Puerto Rico — cruise mecca?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ten Commandments of Travel

Whether you’re new to travel or a veteran globetrotter, these ten tips from a major Asian tour operators are definitely words to see the world by.

Most travel writers and bloggers talk about where to travel. This piece deals with how to travel. The guidelines below, penned in the style of the ten Biblical commandments, and distributed to travelers who book a tour of China with a Seattle-based outfit called China Spree.

It may have been created for American tourists bound for China, but the advice contained therein can be applied anywhere in the world by anyone who travels:

1. “Thou shalt not expect to find things as thou has them at home, for thou has left thy home to find things different.”
It’s not that comparisons between the American way of doing thing and life in a foreign country aren’t valid. It’s just that nobody wants to hear them ad nauseum all through the trip. Not your traveling companions. Not the tour guide. Definitely not the locals.

2. “Thou shalt not take anything too seriously…a carefree mind is the beginning of a vacation.”
Do you come home from a vacation so worn out that you need a rest? Did you forget why we take vacations — namely, to relax and de-stress? Things don’t have to be perfect. Minor hiccups during a trip are just that, minor. Embrace the unexpected, the unscheduled. Roll with it. You’ll return with a brighter outlook, some funny stories … and maybe lower blood pressure.

3. “Thou shalt not let other tourists get on thy nerves, for thou art paying out thy savings to enjoy thyself.”
There are roughly 7 billion human beings on the planet. You’re not destined to “click” with all of them. Before you let your last nerve snap, remember why you took this trip, how much fun you had planning it, how much you looked forward to it. If all else fails, remember how much you paid for it. Far too much to let any one obnoxious cretin ruin it for you.

4. “Thou shalt not forget that thou dost represent they country.”
Wherever we are in the world, the locals seem to have no trouble spotting us as Americans. You don’t have a say a word. They just know. And when 99 out of 100 locals look at you, they don’t see you. They see “America.” Whatever impression you make on them, good or bad, is likely the way they will view the United States long after you’ve left. So have a blast, but please remember to “represent” in a positive way. We need all the international goodwill we can get.

5. “Thou shalt not worry. One who worrieth hath no peace…and few things are ever fatal!”
This one ties pretty tightly to commandments 1 and 2. Unless you’re on a solo expedition down the Amazon or across the Sahara, odds are you’re going to be in the company of either family or friends who will be looking out for you, or professional tour operators who have a vested interest in taking care of you. So leave the Type A work persona at home and chill. You’re here to enjoy.

6. “Remember thy passport, so that thou always knowest where it is. A person without a passport is a person without a country.”
Whether by accident or theft, losing your passport is the quickest way to turn a dream trip into a nightmare. Protect it. Keep track of it. Treat it as if it were your most precious possession in life. Because when you’re outside the US…it is.

7. “Blessed is the one who can say “Thank you” in any tongue, for this is of more worth than tipping.”
Do you like to feel respected, appreciated? Well, so does everyone else. When someone in a foreign country does something for you, the only thing that makes him or her feel better than saying “thank you” is saying it in their language. Don’t worry if you butcher the pronunciation; people appreciate that you cared enough to make the effort.

8. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do. If in difficulty, use thy American common sense and friendliness.”
As it says in the very first commandment, thou art not at home. When in difficulty or in doubt, don’t lost heart or patience. Smile. Be polite. Try a little sign language. Smile some more. Keep your cool. The situation will sort itself out in a moment.

9. “Do not judge the people of a country by one person with whom thou hast had difficulties.”
Remember the third commandment? It doesn’t apply only to your fellow tourists. Likewise, if you cross paths with a local who turns out to be a lout, that doesn’t automatically mean that you’re spending your vacation in a nation of louts. See him for what he is — an individual whom you are never going to see again in life, but about whom you will be telling jokes (at his expense) for the rest of his life — and move on.

10. “Remember thou art a guest in every land. Those who treateth their host with respect shall themselves receive honorable treatment.”
Two simple principles here. First — “their house, their rules” also applies to countries. And second, the Golden Rule is a traveler’s best friend.

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

CUBA: Best if by sea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


One of an occasional series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRUISE: A Viking Invasion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This New Orleans Times-Picayune article has the details.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, the Viking invasion comes to American rivers.

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

CRUISE: Going small on the “Father of Waters”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They should.

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

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

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

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

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

Yerevan holds three different distinctions in Armenia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  • Congo
  • Buganda
  • Luba
  • Lunda
  • Rwanda


  • Axum
  • Kush
  • Ethiopia


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both Islam and Christianity thrive in this region.

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

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

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

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

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

the IBIT Travel Digest 1.25.15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly, who thinks of this stuff?


And now, here’s The Digest:


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

AIRLINES: Mind your miles

It wasn’t bad enough that your airline frequent-flier miles can expire. Now, thieves are trying to book free flights with your miles.

Does this sound like you?

You stalk the online travel agencies and booking sites, looking for the cheapest airfare from A to B, regardless of airline. Over time, you’ve gotten pretty good at finding them.

And each time you find one on a different airline, you sign up for its frequent flier program to make sure you get credit for those miles.

Result: You now have multiple memberships in multiple airline loyalty programs, perhaps even a dozen or more — and not enough miles on any of them to give you a free flight.

The result of that: You toss the membership cards in a drawer and forget about them — and the miles you’ve accrued on them — until it’s time for your next trip.

You seldom log on to the airlines’ Web sites to check the status of your miles. And you haven’t changed the password on any of them in years.

That indifference could prove costly.

Just because you don’t have enough for that free round-the-world dream flight in Champagne Class doesn’t mean those miles have no value.

You can make online purchases of other goods or services. You can donate them to charity. you could even make gifts of them to family and friends.

Whatever you choose to do with them, they’re yours, so you need to look after them. Because there are plenty of people out there who would love to separate them from you, starting with the airlines themselves.

With some air carriers, your miles are good indefinitely. With most, they’re not. They come with an expiration date. Let that date come and go and you can say good-bye to your precious miles.

Lately, however, a new and far more sinister threaten to your miles has reared its criminal head. Thieves are stalking your frequent-flier miles.

According to the Associated Press, at least two major airlines, American and United, have reported attempts by thieves using stolen login credentials to book free flights or upgrades.

United reported nearly 40 successful mileage thefts. American has confirmed two, so far.

It’s not just the airlines. Digital crooks have broken into hotel loyalty accounts in similar fashion.

The moral: check in on your frequent-flier accounts from time to time. Know how many miles you have in each. Change your passwords every several months. Don’t make it something that a crook could easily guess…or keep it in a place where a thief could easily find it. And don’t use the same password for every account.

Your airline miles are valuable, and they’re yours. Protect them.

TRAVELERS: Use caution, not hysteria

The Paris terror attacks of last week have prompted a reminder from the US government. Take it seriously, but don’t swallow the hype along with it.

By now, you’ve probably heard what the media have widely reported:

The US State Department has issued a “worldwide travel alert” after the horrific events of last week in Paris, which led to the murders of 15 people in two separate attacks by self-styled Muslim extremists.

Unless it was a “global travel warning,” as other mainstream media reported.

Actually, it was neither. It was something the State Department calls a “worldwide caution.

In the past, IBIT has taken issue with State Department travel warnings that have been either a) exaggerated b) outdated or c) both of the above. In this instance, urging Americans to be careful as they travel the world seems wholly fitting.

However, let’s be sure we understand what we’re talking about here, because terminology matters.

Too much of the mainstream media are treating a travel alert, a travel warning and a worldwide caution as if they were all synonymous, one and the same.

They are not.

A travel warning definitely is the strongest of the three. It’s as close as the federal government will get to telling you DON’T GO THERE.

A travel alert is one level down from a warning. It asks to consider if this trip is really necessary, so to speak, and urges you to be smart and cautious if you do decide to go.

One level down from that is the caution, which basically Washington’s way of saying, “Hey, be careful out there.”

So with the issuance of this Worldwide Caution, the State Department is not telling Americans to unpack their bags, lock up their passports and stay home.

It is telling us all to use caution and be smart when we travel, to be aware of our surroundings, our company and the local atmosphere wherever we go, and to avoid putting ourselves in sensitive or risky situations.

Don’t take my word for it. Use the link above and read it for yourself.

It’s the sound thing to do when and wherever we travel, and the responsible thing for our government to remind us to do it.

If fear is a terrorist weapon, so too is media hype.

the IBIT Travel Digest 12.21.14

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



That’s right, I said it!

Last week’s surprise announcement that the United States and Cuba are normalizing their relations raises the prospect that the half-century-old trade embargo that blocks American travelers from freely visiting the island might disappear.

Since 2009, IBIT has advocated exactly that right here on this blog.

So now that it finally seems possible, why am I changing my mind? I’m not…really. But insofar as tourism is concerned, it might be in Cuba’s best interest not to see the embargo go away right away.

If you listen closely to the buzz in the travelsphere since Washington and Havana made their big splash, a common theme emerges:

“I better visit Cuba soon before the Americans get their en masse…and ruin it.”

We know where this comes from. Mass-market tourism may do great things for a nation’s economy, but it also can have a corrosive effect on a nation’s culture.

Greatly impoverished over the decades, in no small part because of the embargo, many aspects of Cuban life seem to have been frozen in time — and it’s not just the 1950s vintage cars that Cubans somehow keep running because they can’t get new ones from Detroit.

An influx of cash from a fresh wave of tourism could help modernize the island and its crumbling infrastructure.

That same wave, however, could leave Cuba looking like a living caricature of itself, a Hiltonized, Disneyfied, golden-arched version of Cuba, its culture diluted to the point that Cubans don’t recognize their own country anymore. A theme park where a nation used to be.

And that would be a shame.

But if the impending tidal wave of mass-market tourism from the US presents a challenge to Cuba’s physical environment and cultural integrity, it also presents an opportunity.

Cuba is in a position to develop a new kind of 21st century tourism, one that’s financially profitable, environmentally sustainable and culturally respectful. If it succeeds, it could — dare I say it? — revolutionize tourism worldwide.

It will take a shared commitment by the Cuban government, those of us in the travel industry and the Cuban people themselves to make that happen.

Keeping a loosened trade embargo in place could give all concerned the breathing room they need to formulate that concept, and put it in place.

Just in time to absorb a tsunami of American visitors.

So yeah, I still want to see the embargo go away. Just tap the brakes lightly for a year or two.


Among the Maasai people of East Africa, the title of “warrior” is neither symbolic nor ceremonial. It’s real. And you earn it by hunting and killing a lion, with a traditional Maasai spear.

That’s one reality. The other is that between loss of habitat, poaching, poisoning and traditional hunts, Africa’s lion population has been cut in half over the last half-century.

Result: the African lion are officially listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. That puts it three steps from extinction in the wild.

If you’re the Maasai, what do you do? Well, you’re the Maasai community in Kenya, you hit “Reset” on your tradition.

The result is the Maasai Olympics, a biennial event held recently at Kimana Sanctuary in Kajiado, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.

Here, the hunt is for medals, not lions.

The events are based on traditional Maasai tests of strength, skill and stamina, held at three levels — local, regional and throughout the famed Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem, on Kenya’s southern border with Tanzania.

Included in the Maasai Olympics is an education program designed to move the Maasai away from lion hunting.

I don’t know if any thought is being given to eventually including Tanzania’s Maasai community in these events, but wouldn’t it be great if they did? Perhaps the two countries could alternate as hosts every two years.

This is something to be encouraged.

I’m pretty sure the lions wouldn’t mind.


And now, here’s The Digest:


from USA Today
What your choice of airline seat says about you, at least according to Expedia. VIDEO

from USA Today
The Etihad Airbus A380 double-decker jumbo jet. Suite dreams are made of this…and no, that’s not auto-correct.


from Travel Weekly
The UN’s World Tourism Organization predicting a record year for tourism worldwide, with North America being the strongest draw.

from USA Today
Want to get away…from your smartphone, your tablet and all the rest of your digital balls and chains? Six great places around the world to unwind, and unplug. SLIDESHOW

from the New York Times
Call it ski mountaineering, or Alpine touring or whatever else. This is old-school skiing, the way they did it before chairlifts and comfy lodges. You earn that downhill thrill.

from About.Travel
Five ways to pack lighter.


from USA Today
The best destinations to get your river cruise on in 2015, or so say these guys.


from USA Today
Want to spice up your annual Christmas feast — and maybe turn it into a global cultural experience at the same time? Get some recipe ideas from these holiday dishes from around the world. Season’s eatings!

from The Guardian (London UK)
Just what my holiday diet needs, an edible Christmas tree. Danke sehr, Dresden!

from SFGate (sponsored article)
A taste of Macau, where Chinese cooking meets the flavors of Portugal.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Singapore’s top 10 restaurants — presuming you can tear yourself away from the city’s famous food courts.

from USA Today
Know what a Reveillon is? You’ll have to go to New Orleans during the Christmas holidays to find out. Your tastebuds will thank you, profusely, later.



from The Guardian (London UK)
Christmas in Ethiopia. They celebrate theirs on Jan. 7, and they do it in some of the world’s most cherished UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the rock churches of Lalibela.

from The Guardian (London UK)
South Africa’s budget beach escapes.

from IPPMedia
A novel idea being floated in Tanzania — turning the former camps of Africa’s anti-colonialism guerrillas into tourist attractions. Several, apparently, already are drawing visitors.

from eTurbo News
City tourism is important for East Africa. Nairobi and Kigali are two cities with ready-made attractions for foreign visitors.


from The Guardian (London UK)
For those who can, or simply choose to, travel freely to Cuba right now: vacation apartments in Havana.

from USA Today
Bar hopping in Puerto Rico. The bars are called chinchorros. Good beats. Good eats. Cheap beer and air-conditioning. from The Guardian (London UK)
Oakland… Brooklyn West? Yes, that Oakland, as in Oakland, CA. It’s becoming — dare I say it? — hip. That’s right, I said it. Even on the other side of “the pond,” they’re starting to recognize.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Now here’s an idea I could get behind globally. Jakes Hotel, one of Jamaica’s more popular destination hotels on Treasure Beach, opens up a hostel right next door? Cool.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Long before it became a well-known brand of outdoor gear, Patagonia was a land of stark, rugged and spectacular beauty shared by Chile and Argentina. It still is.


from the New York Times
Thailand’s “Gong Highway.”

from The Guardian (London UK)
In Thailand, eco-tourism — highlighted by village homestays — is leading a comeback of the coastal regions devastated by the 2004 tsunami.


from the New York Times
How to spend a weekend in Strasbourg, the capital of France’s Alsace region. A treat any time of year, but an absolute joy at Christmastime. Half-French, half-German, wholly delightful. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/travel/things-to-do-in-36-hours-in-strasbourg-france.html?ref=travel

from the New York Times
Ireland on the cheap, thanks to Dublin’s public transit.

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

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