
Leading Indian hotel brands such as Taj and Oberoi have been slower to expand, but perhaps it's only a matter of time.
For now, China is the clear mover and shaker of all things travel in Asia, and there's a reason why China is the success story it is and why it will continue to prevail.
It comes down to its people.
In India, staying at the Leela Kempinski, as friendly as the service is, there's a laid-back way to it that makes it feel, well, incredibly Indian. There's a desire to please that is not backed by process.
In Shanghai, I stayed at the Andaz, and after my spa treatment, I was asked to fill in the feedback form, with ratings that included poor, average, good and excellent. In my postmassage state, I marked "good" for everything, thinking that was a pretty good rating.
My massage therapist looked concerned and called her manager, who immediately came over, sat down next to me and said, "You've obviously been to many spas. Can you tell us how to improve? How can our therapist be better?"
Not wanting to get the therapist in trouble, I said, "No, no! She's good." To which she replied, "Yes, but how can she -- we -- be excellent?"
I rest my case.