Tuesday 25 July 2023 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Tuesday. 25/7/2023

The Monocle Minute

Image: Alamy

Opinion / James Chambers

Pay as you go

If I were in charge of writing the international travel advice for the US government this week, I’d be issuing a China alert – but one with a rare bit of good news rather than the usual mix of panic and hysteria. So what’s changed? Visa and Mastercard can now be linked with China’s biggest payment apps, WeChat Pay and Alipay. Sure, I am aware that’s not quite the headline peace settlement on the Taiwan issue that we’re all hoping for. Nonetheless, this technical revision to China’s cashless payments system will transform the travel experience for foreigners visiting China and pave the way for more tourism and, hopefully, fewer misunderstandings.

China rushed so quickly into the use of digital wallets and QR codes that the world’s second-largest economy ended up freezing out anyone who didn’t have a local bank account. International tourists can get by using cash but merchants and ticket machines that still accept hard currency are disappearing fast. During a recent visit to the mainland, I carried a wad of yuan that I had kept throughout the pandemic – but I only managed to spend the cash at an outdoor bouncy castle.

As of this month, all that has changed – at least for anyone comfortable enough to download a Chinese app and share their credit card number. Since the move is long overdue, Beijing doesn’t deserve any plaudits but that doesn’t mean that the positive news is not worthy of a travel alert. After all, the ability to buy a train ticket or pay for a meal at a restaurant without kicking up a fuss is arguably a lot more helpful to the average American tourist wishing to visit the Great Wall than the State Department’s latest, overly alarmist, warning about wrongful detentions. It’s also the latest in a series of micro-developments that point to healthier relations between the two superpowers. Whether China is coming good on its promise to further open its economy or simply trying to attract tourist dollars, the direction of travel should help us all relax this summer.

James Chambers is Monocle’s Asia editor based in Bangkok. For more opinion, analysis and insight, subscribe to Monocle today.

Image: Getty Images

Diplomacy / France & the South Pacific

Balancing act

Emmanuel Macron (pictured, centre) has embarked on a historic trip to the South Pacific to reaffirm France’s role in the region. Yesterday he touched down in Nouméa, the capital of French overseas collectivity New Caledonia, to meet its president, Louis Mapou, and other country leaders. His visit follows three failed referendums seeking to establish New Caledonia’s independence from France, which took place between 2018 to 2021.

Macron’s wish is to rebuild trust and support from pro-independence voters. His visit to Vanuatu on Thursday will mark the first time since the 1960s that a French president has visited the nation, while his trip to Papua New Guinea the following day will be the first ever visit by a French leader. Despite France possessing territories and a large exclusive economic zone, its influence in the region remains modest. Macron’s office has insisted that his trip is not aimed at pressing an “anti-China policy” but to offer an alternative to the recent power struggle between Washington and Beijing.

Image: Shutterstock

Aviation / Rwanda

Piloting change

In a major milestone for African aviation, Rwanda is constructing a new state-of-the-art airport in the south of Kigali as part of the country’s push to establish itself as the continent’s aviation hub. Set to be completed by 2026, the ambitious $2bn (€1.8bn) project will service 8 million passengers a year. The new project has attracted interest from key players in the industry, with Qatar Airways securing a 60 per cent stake in the project. The Middle Eastern airline also plans to obtain 49 per cent of shares in Rwanda’s flagship air carrier, Rwandair.

“The new airport will provide competition for other hubs, such as Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and give consumers more choice about where to fly to and from in Africa,” Paul Charles, former director of communications at Virgin Atlantic and Eurostar, and founder of travel PR firm The PC Agency tells The Monocle Minute. “It will also give the continent a stronger position in global aviation at a time where more African-based travellers are moving around the region.”

Image: Alamy

Society / Japan

Explosive business

Along with the buzz of cicadas and the tinkle of a glass wind chime, no sounds signify summer in Japan like the bangs of a proper firework display. And after being silent since 2020, Tokyo’s annual Sumida River Fireworks Festival will finally return on Saturday evening. Fireworks have been launched in the east of the city since 1733, originally in the hope of seeing off pestilence.

More recently the festival has attracted crowds of more than one million people and supported a host of traditional small businesses that have been doing their best to make it through the lean years. From the small-scale firework-makers to the families that run the yakatabune (the roofed boats that provide the best views of the display), everyone is breathing a sigh of relief that the city’s summer centrepiece is resuming. If you've never seen the artistry of Japanese fireworks, prepare to be impressed by cascades of colour as 20,000 fireworks are set off. Tokyo’s business owners will be hoping that the evening goes off with a similar bang.

Image: Universal Pictures

Culture / Global

Seeing double

It has been a weekend to remember in Hollywood as the combined global box-office takings for Barbie and Oppenheimer (pictured) surpassed $500m (€450m). It is a strong sign for the cinema industry that two completely different films can do big numbers at the same time. In the US alone, Barbie had the largest opening of the year with $162m (€146m).

Greta Gerwig’s film is also the largest-ever opening for a female director, while the combined figures for both films are expected to make this the US’s fourth-biggest box-office weekend of all time. In other parts of the world, Barbie drew record numbers for a Warner Bros movie released in the UK, Mexico, Brazil and Australia. Besides the clever marketing campaigns, both titles were boosted by positive reviews from critics and audiences. While Hollywood is reeling from striking actors and screenwriters, the record-breaking numbers show that the public’s excitement for cinema-going remains very much alive.

Image: Alamy

Monocle Radio / The Urbanist

Baumgarten an der March

Alexei Korolyov visits the town where western Europe’s dependency on Russian energy began to see how the attempt to cut ties with Moscow is affecting the village.

Monocle Films / Design

Glassblowing with Michael Ruh

Nature is a key source of inspiration for glass artist Michael Ruh, who has hand-crafted pieces for leading architects and brands, such as Fortnum & Mason. We visited his south London studio as production was underway for a new commission for The Birch Hotel to hear about his design process.


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