I lunched today at the pleasantly authentic NOLA restaurant with a friend who works for an embassy in Beijing. I was interested to hear more about what would be glamorously called “diplomatic life,” a label he has readily cast aside. He mentioned during our discussion how much money is wasted when officials based in the home country go on foreign visits, often on the premise of one or two official meetings but with the aim of taking a funded vacation. We discussed how much money is spent on business-class airfare for everyone, business-class accommodations and all for a frequently small political payoff. He told the story of a cabinet member who was visiting called up a consular officer in the middle of the night because he was hungry in his hotel room. The consular officer had to get up and drive to get the cabinet member just to go out to get something to eat in the wee hours.
Amazing! At least, to my friend and I who are in China to experience something interesting and learn as much as we can. I cannot imagine being in the situation of traveling all over the world and not wanting to dive in as much as possible, digging beneath the veneer of official dinners and expat restaurants to discover the pulse of local culture. That is of course a personal trait and one that betrays my having been so involved in AIESEC. But what of the exorbitant travel fees?
I wrote some time ago about the lack of a dedicated broadcast journalism towards the shoestring backpacker crowd that even Lonely Planet slowly betrays. This concern extends to business and government practice: significant waste on travel that could be heavily curtailed. Personal experience: when I came to China, I had to stay in Shanghai for three weeks in order to get my visa processed before I could come to Beijing. The company said they would cover all of my meals, transportation, and the cost of a hotel. I, however, did not want to stay in a hotel; hostels are an order of magnitude cheaper and it is much easier to meet interesting people in a hostel than in a hotel. For three weeks I split my time between two hostels (the first was a bit far away and the beds were too hard). I met cool people with whom I had good times in the city and had some of my first cultural crash courses in China. Because I saved the company so much money, they agreed to pay for the cost of my visa – a great financial weight off of my shoulders!
I have been on the benefiting end of friends with expense accounts coming to visit me at Tech and paying for dinner and drinks – it made Ru San’s a lot more fun! It seems, though, that there should be a way for governments and companies to reward financial prudence on trips as a matter of course. Employees and officials should have an incentive to spend a bit of extra time figuring out how to save money while traveling on official business. For example, staying with friends or couchsurfing ought to be an option if available that could result in a reward for the employee who opts to save money. I hear that some companies already offer set food allowances that an employee can keep if they don’t spend it on food. Cutting down on the outrageous cost of travel without impacting travel itself could save a lot of money.
If I were the top guy of a government department or a company, you can bet that required interview questions would include: “Do you like to experience local culture when you travel abroad?” It has to be a much more rapport-building exercise to staff agents that actually try to enjoy and understand their working environments.