US-CUBA: Sanity At Last?

The release of an American imprisoned in Cuba signals the opening of talks to normalize relations between Washington and Havana. This is both huge and long overdue.

Barack Obama was first elected president on a campaign based on hope and change. One of the changes I was hoping for was the lifting of the US trade embargo against Cuba, to let American travelers visit the island nation freely, as the rest of the world does.

Five years later, I’d pretty much given up on that hope. There seemed to be no real movement on either side to change the dynamic between the two countries.

All that changed today, when President Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro simultaneously announced plans to move toward normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba.

Big day. Historic day. Huge. And it should’ve happened decades ago.

The details are this official White House announcement.

The President said in part:

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests. Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.

“Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China, a far larger country also governed by a communist party. Nearly two decades ago, we reestablished relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.

“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”

IBIT has said that for five years now.

The signal for this massive policy shift was the sight of Alan Gross being flown out of Havana and landing in Washington DC, where he’s from.

Mr. Gross (no relation to IBIT) had served five years of a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba, ostensibly for trying to bring Internet service to the island as a subcontractor for USAID.

President Obama had insisted that no change in US-Cuba relations could take place until he was freed. That has now happened, along with an exchange of imprisoned US and Cuban spies.

All this apparently has been in the works for a year and a half, with Canada hosting secret meetings and no less than Pope Francis acting as a go-between.

The simultaneous speeches by Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro do not mean that you can now head for the nearest US airport and freely board a flight to Havana. The trade embargo remains. And since it was passed by Congress 50 years ago, it will be up to Congress to lift it.

Given Republican determination to stonewall almost anything Obama suggests, I’m none too optimistic about that.

Still, it’s hard to see how normalized relations and the old isolation policy toward Cuba could peacefully coexist, when even conservatives are starting to view that policy as a Cold War relic that needs to be retired.

If that happens, the economic implications for both countries are immense. In terms of tourism alone, the transfusion of American cash into Cuba could transform the island and the lives of its people.

The world’s major hotel chains would descend on Havana and Cuba’s best beaches like locusts in hard hats. The building boom there would be unlike anything North America has seen…maybe ever.

The US cruise industry, desperate to draw new travelers, has long been quietly licking its corporate chops at the prospect of an open Cuba. The chance to see Cuba freely would prompt a lot of Americans to take their first cruise. Every US cruise port serving the Caribbean stands to pick up thousands more passengers, and millions of added tourist dollars.

I’m convinced this was part of Royal Caribbean’s motivation for building the world’s largest cruise ships, and don’t be surprised if Carnival soon matches them.

The airlines also stand to gain by adding Havana’s Jose Martí International Airport to their list of destinations. American, Delta, United, JetBlue, Southwest, AirTran, Allegiant, Spirit…let the jostling for landing rights begin.

The economic boom in Cuba would almost surely be replicated in Florida. The two-way flow of travel between Havana and Miami would be a torrent. The need to service those folks could create an explosion of new jobs and new businesses.

Today’s announcement doesn’t instantly remove all the barriers between US travelers and Cuba. It does mean that the day to seeing the last of those barriers fall just got a lot closer.

ALSO CHECK OUT:
CUBA: Endangered species?
LA Travel Show: Cuba in the house for 2014
RACISM: Cuba faces its demon
TRACY GROSS: To be black in Cuba “no es facil”

the IBIT Travel Digest 12.7.14

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

London night
ARE YOU A MAMIL?
According to the Global Trends Report released earlier this year at the annual World Travel Market trade show in London, golfers in North America are increasingly trading in their golf clubs for bicycles, abandoning the links and hitting the roads.

So much so, in fact, that it’s given rise to a new acronym in the travel industry, MAMILsMiddle-Aged Men In Lycra.

Ladies, you may want to look away for just a moment…

Among the other trends identified in the report:

  • Hostels in Europe have gone upscale for several years now, but the concept is really taking off in Britain, to such a degree that the fancier ones are now being referred to in the UK as “poshtels.”
  • Cooking lessons, tours to foodie hotspot and even in-home meals for visitors are becoming a “thing” among European tourism start-ups.
  • The world’s next great surfing mecca: Africa.
  • Design tourism is catching on in the Middle East, drawing not only the curious tourist, but creative minds from around the world. Given some of the architecture that has sprung up in the Middle East in recent years, especially the Gulf states, it’s no surprise.
  • First, it was selfies. Now it’s “braggies.” Self-portraits taken in front of hotels and fired around social media. Hotel chains are actively encouraging this, to the surprise of absolutely no one.

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VIRGIN GOES CRUISING
The oceans may be vast, but the cruise business is getting crowded.

First, it was Viking River Cruises branching out into the high-end ocean cruise game. According to Travel Weekly, the newest cruise player is none other than Virgin’s Richard Branson.

The bearded British magnet, who already runs a railroad, two airlines and is trying to take tourists into space, is now making plans to build a pair of “world class” cruise ships and base the operation in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area.

And while he probably won’t have a ship for another two years, Branson already has has CEO — Tom McAlpin, former president and CEO of The World, Residences at Sea.

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NEED TO TEST YOUR HEROIN? GO TO AMSTERDAM
This one’s for all you narco-tourists out there — and you know who you are — who visit the Netherlands from Europe (and elsewhere).

Dutch media are reporting that “smart shops” and street teams will be selling heroin test kits to tourists for two euros each, about US$2.50.

It may sound like a punchline from an old Cheech & Chong routine, but this is no joke.

It’s part of Amsterdam’s response to the death of three Britons in the last month, two of them last week, after they snorted heroin in the apparent belief that it was cocaine. Another 17 have been taken to hospitals for emergency treatment.

The Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, are world-famous for allowing the legal sale of marijuana in its “coffee shops,” but hard drugs like cocaine and heroin are as illegal there as anywhere else.

Now, drug dealers are selling unwary tourists heroin and telling them it’s coke. You might as well be putting a gun to people’s heads.

Nor is it just any heroin. Its powdered heroin from Asia known as “China white,” the purest and most expensive form of heroin . Snort this stuff in the belief that you’re doing cocaine and you may promptly — and permanently — stop breathing.

The city is even putting up billboards warning tourists about these bait-and-switch dope dealers. The police, meanwhile, are hard after the dealers, who may soon learn first-hand the price for messing with a nation’s tourism.

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AND FINALLY…
On the heels of his country’s successful hosting of the annual congress of the Africa Travel Association, you might expect Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni to be basking in the afterglow.

Apparently not. Instead, he managed in one stroke to “raise sand” on two continents.

He drew a lot of attention when he said that Uganda was a better tourist destination than Spain, which no doubt raised hackles from Basque country to Barcelona.

(A UK newspaper poll later asked Britons to choose between the two countries. Uganda won.)

But what hooked my attention was when, in the same stroke, he blasted his country’s tourism board for what he said was a lousy job of promoting the land that Winston Churchill dubbed “the Pearl of Africa.”

I have friends on the Uganda Tourism Board. I’ve seen them in action and I know how hard they work. So to hear the president say it should be renamed “the tourism suppression board” stung me perhaps almost as much as them.

But when President Museveni laments that Uganda’s tourism marketers seem to promote “only some chimpanzees and so on,” no disrespect to the country’s justly famed mountain gorillas, he has a point — not just about Uganda, but nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa.

For several years now, IBIT has been decrying the one-dimensional nature of African tourism, which can be summed up in one word — safaris.

Safari travel has been marketed, promoted and hyped worldwide, to the point that when it comes to Africa south of the Sahara, most of the world’s travelers seem to think there’s nothing else to see and do on the world’s second largest continent.

They could not be more wrong, but they’ll never know it unless somebody tells them…and shows them. Something I may be doing in the coming months with my own travel agency, Trips by Greg.

I wrote this just last October:

“…not everyone interested in Africa is necessarily interested in safaris. And those who aren’t often forgo Africa for other destinations. African travel and tourism will never reach their full potential until they can offer the traveler a broader range of options and attractions.”

Now, it seems there’s at least one of Africa’s 54 heads of state who sees things the same way.

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR

from USA Today
Just in time for your holiday travel, a guide to airline fees. If your packing isn’t lighter this Christmas, your wallet surely will be.

from USA Today
Airline flights with views so spectacular, you’ll insist on a window seat. Keep that camera handy.

from Airfarewatchdog
Airports give you lots of reasons to complain. How to do it right.

from NBC New York
As if the risk of bird strikes on takeoff and landing weren’t worrying enough, airline pilots landing at New York’s JFK International Airport are now reporting close encounters with drones.

LAND

from the Toronto Sun
Tis the season for eye-catching, eye-popping window displays in those old-school major department stores around the world, and The Sun has its own ideas on which five deserve top billing. One of them includes a giant man-made Christmas tree — hanging upside down. Spoiler alert: Harrods, believe it or not, didn’t make the cut. SLIDESHOW

from Smarter Travel
Five exotic places in the world you can go, and leave your passport at home. SLIDESHOW

SEA

from Cruise Critic
How to get yourself kicked off a cruise ship.

from USA Today
If you’re one of those folks who likes breaking in new cruise ships, Holland America Lines is taking booking for the maiden voyage of its newest vessel, the Koningsdam, in Feb. 2016, a 12-day cruise to Italy, Greece and Croatia. Amidst all the usual bells and whistles associated with today’s newest cruisers are some real innovations, like single-passenger cabins and staterooms with dual bathrooms.

FOOD & DRINK

from the New York Times
Affordable truffles — the ultimate culinary oxymoron? Not, apparently, if you know where to look in Italy’s Piedmont region.

from The Guardian (London UK)
San Francisco. Come for the views, stay for the food. Guardian readers chime in with their favorite SF foodie spots.

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AFRICA

from stuff.co.nz
The unspoiled paradise that is Mozambique.

from CNN
South Africa is struggling to save its remaining rhinos from poachers. In Asia’s black market, their horns are worth more than gold or platinum.

from Bloomberg
While South Africa tries to save its rhinos from poachers, nearby Namibia is sending its army after the poachers themselves, possibly with the aid of drones.

AMERICAS

from the Associated Press
Back in the 1980s, Medellin, Colombia was the de facto capital of Pablo Escobar and his multibillion-dollar drug empire. Today, with Escobar long dead and his cartel shattered, Medellin’s claim to fame is its annual dazzling display of Christmas lights.

from USA Today
When it comes to spectacular views, Rio de Janeiro has more going for it than beach bikinis, Carnaval and the mountaintop statue of Christ the Redeemer. SLIDESHOW

from the Dallas Morning News
Las Vegas is busily reinventing itself for a younger, more active and adventurous visitor.

from The Guardian (London UK)
With more local entrepreneurs being allowed to opened their own shops and restaurants in Cuba, there’s a new buzz in Old Havana.

ASIA/PACIFIC

NHK (Japan)
Ride a bike? Dream of seeing Japan up close? Have access to the NHK cable channel? If you can answer “yes” to all three of those questions, then you may want to check out the NHK series “Cycle Around Japan.” Check with your local cable or satellite TV provider.

EUROPE

from USA Today
Not every sight in Europe is a must-see. PBS European travel guru Rick Steves offers up his top ten Old World tourist traps.

from the New York Times
Tracing the life story of Machiavelli will take you on a journey across Tuscany.

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

“Who built this house?”

Slave memorial wall

A carefully restored sugar plantation outside New Orleans may be the only one in the United States devoted solely to the history of American slavery.

There are several well-preserved plantations around the southern United States. Nearly all of them go to great lengths to re-create the splendor and serenity, the grandeur and gentility of the Antebellum lifestyle.

For the most part, they also have tended to gloss over the enslavement of the Africans and their descendants who made it all possible.

On Monday, Dec. 8, yet another such museum is due to open, this one a carefully restored sugar plantation in Wallace, LA. You’ll find it on the west bank of the Mississippi River, about an hour’s drive upriver from New Orleans.

But if this one lives up to its billing, the Whitney Plantation will not be not be whitewashing the issue of slavery. Its current owner, a white lawyer named John Cummings, isn’t having it.

While other plantation sites around the Dirty South have belatedly begun to discuss the role of slavery in the Antebellum economy, Whitney Plantation is the first in Louisiana — and perhaps the first in the United States — to be devoted entirely to the history of “the peculiar institution.”

The plantation stands about 40 miles from New Orleans on the Great River Road, which follows the Mississippi from its origin in Minnesota to its end at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.

It is officially designated a national historic treasure, so if you’re into both history and road trips, this is your road.

In New Orleans, they call that lagniappe, a little something extra.

If any of it looks familiar, it might be because a portion of the live “Django Unchained” was filmed there.

Mr. Cummings says white and Black Americans alike need to see this place to get a true understanding of the life that bound together both its 101 slaves and the German family that called them household property.

Unlike other plantation sites, the main house, where the Haydel family lived in comfort and ease, will not be the focal point. The focus instead will be on restored slave quarters and workshops, even the sugar cane fields where they toiled in broiling heat and stifling humidity.

The exhibits include some of the oral histories of 4,000 former slaves in Louisiana, and a courtyard listing the names 2,200 babies born into slavery in St. John the Baptist Parish, where Whitney is located.

All those babies have one thing in common: They died before they were three years old.

To all who visit Whitney Plantation, Mr. Cummings promises knowledge, enlightenment. He does not promise a fun time.

“When you leave here,” he told the New Orleans Advocate, “you’re not going to be the same person who came in.”

That, I can believe.

Mr. Cummings clearly doesn’t care if you’re jarred by the images they see and the accounts you read and here at Whitney. If anything, he wants you to be jarred.

“Education is the takeaway here, including the education of African-Americans, so they can realize how badly the deck was stacked against them,” he said.

There is talk of donating the plantation to the Smithsonian Institution, to eventually building a civil rights museum across the road from it. And the staff isn’t done adding exhibits yet.

When John Cummings looks at Whitney Plantation, he asks, loudly, a question that could stand as a metaphor for America.

“Who in the hell built this house?”

IF YOU GO
WHAT: Whitney Plantation

WHERE: 5099 Louisiana Highway 18.
From New Orleans, take I-10 West towards Baton Rouge for 39.3 miles. Take the LA-641 S exit, EXIT 194 towards Gramercy. Turn left onto LA-641 S. Take the LA-18 ramp toward Edgard/Vacherie. Turn right onto LA-18/Great River Rd. Continue one mile on River Rd. then turn right into main entrance.

WHEN: Open daily except Tuesday. Guided tours 10am-3pm.

 

URGENT: Holiday ban on carry-ons?

Authorities are talking about heightened terrorism threats on Europe-bound flights from the US. Personal electronics, too. While no decision has been made yet, you might want to plan for the worst.

There’s some buzz in the travelsphere that the US and UK are giving serious thought to banning carry-on luggage on airline flights originating in the United States bound for Europe. Also under consideration, banning all personal electronics inside the passenger cabin.

British media are reporting that al Qaeda may be targeting high-profile bomb attacks on as many as five different airlines some time before Christmas, a threat that’s being taken seriously.

As yet, no decision has been made on whether to bar carry-ons and electronics during the holidays, but an emergency order could come at any time.

Or not at all.

Still, if you’re planning a European holiday flight, you might want to keep this in the back of your mind…and especially as you pack.

Meanwhile, IBIT will report on any further developments.

the IBIT Travel Digest 11.30.14

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

The IBIT Digest is back, just in time for the holidays. Just the thing to recover from the shopping hangover of Black Friday.

TIS THE SEASON TO BE…STUCK AT AIRPORTS
The Christmas holidays may be “the season to be jolly,” but when it comes to Christmas weather, especially in the Northeast, there’s an awful lot of “Bah! Humbug!”

Our biggest travel holiday time of the year just happens to coincide with the worst weather of the year, snowstorms and freezing temperatures that can cause flight cancellations en masse back East. That can trigger widespread travel delays and generalized chaos across the whole of North America.

Unless sleeping in airports is your idea of a good time, you need to be ready for this before you go.

Airfarewatchdog has some great trips on how to minimize the personal expense and discomfort you inevitably will suffer when winter attacks.

By the way, if you haven’t already bookmarked Airfarewatchdog, you definitely should. One of the most useful air travel Web sites out there.

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A MARRIAGE OF AIRLINE CONVENIENCE…AND COMFORT
JetBlue, which has already extended its international outreach by partnering with South African Airways, is now looking toward Asia with its codeshare agreement with Singapore Airlines.

But the agreement doesn’t just give the New York-based carrier entreé into Asia. It also enables JetBlue to link its US-based route system to some of the European destinations that the Asian airline serves.

In return, Singapore Airlines gets access to JetBlue’s extensive US route network.

For passengers, that means one-stop ticketing, easier check-ins and seamless connections between US, Asian and European destinations.

Singapore Air is considered by many to have the best in-flight service in the world, regardless of where you sit on the airplane. Of the 118 categories in which the British airline rating site Skytrax grades airlines, there’s only one — “Dine-on-Demand Efficiency” — in which Singapore Air receives less than four or five stars out of five. It is one of only seven airlines in the world to win a 5-star rating from Skytrax.

JetBlue likewise has built a reputation as perhaps the most comfortable and passenger-friendly of the low-fare US air carrier. It is one of only two US-based airlines to win a 4-star rating from Skytrax (the other being Virgin America), the highest rating received by any US airline.

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GIVE ME YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR…AND A LIFE JACKET
Think that climate change has nothing to do with you as a traveler? You might want to rethink that once you hear from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

According to Travel Weekly, the UCS has issued a report citing a direct threat to 30 different landmark site in the United States stemming from climate change. Among the sites under threat:

  • The Statue of Liberty
  • Ellis Island
  • The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland
  • The NASA Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral National Seashore in Florida
  • Multiple historic sites in Boston

Some US coastal landmarks and monuments will need new sea walls or other coastal protections built, in the view of one of the report’s authors. Others may need to be picked up and moved away from the shoreline to survive.

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CELEBRITY BAILS OUT OF BALI
According to multiple media reports, Celebrity Cruises abruptly crossed Bali off its list of port calls in late November, citing a dispute with local Indonesian authorities that could have led to passengers being barred from going ashore or the ship blocked from leaving port.

Celebrity Millennium, sailing out of Singapore on a 14-night cruise, had been scheduled to visit Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. She was redirected to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and improvised an extended stay in Phuket, Thailand, as well as a visit to Bangkok.

Passengers who has bought shore excursion in Bali and Komodo are being compensated with shipboard credits and a 30 percent discount on a future cruise.

Celebrity isn’t going into detail on the nature of the dispute, saying only that it put the company’s “legal and ethical standards at serious risk.” The Indonesians, for their part, aren’t saying anything.

This bit of ugliness comes at a time when, according to TravelPulse, Indonesian tourism seems to be booming.

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR

from The Daily Mail (London, UK)
When it comes to air travel and your health, jet lag isn’t your only concern.

from USA Today
Brazilian airline Azul, founded by the same guy who created JetBlue, now flying from Brazil to the United States.

from Travel Weekly
Merry Christmas, Seattle: starting Dec. 20, Delta begins flying directly from SEA to Maui. No more having to fly into Honolulu and then change planes. Wanna get away…from the rain?

LAND

from Travel Weekly
For families looking for a kid-friendly Hawaiian resort where they can spend next spring or summer, here’s a bit of good news: at least 11 resorts on five islands and ramping up their on-site activities designed to keep the little ones amused and engaged.

WATER

from Travel Weekly
The good news for cruise ship travelers: Cruise lines are increasingly embracing the idea of overnight port stays, going against the grain of the trend in the last decade to turn mega-sized cruise ships into destinations in their own right. The bad news: So far, it’s mainly the upscale cruise lines that are doing it.

from Travel Weekly
Princess Cruises sells one of its smaller ships, the Ocean Princess, to luxury cruise line Oceania, which will refurbish her in France next year and relaunch her as Sirena in 2016. This will be the vessel’s third owner in 15 years.

from Travel Weekly
When Holland America Line puts her new cruise ship Koningsdam into service in 2016, she won’t just be Holland America’s largest ship but also the company’s first vessel — and one of the few anywhere — to offer oceanview cabins expressly designed for single travelers.

from Travel Weekly
American Cruise Lines launches a 22-day cruise the entire length of the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to St. Paul, MN, aboard its new replica paddlewheel steamer American Eagle. Ten states, 17 stops, 150 passengers. A mere $12550 per person.

FOOD & DRINK

from the Toronto Sun
In some quarters, at least, it seems that mezcal is now more a more hip drink among the bar set than tequila. Didn’t see that one coming.

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AFRICA

from the New York Times
Addis Ababa is a) the capital of Ethiopia b) the seat of an ancient and vibrant East African culture c) Ground Zero for a burgeoning new jazz scene d) all the above. The correct answer is…d.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Good news from Tanzania: International outcry prompts the nation’s president to promise the Maasai they will not be evicted from their lands for a private hunting reserve. The Maasai are delighted. IBIT is skeptical, because we’ve heard that promise before. But for now, it’s all good.

AMERICAS

from the New York Times
A road trip along the border that separates Haiti and the Dominican Republic lays bare a tense and sometimes turbulent relationship between the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola, as well as hope for a better future.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Montevideo is unspoiled, un-touristy and probably unlike any other national capital you’ve ever seen. When folks here say they move to the beat of their own drum, they have the beat — and the drums — to prove it.

ASIA/PACIFIC

from the New York Times
New Zealand — it’s not just for hikers and backpackers anymore. A bike tour through the NZ wine country.

EUROPE

from The Guardian (London UK)
Christmas in Europe. Tips for enjoying the holidays in four great European capitals.

from BuzzFeed
A Christmas list for your bucket list — 39 European Christmas markets worth a visit.

from the New York Times
How to enjoy Italy’s compact, historic and lovely Cinque Terre coastal mountain towns on a molehill budget.

from the New York Times
Stalking bargains in a Paris flea market.

from The Guardian (London UK)
File this one under Go Figure: One of Spain’s soccer superstars lists his family vineyard on…wait for it…Airbnb.

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

AFRICA: Travel and tourism in focus

Photo by Africa Travel Association
Photo by Africa Travel Association

One of a series

This year’s ATA Congress in Uganda highlights the challenges of the ebola scare and the emergence — or re-emergence — of great destinations and investment possibilities.

The annual congress of the Africa Travel Association, the pre-eminent organization promoting travel and tourism across the Mother Continent, is underway in Kampala, capital city of Uganda.

Hundreds of stakeholders and decision makers from government and the private sector are taking part in the four-day session that runs Nov. 11-16. And if we use the issues facing African travel and tourism, they will be busy.

Start with the ebola outbreak — and just as important, the media-driven hysteria over it in the West.

The former has cost some 5,000 lives since the outbreak was identified at the end of last year. The later has cost African nations millions of dollars as travelers have cancelled both vacation and business travel — despite the fact that their destinations were thousands of miles from any country caught up with this viral scourge.

This is hardly the first time that the mainstream media in the United States and elsewhere — which I sometimes refer to as “the mainstream fear machine” — has beset Africa with needless grief and sowed unjustified fear outside the continent.

What is needed is a cooperative, comprehensive and long-time effort among Africa’s 54 nations to provide a counterpoint, to use mass media to educate the world about Africa in a more balanced, nuanced way.

It may not be easy to organize, but if African travel and tourism are to reach their full potential, without being constantly whipsawed by Western media frenzy over the next crisis du jour, this eventually must happen.

Meanwhile, Africa’s travel and tourism picture is hardly all gloom, for in the face of fear-mongering and year of faltering global economies and uncertain recoveries elsewhere, African travel overall has grown.

Airlines are adding routes to the continent. A hotel building boom is underway. Not only that, but even as African tourism ministries and private tourism trade groups aggressively seek from travelers from Europe and the United States, the Mother Continent is reaching beyond those traditional markets to the so-called BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — as well as the Middle East.

Once this latest ebola outbreak is beaten back, there is no reason for anyone to doubt that all of this will continue.

The fact that this year’s ATA congress is being held in Uganda highlights one of the continent’s resurging regions for leisure and venture travel.

If all you know of Uganda is Idi Amin and the raid on Entebbe, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

And that’s next.

NOTE: Greg Gross is a founding member of the San Diego chapter of the Africa Travel Association.

CRUISING: Ocean v. River

Slideshow images courtesy of Amras Cruises

Ocean cruise lines look for new seas to conquer with glitzy new ships, while the river cruise scene explodes across Europe and Asia. Who wins? You do.

Cruise travel comes in many “flavors” — different sizes and styles of ships, different themes and subject matter, different regions of the world.

But the major difference is between ocean and river cruises. Each represents a very different approach to having a good time on the water.

Both are, in effect, floating hotels, combining your lodging, meals and entertainment in a single package. Both offer you great value for your money, so much so that they may be the biggest travel bargains going.

And that is pretty much where the similarities end.

The major difference — and it really is big — is that of scale. River cruise ships have always been a fraction of the size of their sea-going counterparts. That was true even before Royal Caribbean, Carnival and all the rest started super-sizing their vessels.

The largest river cruisers these days carry a max of right around 200 passengers. You’d need five or six of those to equal what a ship like Quantum of the Seas carries on one deck.

That gives the ocean liners more room to play with — and let their passengers play in. Each of these floating behemoths is packed with more of everything — bars, lounges, pools, spas, shopping specialty restaurants, theaters, indoor and outdoor recreation zones.

Royal Caribbean’s latest mega-ship, Quantum of the Seas, features a skydiving simulator, robotic bartenders and a passenger viewing pod reminiscent of the London Eye that extends out 300 feet over the water.

When it comes to floating bells and whistles, even the most state-of-the art river cruiser is a stripped down life raft by comparison, and the reason is clear the moment you see one. But as river cruise fans will tell you, size isn’t everything.

The river cruisers’ smaller dimensions allow for a more intimate sailing experience, starting with the fact that, especially on the newer river ships, everybody gets a cabin with a view — floor-to-ceiling windows and patio doors that let out onto your own small, private deck.

Being on a vessel so much smaller puts you closer to the water — and being on a river, as opposed to the vast emptiness of the open sea, you’re closer to everything.

The view through that patio door, or topside over the rail, is changing every second, sometimes so close by that you almost feel as if you could reach out and touch the passing freighters, barges and pleasure boats, or hold conversations with the people ashore watching you glide by.

Also unlike a cruise ship, every day promises time ashore in a new place, to explore with your fellow passengers or on your own.

Not a lot of busy bars, crowded shopping boutiques or rowdy pool parties on this venue. This is the cruise style you turn to when you want to kick back and dial down the stress from work and home life, in the company of a hundred or so other travelers looking for basically the same thing, while sailing through some of the world’s most spectacular scenery and cultures.

But if after all this, you still can’t decide between an ocean or a river cruise, no worries. You no longer have to.

Starting in 2015, Celebrity Cruises will be offering vacation packages that let you do both.

That’s right. On the same trip.

According to Travel Weekly, Celebrity plans to offer 16 to 24-day European sailings in which cruises on the Danube, Rhine, Rhone and Seine are part of the deal.

These packages include not only both a sea and a river cruise, but also:

  • Airfare
  • Pre-cruise hotel stays
  • Transfers
  • Prepaid beverage packages
  • How many languages can you say “Wow!” in?

    Celebrity will handle the ocean cruise part. The river cruise will be conducted by Amras Cruises, a family owned Austrian company that specializes in European river cruises for English-speaking travelers.

    Ocean or river. Find the style that fits your groove, and your wallet, and sail on.

GUEST COLUMN: Traveling While Black in Mongolia

One distant, storied land in East Asia, emerging from long isolation. One intrepid Black woman expat traveler — and, I’m proud to say, IBIT reader. It all adds up to one hell of a travel story.

by MELISSA WATKINS
mel.watkins@gmail.com
I knew nothing about Mongolia except that I wanted to go there. Okay, scratch that—I knew two things—I wanted to go there, and it was the birthplace of Genghis Khan.

Melissa Watkin and Sally the Camel in Mongolia
Melissa Watkin and Sally the Camel

A bit of cursory research told me that it’s the fifth fastest growing economy in the world and that much of the country’s population maintains a traditional nomadic way of life. Combined with a favorable exchange rate and inexpensive lodging ($30 USD for a week in a self-catering hostel) and I was intrigued.

I already live in Asia and managed to find a fairly inexpensive flight to Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital. Off I went, with reassurances that the country was safe for a lone lady traveler.
Other than that, my expectations weren’t particularly high, and that was a good thing.

My first 72 hours in Ulaan Bataar were an absolute nightmare. In between cancelled bookings and racial abuse, I was ready to pack up and go home early from the 6 day trip—something I’ve never done.
Fortunately, I was able to pull myself up and turn things around just in time to have an absolutely fabulous time in the country for the remaining three days I was there.

Ultimately, I loved Mongolia. I think more Black travelers should go to Mongolia and enjoy the cultural experience. However, there are definitely some things you’ll need to know before venturing out among Genghis Khan’s descendants.

Do: Go to Mongolia
It’s one of the world’s fastest growing countries but also one of the most sparsely populated. Those who live nomadically herd animals while living in round moveable houses called ger. For a fee ($50 – $200 USD), you can travel to these camps and experience a truly traditional way of life that is slowly disappearing as the country urbanizes.

Sleeping on the steppes, riding a camel, watching a vast and empty landscape from horseback are some things I never imagined doing. Though the cities feel modern, the nomad camps have a tinge of the Wild West. The climate ranges from the Gobi desert in the south to icy forests in the north and east, with rolling, open steppes unifying the two.

Besides the nomadic experience, Mongolia also has a rich and detailed history, ranging from the world-conquering legacy of Genghis Khan to today’s peaceful democracy, which you can find out more about in the museums and temples in the capital city.

There’s also a deep and diverse culture, influenced by Buddhism, communist China, Soviet rule and the over-arching legacy of the Khans. The capital city is a mishmash of Soviet-era apartment blocs, cutting edge skyscrapers, wide open public squares, cultural monuments and shopping malls. There are so many things to see and do that I couldn’t possibly list them all here, but they are all unique and worth seeing.

Don’t: Go alone
Mongolia is remote and most locals don’t have a lot of experience with foreign faces. Being alone and visibly different can make you an unintentional target.

On my first afternoon there, I took a stroll to Sukhbataar Square (home of the Mongolian parliamentary building) and was accosted by a large hairy man who shouted “NO BLACKS! GO HOME!” and ran off. Later, I was chased by a potential mugger (fortunately I was rescued by another large hairy man).

The next day, my brand-new camera was stolen. While your hosts in the ger camps will be friendly and open-minded, be aware that alcohol abuse is a problem in some camps and their neighbors may not always be of the same mind.

This is not all that Mongolia has to offer and the benefits far outweigh these potential dangers. I also don’t need to tell you that as Black people traveling, we may encounter people unfamiliar with our actual culture beyond pop-culture icons who may not have the correct idea about who we actually are.

Travel to Mongolia is a priceless experience, but be wise. Go with a group and enjoy it together, safely. I was fortunate to find a few other loners like myself who realized there was safety in numbers and my trip was much better for it.

Do: Plan everything you possibly can in advance, pre-paying when you can
Some lucky people have months-long vacation and choose to spend all of it in Mongolia, wandering through the country wherever there’s an expedition or a horse available. The rest of us, however, would do well to plan everything out as much as possible BEFORE arrival.

I only had a few vague promises when I got into the country and they turned out to be nothing but words. That resulted in spending three days in Ulaan Bataar wandering from agency to agency, a lone voice trying to cry my way into the wilderness. Save yourself the aggravation.

Most hotels and hostels in Mongolia have in-house tour guides and drivers. When you book your accommodation, make sure that you can book your ger camp stay and any visits to national parks and animal trekking at the same time. If you can’t, find another place to stay that does offer the service with specific prices and timeframes.

My personal recommendation is Sunpath Mongolia, a cheerful, family owned company with excellent English and reasonable rates. They operate a clean, safe hostel and plan tours to all parts of the country.

Finding Sunpath was the key to turning my entire stay in the country around. Without their help, I would have left early and gone home.

Don’t: Expect people to operate on Western time frames or quality standards
Life moves slower in Mongolia than what you may be accustomed to. Many people still live according to the rhythms of camp and even in nicer places, things may be a bit…rough. Sunpath Hostel, beloved as it is, didn’t have reliable hot water at the time that I was there — and it’s in a nice area.

Many of the homes in the suburbs don’t have indoor plumbing at all. Food is basic, traffic can be chaotic and don’t expect your bus to run on time. While more people spoke English than I expected, it’s still not common to meet fluent English speakers. Bring a phrasebook, walking shoes, a little bottle of hot sauce —and most importantly, your patience.

Do: Spend as much time as you can with nomads and in nomad camps
To me, the most worthwhile part of a visit to Mongolia was experiencing life outside the cities. Life in the ger camps is beautifully peaceful, and is a wonderful way to reset from a hectic city life. The landscape is serene and if you book carefully, you can see desert, forest, and plains all in one trip.

Don’t: Waste more than a day in the cities
Ulaan Bataar, the capital city, has its own charm, but it’s also not very attractive or safe. Beggars and pickpockets are a problem and after my first day, I decided not to be outside alone at night. There isn’t much nightlife to speak of, anyway, and the museums and landmarks, while good, can all be seen in one full day. All of the best experiences in Mongolia are at least a day’s drive out of the city, in the camps and national parks

I realize that for many of you reading this, Mongolia is far away. It sounds uncomfortable, even dangerous. It is! However, it’s also a unique adventure and one of the rare travel experiences that allows you into homes and a culture completely unlike your own, or any other you’ve experienced.

If you have the time and the money, visit Mongolia.

TRAVEL TECH THURSDAY: Japan pushes maglev

Japan is now testing maglev trains for passenger service. If the only train you’ve ever ridden is in North America, you are not ready for this.

The country that invented high-speed passenger rail is about to re-invent it.

When it debuted back in 1964, Japan’s Shinkansen — aka “the bullet train” — shocked the world with its cruising speed of 186 miles per hour — a speed that, 50 years later, American trains still can’t even get near.

Now, the Japanese are again raising the bar for rail travel, this time by removing the rails. They are testing a maglev train whose top speed — 311 mph — makes the old bullet train look like Amtrak.

Yeah, I know. Ouch.

The L-Zero maglev doesn’t much resemble a bullet. If anything, it looks more like an anorexic platypus on a bad acid trip. But that’s about the only thing ungainly about this machine.

Maglev is short for “magnetic levitation.” Basically, a series of powerful magnetized coils embedded in a concrete guideway repels the equally powerful magnets embedded in the train’s undercarriage, and thus propels the train.

I can hear folks in Beijing gnashing their teeth already.

Yes, China has the world’s first maglev train in commercial service, shuttling travelers between Shanghai’s ultra-modern Pudong district and Pudong International Airport.

I’ve ridden that train, and the ride is as unforgettable as it is brief. But that’s a 20-mile shuttle, with no stops. The L-Zero will be carrying passengers between six stations along a 178-mile route, the kind of distance that maglev was custom-made.

Imagine what a maglev train could do for travel in this country:

  • New York City–Washington DC in about 50 minutes.
  • New York City–Chicago in just under three hours — a little over four, if you add stops in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
  • Chicago–New Orleans in three hours. Stop in St. Louis? Make it three and a half.
  • New York City–Orlando, FL in maybe four and a quarter hours, and that includes stops in Philly, DC and Atlanta.
  • San Francisco–Los Angeles in a shade over one hour. Another three hours north from SFO and you’re in Seattle.

It’ll be more than a decade before you can buy your own ticket on the L-Zero. Until then, you’ll have to settle for the Shinkansen…which is still twice as fast as anything Amtrak owns.

MORE TRAVEL TECH

Jet Lag
You’ve just crossed nine times zones in 12 hours, so you settle in to your hotel for a nice nap before you hit the streets, only to awake to an all-encompassing misery, complete with splitting headache and maybe nausea.

Say hello to my little friend, jet lag, which is going to render you null and void for the next several days.

(NOTE: Jet lag is the product of long flights east or west, especially east. If you never change times zones, no matter how long the flight, you are not jet lagged.)

There are lots of ways to stave off jet lag:

  • Get in shape before you travel.
  • Choose a flight that lands in the early evening so you can stay up until at least 10 p.m. local time.
  • Adjust your daily routine to your destination time zone several days before travel.
  • On the plane, reset your watch to the local time at your destination.
  • Avoid big, spicy meals, alcohol, caffeine, even chocolate, in flight or after landing.
  • Do drink lots of water.
  • Ask your doctor about taking melatonin, and use it if you think it will help.

There also are specific tools for fighting jet lag, one of which you already may have in your pocket. I’m talking, of course, about your smartphone.

That’s right, there’s an app for that. Quite a few, actually. They all help your body adjust its circadian rhythm to your destination with little or no physical discomfort.

Here’s a partial list:

Any of these apps can give you good advice on adjusting your body’s circadian rhythm; none can force you to take it. It’s still up to you to take care of yourself when you travel.

Keyless Hotel Rooms
Your smartphone serves many roles. It’s your mobile office, your pocket Web portal and email center, your moving map and weather forecaster, your camera and your bank.

It now may also be your hotel room key.

Starwood Hotels and Resorts — the folks who bring you the Aloft, Elements and W hotel chains — now offer a smartphone app that turns your iPhone or Android device into your room key. one touch and you;re in.

It also allows you to:

  • Check into your hotel, completely bypassing the front desk
  • Specify your preferred room location
  • Operate the hotel elevator

In the near future, company executives say you’ll be able to order room service with it.

This concept will really get a boost next spring, when Hilton Worldwide rolls out mobile room keys in four of its US-based hotel chains — Hilton Hotels and Resorts, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotels & Resorts, the Conrad Hotels & Resorts and Canopy by Hilton.

You can already check-in online and digitally select your preferred room with Hilton and Marriott, again without lining up at th front desk or talking to a reservationist.

With more of the Millennial Generation using their smartphones as minute-to-minute extensions of their daily lives, expect more major hotels to offer similar options in the near or very near future.

A form of this technology is even making its way out to sea, where Royal Caribbean plans to introduce wristbands embedded with an RFID chip to serve as the key to your cabin.

My own feelings on all this a little mixed.

On the one hand, technology has never intimidated me. And anything that removes the need for me to stand in a long line at the front desk after multi-hour flight sounds like a real improvement.

Still, I wonder sometimes if all our technology is not only cutting jobs, but reducing our amount of human interaction to unhealthy lows.

AFRICA: The high cost of flying

 © Gordon Tipene | Dreamstime.com
© Gordon Tipene | Dreamstime.com

Air travel to Africa isn’t expensive. It’s just being taxed and surcharged to death.

I know a lot of people who would love to visit Africa, but they won’t. Not because of ebola, but because of the high cost of travel there, starting with the four-figure airfares.

But that’s only fair, right? I mean, Africa’s a long way from North America. Yes, I know, Senegal is a mere seven hours or so from the East Coast, about the same time to fly from New York to Paris — and in some cases, less.

And yet that NYC-Paris flight, if you made it about two weeks from now, would cost you at the high end of $800, while the flight from JFK to Dakar, Senegal’s capital, would cost you more than $1,200.

The answer to your next question — Why? — becomes all too clear when you closely examine that JFK-DKR fare, flown in this case by Royal Air Maroc, the national airline of Morocco.

For an airfare of $1,1221, you get not only a flight from New York City to Dakar, but a layover each way in Morocco’s capital city, Casablanca — 15 hours on the trip to Dakar and a whopping 30 hours on the return, more than enough time to take in the sights in a fascinating North African capital.

Not a bad deal, right? But we haven’t started the fare breakdown yet.

Start with the base fare each way between NYC and Dakar — $236. That’s $472 round-trip. There are folks who will be paying more than that to fly from NYC to LAX. And yet the total airfare to Dakar is $1,221, for a single passenger.

So where does that other $749 come from?

It comes from 17 different taxes, fees and surcharges imposed on top of that $472 base fare. Seven of these are levied by the US government, six by Senegal and three by Morocco, for the cost of airport security, immigration, customs and agricultural inspection fees, airport improvements. Altogether, they total $258.

All of which pales in the face of the $491 fuel surcharge tacked on by Royal Air Maroc.

No need to give “the side-eye” to the Moroccan airline when it comes to that fuel surcharge. They all do it.

I’d seen international airfares burdened with a dozen or more add-on charges that added up to hundreds of dollars, but it was the first time I ever saw the add-ons add up to more than the base airfare.

I randomly checked a dozen more airfares from North America to various destinations in Africa, to see if that Royal Air Maroc fare to Dakar was some sort of aberration. It wasn’t.

The number of add-ons varied slightly — a few more on this fare, two or three fewer on that one — but the results were always the same. The base fares were spectacularly cheap, and the add-ons invariably blew up the final price.

One Emirates flight from Washington-Dulles (IAD) to Addis Ababa(ADD) in Ethiopia cost $880 round-trip — a pretty reasonable fare, relatively speaking. The base fare — $50 each way. That’s not a typo, people — five zero.

It adds up to $100 in base fare and $780 from nine add-ons, of which Emirates’ fuel surcharge accounts for $688. The seven taxes imposed by Washington and the one from Ethiopia make up the remaining $92 — chump change by comparison.

I also checked airfares between Canadian gateways and African destinations, just to see if our northern neighbors were getting a break from this nonsense. They’re not.

Add to these inflated fares the cost of visas for each country you wish to visit and you begin to understand why African travel seems financially out of reach for many people.

You also begin to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way.

VOTE for I B I T !!!!!

I need your online vote to be named National Geographic Traveler of the Year. It’s easy and it’s quick!

Greg Gross, founder of IBIT

When National Geographic Traveler magazine announced earlier this month that I had been named one of its ten Travelers of the Year, I was stunned. I also thought that was the end of it.

I was wrong. The magazine is now holding an online election allowing you, the reader, to select your People’s Choice Traveler of the Year.

I’d be deeply honored if you’d vote for me.

Voting will be allowed daily through Oct. 25. The winner will be announced Oct. 29.

NatGeo Logo 2014

The voting process itself is easy:

  1. Click on this link or click on the logo, at right.
  2. Look for the pic of Greg Gross (that’s me).
  3. Click on the box with the trophy beneath the pic.
  4. Click on the green Vote button just above and to the right.

That’s it! Your vote is cast! All elections should be so painless!

You’re allowed to vote once a day, but here’s the catch: You can vote as many times per day as you like, as long you use a different device each time. Desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones — anything with Internet access will work.

So let’s put IBIT on the world travel map. And as always, thank you for reading “I’m Black and I Travel!”

INTRODUCING: IBIT’s very own travel agency

Trips by Greg biz card 2

When you’re ready to start turning your travel dreams into travel memories, we’re here for you. Right here. Right now.

Since 2009, “I’m Black and I Travel!” has been telling you about the world’s great destinations and ways to get there.

Now, we can take you to those places, through Trips by Greg LLC, an independent travel agency specializing in cultural, heritage and luxury travel worldwide. Airlines. Cruises. Hotels. Resorts. Rental cars. We do it all.

I’ve got lots of back-up, thanks to the hosting of Pat Walker Travel of Beverly Hills, not to mention Worldview Travel, the Virtuoso luxury travel network and independent, experienced tour operators around the globe.

  • Want to visit historic sites, trace human history through the ages, or your own personal ancestry? We can help you plan your journey.
  • Want to delve to African culture and heritage — in Europe and Latin America as well as Africa? We can get you there.
  • Want to get a taste of food, music, art, fashion, nightlife around the world? Yeah, we do that.
  • Want a vacation that meets your style and moves at your pace? For yourself, your family, a larger group? Five-star luxury, wilderness adventure or anything in between, we’ll design it and book it for you.
  • Want to create a special trip as a surprise gift? An anniversary present for that special someone? A graduation gift? Done!

Whatever we do for you, our goal is always the same — to help you get the maximum value for the money you spend.

While the Trips by Greg LLC Web site is under construction, you can email me with any travel questions or requests. Or you can call or text (858) 215-4248.

IBIT will still bring the travel world to you. Now, you’ve got Trips by Greg LLC to bring you to the world. Are you ready? Let’s go!

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