For foreign executives and their families, a transfer to Asia, the world's most economically dynamic region, can be both a career- and life-enriching experience. It can also be a nightmare.
A transfer overseas often involves some major lifestyle trade-offs, depending on the destination city. There are wide differences within Asia when it comes to such key factors as public safety, air quality, health care, and education.
To figure out which cities offer the best and worst when it comes to quality of life, Mercer Human Resource Consulting—which provides advice to companies on international assignments—in early April published a global ranking of the world's most livable cities, based on 39 criteria ranging from personal safety to public transportation.
Switzerland's main commercial and cultural center, Zurich, topped the 215 cities, followed by Geneva, and Vancouver and Vienna, which tied for third. In the Asia-Pacific region, Auckland (5), New Zealand, led the pack, while Sydney (9) cracked the top 10.
Meanwhile, North American cities such as Toronto and Ottawa fared better than U.S. ones, of which Honolulu (27) performed best. The hardest of the hardship postings: Brazzaville, capital city of the Republic of the Congo (214) and Baghdad (215).
While China and India may represent Asia's economic future, the most desirable cities to live in for foreign executives and their families are elsewhere. Cities in New Zealand, Australia, and Japan are far more comfortable places to reside, according to the Mercer study.
Chinese cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing may be attractive from a purely professional point of view, but their deteriorating air quality is a growing concern. In Hong Kong, air pollution spills over the border from the mainland, and though it ranked 17th in Asia as a desirable city, globally it finished at 70th in 2007. That's down two notches from 2006. Shanghai and Beijing didn't even make the top 20 in Asia.
Indian cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai all finished toward the bottom of the ranking globally because of their dense populations and poor sanitation. Indian transportation is extremely underdeveloped, and the government must invest in better waste removal and sewage systems, the Mercer study suggests.
The stunning physical beauty of Australian and New Zealand cities, and the safe streets and excellent public transportation found in Japanese cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka make these highly desirable places to live. No fewer than eight Japanese cities were in the top 20 Asian cities ranked by overall quality of life.
Of course, lifestyle preferences differ from family to family. For some, a few years in Mumbai could be a great adventure regardless of the inconveniences. And it must be said that while Wellington, New Zealand, and Perth in Australia are beautiful locales, there are probably, on average, far better career opportunities for ambitious executives in high-speed economies such as China and India.
Still, human-resource types do consult such lists when pulling together compensation plans for overseas assignments and special benefits. If you are considering a move to or within Asia, it is wise to do your homework before signing on.
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