CRUISE: Voluntourism goes to sea

cruise cruise Adonia
Adonia, flagship of the new fathom cruise line from Carnival.

Carnival launches a boutique cruise line that combines an ocean vacation with cultural immersion and volunteer work for its passengers.

Cruise lines face quandary. Their need for younger travelers is colliding with people’s craving for a more authentic, hands-on travel experience, the kind you don’t get lounging around shipboard bars and sun decks, or crammed into a bus on “canned” sightseeing tours.

For better or worse, that’s the image a lot of millennials — and some older travelers, too — have of cruise vacations. And it doesn’t make them reach for their passports.

Houston — or in this case, Doral, FL, home of industry giant Carnival Cruise Lines — we have a problem.

Various lines are trying varying approaches to attack this. Royal Caribbean is building enormous mega-ships packed with enough onboard amusements to make Las Vegas and Disneyworld equally nervous.

Some, like Oceania, Seabourn and Crystal, are going all-in on all-out luxury, doing their best to replicate 5-star living at sea. Others, like Holland America Line, are making a point to offer shipboard cooking classes and other learning experiences designed to keep passengers engaged instead of amused.

Comes now Carnival with something completely different: fathom — deliberately lower-case, but not necessarily lower key.

And definitely not what one normally associates with the Mickey D’s of cruise lines.

In reality, Carnival is the 800-pound gorilla of the cruise industry, owner of eight different cruise lines in addition to the Carnival flagship brand, each with its own character and personality.

Some of these names you already know — and on some cases, may have already sailed on:

  • AIDA Cruises
  • Costa
  • Cunard
  • Holland America
  • P&O
  • P&O Australia
  • Princess
  • Seabourn

Just this month, Carnival had added a ninth, fathom, which will be sailing the Caribbean out of Miami with a single ship, the Adonia.

In all, Adonia has space for just over 700 passengers, about the size of the original Love Boat.

By comparison, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas can accommodate more people than that on one deck.

But by far the biggest different between fathom and a conventional Caribbean cruise may be what happens when you get ashore.

fathom is offering passengers a chance to do work as volunteers for a week in the Dominican Republic. They’re calling this “impact travel:”

“Impact travel with fathom provides the opportunity to build community with like-minded travelers, become immersed in another culture, and work alongside its people to create enduring social impact.

“As a fathom™ traveler, you’ll work alongside established impact partners with strong community connections in the northern Dominican Republic. You’ll work alongside the people of those communities, immersing yourself in their culture, harnessing the power of that human connection to make relevant, lasting contributions.”

Passengers will choose from among three fields in they can volunteer in the DR:

  • Environmental
    Making and distributing clay water filters to communities without safe drinking water, or working on reforesting projects.
  • Education
    Tutoring students in English classes.
  • Economic Development
    Working with two women’s cooperatives, one that cultivates organic cacao plants for the production of chocolate, while the other creates marketable arts and crafts from recycled paper.

“…you’ll come home seven days later knowing that, for the people whose lives you’ve just touched, the world has become a little brighter because of you.”

Voluntourism is going to sea. Even their URL is not the customary .com site. It’s an .org.

It’s not all sweat and service. In between the volunteer work will be time spent on pristine beaches, in restaurants, clubs and shops.

Voluntourism itself is hardly new, and as you’ll see from the link in this paragraph, not without controversy. What’s new here is to have a mass-market cruise line offering passengers the chance to get involved in it. In that sense, the cruise industry truly is sailing into uncharted waters.

If it resonates with younger or socially conscious travelers, however, Carnival just might have found a way to give cruise travel a more positive image — and just maybe get more and younger travelers to go to sea.

On a fathom cruise, then, you’re going to get dirty. You’re going to get sweaty. You may even get tired. You’re also going to meet Dominicans, get to know some of them by name, get a taste of what their lives are like.

In short, you’re going to come away with a feeling for a culture you never would’ve got from the inside of that tour bus.

fathom begins operations in April 2016.

Greg Gross is Publisher/Senior Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel! and owner of Trips by Greg LLC, a travel agency specializing in cultural travel and tours.

TRAVEL: The Road Ahead for 2015

First of two parts

Golicz London

Travel that emphasizes spontaneity, spanning generations and genuine local flavor is what’s trending these days among Americans. Also, economic headaches on the other side of the Atlantic are making Europe a lot more affordable.

You might not recognize the name John Golicz, but if you’ve been to one of the seven Travel & Adventure shows held this winter around the United States, you know his work.

Golicz is the CEO of Unicomm LLC, the company that annually puts on the annual Travel & Adventure Show series across the continental United States, the largest travel trade shows in the country. He makes his living checking the pulse of the American travel industry.

And he took a few minutes this week with IBIT to talk about what’s trending these days with American travelers. Our chat may have been brief, but it was wide-ranging.

AUTHENTICITY
One of the biggest trends these days is a passion a genuine experience. Travelers are moving away from the “canned,” pre-packaged trips and looking to “keep it real.”

JG: “Right now, a lot of travelers are looking for experience more than luxury. Baby boomers are very much into cultural mixing right now. It’s all about authenticity, being engaged with the culture of the region more than just staying in a great hotel.

“People like the idea of getting into a new destination and meeting people, eating with the locals. They’re finding pop-ups in people’s home where the serve meals to visitors. You sit down with their families. It’s not free; you’re paying for it, of course. But you’re meeting real people and getting a taste of real life in that place.

“It’s a dynamite experience.”

Something that might be contributing at least indirectly to that quest for true local “flavor” is a willingness to be more spontaneous in their travels than in years past, Golicz says.

IMPULSE TRAVEL
Where their elders were more likely carefully pre-plan their travel itineraries well in advance and down to the last detail, millennials armed with smartphones and the hottest in travel and social media apps are turning impulse, last-minute travel in something close to its own niche in the industry.

JG: “The millennials are certainly traveling more at their age than their predecessors did. a lot of their travel is more on-demand. They’re perfectly comfortable just showing up in a train or a plane, open up an app like Hotel tonight to find a room, then booking a ride from Uber to take them there, all without a lot of advanced planning, or any advanced planning at all.”

I’m from that older generation of traveler that likes to have all the trip details nailed down well ahead of time. Even so, I can imagine a certain exhilaration, a certain feeling of urban adventure, in just throwing a few clothes in the backpack duffel, punching in a few codes on a few smartphone apps and seeing where the impulse takes me.

THE TRAVEL GENERATIONS
Actually, a lot of us aging Baby Boomers are taking the suitcases out of storage and dusting off those passports. No surprise there. What has been something of a surprise to the travel industry is how many of us are taking our kids and grandkids with us.

It’s happening so often, Golicz says, that it’s now become it own category: multi-generational travel. It’s not just bringing families together around potentially life-changing travel experiences, but it’s also saving them a lot of money.

JG: “It’s really growing fast right — from grandma and grandpa to all the kids and grandkids, rounding everybody up and going somewhere together. Very often, they’re renting homes and villas where everybody can stay together under one room, and it’s very often cheaper than hotel rooms.”

Millennials, boomers, seemingly everybody in between — they’re all traveling. But where are all these going?

Golicz thinks he knows where they should be going. And oddly enough, it’s a destination you might think had grown overly familiar by now: Europe.

DESTINATIONS
The reason is cost. The Old World, he says, is a lot cheaper these days.

JG: “There’s no better time to go to Europe. The value of the euro is almost on a par with the dollar for the first time in nearly a generation. A 4- or 5-star hotel in a European capital is almost than the same level of hotel here in the US, and that’s pretty exciting news.

“Trans-Atlantic airfares are down almost 10 percent. There are more seats flying there than fliers. Also, the fuel savings (due to lower crude oil prices worldwide) are finally hitting the consumers’ tickets. On top of all that, a lot of European economies are going too great, so Europe is a great value right now.”

For first-time visitors to Europe, he also had a suggestion to get the most out of that first visit — a river cruise.

River cruising has been a staple of European travel for decades, but in the last five years, it’s gone ballistic as a half-dozen river cruise lines try to outdo one another in building new ships and adding new itineraries.

Where an ocean cruise line like Royal Caribbean, Carnival, or NCL might make a huge deal out of launching a single giant new cruise vessel, companies like Viking, AMA Waterways or Uniworld might launch a half-dozen new river cruisers on the same day.

And while those same lines are taking new river cruisers to South America and Asia, and are even starting to cast covetous eyes on the Mississippi River here at home, there are still plenty of vessels with that new cruise ship smell, plying the rivers of Europe.

And that’s the first-timers’ advantage, Golicz says, since there’s a shore excursion almost every day.

JG:”Don’t be afraid to try a European river cruise, especially along the Danube. You can cover a lot of Old World Europe in one week. Cities like Prague and Budapest have a lot of charm, and you can take notes along your route on the places you want to come back to and spend more time.”

Okay, that’s great for Europe. But does Golicz have any thoughts on the rest of the world? Yes, he does.

And that’s next.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.

An ocean of culture

Every four years, the peoples of the Pacific come together for a two-week celebration by and of the peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia — and you’re invited.

Next year, while much of the rest of the world will focus on the Olympics and the World Cup, another gathering of nations that only takes place every four years will be convening from across the Pacific.

Thousands of artists, musicians, dancers, master carvers, weavers, jewelers and seafarers from 27 countries will come together on the island of Guam for the 2016 Festival of Pacific Arts.

Nowhere else could you get a taste, literally and figuratively, of all the cultures of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia at the same time. And only the best of every culture and every island nation get the chance to “represent” at this festival.

This will be only the twelfth such festival ever held since 1972. It’s never been held in the same place twice.

Whatever aspect of Pacific life and culture has ever caught your eye or captivated your interest, you’ll find its masters and its experts here.

This is where you find out that Easter island is about more than just monolithic stone carvings, where you meet the seafarers who still navigate the world’s largest ocean without the need of GPS.

And this being held on Guam, you also may find some reasons to return here once the festival is over — gorgeous white-sand beaches and world-class diving, equally unspoiled and relatively uncrowded.

Here, too, history buffs will find living memories of World War 2. Japan invaded Guam three days after Pearl Harbor. Three years later, US soldiers and Marines took it back in three weeks of vicious fighting that saw Guamanians rise up against their Japanese occupiers.

(If you run into Japanese on the island today, they’re more likely to be tourists and shoppers, the latter group zeroing in on the world’s largest Kmart, which happens to be on Guam. Not kidding. Word is, they shop for the larger clothing sizes they can’t find readily back home.)

WHEN
22 May — 4 June, 2016

WHERE
Guam

WHO
Cultural practitioners from:

  • American Samoa
  • Australia
  • Cook Islands
  • Easter Island
  • Federated States of Micronesia
  • Fiji
  • French Polynesia
  • Guam
  • Hawaii
  • Kiribati
  • Marshall Islands
  • Nauru
  • New Caledonia
  • New Zealand
  • Niue
  • Norfolk Island
  • Northern Mariana Islands
  • Palau
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Pitcairn Islands
  • Samoa
  • Solomon Islands
  • Tokelau
  • Tonga
  • Tuvalu
  • Vanuatu
  • Wallis and Futuna

Puerto Rico — cruise mecca?

If you’re want a hint at what cruise travel to Cuba might be like a few years from now, Royal Caribbean might give you a foretaste next year in Puerto Rico.

You could call this “Go big and leave home.”

Starting in 2016, two vessels of Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class — Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas — will be making regular port calls in Puerto Rico.

Capable of carrying up to 6,00 passengers each, these two behemoths are the largest cruise ships in the world (at least for now).

They will hit the PR ten times next year, part of a concerted drive by Puerto Rican tourism officials to bring more cruise ships to the island. The fact that they brought in nearly 18,000 cruise passengers in one day last month tells you just how concerted that drive is.

I look at this as a kind of preview — and for Royal Caribbean, perhaps a kind of dry run — for what may happen in Cuba once the US trade embargo is gone. The Old Havana cruise port could see that same kind of traffic within a year or two of opening fully to US mass-market tourism.

In San Juan, however, they’re not waiting that long. And for the traveler, the push to bring more cruise ships to Puerto Rico means a new and comfortable introduction to a beautiful and perhaps a bit under-appreciated Caribbean jewel.

If you go, you’ll almost certainly find your way to blue cobblestones and colorful historic homes of Old San Juan, not to mention the massive and imposing Morro Castle.

But don’t pass up a shore excursion that takes you out to the El Yunque rainforest or lets you paddle a kayak in a bioluminescent bay.

And if your ship stays overnight in San Juan, you’ll definitely want to check out the restaurants and nightlife along Ashford Avenue in the Condado district, where the lovely little Condado Lagoon and the mighty Atlantic Ocean are separated by about three blocks.

CUBA: Best if by sea?

Once Cuba fully opens up to US tourism, the best way for both sides to ease into it just might be via cruise ship.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was “don’t give advice.” So, quite naturally, I’m going to ignore it.

At long last, the United States and Cuba are moving toward a normalization of relations, which means inevitably an end to the 50-year-old foreign policy anachronism that is the US trade embargo against Havana.

That embargo is the only thing that has barred — or perhaps, protected — the island nation from an annual tsunami of American visitors.

Cuba already makes significant money from visitors from Europe, Canada and Mexico. They come for the tropical beauty, the warm weather, the culture, the history.

Add to that a relatively small but steady stream of adventurous American travelers — currently in excess of about 60,000 a year — willing to flout the US travel restrictions.

All of that, however, would be dwarfed by a torrent of American arrivals unleashed once the embargo was gone. And Cuba’s infrastructure is not ready for it, any more than China was when it opened up to full-on, mass-market Western tourism in the late 1970s and 80s.

In particular, Cuba has a major shortage of hotels, especially the kind of upscale hotel to which a lot of American tourists are accustomed. Further, its infrastructure in general is in need of major upgrade.

(You could, of course, say the same for much of the United States, but that’s a whole different conversation.)

There is one segment of the travel industry, however, that is ready for a wide-open Cuba: the cruise industry. And in the short-run, that could be Cuba’s salvation in the face of eventual mass-market tourism from the United States.

Nature blessed Havana with a great natural harbor. The city already has a cruise ship terminal in Old Havana, Ensenada de Atarés, that can handle up to six ships at once. It receives liners every year from Canada, the UK and Greece.

Think about it. Each ship has its own guestrooms, its own restaurants and public facilities, even onboard entertainment. When cruise passengers arrive in Cuba, they don’t need a hotel. They arrived in it.

What’s more, a cruise ship is floating infrastructure — its own power supply, its own fresh water, its own food, its own everything.

And it can bring people to the island in huge numbers. The smallest of the world’s ten largest cruise ships carry at least 4,000 passengers each. The largest, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis class, top out at well over 6,200.

That would leave Cubans free to focus on shore excursions, local tours and keeping the visiting hordes managed while on land.

Cruise travel to Cuba would bring two steady streams of income — one for the Cuban government, another for the Cuban people.

No cruise ship docks anywhere for free. There are port fees, based on the number of passengers per ship. For the largest vessels, that can mean hundreds or even thousands of dollars per day.

(And if you’ve ever wondered why cruise ships seldom dock anywhere overnight, you now know one of the reasons why.)

But that amount of money would surely pale in comparison with the cash that cruise passengers would be spending once they got ashore.

Result: Lots of visitors go home happy, and leave lots of working capital behind in Cuba. Meanwhile, the country has time to upgrade its infrastructure.

It also would give the Cubans time to decide how they want to reap the financial rewards of mass-market tourism, without losing their national soul to it.

To bring in the biggest, most profitable cruise ships would take some work. The cruise port is 32 feet deep, not enough to handle the mega-ships. Even so, it probably would be faster and easier to dredge the harbor than build tons of new tourist-class hotels.

And all the major US-based cruise lines have plenty of smaller ships that can comfortably dock at Ensenada de Atarés.

So when that glorious day finally arrives and Americans can visit Cuba as freely as the rest of the world, a cruise ship might just be the best way to do it — at least in the beginning.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.

THE YEAR OF EAST AFRICA: Rwanda

One of an occasional series

Rwanda’s best known attraction may be its mountain gorillas, but seeing the country’s commitment to “green” urban practices and reconciliation from its 1994 genocide are two good reasons to visit.

Rwanda, one of East Africa’s landlocked nations, is known as “the Switzerland of Africa” — not because it’s mountainous, even though its name means “land of a thousand hills.”

Your first clue may come even before your feet hit the ground. Flying into the capital city, Kigali, don’t be surprised to hear a message warning you to leave any plastic bags you brought with you on the airplane.

Non-biodegradable plastic bags are banned in Rwanda, nationwide.

The official watchword for Rwanda in general and Kigali in particular is “clean and green,” and they’re serious about it. To see just how serious, hit the streets of Kigali on the last Saturday of any month.

That’s Cleaning Day in the capital, officially decreed by Rwandan president Paul Kagame. Everybody has to spend the day cleaning — their homes, the streets, themselves.

And don’t be surprised to see the mayor of Kigali and the president himself out on the streets, joining in.

This effort has turned Kigali into perhaps the most spotless capital in Africa, and one of the cleanest in the world. It’s all part of the city’s master plan, one of the most ambitious in Africa — or maybe anywhere.

On a continent whose communities are too often tortured by mountains of garbage, terrible roads and half-fast development in general, it’s a remarkable sight.

But there’s more going on here than just urban beautification, even more than the ultra-ambitious plans to turn Kigali into a world-class business and tourist destination on a par with Singapore.

Because among the people out there on the Kigali streets, cleaning up their city side-by-side, are orphans of the 1994 Rwandan genocide — and some of those who made them orphans.

Rwanda is relentlessly pursuing an official policy of national reconciliation. The drive to beautify the capital is part of a larger effort to foster a spirit of national unity.

Rwandans aren’t denying nor trying to bury their past. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is poignant proof of that and is a must-see for any visitor. But even as they acknowledge this awful legacy, they seem determined to move beyond it.

In today’s Rwanda, you’re neither Tutsi nor Hutu nor Twa. You’re Rwandan, period.

President Kagame is not without his critics. There are those who chafe at what they perceive as an undemocratic, steamroller-like approach to pushing the country’s ambitious drive toward modernization and development.

Mr. Kagame’s response: Judge me on my results.

If nothing else, the results so far look pretty clean and hopeful.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.

CRUISE: A Viking Invasion

European river cruise giant Viking will begin cruises on the Mississippi in 2017, and their home port will be New Orleans. It’s a win for the cruise line, the city and for cruise travelers.

IBIT readers have known for two years that Viking River Cruises, the biggest shot-caller in the river cruise industry worldwide, was thinking about invading the long and largely neglected North American market.

Well, they’re not thinking about it anymore. They’re doing it.

Viking River Cruises has announced this week that starting in 2017, it would begin offering cruises for the first time on the “Father of Waters,” the Mississippi River.

It gets better. Viking won’t be transferring older vessels from its existing routes in Europe or elsewhere to sail the Mississippi. It will open this service with six new ships, each worth more than $100 million.

How new are these ships? They haven’t even been built yet. In all, the company is expected to spend about $1 billion on their construction.

For cruise travelers, it gets better still. Viking chairman Torstein Hagen made this announcement from the city the company has chosen as its home port: New Orleans.

For years, ocean cruise lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean have been embarking cruises downriver into the Gulf of Mexico from the NOLA. Now, travelers will have a choice — downriver to the eastern and western the Caribbean, or upriver into America’s heartland.

And either way, they get to party in New Orleans before or after. Sweet.

This New Orleans Times-Picayune article has the details.

Cruises will leave from docks next to the French Quarter and head upriver at the way to St. Paul MN, with plenty of stops along the way in cities like Memphis TN and St. Louis MO, as well as smaller communities that have called the Mississippi their home for generations. The exact itineraries will be announced later this year.

Even more exciting to IBIT is that the new ships are expected to be sleek, modern designs similar to Viking river cruisers in Europe and elsewhere around the world. Leisure cruising on the Mississippi gets to enter the 21st century.

For a lot of prospective cruise travelers, especially younger Black Americans, that’s huge. No more faux-Antebellum paddlewheel steamboats. More modern amenities, less Mark Twain/neo-Confederate nostalgia.

This looks like a good match. The Mississippi is America’s largest, most important and most storied river. Viking, founded by Hagen back in 1997, is the world’s largest river cruise operator, with 35 ships cruising 20 of the world’s greatest rivers in Europe, Russia, Ukraine and Asia.

Which is why it surprises many when they find out that Viking has had its headquarters in Los Angeles since 2000.

They broke into the ocean cruise game two years ago and are launching upscale sea cruises this year off Scandinavia, in the Mediterranean and Baltic seas. But their focus remains river cruises, and they’ve been building new river vessels at a furious pace for the last three years, mainly to fend off heavy competition from European rivals such as Ama Waterways.

(Homeporting in New Orleans also puts Viking’s new ocean cruise arm within easy reach of Cuba once US-based cruise lines begin making port calls in Havana, a prospect made much more likely now that the US and Cuban governments are finally moving toward normalizing relations.)

And now, the Viking invasion comes to American rivers.

IBIT will keep you up-to-date on itineraries, pricing and sailing dates as soon as they announced — and you’ll be able to book those cruises right here through Trips by Greg LLC.

ALSO CHECK OUT
CRUISE: Going small on the “Father of Waters”

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.

RELIGIOUS TRAVEL: IN SEARCH OF THE CROSS

A trip to find the world’s first fully Christian lands could take you places you might never expect. Like Africa.

If I say “religious travel,” what destinations come to your mind? Virtually every religion has its own “holy land,” sacred sites on sacred ground that is the distant goal of many a pilgrim, from the most ancient time up to the present.

But an honest, open-minded search for that sacred ground might take you to some unexpected places on your modern world map.

Take Christianity. Were we to start talking about a trip to the Holy Land, the first region to come to your mind almost certainly would be the Middle East, and for lots of very good reasons.

Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq — they all have places in the Biblical narrative. So does Turkey, which isn’t actually part of the Middle East, but form a land bridge of sorts between Europe and Asia.

And, of course, there’s always Rome, Vatican City, the Holy See.

But what about Armenia? And especially what about Ethiopia? Do either of these lands enter into your thinking when you’re imagining that dream religious journey?

They should.

Armenia, not Roman Catholic Italy, lays claim to being the first Christian nation. That alone would be reason enough for a Christian to want to walk this land.

That claim, however, has a major challenger. More on that in a moment.

ARMENIA
Is this country part of Eastern Europe, Western Asia or the Middle East? Honestly, I’m not sure. There’s no doubt at all, though, that Armenia down through the ages has been a crossroads of history, much of it tragic.

On a map of the world, Armenia is a little potato chip of a country, hemmed in on all sides by larger and more powerful neighbors. The country is bounded by Russia, the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey.

At various times in its history, it has been possessed, dominated or fought over by almost all of them. On a per capita basis, you’d be hard-pressed to find a people whose history is more thoroughly soaked in their own blood.

Yerevan holds three different distinctions in Armenia:

  • It’s the national capital.
  • Its population of 1.1 million — roughly the size of San Diego — also makes it Armenia’s largest city.
  • It’s been around since 782 BC, making it one of the oldest cities on Earth that people still call home.

The city is celebrating its 2,797th anniversary on Oct. 15.

It sits in the shadow of Mount Ararat — yes, that Mount Ararat, the dormant volcano where the Bible tells us Noah’s ark came to rest after riding out the great flood.

Yerevan was also a major stop on the Silk Road, the great ancient trade route between China and Europe.

These days, Yerevan is the physical heart and cultural soul of Armenia. A café culture, jazz, a passion for wine, nice cars, good times.

It’s also a relatively cheap destination. You can score a 4-star hotel here for US$100 a night or less. Five-stars go for well under $200. Into shopping? Prices in Yerevan run about 25 percent cheaper than those in Western Europe.

There are guided religious tours available in Yerevan that will take you deep into Armenia’s rich Christian history, and escorted pilgrimage tours to the most important Christian sites around the country, most of which are open 24 hours and free to the public.

Not all of Armenia’s attractions are ancient. You reach the ancient Tatev monastery via a cable car suspended more than 1,000 feet above the Vorotan River Gorge. At 3.5 miles, it’s the longest such suspended cable car line in the world, according to the folks at Guinness.

In 301 AD, Armenia was the first country to officially adopt Christianity as the state religion, a fact in which Armenians take great pride. But was it really the first Christian nation?

There are those who will tell you that title may rightly belong to another ancient land…in Africa.

ETHIOPIA
The land once known as Abyssinia may not have made Christianity its state religion until 330 AD, three decades after Armenia, but its roots in the church are at least as old as those of Armenia.

And there are those who assert that those roots might be even older. Among them are Mario Alexis Portella, a Catholic priest in Florence, Italy, and Abba Abraham Buruk Woldegaber, a Cistercian monk from Eritrea. Together, they wrote the book “Abyssinian Christianity: The First Christian Nation?”

There’s no disputing the fact that Ethiopia contains some of the most ancient and priceless sites in all of Christendom, including its famed rock churches.

And then, there are the castles. Yes, castles in Africa, a whole complex of them, in Gondar.

It also holds a special place in Africa’s political history: It is the only nation on the Mother Continent which has never been colonized.

Ethiopia is home to nine UN World Heritage sites, and several more that probably should be.

Great as its natural and historical attractions may be, however, the best reason for visiting Ethiopia may be its people — beautiful, ancient people proud of their culture, their heritage and their faiths.

Aside from its own attractions, Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, is a great jump-off point for exploring the rest of East Africa. The fact that the national flag carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, has one of the most extensive route maps across the entire Mother Continent doesn’t hurt, either.

In June, Ethiopian is due to begin flying from Los Angeles (LAX) to Addis Ababa (ADD) by way of Dublin, Ireland (IRE), making it the first Africa airline to fly directly from the West Coast.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.

BLACK HISTORY: PASSPORT TO THE PAST

To really get into Black history, you’ll need to go beyond the month of February, and travel beyond American borders, because Black history is global.

We’ve just left Black History Month, so this is as good a time as any to make this point.

Were we to insist on historical accuracy, we’d refer to February as “Black American History Month,” since in this country, those who celebrate it — and even those who are repulsed by it — associate it strictly with the history of African-Americans in the United States.

So why am I waiting to bring this up outside of February? Because an awful lot of “our” history took place — and is still being made — well outside American borders.

Where, then, do we begin in the search for that history? That depends on how we choose to approach the subject.

If we go chronologically, we need to begin where all human history begins, in Africa. The first peoples, the first kingdoms, the original “first nations.”

The footprints they left in history remain embedded the length of the Mother Continent. Some of those names — and their peoples — survive into the present. Some of them as cities, some of them as regions, and some as nations:

WEST AFRICA

  • Ashanti
  • Benin
  • Ghana
  • Kanem-Bornu
  • Mali
  • Mossi
  • Songhay
  • Yoruba

CENTRAL AFRICA

  • Congo
  • Buganda
  • Luba
  • Lunda
  • Rwanda

EAST AFRICA

  • Axum
  • Kush
  • Ethiopia

SOUTHERN AFRICA

  • Kilwa
  • Lozi
  • Malawi
  • Merina
  • Monomotapa
  • Zulu

From Africa, the history of Black peoples spreads across time, and across the world. We can find its threads on every continent, if we look.

But instead of following Black history through the march of ages, perhaps we could go by geography instead. That would allow us Americans to begin a lot closer to home.

We could start in the Caribbean, where European slavery brought African captives more than a century before the first chained Africans arrived in what is now the United States.

We could focus especially on Haiti, site of the only slave rebellion to throw off its chains and defeat a European army (Napoleon’s, no less).

We could check out Panama, where an abused and underpaid labor force — mainly from Barbados and overwhelmingly Black — did most of the actual work to build the Panama Canal.

From there, we could head south to countries like Brazil, Guyana and Suriname, where the descendants of slaves have held on to traces of their African heritage, often in defiance of the formal European colonists.

If we feel like stretching our historical legs, we could cross the Atlantic to Europe, where we’ll find a whole pantheon of Black history that was never taught to us in American schools. We’ll also learn that Civil Rights movements were never limited to the American South.

By the way, the British have their own Black History Month. Theirs is in October.

And we can go farther than that, into Asia and the Pacific, to the islands of Melanesia. Put it this way: the resemblance between the words “Melanesia” and “melanin” is not coincidental.

At a recent travel trade show, a guy at the Indonesia booth was telling me about the Black peoples living on Irian Jaya, which is split between Indonesia and New Guinea.

There’s plenty of Black history in the US that has been glossed over, neglected, ignored, sometimes even denied. It’s why a concerted effort to preserve and teach it first came into being in this country back in the 1920s.

But if we really want go deep into “our” history, we’ll need three things — patience, persistence…and a passport.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.

The Year of EAST AFRICA

Five East African nations are preparing to welcome more visitors than ever before — and they’ve got the attractions to make the journey worthwhile.

Before it’s over, 2015 may be remembered as the Year of East Africa where travel and tourism are concerned.

At least five East African nations — Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania — have been steadily pursuing ambitious plans aimed at making themselves more attractive to international visitors.

Now, with travelers still leery of West Africa’s ebola outbreak, East Africa is poised to offer itself as Africa’s travel alternative destination, with attractions for almost any interest.

The famed mountain gorillas, of which only perhaps 700 remain on Earth, are found in only three countries. Two of them are in East Africa — Rwanda and Uganda. The region also is home to Africa’s famous Big Five: Lions, rhinos, buffaloes, leopards and elephants. Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa and the largest tropical lake on the planet, is shared by Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.

But East Africa is also people, ancient cultures with stories to tell and hospitality to share, and cities growing in size and modernity. It also has something else going for it, a major, modern international air carrier that’s extending its reach around the world, Ethiopian Airlines.

We’ll be looking at all of this in greater detail over the course of the year. For now, let’s look at the highlights.

NATURE
If there’s something inside you pushing you to re-connect with nature at its most unspoiled, East Africa’s Big Five of nations have what you need.

Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania have been them 56 national parks. That’s only two fewer than the United States, a land two-thirds larger in area.

And that’s not counting 26 wildlife sanctuaries (six in Ethiopia, 11 in Uganda), 13 wildlife reserves (Uganda), 12 controlled hunting areas (Uganda), five community wildlife management areas (Uganda) and nine sites set aside for wetlands preservation (Uganda).

CULTURE
Uganda, a country whose total land area makes it smaller than South Dakota, boasts some 40 different ethnic groups, each with its own history, its own culture, its own story to share with the world, a cultural memory going back centuries. Neighboring Ethiopia has more than 80.

Within Kenya’s population of roughly 41 million people, you’ll find 69 different languages spoken. In Ethiopia, there are 80. In Tanzania, more than 100.

In all these countries, you will find remarkably warm and friendly people who are ready and eager to welcome visitors.

HISTORY
Some of Africa’s great kingdoms of ancient times were found in East Africa — Axum (sometimes written as Aksum) and Abyssinia in Ethiopia, the Kitara empire in Uganda, the kingdom of Rwanda formed by the king Rwabugiri.

Many of these ancient kingdoms were thriving on advanced international trade and creating centers of learning while Europe was still trying to find its way out of the Dark Ages.

Centuries later, Uganda and Rwanda would go through their own dark times, Uganda under the terrorizing Idi Amin and the tragic Rwandan genocide, which the Western world saw fit to ignore while as many as 1 million people were slaughtered in the space of 100 days.

Today, you can learn about what happened and the origins of those tragic events — especially in Rwanda, where Belgian colonizers a century earlier set the stage for genocide by issuing ethnic identity cards and deliberately favoring the minority Tutsis, reducing the majority Hutus to second-class citizens in their own land.

RELIGION
Both Islam and Christianity thrive in this region.

Ethiopia can trace its Christian roots back to the year 1 AD. Yes, one. While Islam was absorbing the rest of Africa, Ethiopia remained predominantly Christian, and still is.

MODERNITY
East Africa is home to several modern, thriving cities, most of which double as national capitals, such as Nairobi in Kenya, Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Kampala in Uganda, Kigali in Rwanda.

Of the scores of African airlines, only six are allowed to fly directly between the Mother Continent and the United States. One of them is Ethiopian Airlines, one of the largest airlines in Africa and definitely the fastest growing. It was among the first airlines in the world to adopt the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Natural and cultural, past, present and future, East Africa has a lot to offer the travel. And 2015 may be the year that the rest of the world sits up and take notice.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.

DESTINATIONS: Handle with Care

    We travelers love the world’s great destinations, but too often, we don’t respect them — and we’re killing a lot of them as a result.

    Late last November, the world came out from Venice that this ancient and fragile Italian city would no longer allow tourists to bring wheeled luggage.

    One reason supposedly was that the city’s dwindling population was aggravated by the constant noise of little plastic wheels bouncing and rattling over the ancient stone walkways. But it was the other reason that hooked my attention:

    The wheels were said to be wearing on those stone walkways, as well as the footbridges and marble steps of Venice.

    Built in middle of a lagoon and sitting atop millions of wooden pilings, Venice has been pulling visitors for centuries with its history, the romantic beauty of its architecture, where roads are canals and intersections are the hundreds of footbridges that arch above them.

    But that beauty has always been fragile, threatened by wave erosion and rising seas, then industrial pollution from shore — not to mention the very hordes of visitors who so love the place

    After the mass media uproar that ensued when word of the wheel luggage ban went global, Venice’s powers backed off somewhat, saying the ban was aimed at large commercial carts, not the tourists on whom the city’s economic life now depends.

    Whew, that was close.

    Still, it got me thinking about the world’s most beloved tourist attractions, and how many of them are under threat from mass-market tourism.

    From us, in other words.

    Ancient historic sites are under attack from all manner of sources, everything from weather to acid rain. The sheer number of tourists tramping around, all over and through ancient sites made vulnerable over time.

    The mere art of breathing inside ancient Egyptian tombs by a constant stream of tourists creates a humid microclimate that spurs the growth of fungus that eats away at frescoes thousands of years old.

    The other damage we do is thoughtless, even malicious. Litter. Garbage. Spilled food and drink. Graffiti. Initials carved into ancient walls. Stones chipped and broken at Stonehenge — or smiley faces painted on them — because some clown thought it would be funny.

    This doesn’t apply only to those famous sites that are easily reached by anyone with a passport and a credit card. Tourism has done damage and left trash by the truckload in some of the remotest spots on Earth.

    Don’t believe it? The slopes of Mount Everest are littered with everything from food wrappers and empty oxygen bottles to the bodies of climbers — more than 200 of them — who were simply left where they died, in full view.

    (Some of those bodies are actually used today as landmarks by other climbers. Google the term “green boots Everest” and you literally will see what I mean.)

    In places like Easter Island, world-famous for its gigantic, mysterious ancient stone statues known as moai, harm done by tourists — and the tons of garbage they leave behind — has led to calls from locals to restrict the flow of visitors.

    In Rome, authorities have banned food and drink at many of its famous landmarks, including the Spanish Steps. Are they serious, you ask? Fines that can run you more than $500 suggest they are.

    This is a global issue that civic leaders and the travel industry worldwide will struggle with forever. Somehow, we need to balance the desires of the visitor with the need to protect the places he or she wants to visit.

    We love the idea of seeing the world’s great destinations. We need to make sure we respect them once we get there.

the IBIT Travel Digest 1.25.15

The good, the bad and the bizarre in the world of travel

EXPEDIA BUYS TRAVELOCITY
The Roaming Gnome has crossed the road, and gone over to the other side…sort of.

The online booking site Expedia has bought up its rival, Travelocity, for $280 million in cash, part of a buying spree that has Expedia looking to become the alpha dog of the online travel world.

Expedia already owns 11 other online travel bookers, including Hotels.com, CarRentals.com, Hotwire,Venere and Trivago, as well as Egencia, a giant firm specializing in corporate travel and China’s hotel booking site eLong.

It looked liked all these various online booking sites were fierce competitors, didn’t it? Sorry, they’re not.

If you’re a longtime user of either Expedia or Travelocity, you probably won’t notice a difference. Expedia has been powering Travelocity’s Web sites in the US and Canada for the last two years, among other services. So in that sense, this purchase just finalizes a merger that was already a reality in all but name.

Microsoft created Expedia in 1996 as an airline booking engine, and later spun it off as an independent company. It since has expanded to include hotels, rental cars, cruises and resorts.

Travelocity originally was the creation of Sabre, world’s first computerized airline reservation system, which was in turn created by American Airlines.

Expedia’s real rival these days is Priceline, owner of Kayak, agoda.com, Booking.com, rentalcars.com and OpenTable.

What does this all mean for the consumer? More on that in a later edition of IBIT. Watch for it!

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WI-FI BLOCKING: MARRIOTT BACKS OFF
Remember those reports that the Marriott hotel chain was seeking the US government’s blessing to block wi-fi signals from providers other than its own? It was a bad idea, silly, shortsighted and just plain wrong.

And now — at least for now — it’s history.

According to multiple media reports, including Travel Weekly, Marriott has announced it will no longer seek to block non-Marriott wi-fi signals in its meeting rooms and convention halls.

It says it never really did want to block guests’ personal wi-fi.

Had the Federal Communications Commission given them the go-ahead to do this to meetings and conventions in their hotels, you know they would’ve been going after hotel guests next.

But presuming it’s true that they only wanted to block meeting and convention wi-fi — and for the record, I don’t believe that for a minute — the idea was even sillier than I thought. Nice way to send your business/meetings clients to your competitors.

Honestly, who thinks of this stuff?

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR

from the Associated Press
Are the airlines saving billions of dollars in lower fuel costs these days? Absolutely. Does that mean you can look forward to lower airfares? Don’t bet on it.

from MarketWired
Cathay Pacific is expanding service between San Francisco and Hong Kong.

from the New York Times
JetBlue’s Mint versus Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select: Which offers the greater creature comforts in return for your pricier ticket?

from the Washington Post
Ever wonder what happens to all those Swiss Army knives and other banned objects the TSA confiscates in US airports? Wonder no more.

LAND

from the New York Times
The NYT’s list of 52 must-see places for 2015.

from USA Today
Lodging with attitude. Some of the quirkiest hotels in the United States.

SEA

from Travel Weekly
An IMAX theater? A nearly full-scale amusement park ride? Its own craft beers? Cabins with hammocks? Say ahoy to Carnival’s newest mega-ship, the Carnival Vista. But if you want to be among the first to sail aboard her, you’ll have to go to Europe.

from the New York Times
Exploring Mexico’s Sea of Cortez on a historic — and very small — cruise ship.

from USA Today
Bring your own wine and do your own laundry. Two of the tips for saving money aboard a cruise ship.

from Travel Weekly
What do river cruise ships in France, Germany and the Netherlands have in common with drivers in Manhattan and San Francisco? ANSWER: They all have a helluva time finding a place to park.

FOOD & DRINK

from USA Today
If coffee and chocolate are uppermost on your list of basic food groups, your destination is Turin, Italy.

from USA Today
On the trail of Mexico’s liquid cultural icon, tequila.

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AFRICA

from allAfrica.com
In the works, a single plan to allow travelers to visit 15 central and southern African countries on a single visa. It’s called UNI-visa, and it can’t come soon enough.

from allAfrica.com
Defying the downturn in African tourism driven by ebola hysteria, a lakeside city in Ethiopia is beating the odds and drawing visitors — not with safaris, but with urban attractions.

AMERICAS

from the New York Times
Q&A: Sorting out the new realities of Cuba travel.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Some top-end vacation apartments and villas in Cuba.

ASIA/PACIFIC

from the Washington Post
Want to get a feel for the cultural heart of Japan, and maybe lower your stress level at the same time? Forgo the ultra-modern high-rise hotel and stay in a ryokan.

from the Japan Times
A city the size of Tokyo has hundreds of neighborhoods worth exploring. One of them is Sarugakucho.

EUROPE

from The Guardian (London UK)
In Pamplona, Spain, they’re hoping that an ultra-modern new art gallery by a prizewinning architect will give visitors reasons to stick around after the bulls have run their rowdy, dangerous course.

from BBC Travel
One of the most horrific battles of World War 1 took place in Slovenia. But with Slovenia behind the Iron Curtain for so long, few here in the States ever knew of tha horror — nor of the spectacular beauty that has long since replaced it.

Spotted something you’d like to see in the next IBIT Travel Digest? Send me a message using the handy form below:

"Wherever you go, go with all your heart." — Confucius