IBIT Log: Alaska cruise 2013

First of an occasional series

Cruise ship Carnival Spirit passes through icy Alaskan fjord.
Carnival Spirit in Alaskan waters.

ABOARD A CARNIVAL CRUISE SHIP, SOMEWHERE OFF THE ALASKA COAST, APPROACHING THE TOWN OF SKAGWAY, SUMMER 2013.

In early summer, the word for Alaska seems to be gray. Gray waters. Gray sky. Somewhere on the other side of that gray water and beneath that gray sky is the outline of a fjord, but the fog has swallowed it whole and appears to want this ship for dessert.

Beyond the ship’s rail, all is nearly perfect silence.

There is ice ahead of us, the kind of ice that made the name Titanic famous, playing hide-and-seek in the fog. The ship has slowed to the point that not even its wake makes more than a barely audible “Shhhhhh!,” as if it is trying to sneak up on the icebergs that float silently in front and on either side of us.

Fog slides over nondescript waves like gray smoke from a passing freighter, thick and assertive. Only the tallest, meanest peaks defiantly punch through it, trickles of ice running down granite crevices like hardened tears.

It makes you wonder about the ancients who first paddled, slowly and relentlessly, into the thickest depths of that fog, without the benefit of radar to tell them they were about to rip out the bottom of their fragile boats on the unseen rocks in front of them.

Eventually, though, the gray curtain peels back. The fog reluctantly gives ground. Not even this dense, misty camouflage, however stubborn, can hide forever the true nature of this land. Indeed, that seems to be the operative word in Alaska.

Nature rules here. It is mother, godfather and president-for-life.

Man is tolerated, barely, and only those hardy and single-minded enough to accept nature on its terms and push back.

No soft, sweetly seductive land this. Alaska struts its beauty, flaunts its dangers as if they were badges of honor and asks you, the newcomer “You wanna give it a go or what?”

And it is wholly indifferent to your answer.

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

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CRUISE: Double your pleasure

SD cruise ships

The right choice of port to begin or end your cruise can give you two vacations for the time and cost of one.

Even if you’ve never left sight of land in your life, you already know that all cruise ships are not created equal.

Well, neither are all cruise ports.

At some port cities, there isn’t much to do other than board the ship at the start of the cruise or leave town once your cruise ends — in both instances, as soon as possible. No disrespect to Bayonne, NJ or Long Beach, CA, but neither is likely to leap to your mind while planning your next vacation.

What about New York City? Miami? New Orleans? San Francisco? Vancouver? That’s more like it, yes? Or maybe London. Paris, perhaps? Rome. Barcelona. Rio de Janeiro. Shanghai. Now, you’re on point, and the point is this:

TWO VACATIONS FOR ONE
When the departure or termination port for your cruise happens to be one of the world’s more attractive and popular travel destinations in its own right, that’s your chance to effectively double up on your vacation fun.

So rather than stressing yourself out trying to time your flight arrivals or departures to get you into town just in time to board your cruise ship or leave just enough time to get back to the airport for the flight home, try this instead:

Arrive a day or two before your ship sails, or stay a day or two after the cruise ends.

So many cruise travelers treat their departure or return ports as an afterthought in their vacation plans, if they think of it at all. and considering the places that a lot of the world’s cruise ships call home port, that’s kind of a shame. Some of the world’s major cruise ports just happen to double as some of the world’s great cities, with a nearly endless number of delightful things to do/see/experience.

If you told your family and friends that you were going to spend your entire vacation in San Francisco or the NOLA or Hong Kong, no one would think you were crazy. If anything, they might be a bit envious.

Want to really see them turn rainforest green? Tell them you’re going to spend a few days in one of those cities…just before or after your cruise.

LOVE YOUR PORT
Two days before a week-long sail last years across the northern Mediterranean, I spent a couple of days in Barcelona, which happened to be the departure port. Spent a third day after returning there before flying home.

Within hours of arrival, even at the height of the summer heat and the tourist season, I fell head-over-carry-on in love with the city and its proud, friendly people. Had the cruise line cancelled the sailing and compelled me to spend the entire week in Barcelona, I would’ve shed nary a tear.

I could say the same of a dozen different cruise ports around the world, and I’ll bet you could, too.

With a little careful planning and budgeting, spending a few extra days in your port city need not break your vacation budget. In fact, when you consider how cost-effective the cruise part of your trip will be, the combination of cruise and port stay could actually cost you the same as, or even slightly less than, spending your entire vacation on land

With a little imagination and planning, even less likely vacation destinations like a Bayonne or a Long Beach can work in your favor. Being off the tourist radar can make a town less expensive than its more glamorous neighbors, and thus a bargain base for exploring those pricier travel hotspots.

MORE FUN, LESS STRESS
There’s another benefit to a short pre-cruise or post-cruise port stay, one that’s perhaps best measured not as much in dollars as in blood pressure readings.

Cruise travel should be to be fun and relaxing, but for more than a few cruise travelers, the start or end of a cruise vacation is anything but. They’ve driven themselves crazy trying to time their flight arrivals to get into port just in time to board the ship. Often, they’re among the last to board, arriving just before the gangway is withdrawn.

Those same cruise passengers will also be the ones who see scrambling to be among the first to leave the vessel when the cruise ends, desperate to round up their bags and grab the first cab to the airport. Let the least little thing delay their departure, and their stress levels go into orbit.

This is a vacation?

If you arrive in town a few days early, you can explore the city and environs, then arrive at the dock relaxed and in plenty of time to board. At cruise’s end, you don’t have to worry about the mad, crowded dash to leave the ship. You’re not joining that mad dash to the airport. You’re going to your hotel. Drop your bags. Do a little exploring at your leisure. No bum-rushing the airport for you.

The cruise lines themselves play right into this strategy. Most cruises leave in the afternoon, so you can take your time checking out of your hotel, have a leisurely breakfast, maybe even see one last sight before heading to the port a little after noon to check into your cabin in time for your mid-afternoon departure.

It works the same way when it’s time to leave the ship. Since your cruise is likely to end in the early morning, you can check in to your land-based lodging and have the whole day to enjoy ashore. Fly home the following day after a fun day ashore…and a good night’s sleep.

Now that’s a vacation.

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

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My Fellow Traveler

Alice Kay Gross in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, France.
Alice Kay Gross, June 1, 1947-Feb. 28, 2016

The woman who shared my love of travel for nearly half a century has left on a journey of her own.

Part of the world knew her as Alice, Katie, Auntie Kay. To me, she was Kay, my wife of 42 years, and the person with whom I would see the world that I write about on IBIT.

Alice Kay Gross died last weekend in a San Diego hospital following a brief illness. She would have been 69 on June 1. She would have been a retired educator from the San Diego Unified School District a month later.

Kay shared my passion for travel and we would spend most of our lives seeing the world together. There was always somewhere else to go, something else to see, do, experience.

You’ve never read about her on this blog until now because she wanted it that way. Her circle of life was small and she was extremely selective about who she permitted into it. Those whom she allowed inside saw someone both genteel and gentle, who practiced kindness as if it were a religion, and had one of those smiles that could light up an auditorium.

They also saw an accomplished world traveler and a dedicated cruise enthusiast.

We met as university students in Northern California in 1971. The Journalism Department’s office copier had run out of paper and I went next-door to the Sociology Department to borrow some. When I walked through the door, there was this new student secretary behind a typewriter.

That moment sealed my fate for the next 45 years.

Three years later, we married on the front lawn of her grandparents’ house in Berkeley, a short bus ride away from the University of California campus.

We both loved the San Francisco Bay area. We never thought we’d leave it. Four months after the wedding, a job transfer deposited us in San Diego.

“LET’S DO IT!”
Kay had the white-picket-fence dream of most young women of her generation — a house, a car, the whole bit. Unbeknownst to me, though, she wanted something else first.

The surprise came in the form of a brochure she brought home, a travel package just for teachers and their families. Ten days in Asia — Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok. Air, hotels, flights, tours. Less than $1,000 per person.

“Let’s do it,” she said. We’ll have to save for a while, I said.

“It’s worth it,” she said. “Let’s do it!”

We scrimped and saved for nearly a year, but we did it.

Both our families came down to see us off at LAX in that summer of 1976. Few of our elders had ever left North America, and never would. For us, it was a trip. For them, it was a milestone, an achievement in which they probably took more pride than we did.

It was a different time then. No metal detectors, no TSA. Your loved ones could go with you to the gate. We practically ran down the ramp to board the Japan Air Lines Boeing 747.

Jumbo jets were still pretty new in ’77. Boeing had debuted the 747 only five years before and most of the world had yet to fly on one. Long before we touched down at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport, we were already in another world.

Ahead lay a fortnight of dazzling sights, incomprehensible sounds, tantalizing aromas. We soaked it all in together, one mind-expanding moment at a time.

Years would go by before we left America again. The house, minus the white picket fence, was next for us.

SETTING SAIL
One day, she popped up with something out of the blue. Carnival Cruise Lines had a three-day cruise to the Bahamas out of Miami for less than the cost of a cross-country flight. It was on one of their new ships, the Ecstasy. She was sleek and white and a trip we could actually afford.

“Let’s do it!” she said. So we did it.

That was the start of a life-long devotion to cruise travel. We would go on to cruise the Caribbean, both coasts of Mexico, Alaska, the Mediterranean. We fantasized about buying a cabin aboard a cruise ship like The World and making it our permanent home.

Like Arthur Frommer, the man I call “the Godfather of Travel,” Kay loved just being on the open sea, losing herself in the split-level eternity of sea and sky, soaking in sunrise and sunset over the rail as if they living paintings of her own creation, delighting in the lights of a new port like a child on her first trip to Disneyland.

As the years took their toll, the cruise became her refuge, her journey to a few days of serenity and peace. But it was not the only traveling we’d do together. Europe became a focus. The 11-hour flights were hard, but the Old World capitals more than made up for them.

She wasn’t big on frills and finery. Most of our meals on our first visit to Paris came from nondescript cafés, Sidewalk crêpe a gas station mini-market next-door to our hotel in the 6th Arrondissement (don’t laugh too hard; their Quiche Lorraine was off the hook).

In London, we stayed in a South Kensington apartment across the street from a 24-hour supermarket and cobbled together meals in our own kitchen. We went everywhere via double-decker bus and the London Underground, the subway that Londoners call “the Tube.” The Gloucester Road stop became our home station.

And like all London subway riders, we learned to “mind the gap!”

Nor was she big on museums or other designated tourist attractions. She liked to walk the neighborhoods, check out the shops, the bookstores, the churches, the parks. She wanted to breathe in the heart and soul of a place.

She had her favorites. London, because it was the first European city we ever saw. Venice, for the romance of the place, its canals and its total absence of cars. Barcelona, because it reminded her so much of her beloved San Francisco. And Paris, because…well,because it was Paris.

ENVIOUS MONA
Kay was my back-up on the road. The things I missed, she noticed. She found meaning in the things I dismissed. She was the one who made sure that nothing was forgotten, left behind, overlooked.

She wanted me to take a million pictures, but she never wanted to be in any of them. The one exception is the one above, at the Louvre in Paris, with the Mona Lisa.

I hope old Mona wasn’t too jealous.

Of late, she had been very short of breath. Walking even a few steps was difficult. When I took her to the hospital last week, doctors suspected she was losing blood from somewhere, but the first set of tests found nothing. They wanted to keep her over the weekend for more.

Saturday afternoon, we watched Rick Steves’ Europe on KPBS, as we did every Saturday. He was touring the little kingdoms of Europe — Liechtenstein, Andorra, San Marino, Monaco and Vatican City. That we were watching from her hospital bed in the emergency room scarcely seemed to matter. We were preoccupied with our satisfaction at having “bagged” the latter two and debating whether to add any of the former three to our destination list.

The next morning, I get a call from her doctor. “There has been a terrible development,” he said. “Alice has stopped breathing.”

The hospital was 14 miles from the house. In the 12 minutes it took me to get there, she was gone. No one saw it coming. No one could explain.

I’ll still see as much of this incredible world as I can in the time I have left. I’ll still work and write and advocate for travel, especially for people of color. And it will all still be wonderful. But it won’t be the same.

Kay and I do have one more trip to take together. She wanted so much to see Africa, to touch the Mother Continent, to bond in Ethiopia with the people she considered the original Christians. This year, I promised her, we would go.

Later this year, I will take her ashes to Africa. Kay will touch the motherland.

But even that will not be the end.

Because my fellow traveler is now on a journey of her own.

And knowing her, I’m sure it’s the Best Cruise Ever.

Services for Alice Kay Gross will be conducted at:

Anderson-Ragsdale Mortuary
5050 Federal Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92102
(619) 263-3141

A public viewing will be held Tuesday, March 8, from 5pm to 8pm. Funeral services will be held at 11am, Wednesday, March 9. Cremation will follow. In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations to the American Cancer Society or the United Negro College Fund.

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

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Black America & Africa: Travel’s Great Divide

E D I T O R I A L

When it comes to Africa travel and the African-American travel market, it takes two to miss a golden opportunity.

On one side of the Atlantic, you can find a lot of Black Americans who say they’d love to see Africa someday. On the other side, you find a lot of African nations looking for more tourism that would love to welcome them.

In between, you find…not much.

Black Americans are traveling the world in growing numbers, but the numbers traveling to the Mother Continent are nowhere near what they could or should be — and the reasons why have nothing whatever to do with ebola.

So why haven’t the two sides hooked up in the name of travel and tourism?

On the whole, we Americans — and Black Americans, in particular — really don’t know Africa. What little we do know, we tend to draw from the crisis du jour menu served up daily in mainstream media and the world’s single greatest source of misinformation: “I heard.”

YouTube boasts a whole collection of videos devoted to asking people what they know about Africa, including African-Americans at HBCUs like Howard University. The answers range from head-shaking to embarrassing to downright cringeworthy.

A TWO-SIDED GAP
Africa has always been an afterthought in the United States. Our social and business ties to the Mother Continent are sparse compared with the rest of the world.

America’s schools have never taught kids about Africa in the same way it teaches about all things European. And while African food, art, music, film are global staples, you find precious little representation of any of that in US mass media.

The gap of knowledge and understanding between Africans and African-Americans is huge. But the blame for that gap cannot be laid entirely on this side of the Atlantic. There are two uncomfortable realities here:

  1. The nations of Africa have put too little effort into developing the US market.
  2. Safari travel in Africa has been over-marketed and over-promoted, to the detriment of African travel and tourism overall.

You find the best evidence of the first point at travel trade shows.

The biggest ones are in Europe, and ITB Berlin in Germany is by far the biggest. We’re talking 10,000 exhibitors from 185 countries — and about 50 of those countries are African. Government tourism ministries, private tourism boards, tour operators, travel agencies. Africa represents at ITB Berlin.

WHERE ARE THE AFRICANS?
Here in the United States, Unicomm annually puts on the Travel and Adventure Show series — seven travel trade expositions in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego and San Francisco.

The perfect chance for African travel providers and tour operators to connect with travel agents and potential visitors here in the States.

The total number of African tourism bodies, public or private, represented at those seven shows: One. Rwandan Tourism, with whom I’ll be meeting this weekend at the LA show in Long Beach, CA.

The grand-daddy of US travel expos, the oldest and largest single show in the country, is the NY Times Travel Show. Their African exhibitors? Nine, maybe. Out of 55 sovereign African nations…nine.

Then, there’s the whole safari thing. Pick any ten people at random and tell them you’re contemplating a trip to Africa. At least seven out of ten will ask you: “Are you going on a safari?”

More likely, it’ll be all ten.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with safari travel. Done right, with respect for the environment and the local people who depend on it, it can be one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life. Small wonder that safari travel is the first thing that comes to mind among Western travelers.

The problem is that it tends to be the only thing that comes to mind.

NOT JUST SAFARIS

Talk to Black Americans, especially younger ones, who have an interest in Africa, and you’ll find out that their interest often reach far beyond wildlife. They want to know about the history and heritage — not just as it relates to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but what happened before and what came after. They want a taste of Africa’s many cultures. They want to check out the music, the food, the styles. Everything.

And Africa has a mind-boggling amount of attractions to offer them in all of those areas. But Africa’s nations aren’t reaching out to tell them about it.

On the whole, the African and the African-American are much more culturally attuned to Europe than they are to each other, no surprise given our respective histories. And it shows in our disconnect when it comes to travel and tourism.

We’re like two blindfolded men sitting in a darkened room, each waiting for the other to get up and turn the lights on.

If Black Americans are going to take Africa seriously as a destination — and if Africa wants a bigger piece of the roughly $48 billion annual African-American travel market — that needs to change.

On our side, we need to insist that our schools and our news media do a better job of teaching us about Africa. And if they refuse to do it, then we need to start learning on our own. We need to reach out to the African expat communities we have in this country and start making some connections. They can teach us much, if we’re willing to listen and learn.

Meanwhile, Africa’s decisionmakers in the travel industry need to reach out to potential African-American visitors in the same way that they reach over to Europe. They need to show up at the trade shows here. They need to advertise on Black American media. They need to work with Black American expats in African countries and African-American travel professionals over here.

International travel markets don’t build themselves.

It’s time to close this great divide.

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

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Black History’s gleaming new home

A night shot of the African American History and Culture, set to open this fall.
The National Museum of The African American History and Culture, set to open this fall. Smithsonian Institution photo

The long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture is finally ready to open its doors, an event that will be celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sept. 24, 2016 is a day that’s been in the works for 13 years. That’s the date set by the Smithsonian Institution for the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

President George W. Bush signed the legislation authorizing the museum’s creation in 2003. Thirteen years later, President Barack Obama will preside over its opening.

The $500 million museum is the newest in the stable of museums and exhibit halls of the Smithsonian Institution, America’s grand curator of art, science and history. It’s also the Smithsonian’s largest new facility in a decade and occupies the last space available on the Washington Mall.

But more meaningful to me is that, at long, long last, it gives Black American History a national headquarters.

Physically, it’s meant to leave a lasting impression. Five stories above ground, four levels below. In all, 400,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, an education center, a theater, café and store, office space for museum staff. Here’s a bit more description from the Smithsonian folks:

“Among the building’s signature spaces are the Contemplative Court, a water- and light-filled memorial area that offers visitors a quiet space for reflection; the Central Hall, the primary public space in the museum and the point of orientation to building; and a reflecting pool at the south entry of the museum, with calm waters meant to invite all to approach.

“The museum also features a series of openings—“lenses”—throughout the exhibition spaces that frame views of the Washington Monument, the White House and other Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. These framed perspectives remind visitors that the museum presents a view of American through the lens of the African American experience.”

Consider that. The building itself will be a lens through which to view the nation’s capital.

There will be 11 exhibitions in conjunction with the museum’s inaugural run, featuring some 34,000 artifacts, as well as art and photography from the likes of:

This is where you’ll be able to see the shawl worn by Harriet Tubman as she led escaped slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, where you’ll see one of the airplanes in which the Tuskegee Airmen learned to fly.

This museum may have been built to provide Black History a national home, but its creation and debut are international in scope. Events celebrating the opening of NMAAHC will be taking place across the United States — and in Africa.

One of the principal members of the design team is the award-winning Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye, named in 2012 as the most influential Black person in Britain.

The moment you see the building, you’ll see his influence on the design. The museum’s crown motif, inspired by sculpture from the Yoruba people of West Africa, was his idea.

So a giant African crown now sits gleaming in the heart of America’s capital, and a treasure trove of Black American history sits within it.

IBIT will publish more info on the plans and schedules for NMAAHC’s debut as we get closer to Opening Day, along with advice for getting around, where to stay, things to see and do. But if you want o be on hand for the grand opening, you need to start making your plans now.

This is going to be big.

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

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SALVADOR:
A shared struggle

samba dancers in front iglesias rosario dos pretos in pelourinho area in the beautiful city of salvador in bahia state brazil
STYLEPICS photo

Salvador, Bahia’s rich cultural vibe has tourism officials touting it to tourists as the capital of Brazil’s African heritage. But a look past the enticing travel brochures reveals controversies that Black American visitors may find disturbingly familiar.

In a social sense, Salvador, the capital of Brazil’s Bahia state, is a coin with two sides, heads and tails.

Heads, the positive side, is Salvador’s status as the de facto capital of Afro-Brazil, the proud, emphatically beating heart of African culture in South America’s largest country.

Salvador is 80 percent Black, and present-day Salvadorans show their pride in this culture in the most direct way possible: They live it. Food, dance, dress, music, religion, language, even martial arts, all bear cultural threads that stretch all the way across the Atlantic, back to Senegal and the Gambia, Benin, Angola and the Congo.

That vibrant culture, combined with tons of natural beauty, has made Salvador an increasingly important tourist destination in Brazil. Local, regional and national tourism officials all hype Salvador to would-be visitors and travel industry professionals alike.

If all that is heads, then what is tails? For that, let me introduce you to a friend and colleague of mine, journalist Kiratiana Freelon:

“Salvador is a place where black men are constantly harassed by an intimidating police force, one that many say kills freely and with impunity.”

For more than a few Black Americans, those words carry the sting of grim familiarity. Ms. Freelon offers details in her recent report, “Fighting a Black ‘Genocide’ in Brazil.”

By the time you finish reading it, you’ll know how to say “Black Lives Matter” in Portuguese.

The Brazilian equivalent of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in Salvador is an organization that calls itself “Reajá ou Será Morto” — React or Be Killed.

Its leadership has called on tourists to boycott Salvador, especially during the pre-Lenten celebration known as Carnaval, the biggest annual event across Brazil.

Others seek to use the Carnaval celebrations as a public platform to speak out against brutally heavy-handed police conduct.

On the one hand, police harassment and homicide against Salvador’s Black population could justly be viewed as grounds for a travel boycott. On the other, seeing how the people of Salvador face a deadly problem we here in the States know only too well could just as easily be taken as a good reason to head below the Equator.

If nothing else, it reminds us that the travails of Black Americans aren’t unique to the United States.

Heads, a shared heritage. Tails, a shared struggle. Flip the coin.

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

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The $48 Billion Prize:
Marketing Travel to Black America

A Black couple exploring the Garden District in New Orleans via electric cart. Black Americans spend $48 billion a year on travel, yet travel marketing aimed at Black Americans is scant.
©IBIT/G. Gross

Eventually, those in the business of marketing travel will figure out that our money is green, too. I’m just not sure when.

So I’m wading through email when I come across an article on the Skrift site by Dan Peltier, touting the success of tourism boards in Baltimore and Miami in promoting their cities as travel destinations to people of color.

In it, he makes the case for more racial diversity in travel advertising.

It cited the usual head-scratching contradictions, how Black Americans are among the fastest growing groups of travelers in the United States:

  • spending $8 billion annually o travel (SOURCE: Mandala Research)
  • with 17 percent traveling more than six times a year and taking at least one international trip per year (SOURCE: Mandala Research)

Yet Black Americans are the focus of less than 3 percent of all travel advertising in this country (SOURCE: Nielsen). This, despite the birth and stunning growth of travel among Black millennials. So if you’ve always felt that people who look like you tend to be profoundly absent from travel ads, you’re not wrong.

Then, there was this:

“Numerous travel companies…may be afraid of alienating white travelers who have been their bread and butter for decades.”

Now, isn’t that interesting.

If you’re like me, you’ve always suspected that the absence of Black folks in ads promoting US and international travel was neither an accident nor an oversight. Could this actually be the reason? Still, it boggles the brain.

After all, we’re talking about an industry, travel, in which the quest for lucrative new markets is both constant and borders on desperation. And our money is as green as anyone else’s. Especially when there’s $48 billion of it to be had.

Are there travel companies out there subconsciously — or even consciously — trying to maintain enclaves where their Caucasian clientele won’t feel…”alienated?”

Of course, it also could be a matter of money. Advertising isn’t cheap. Then again, that which companies are serious about, they spend on.

Laura Mandala, managed director of Mandala Research, tells Peltier about a representative of a hotel brand who came to her for a study on the possible benefits of marketing to African American, Hispanic, Muslim and female travelers.

“I told him he was looking at a $250,000 study and he said he only had $25,000,” said Mandala.

“Brands don’t want to alienate the general market. I’ve worked with some of the largest travel brands and they don’t have a budget for targeting [diverse audiences].”

Making people of color feel welcome in the travel markets of the world apparently is not a high priority in the travel business.

Yet.

In one of the world’s most competitive industries, nobody ignores a $48 billion market forever, so this is going to change. Can’t tell you when, but you’ll know when it does.

When you see cities, states and countries all climbing over one another to advertise in US Black media, when you feel they’re working overtime to appeal directly to you with their pitch, that will be the sign that they’ve finally gotten the $48 billion message.

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

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CUBA: Fasten your seatbelts

American Airlines Boeing 737 in Havana, Cuba. PHOTO: American Airlines
American Airlines photo

For the first time in a half-century, US airlines soon will be making regularly scheduled flights to Cuba. The trade embargo is over in all but name.

If you want to see Cuba before the tsunami of American mass-market tourism hits full-force, you might want to accelerate your travel plans.

Sometime next week, a US government plane will carry US Transportation and State Department officials to Havana to sign a civil aviation agreement with Cuba.

That agreement will permit up to 20 regularly scheduled flights a day between US airports and Havana, with up to 10 daily flights to each of the other nine Cuban international airports.

That’s 110 flights in all, according to the Miami Herald. Those flights could begin as early as October.

US-based airlines, especially American Airlines, already are operating charter between the two countries, including non-stop flights to Havana from LAX. Those flights will continue.

The US Department of Transportation will decide this summer which airlines will be allowed to make regular flights to Cuba and which US airports they can use. Once the pact is signed, airlines will have 15 days to apply for Cuba routes.

American Airlines is already committed, with Delta and United right behind them. The airlines will still have to negotiate with Cuban aviation for gate space there.

(NOTE: This agreement applies only to US airlines. Cuban air carriers still won’t be allowed to fly to the US.)

There aren’t many more nails left — or needed — to pound into the coffin of the US trade embargo against Cuba. But while this 55-year-old Cold War policy relic may be on life support, it’s not dead yet. Only Congress can abolish it.

Which means that the garden-variety American tourist still can’t visit Cuba.

But so many loopholes now exist to that rule that a blind man could find his way around it, legally.

For now, Cuba is still Cuba, an intriguing and mix of tropical beauty, decaying infrastructure, friendly, fascinating people — not to mention a refreshing absence of McDonalds, Pizza Huts, KFCs and Walmarts.

But the clock is ticking. Fast. So if you want to see the authentic Cuba, we should talk.

CUBA-JANUARY 15:Classic Chevrolet January 15,2012 in Havana.

 

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

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BARCELONA:
Un-Spanish Spain

Barcelona skyline panorama at night
Barcelona skyline panorama at night

If you’re boning up on your Spanish for a visit to the capital of Catalunya, you may be wasting your time. The people of Barcelona, are proudly, happily and defiantly Catalan.

Barcelona is a city my soul could comfortably settle into, for a lot of reasons.

It’s Spain’s second largest city with a population of not quite 2 million people, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming in the manner of, say, New York or Tokyo or Mexico City. You feel at home in your first five minutes.

Broad boulevards link clusters of neighborhoods of tree-lined streets with storefront shops, cafes, bars. It’s also right on the Mediterranean, with a modernized, people-friendly shoreline and marina. When you’ve lived all your life on or near water as I have, that’s automatic bonus points.

It’s also one of the biggest cruise ports in Europe, with luxurious cruise ships and basic-but-comfortable sea ferries plying both sides of the Med as far east as Greece, Israel and Turkey.

A diverse, cosmopolitan, highly educated population. Young, energetic and sexy. An extensive network of subways, buses and taxis that makes it ridiculously easy to get around. Great food from all over the region and beyond. Nightlife that will drink and dance you under the table, and then drag you back out for more.

One of the world’s great soccer teams, FC Barcelona, plays here in their globally famous stadium, Camp Nou. More on the rivalry part later.

DESIGN CAPITAL

If you’ve got an eye for architecture, Barcelona may wear you out. Centuries’ worth of history is represented in the grim stones of the Barre Gotic. Modern Barcelona may be best represented by the Torre Agbar, a massive, multi-hued, bullet-shaped high-rise overlooking the city shoreline, with an unrivaled 360-degree view of the city and the Med.

But don’t start getting ideas. It’s strictly an office tower. No condos. What a shame.

In truth, though, Barcelona is all but a shrine to Antoni Gaudí. He left seven of his buildings standing in or near this city, and every one of them is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If that’s not a record for a single individual architect, he’s got to be a member of a very small graduating class.

His grand master work, the Sagrada Familia cathedral, is Gaudí’s signature in stone on the skyline of Barcelona.

Gaudí had a way of blending nature, religion and architecture like no one else. No photo or video can truly convey the size, scale or grandeur of this place.

You’ll have to endure non-stop mobs and you’ll have to pay to get in, but it’s worth it, if only for the people-watching, because people from everywhere come to see this church.

So Barcelona’s got just about everything you could ask for in a European destination. But it’s also got something extra: Attitude.

CATALAN FIRST, SPANISH SECOND

This city officially is a part of Spain. Just try not to say that out loud to anybody while you’re here. Most Barcelona residents are Catalan first and Spanish second. A very distant second. They live, breathe and speak Catalan. But you’re in Spain and you speak Spanish, so you’re good, right?

Maybe not. Folks here prefer to speak Catalan. They also speak Spanish; they’re just very good at politely pretending that they don’t.

They will gladly communicate with you in English, or French, or Arabic, or Mandarin, maybe even Martian. Almost anything, it seems, except Spanish. Some bitter history explains why. There have been several attempts over the ages to grind Catalan culture into the dust.

The worst was probably after the Spanish Civil War. Catalunya had held out the longest against the fascist general Francisco Franco. When he finally won, he all but made being Catalan illegal, even to the point of banning the christening of babies with Catalan names. For 40 years, anyone who openly “repped” their Catalan heritage risked arrest, imprisonment and much, much worse.

The locals had to take their traditions underground to maintain them, but maintain them they did. Franco eventually died. The Catalan way of life did not.

And here in Barcelona, they’ve been flaunting it ever since, a kind “in your face” to the rest of Spain.

That ongoing antagonism between Spain and Catalunya gets played out every year when two of the world’s best soccer teams, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, face off in an ongoing series known simply as El Clásico.

This rivalry has so many moving parts that the sporting side of it almost takes a backseat. It’s regional. It’s political. It’s cultural. Spanish nationalism versus Catalan pride. This is not a game. This is a war based on a round ball and a couple of nets. Prisoners will not be taken.

But for sheer, passionate spectacle, a matchup between these two at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium is hard to top.

Spain has an almost endless number of fun, beautiful, historic destinations, but if you’re a first-timer to España, I’d recommend Barcelona.

Even if you feel you’re only marginally in Spain.

IF YOU GO
Barcelona is well served from North America by air. Once in Europe, you can easily reach the city by air, road, rail or cruise ship.

From the US, you can fly directly into Barcelona-El Prat Airport (BCN), or fly into Paris and then spin a lovely 6-hour ride via high-speed train through French and Spanish countryside down to Barcelona. You could do it as an “open-jaw” trip, flying into Paris and out of Barcelona, or vice versa.

Lodging ranges from airbnb-cheap to 5-star luxury. Don’t expect bargains during Barcelona’s hot, humid and tourist-packed summers.

Between the extensive subway and bus system and the plentiful black-and-yellow taxis that often seem to be waiting on every street corner, you’ll have little trouble getting around. Also, a lot of people ride bikes here, many taking advantage of the city’s Bicing program, which lets residents borrow a red-and-white bicycle. Return it in 30 minutes or less and it’s free.

Locals will warn you about pickpockets. Heed the warnings, particularly in summer, when dense packs of tourists make easy targets for the light-fingered set. You’ll see a lot of locals and veteran visitors walking around with small messenger bags slung over their shoulders, kept closed and in front of them. A good example to follow.

One of the world’s major Christian pilgrimage sites, Montserrat, is an easy, spectacular ride away by light rail.

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

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Norovirus at sea

MS Veendam, right, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The other vessel is the cruise ship Norwegian Jewel. ©IBIT/G. Gross. All rights reserved.
MS Veendam, right, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The other vessel is the cruise ship Norwegian Jewel. ©IBIT/G. Gross. All rights reserved.

An online check of your cruise ship’s health history, especially if you like to save money on last-minute bookings, can save your vacation from a disaster like norovirus.

There are certain words you never want to hear on a cruise ship. Norovirus. Quarantine. Code Red. On this year’s Christmas Week cruise from San Diego to the Mexican Riviera, I heard all of them.

Norovirus may sound rare and exotic, but it is in fact the world’s most common gastrointestinal infection. Everything about it, from the way it gets into your system to what it does to you once it gets there, is just nasty.

Someone takes a trip to the toilet without washing their hands afterward. You come along and touch what they touch, then touch your now-infected hand to your mouth, or swallow the viral culprit if they had a hand in preparing your food. That’s it. You’ve got it.

A day or so later, it’s got you. Next stop: non-stop diarrhea to go along with everything from chills and fever to aching joints, muscle spasms, and what one medical Web site calls “explosive vomiting.” Dehydration is a real — and in some cases, dangerous — possibility.

A NASTY LITTLE BUG

Norovirus periodically makes headlines when it takes hold in certain businesses and sickens its customers. Diners at Chipotle can tell you all about that. And it is really notorious when it strikes cruise ships.

Which brings us to Holland America Line and their cruise ship, the MS Veendam. She’s one of Holland America’s older ships, having been built in 1996. As today’s cruisers go, she’s a relatively small one, with room for 1,350 passengers (compare that with Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which can accommodate that many guests on four of its 16 passengers decks). She underwent a major overhaul in 2009.

Five days before Christmas, my wife and I left San Diego aboard Veendam for a week-long cruise to the Mexican Riviera — Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. Three days in port, three days at sea. A nice, relaxing little cruise to destinations with which we were already well familiar.

We had scarcely settled into our cabin when the announcements started coming over the public-address system about an outbreak of norovirus aboard ship from the previous cruise, completed just that morning.

SICK SHIP
We’d already spotted the white plastic stands for dispensing hand sanitizer scattered about on every deck, now pretty much de rigeur throughout the cruise industry. We’d seen them before and used them before. No big deal. We heard and heeded the captain’s admonitions to wash our hand soften with soap and hot water, and figured that would be the end of it.

As it turned out, it was only the beginning.

For the first few days, the captain’s PA announcements told of continuing cases of norovirus illness on board (although he never once said how many), followed by exhortations to wash our hands often and avoid using the ship’s public restrooms.

Anyone who came down with this bug was quarantined in their cabin until the ship’s doctor and nurses were satisfied they had recovered. House arrest at sea, more or less.

Up in the Lido buffet, where passengers could serve themselves nearly all buffet food items for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we were met by a very different sight on the second day and for the rest of the cruise.

Crewmembers wearing plastic gloves now handled everything for you. And when I say “everything”… you had to ask them for salt, pepper, sugar, hot sauce. You couldn’t draw your own glass of water.

When I asked one why this was being done, his only response was, “We’re on Code Red now.”

ALL POSSIBLE MEANS
I soon learned what a Code Red looked like. For the rest of the week, the 368 men and women of the Veendam crew practically killed themselves trying to put the norovirus bug in check.

In addition the extreme measures at meal service, every fixture, every handrail, even the desk space inside our cabin, was wiped down with disinfectant — in some cases, several times a day.

They did all of this shorthanded because, as we would learn later, they were getting sick, too.

Waiting for you at various points around the ship were spinning machines into which you put your arms halfway to your elbows to automatically wash your hands with soap and warm water. Kind of like a human car wash. You couldn’t check out books from the ship’s expansive library. You couldn’t check out movies to play in the DVD player in your cabin.

After the first few days, the captain’s announcements spoke optimistically of fewer reported cases of norovirus, until by Friday, Christmas Day, it seemed inevitable that he would pronounce the Veendam bug-free.

That never happened, not even on the morning of our return to San Diego two days later.

There were other things we noticed, like the white bath towels, standard in all hotels whether on land or at sea, that looked less than white although they looked freshly washed. Bleach clearly hadn’t been used in washing them. Why not?

BLEACH ON THE ROCKS
A possibly answer came at breakfast when I took a drink of water — and caught the distinct smell of bleach in my glass.

When the Veendam returned to San Diego on Dec. 27, an investigator from the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was waiting.

In all, 84 people fell victim to norovirus on that cruise — 73 passengers, 11 crew.

The Veendam is one of two Holland America cruise ships reporting norovirus outbreaks in 2015. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity also had norovirus turn up on two of their ships, as did the high-end luxury cruise line Oceania. Entry-level Carnival, which has had its own norovirus problems in the past…has been clean in 2015.

In all, 12 cruise ships reporting norovirus outbreaks to the CDC this year as of this writing, an increase of three after only nine the two previous years.

All of this comes after a CDC health inspection in September gave Veendam a perfect score of 100, one of seven Holland America ships — and 32 industry-wide — to get perfect marks from the CDC. The same ship notoriously failed its CDC inspection in 2012, something that seldom happens.

Will I ever take another cruise after this experience? Almost certainly. But on my next cruise booking, I’ll be asking more — and different — questions.

HOW CLEAN IS YOUR CRUISE SHIP?
“Trust, but verify.” — President Ronald Reagan

Want to get an idea how sanitary your cruise ship is before you book? There are ways to find out, the most important of which you’ll find on the CDC Web site.

The Vessel Sanitation Program is the CDC’s ongoing effort to monitor the cleanliness and health safety of the cruise industry. Inspectors look for unsanitary conditions and practices aboard ships and grades them, the top score being 100.

A score of 85 pr below is considered a fail. (And I thought my math teachers were tough…)

General info about norovirus, updates on current norovirus outbreaks, how the CDC inspects ships. All that and more, you’ll find on the Vessel Sanitary Program. But the link that may interest you most is the Advanced Cruise Ship Inspection Search.

On this page, you can find the results of the most recent CDC inspection of every cruise ship and cruise line. Just select the individual ship or cruise line you want to check, choose a date (to keep things simple, I’d just select “All Dates,” choose the range of scores you want to see, then hit “search.”

The results will speak for themselves.

You also can check with ships reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic, but go to CDC first. If you see something there that gives you questions about a ship’s sanitation, call up the cruise line and give them a chance to explain and answer your questions.

One of those questions should be about the ship’s refund policy if you’re sickened and quarantined as a result of a norovirus or other illness outbreak on board.

If you don’t like the answers you get, politely end the call…and then choose a different cruise ship. Or if necessary, a different cruise line.

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

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Airlines and debit cards

Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris
Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris | ©IBIT/G.Gross

Travelers trying to use debit cards to book air travel can be tripped up by an automatic spending limit. It makes last-minute bookings a risky business.

A recent teachable moment from a client of mine, whom we’ll call Adam (not his real name). He wanted to use a debit card to book an airfare for a domestic round-trip flight.

On general principles, airlines are more comfortable dealing with credit cards, but they do accept debit cards. Adam picked his flights and dates, then you tried to confirm the booking.

No good. Adam’s card was declined.

He assured the airline that he had more than enough money in his checking account to cover the airfare. It didn’t matter. The airline still refused, without telling him why.

What the eff, right?

The problem was not the airline. It was Adam’s bank.

Debit cards typically come with maximum daily spending limits, the better to keep you — or some ne’er-do-well — from draining your bank account all in one shot.

If the airfare you’re trying to book exceeds your daily limit, your booking attempt automatically runs into a computerized brick wall.

And as we all know from experience, trying to reason with a computer seldom ends well. Especially a bank computer.

NO CARTE BLANCHE
And if you’re wondering why the airline reservation clerk didn’t explain that to Adam, it’s probably because the clerk’s computer gave him no detailed reason for declining the card. It just said no.

To solve this problem, you do need to talk to a humanoid — not at the airline, but at the bank or credit union that owns your debit card. (And for the record, that card may have your name on it, but the financial institution still owns it, not you.)

This is the point at which someone invariably says, “Why didn’t the bank tell me that in the first place?” The answer is, they probably did, in the paperwork that came in the mail along with your debit card.

Call them up, tell them your travel plans and ask them to raise your daily limit long enough to let you buy your tickets. As long as you have the money ion your account to cover it, they usually will agree to do that without much fuss.

(NOTE: Getting your daily limit raised permanently is a different, and more involved, business, beyond the scope of this post.)

DON’T WAIT TOO LATE
How long does it take to get your daily limit raised? As with the original amount of the limit itself, that depends on your bank.

Some will do it almost instantaneously. Others can take 24 to 48 hours or more, and only after you physically go into your bank, talk to a bank officer and fill out paperwork.

The implications of all this are simple and clear. If you plan to use a debit card for travel, figure how what your daily spending needs will be, find out what your daily spending limit is, and if necessary, handle your bank business as soon as possible.

But do all of that well before it’s time to start booking flights. Procrastination could really torpedo your travel plans.

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

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Playa del Carmen:
An adult holiday!

Playa Del Carmen beach in Mexico
Playa Del Carmen beach in Mexico

The kids and the family will have their holidays for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Come January, it’s your turn. Check out this incredible one-week adults-only getaway to beautiful, tropical, historic Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, presented by Honey Let’s Travel and Trips by Greg, with your hosts, Cap’n Paul Mixon and Marvelle Mixon, and Charlotte Mathis.

(Use your keyboard controls to enlarge the image below as needed.)

Playa del Carmen Beach Vacation

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"Never give a day away." –Camel