Michael Bleby Reporter

Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Window dressing fails Asian visitors

Published 24 May 2012 13:44, Updated 31 May 2012 03:54

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It was a bit like an Amway convention – a cavernous ballroom with enthusiastic fellow travellers applauding and reinforcing each other’s sentiments.

They weren’t selling detergent, however. The people in this crowd were all converts to the Asian Century and its opportunities. Sold on the notion already, this business gathering of the good and great at the Trans-Tasman Business Circle lunch was ready to hear more of the good news.

When it comes to Asia and gatherings, they are important. Asia is the direct source of Gina Rinehart’s and Andrew Forrest’s wealth, as this week’s focus on BRW’s Rich 200 list shows. These two rich listers recognised the fact in April when they attended the Boao Forum for Asia’s annual conference in the Chinese resort island of Hainan. Rinehart and Forrest showed an appreciation of the importance of this gathering – Asia’s version of the World Economic Forum – that Australia’s government lacked, as seen in its failure to send any senior ministers.

But back to last Friday in Melbourne. The keynote speaker was Mike Smith, chief executive of ANZ, the bank widely recognised for its activity in the Asian region.

The corporate high priest of Asian engagement ascended to the stage and took his place at the lecturn.

People waited.

He did not disappoint. Smith was blunt in his description of the changing dynamics of the global economy.

The corporate high priest of Asian engagement, ANZ’s CEO Mike SmithSource: ANZ

“The world is going through a once-in-a-century global shift,” he observed. “This is a game changer.”

He was withering in his assessment that Australian policy was not making the most of the opportunities.

“For today’s Australia, desperation is a much stronger galvanising force than aspiration. To truly take advantage of the Asian Century it may be a much more difficult task requiring clearer thinking about the path ahead and more resolve to pursue it than we might have imagined,” Smith said.

The crowd clapped.

Master of ceremonies Rod McGeoch then got up and spoke from the heart about the 500,000-odd Chinese tourists that visited Australia last year. He spoke about a singular failure of Australian businesses, including banks, to meet one of the most basic needs of these visitors.

“Every single one of them comes with a debit card called China UnionPay. Incredibly, when I was looking at the papers being presented by the executive, only one bank in Australia accepted that card. No surprise, (it was) the ANZ Bank. Today there are actually two, only.”

In Sydney, McGeoch said, no shop in Centrepoint accepted it. Only after urging by the board of tourism body Destination NSW – of which he is a member – taxis in Sydney started accepting the card, which had the same merchant fee as both Mastercard and Visa, McGeoch said.

“Our business people do not seem to have engaged. If you don’t find that remarkable, I’d be surprised, but we seem to have a long way to go to take advantage of the opportunities staring us right in the face.”

We do, indeed, have a long way to go. A quick check this week of Australia’s large banks reveals most have yet to take advantage of this particular line of business. NAB takes the card. CBA doesn’t. Westpac apparently couldn’t answer the question. And ANZ? Well, it seems McGeoch was wrong.

“We are not able to accept these cards,” an ANZ spokeswoman says.

Add sentiment and spin liberally: Asian engagement is at risk of the same window dressing as greenwashing and the environmental agenda.

Smith, for his part, made no attempt to correct McGeoch’s praise-filled assertion that ANZ took the cards. He may not have known whether they did or not. Either way, it suggests a lack of engagement – not just with an emerging Asian market, but with his own operations. But he left the congregation with the clear impression that ANZ takes this card.

Engaging with Asia is one of those big topics – like environmental sustainability – that we all feel is important. But just like the green agenda, the Asian agenda can become hostage to superficiality, whether through exaggerated spin or deliberate deception. With the environment, we talk about “greenwashing”. What is a suitable term in this context – “Asian window dressing”?

I’m sure that was not Mike Smith’s intention. After all, he himself insisted that pursuing Asian markets required clearer thinking and more resolve than many people imagine.

In this case, however, a brief wind has parted the high priest’s robes and we’ve seen there is less there than we thought.

Do you agree? Write and tell me your views.

TOP FIVE RANKING OF TOURIST ARRIVALS BY COUNTRY OF RESIDENCE, 2012 VS 2011

YEAR TO MARCH 2011YEAR TO MARCH 20122012/2011 COMPARISONYEAR TO MARCH 2012
COUNTRY OF RESIDENCE NUMBER (‘000) NUMBER (‘000) % CHANGE RANKING
NEW ZEALAND 1172.7 1181.5 0.8 1
UNITED KINGDOM 621.7 614.2 -1.2 2
CHINA (excl HK) 487.6 561.2 15.1 3
USA 469.9 460.3 -2.0 4
JAPAN 381.9 338.1 -11.5 5

Source: ABS figures cited by Tourism Australia.

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