Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The perks of being unplugged

I have just returned from a family holiday to Australia. It has been close to a decade since my last visit and since I have some money invested there and from time to time consider sending some more money down under, a few observations are in order.

One of the first things that struck me was the comparative rarity of free WiFi. Hotels were charging AUD20 per day for WiFi access. A very few restaurants (i.e. one) and airport departure lounges would offer free WiFi to customers. That was it - any other on line access had to be paid for. Since being unplugged is not the easiest thing in the world, I made the decision to largely do without. I ended up checking on e-mails and a few other things a total of three times over the course of 10 days and enjoyed it. Being unplugged for several days not only had a calming effect, but I also found more time to think and was more interested in getting out to see and do things.

The second obvious thing was that Australia rivals London for the title of the most expensive place I have been to. Meals in restaurants cost about double what a comparable meal costs in Hong Kong. Taxis are 2 - 2.5 times the cost of taxis in Hong Kong. The running shoes I normally buy are 50-60% more expensive than in Hong Kong. A can of soft drink from a convenience store is about twice the cost in Hong Kong (even allowing for the slightly larger can size). But for all of that, Australia is very obviously an affluent society. An article from the 27 December, 2012 edition of the Australian Financial Review noted the following:

  • average household wealth rose 6.6% to a record AUD868,000
  • the rise was driven more by increased savings than rising asset prices
  • while total household debt as a percentage of household disposable income has stayed roughly flat in the last five years, net household debt (total debt less interest bearing assets) fell from 42% of household disposable income in 2006 to 35% in 2012
Australia's compulsory and flexible superannuation regime has a lot to do with the strength of household balance sheets. When it comes to financing an affordable and sustainable retirement, Australia has implented something that actually works - both for the individual retirees and for the taxpayers who are invariably left picking up the pieces when politicans make promises that can never be kept.

Service levels were very good - and consistently so. Perhaps a notch short of what we commonly find in places in Asia, but miles ahead of the US, the UK or Europe.

Australia is definitely a country I would like to spend more time in, but costs are so high as to be an issue.

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