Category Archives: Asia/Pacific

Mongolian Shepherd

GUEST COLUMN: Traveling While Black in Mongolia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L-Zero maglev train, model

TRAVEL TECH THURSDAY: Japan pushes maglev

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I know. Ouch.

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

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

I can hear folks in Beijing gnashing their teeth already.

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

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

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

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

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

MORE TRAVEL TECH

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

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

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

There are lots of ways to stave off jet lag:

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

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

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

Here’s a partial list:

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

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

It now may also be your hotel room key.

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

It also allows you to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

My own feelings on all this a little mixed.

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

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

Brightly lit hillside teahouses in Jiufen village, Taiwan.

ASIA: Outside the box

Looking for Asia travel destinations beyond “the usual suspects?” You have several candidates, some of which have been fully opened to Western tourism only recently.

The Asia/Pacific region is so loaded with incredible travel destinations, it almost seems unfair to the rest of the world. Natural beauty, incredible, art, cultures, architecture, fascinating pasts and glittering development, they’ve got it all.

We all know somebody who comes back raving about their trips to Japan or Thailand or China. I could happily spend the rest of my life revisiting them.

Maybe you’ve even been to some of these destinations yourself, multiple times. Millions of Western travelers have done so, to the point of starting to feel like old Asia hands.

Indeed, so many of us have hit these places so often that they’ve begun to take on a certain familiarity. You know, that “been there, done that, bought the ceramic souvenir T-shirt” feeling?

If you’re looking to break out of that rut, you’re in luck, because the Asia/Pacific region still has a lot of destinations that Western travelers — especially American travelers — have yet to inundate.

You may not find as many 5-star, tourist-pampering hotels in these destinations as you would in, say Tokyo or Seoul or Beijing or Bangkok.

What you are much more likely to find are lands and people equally unspoiled by mass-market tourism, destinations that allow you more a sense of adventure and discovery.

All these destinations are familiar to European travelers. But then, Europeans travel the world a lot more than we Americans, so…*shrug*

Exploring these places won’t require you to sharpen a machete and hack your way through trackless jungle (although you almost certainly could, if you wished). Even in the most urbanized settings, you’ll still find lots of discoveries to be made.

Especially discovery of self.

Here then are a few nominees from IBIT for travelers looking to get into Asia while remaining “outside the box” of pre-packaged tourism.

SOUTHEAST ASIA
This region is beginning to blossom as a travel destination. After decades of serving as the region’s tourism anchor, Thailand is now being joined by a trio of relative newcomers — Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Of the three, Vietnam has by far the most familiarity to Americans due to the Vietnam war. These days, however, many more visitors are now seeking out Vietnam for its own sake.

The major cities — Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to by many as Saigon) have plenty to offer. Those interested in Vietnamese culture may take special interest in the ancient imperial capital city of Hue, which contains multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites.

If you’re already familiar with Vietnamese food, might never want to leave. Incredibly tasty, incredibly cheap. The street food alone might be reason enough to go.

If natural tropical beauty is your thing, check out Ha Long Bay and see for yourself what makes it one of the world’s most popular backdrops for feature films.

Vietnam’s southernmost neighbor is Cambodia, a land that dates its culture by the millennium. The major attractions here are history, beauty and ugliness, all of them equally extraordinary.

The beauty if that of a perpetually green tropical land. History and cultural intertwine in a land containing some of the greatest ruins and temples in the Buddhist world.

The ugliness is the murderous Khmer Rouge, who slaughtered perhaps 2 million fellow Cambodians in the name of creating a vague, ill-conceived agrarian utopia that never came to be.

A visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the capital, Phnom Penh, will put you face-to-face with one of the great evils of our time.

The Southeast Asian nation to most recently enter the tourism picture in a major way is the country formerly known as Burma, now called Myanmar.

After decades of being ruled first by a socialist dictator and then a right-wing military junta, both of which were shunned by the West, the country has returned to democracy, prompting the West to drop its various boycotts and re-discover its charms as a destination.

Having been so long out of the tourism lane, it m little tourism infrastructure outside the national capital, Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon). That’s not stopping tour operators — and especially river cruise operators like Viking, Ama Waterways and Sanctuary Retreats — from moving in.

Like Cambodia, Myanmar boasts some incredible and massive religious sites. Unlike Cambodia, more of theirs have been carefully preserved — ornately built temples and shrines, stunning palaces and golden pagodas.

You’ll also find both Muslim mosques and the last remaining Jewish synagogue in the country.

Perhaps the destination for the most adventurous traveler would be Vietnam’s other eastern neighbor, Laos.

The government’s tourism Web site will tell you that “Laos is a country as yet untouched by the modern demands, stress and [pace] of life. Its beauty lies in the Lao people, century-old traditions and heritage, and its lush, pristine landscape.”

There are two ways to read that statement. One is that Laos has not only the least developed tourism infrastructure among its Southeast Asian neighbors, but may be the least developed of them in general.

The other way is that Laos may be the most physically and culturally unspoiled of them all, for essentially the same reasons.

Tourism Cambodia
Tourism Laos
Tourism Malaysia
Myanmar Ministry of Tourism & Hotels

ELSEWHERE
I’m willing to bet you won’t believe me when I tell you that tourism is a major moneymaker for the Philippines.

And that’s just fine with the sun-seeking European and Chinese travelers who flock there for its white sandy beaches and fresh air.

The most famous of those beaches may be on the tiny island of Boracay, to which some of my Filipino neighbors here in the US dream of retiring, the way some Americans might dream of retiring to Cape Cod or Malibu.

But if Boracay seems a little too touristy for your taste, don’t fret. The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. So if you want to find some beautiful beaches where the only footprints in the sand are likely to be your own, you’ve got some possibilities here.

The same is even more true of the Philippines’ larger Pacific neighbor, Indonesia.

Like the Philippines, Indonesia also is an archipelago, with more than 13,000 islands and 33 provinces under its flag.

Of course, the Indonesian island of Bali is one of the world’s major tourist attractions and has been for decades. But with more islands than some American towns have people, you might suspect that Indonesia has a lot more going for it than just Bali.

And you’d be right, because it may seem that Indonesia has almost as many cultures in its national makeup as it has islands, all set amid tropical beauty and Pacific waters. So if you want to get away from the Bali tourist mobs and still enjoy yourself, that probably won’t be a problem.

Whereas the Philippines and Indonesia each comprise thousands of islands, Sri Lanka is mainly just one. But for nearly 30 years, a horrendous civil war put the country pretty much off-limits to mass-market tourism.

The war has been over now for more than a decade and the country is going all-out to lure visitors. you’ll find Sri Lanka officially touting its beautiful countryside and beaches, its heritage of 3,000 years, its wildlife and the friendliness of its people toward visitors.

Farther north in the Pacific, lodged between Japan and South Korea to the north, the Philippines to the south and China to the east, you’ll find Taiwan.

In terms of tourism, Taiwan has long been overshadowed, first by Japan and then by China once it opened its doors to the West back in the late 1970s. But that doesn’t mean this island nation has nothing worth seeing and doing. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In addition to a break from the tropical climes farther south, you’ll find tons of history and multiple cultures composed of aboriginal peoples as well as Han Chinese, many descended from people who migrated from the Chinese mainland after the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, won China’s civil war against the Nationalists.

Its capital, Taipei, is going 24/7, with all-night everything. you can find food, drink, shopping and entertainment literally at all hours. With Taiwan in general and Taipei especially known for the foods available at its night markets, you won’t go hungry unless you choose to.

Any city that can boast all-night bookstores and oyster omelets at all hours automatically earns a place in this traveler’s heart.

As a bonus, it’s a country you can readily get around by train.

Wonderful Indonesia
Philippines Department of Tourism
Sri Lanka Travel
Taiwan Tourism Bureau

So if you’re looking to veer off Asia’s well-beaten tourist path, these are a few of the locales that offer you a ready means of escape — and a chance at some of the most memorable journeys you’ll ever take.

the IBIT Travel Digest 5.25.14

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

Happy African American Family in Front of Cruise Ship.

MAZATLAN MAKES A COMEBACK
Three years ago, with reports of cruise passengers and crewmembers alike being mugged and assaulted there, the major cruise lines dropped Mazatlan as a port of call faster than the NBA dropped Donald Sterling.

It was a major blow to the cruise lines and the Mexican Riviera in general, and to Mazatlan in particular. The city has worked to win its way back into the good graces of the cruise lines ever since.

It looks as if Mazatlan has succeeded.

Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line and Azamara Club Cruises already have either resumed calling on Mazatlan or announced plans to do so as of last year. Princess Cruises announced earlier this year its own plans to return in the fall.

Now, the cruise industry’s 800-pound gorilla, Carnival Cruise Lines, says it will return to Mazatlan starting next spring with year-round cruises out of Los Angeles.

Welcome back.

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CUBA BY SEA
And speaking of cruises, it’s a widely held belief that Carnival, Royal Caribbean and the rest of the cruise industry big boys will descend on Cuba in force once the US government finally lifts its long-outdated trade embargo against Havana.

But not everyone is waiting for that.

According to Travel Agent Central, an outfit known as Wilderness Travel is offering an eight-day cruise to Cuba for 48 passengers aboard the three-masted sailing ship Panorama starting Nov. 29.

It’s part of the People-to-People cultural exchange program that Washington allows to take American travelers legally under license to Cuba.

Technically, it is not absolutely forbidden for Americans to travel to the island nation, but the embargo places a blizzard of restrictions on who’s allowed to go and what they can spend there.

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EAST AFRICA: ONE VISA FITS (ALMOST) ALL
The nations of East Africa are taking concrete steps to make the region more attractive for visitors. One of those steps is removing the hassle — and expense — of obtaining a new visa each time you cross from one country to another.

The East African Community, a five-nation economic cooperation group, is now offering the East African Tourist Visa, a single $100 visa that allows the holder multiple entries between countries for 90 days.

No more spending weeks sending your passport back and forth to embassies and consulates to arrange each visa in advance, or hours waiting in lines at border checkpoints and paying a different fee with each new visa. That’s the good news.

The bad news? The new visa covers only three of EAC’s five member countries — Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. The two remaining members, Tanzania and Burundi, have yet to come on board.

Perhaps they’re waiting to see how it works out before committing themselves to the process. If it goes as I expect, it shouldn’t take them long to see the advantages. And hopefully, it won’t take long for the rest of the Mother Continent to follow suit.

-0-

ETHIOPIAN AIR’S GROWING STRENGTH
Ethiopian Airlines touts itself these as “Africa’s flagship carrier” — and it looks as if it’s building a fleet to back up that boast.

The second airline in the world to operate the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Ethiopian recently added its seventh Dreamliner to its stable of aircraft, and shows no lack of confidence in the plane.

Dreamliners are gradually taking hold on the world’s international air routes, despite nagging issues with its controversial lithium-ion batteries.

The airline expects to take possession of three more by year’s end, giving it one of the world’s larger 787 fleets and easily the largest Dreamliner fleet of any African carrier.

This matters because the hallmark of the Dreamliner — and its even newer Airbus rival, the A350 — is longer range. It means we American may one day be able to fly directly to the Mother Continent without first having to fly to the East Coast and then change planes.

Of course, that presumes that our FAA eventually decides to grant Ethiopian and other top-tier African airlines the right to connect to airports west of the original 13 colonies.

And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR

from Yahoo! Travel
Airlines with food you may actually want to eat.

from Reuters
How to get paid — and rather handsomely, at that — for air travel delays. Not only is legal, but it’s the law.

from the Irish Times
The future of air travel will be digitized and customized — especially up front in the high-priced seats.

from The Business Journals
The death of First Class in international air travel, and why that may not be such a bad thing.

LAND

from BBC Travel
The world’s five most affordable cities. Affordable, yes. Livable? You be the judge.

from BBC Travel
Seven of the scariest high-risk roads on the planet — and why people seek them out, anyway.

from AppAdvice.com
Is a luggage tag worth $119? Maybe, if it’s one that calls your iPhone to warn you that someone is stealing your suitcase.

from the Daily Mail (London UK)
Here’s one for “Bizarre” — A train from China to the United States. Eight thousand miles in two days, including a 125-mile-long tunnel under the Bering Sea. Supposedly, China wants to build it.

WATER

from the Sydney Morning Herald
River cruising in the United States must be pretty cool. Tourists are coming all the way from Australia to do them.

from the Sun-Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale, FL)
In the go-big-or-stay-home world of cruise ships, Italian shipping line MSC is going big with two new mega-ships and an option for a third.

FOOD & DRINK

from the New York Times
Five flavors of France, by region — Alsace, Bouches-du-Rhône, Finistére, Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées.

from The Guardian (London UK)
The Spanish region of Andalucía is taking on Catalunya and the Basque country in a battle of regional cuisines. The most likely winner? Your tastebuds.

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AFRICA

from eTurbo News
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, a major air link between Europe and the United States, also connects Europe to East Africa, especially via Tanzania.

AMERICAS

North
from The Guardian (London UK)
See the USA — as the Brits see it.

from the New York Times
Chicago’s Riverwalk is getting a $100 million makeover in time for summer 2015.

from Travel Weekly
The top tourism destination in the Caribbean — Jamaica? The Bahamas? The Virgin Islands? You’re not even warm. It’s the Dominican Republic.

South
from the New York Times
How to kill a weekend in Montevideo, capital city of Uruguay.

from the New York Times
Heading to Brazil for this year’s World Cup? Tips to keep your budget cup from running over.

ASIA/PACIFIC

from Yahoo! Travel
Japan creates a new national holiday to encourage its work-obsessed population to take some time off. The other 15 holidays apparently weren’t enough.

from BBC Travel
Few cities in the world have their own national park, much less one with leopards. Mumbai does. Here, when you talk about an urban jungle, it’s a real one.

from BBC Travel
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway. That which does not kill you makes for an unforgettable journey.

EUROPE

from The Guardian (London UK)
If the tourist mobs in Barcelona have become too much for you, consider smaller and more bohemian La Coruña in northwest Spain as an alternative.

from BBC Travel
To see a body of art, visit almost any museum. To see the body as art, head for the World Bodypainting Festival next month in Pörtschach, Austria.

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

URGENT: Malaysia Airlines jumbo jet missing

Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200

Authorities say they have lost contact with Flight MH370, a Boeing 777-200 from Malaysia Airlines inbound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew.

The plane departed Kuala Lumpur (KUL) at 12:41am local time for the 2,745-mile flight to Beijing (PEK). Air traffic controllers lost contact with the flight almost exactly two hours later.

It was due to arrive in Beijing at 6:30am local time.

Four of the passengers on board, including one infant, are Americans. The aircraft is overdue and by now would be out of fuel, according to the airline. A search is in progress.

Meanwhile, the airline is trying to verify a report that the aircraft has landed safely in Nanming, China.

There are two different Chinese cities named Nanming, one in Guizhou province and the other in Fujian province. Both cities are just over 1,000 miles short of the flight’s destination, but the Nanming in Guizhou is in line with the jet’s planned course to Beijing.

The Boeing 777 has been a long-range jumbo jet workhorse for the world’s airlines for 20 years. The 777-200 was the initial version of the plane. Sixty airlines currently fly the “Triple Seven” worldwide, according to Boeing.

Its safety record had been flawless until last year’s Asiana crash in in which a 777 crashed during landing at San Francisco. More information as it becomes available.

8:47pm Pacific
The Associated Press cites a Vietnamese website quoting a Vietnamese search and rescue official that a signal from MH370 was picked up 120 miles southwest of Ca Mau province, the southernmost tip of Vietnam.

9:17pm Pacific
Official Chinese media report authorities there have joined the search for the missing jumbo jet. China’s foreign minister describes his government as “very worried.” More than half the passengers on board — 152 — are Chinese citizens.

9:35pm Pacific
Vietnam media reporting that Flight MH370 crashed into the Gulf of Thailand. “According to Navy Admiral Ngo Van Phat, Commander of the Region 5, military radar recorded that the plane crashed into the sea at a location 15S miles south of Phu Quoc island.”

(NOTE: Until search teams report finding some physical evidence of a crash, this report should NOT be considered confirmed.)

11:53pm Pacific
Malaysian government still considers the flight missing, refusing to acknowledge Vietnam report of a crash. Still no physical evidence yet to confirm a crash. Darkness is rapidly approaching the waters where the aircraft abruptly went off radar, so it may be several hours before we know anything definitive.

(NOTE: While we still don’t know for certain exactly what happened to MH370, two facts raise the possibility of foul play:

  1. The flight disappeared from radar almost exactly two hours into the flight.
  2. There was no contact whatsoever from the flight after the plane dropped off radar.

Aircraft of this size and design do not simply drop out of the sky and vanish. If the Boeing 777-200 has gone down, this one may not have been an accident.)

9:03am Pacific
Media outlets are reporting that oil slicks have been spotted in the search area which Vietnamese officials suspect was made by the crash of MH370. Still no hard evidence that the plane has gone down there. It is just after 1am in the search area, so there will be no daylight in the search area for roughly another five hours.

11:18am Pacific
The Washington Post is reporting that two passengers aboard MH370 were traveling on stolen EU passports, one from Italy, the other from Austria. Both documents had been reported stolen in Thailand within the last two years.

—IBIT

cuba flag

LA Travel Show: Cuba in the house for 2014

WHAT: The 2014 Los Angeles Travel & Adventure Show

WHERE
Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center
300 E. Ocean Ave.
Long Beach, CA

WHEN
Feb. 8-9, 2014, 10am-5pm

TICKETS (per person)
One-day: $10 online til Feb. 7, $12 online Feb. 7-9, $15 at the door
Two-day: $16 online til Feb. 7, $18 online Feb. 7-9, $24 at the door

The US may be edging closer to dropping the longstanding trade embargo that blocks Americans from traveling freely to Cuba, but not everyone is waiting. Africa, too, is representing this year.

When this year’s Los Angeles Travel & Adventure Show kicks off next month in Long Beach, there will be an unfamiliar face among this year’s exhibitors.

It’s a face turned 90 miles south of Key West.

The exhibitor is — Cuba Travel Services, which, according to its Web site, “arranges weekly, non-stop, direct public charter flights between the United States and Cuba.”

It is but one of hundreds of travel companies and organizations that will be “in the house” at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, but it’s the one that just might have the strongest pull on my attention.

The company motto is “You’ve Waited Long Enough.”

That’s pretty much what I’d like to tell the US government about lifting its long-pointless trade embargo against Cuba.

It’s the embargo, imposed in 1960 after a revolution put Fidel Castro in power, that makes it a hassle for Americans to travel freely to Havana.

Something the rest of the world has been doing for the last half-century and change.

As an American, you’re not absolutely barred from traveling to Cuba under the embargo, but to do so legally, Washington makes you jump through a lot of bureaucratic hoops, as needless as they are silly.

The biggest of them is the requirement that you obtain a license — yes, a license — to travel to Cuba, which means you have to fall under one of 14 categories.

Cuba Travel Services is an authorized travel provider to Cuba, license by the US Treasury Department, and arranges flights to the island from either Miami or Los Angeles.

A lot of Americans simply ignore the regulations and fly to Cuba on their own via Canada, Mexico or some other country. But if you want to go legally, you have to resort to outfits like this.

I’m guessing theirs will be among the more crowded booths at the travel show, if for no other reason than the justifiable curiosity of a lot of travelers.

The West Coast provides more recreational travelers to Africa than any other regions of the United States, so if travel to the Mother Continent is of interest to you, these African travel specialists will be on hand for you to talk to:

This looks to be one of the stronger African travel lineups at the LA Travel & Adventure Show in recent years.

At the other end of the spectrum, river cruising seems radically under-represented at this year’s show, a surprise given the explosion taking place in river cruise travel around the world, especially in Europe and Asia.

The one major river cruise operator that will be present is Ama Waterways, one of the few major river cruise outfits that offers river cruise tours in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Europe and Asia.

These are just a few of the exhibitors that catch my interest at next month’s upcoming show. You’ve got the whole world to choose from.

The IBIT Travel Digest 7.7.13

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

cropped-IMG_2218.jpg

THE PERFECT AIRPORT
As travelers, we complain a lot about airports, usually for good reason.

Too big. Too small. Too crowded. Too much distance between gates. Not enough seats in the departure halls. Not enough electric outlets to charge all our personal electronics.

what you ever thought about what you’d really like to see in an airport — other than the dissolution of the TSA, perhaps — that would make your travels easier and more comfortable?

And if you have thought about that question, what would your answer be?

The folks at Skyscanner, which devotes most of its efforts to letting travelers look up cheap flights online, decided to find out. So they surveyed 10,000 travelers and asked them what amenity they most wanted in an airport.

Of their top three answers, a library was third, sleeping pods were second — and the one most often suggested was…a movie theater.

Did you see that one coming? I sure didn’t.

You can see the rest of the results in this ABC News item here.

What would be the top three amenities in YOUR dream airport? Tell us in a comment!

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BUY A BIKE, SAVE A LIFE
The Japanese know a thing or two about strength, versatility and all-around usefulness of bamboo. So do Africans, who are building bicycle frames with it.

So it only makes sense for Zambia’s bamboo bike makers to sell their bikes in Japan — and with the encouragement of the Japanese, they’re doing it.

The Japanese are getting the newest idea in modern bike construction, using a natural, ancient material with which they’re well familiar. The employees at Zambikes are making enough money to feed themselves and their families.

You can read about it in this story from the Japan Daily Press here.

As regular IBIT readers already know, Africa is getting serious about cycling, and has its own small cottage industry going with the production of bamboo bikes. IBIT would love to see this catch on in the United States.

Bamboo just might be the ideal material for bicycle frames — light, very strong, with the stiffness you need to generate power but able to soak up road shocks. And bamboo is a natural, sustainable material.

What’s not to like?

For more of this topic, see “Africa gets her roll on:”
Part 1
Part 2

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CUTTING IN LINE
There are several reasons I tend to avoid major travel in summer, and one of the biggest is having to queue up in long lines.

You know the drill. At the airport to check in. At the major attractions to get in. At your hotel to check out. Here a line, there a line, everywhere a line stretching out the door or halfway to the horizon.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t take vacations to exercise my patience. And neither, apparently, do the folks at Smarter Travel.

They’ve come up with a handy list of suggestions for how to jump ahead of the lines — ethically.

In some instances, it’s simply a matter of due diligence,i.e., printing out your boarding passes early or signing up for an airline or rental car loyalty program. In most other cases, you literally will have to pay for the privilege.

Either way, it figures to save you a lot of time, and when you travel, saving time is as important as saving money.

Put it another way: You didn’t spend all that money to fly to Paris to stand in line to see the Louvre, did you?

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LUXURY PARIS HOTEL GOES DARK
Travel Weekly is reporting than the Hotel de Crillon in Paris has closed for a two-year renovation.

If you’ve ever seen the inside of this place in the last ten years or so, you may well wonder what on Earth they need to renovate. The Crillon, sitting on the Place de la Concorde across the street from the US Embassy, has been a 5-star hotel virtually from the day it opened its doors.

Still, when you’re hosting people in a building that first went up in 1758, you need to do a few upgrades now and again.

Fear not, however. The Crillon is due to reopen in 2015. If you happen to be in Paris then, stop by and check it out.

And prepare to be impressed.

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AND FINALLY…
If you’re feeling a fear of flying surging (or resurging) within you following yesterday’s crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco, a little perspective.

I took my first commercial airline flight in 1964. Had this crash occurred back then, we’d be talking about two survivors, not two deaths.

Commercial airliners are vastly better designed and built now than they were “back in the day.” Airports are far better prepared to handle major emergencies. The first responders have much better equipment and training. And mutual aid in a major incident is not a bureaucratic wrangle, but a foregone conclusion.

All of those elements came into play on behalf of Flight 214.

Okay? Now, smoke this over: Yesterday’s crash was the first fatal incident involving an airliner in the United States in 12 years. We can’t go 12 hours in this country without a fatal car crash. You going to give up driving?

Didn’t think so.

And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from the Associated Press via Yahoo!
Good news for frequent JetBlue fliers: Your loyalty points will no longer expire.

from Travel Weekly
American Airlines is experimenting with a new boarding procedure: Passengers with no carry-on bags get to board first.

from the Washington Post
Airlines are looking to create custom airfares specifically for you as an individual traveler, based on what the airline knows about you. A good thing or a way to keep you from searching out the best price yourself? Travel consumer advocate Christopher Elliott weighs in. Pay attention.

LAND
from BBC Travel
Five cities around the world where you can live large while spending small. Side-by-side comparisons to similar but pricier cities.

from Budget Travel
How to save money when using your cellphone abroad.

from Budget Travel
The world’s ten most visited cities.

SEA
from Travel Weekly
Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, one of the two largest cruise ships afloat, will take a month’s leave of the Caribbean next year for a month of cruises in European and Mediterranean waters, including two Atlantic crossings, one in each direction.

FOOD & DRINK
from the Los Angeles Times
All aboard the Jose Cuervo Express. Next stop: Tequila.

from the Los Angeles Times
If you don’t have to rush back to work or school right after Labor Day, consider dropping in on a serious food and wine festival in Hawaii.

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AFRICA
from Travel Weekly
When it comes to natural wonders, there’s more to Rwanda than its famed mountain gorillas.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
Kenya sets out to lure tourists from Morocco.

from the Tanzania Daily News via allAfrica.com
In the wake of President Barack Obama’s visit, Tanzanian business figures conclude the country needs more high-end hotels.

AMERICAS
from the New York Times
A once-seedy Philadephia street gets a hipster makeover. Out with the check-cashing joints and adult bookstores. In with the restaurants and gelato shops. SLIDESHOW

from The Guardian (London UK)
San Francisco’s best bets for budget lodging. Heavy on hostels, B&B’s and small European-style hotels.

from the Los Angeles Times
Mexico’s beach resort city of Cancun boasts one of the world’s more unusual museums. To visit it, you’ll need a swimsuit and a snorkel.

ASIA/PACIFIC
from the New York Times
It happens every summer of the coast of northern China. A massive bloom of algae turns a stretch of beach the size of Connecticut into something that looks like a floating soccer pitch. Floating…and stinking.

from Travel Weekly
A new generation of cruise ships is taking to the Yangtze River — more spacious and with more amenities. But old-timers who remember the river’s towering cliffs before the building of the controversial Three Gorges Dam will tell you it’s just not the same.

from the Washington Post
The resurgence of tourism in Cambodia could hardly have a more symbolic example than this: A tract of land once sown with landmines by the Khmer Rouge is now the site of new luxury resort.

EUROPE
from the New York Times
These days, there are more reasons to visit Northern Ireland than to satisfy your fan-lust for HBO’s Game of Thrones.

from the Toronto Sun
The good news: A medieval tower offering stunning views of Paris opens to the public for the first time. The bad news: The climb up the stairs may take your breath away before the view does.

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

the IBIT Travel Digest 6.30.13

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

Angor Wat
© Paop | Dreamstime.com

CREDIT FOR TRAVEL
If you want to travel, especially internationally, you’ll need some plastic. Plan on bringing a couple of good credit cards, one for general use, the other reserved for emergencies.

(And no, I’m sorry, ladies, but a half-off sale at the Christian Louboutin shop in Paris does not constitute an emergency.)

But what constitutes a good credit card for travel? Frequent-flier miles for a particular airline or hotel, miles you can use anywhere with anyone, a percentage of your purchases rebated back to you as cash? Cards with or without an annual fee, cards that don’t charge fees for foreign transactions?

And how do you find them?

Well, there are Web sites for that.

One of the best known is Bankrate.com, a handy reference site for all things banking. Click on the “Credit Cards” link in the navigation bar across the top of the home page, then use the pull-down menu in their “Find a Credit Card” box to select among 16 different categories of plastic.

Bankrate also offers lots of advice on using your cards in travel.

Another really good one is CreditCards.com, which looks specifically at travel and airline credit cards, breaks them down by their features, and lets you determine at a glance which suits you best.

Happy hunting.

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TRAVEL IN THE HOT ZONES
When it comes to traveling, there are two kinds of hot zones in the world. Either the sun’s rays will have you running for shade, or the political climate on the streets will have you running for cover.

Egypt currently appears to qualify on both counts, but it was the latter last week that led to the death of an American citizen.

Andrew Pochter, a 21-year-old college student from Maryland, was watching a clash between pro- and anti-government protestors in the city of Alexandria when one of them stabbed him to death. The US State Department has since issued a travel warning urging Americans to put off non-essential trips to Egypt.

It seems fair to say that the bloom has been off Egypt’s Arab Spring for a good while now. If anything, the country appears to be in danger of sliding into a long winter of discontent.

I bring this up because there’s an ongoing debate among travelers and travel writers over whether it’s a good idea to visit the world’s political hot zones.

It’s true that people in most places will go to great and even extraordinary lengths to help and protect their foreign visitors, but it’s also true that your passport is not bulletproof…and neither are you.

How do YOU see this issue? Better to travel fearlessly, or better safe than sorry? Leave a comment in the handy box at the bottom of this post. Your answers will appear in next week’s IBIT Travel Digest!

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WORLDLY TREASURES
UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — has added 19 new locations to its list of World Heritage sites, bringing the total number of priceless historic sites to 981.

These treasures are scattered across the globe. At least one of them is a globally recognized cultural icon, Japan’s Mt. Fuji — which UNESCO respectfully refers to as “Fujisan.”

At the other end of the recognition scale is a place most of us have never heard of, in a country where it probably never even would’ve occurred to most of us to look — the ancient Kaesong fortress in what is now North Korea.

The rest were mostly in Europe and Asia, with three in Africa and two in North America — one in Canada and the other in Mexico.

To get a look at all 19 sites, go to the UNESCO World Heritage site here.

A site that makes this list is more likely to draw interest from travelers and scholars, and more likely to be protected from damage or development — which often amounts to the same thing.

On the down side, none of the five sites nominated in Ethiopia were even considered this year. When I find out why, you’ll find the answers here at IBIT.

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AND FINALLY…
Regular IBIT readers already know that we Americans get less vacation time and travel less than any other developed nation. A lot of us even go in to work on vacation days.

Now, it turns out that even when we’re on vacation, we’re really not.

A survey shows that a clear majority of us — 64 percent of men and 57 percent of women — work while on vacation.

It seems all those smartphones and tablet computers that were supposed to make our lives easier are actually chaining us invisibly to the workplace. We’re making calls or texting back and forth to the job, checking work-related email, all while we’re supposed to be away from work.

And we wonder why so many of us are so stressed?

It’s official, America: We’ve lost our minds.

And yet, those smart electronic devices can be invaluable for travel, from making reservations to helping us navigate around unfamiliar cities and finding the cool places to eat, drink and entertain ourselves.

What’s an Information Age citizen to do? Maybe ignore email and unload the work-related apps for a few days? I mean, the whole point of a vacation is to get away fro the routines of work and home for a little while.

Isn’t it?

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from the BBC
If you’re flying with British Airways, you no longer have to wait until the aircraft has come to a halt at the gate to use your mobile phone. Once the plane’s off the runway and on the taxiway, you’re good to go.

from CNN Travel
Can you gauge the personalities of air travelers based on whether they choose the window, aisle or middle seat on the airplane?

from the International Business Times
Several Asian and Pacific airlines join forces to ban cargoes of shark fins. Why this is a good thing.

LAND
from Budget Travel
The life, times and travails of a travel nanny. (And no, I didn’t know there was such a thing, either.)

from Yahoo!
And now, for something completely different in a bed-and-breakfast — a refurbished elevated platform in the Atlantic Ocean, 100 feet tall and 25 miles off the North Carolina coast. You can only get there by boat or helicopter. When the owners call this place a getaway, take their word for it.

from The Somerville, MA News
Old travel guides as collector’s items? Their information may no longer be current, but they can make for a fascinating read into a region’s past

SEA
from USA Today
The Vikings are going to sea. Viking River Cruises, one of the world’s largest operator of small, low-draft river cruise vessels in Europe, is building its first ocean-going cruise ship.

from CNN Travel
It’s definitely not all smooth sailing these days for the cruise industry. Overall satisfaction is still good, but nearly 20 percent of cruise passengers in a recent survey reported problems.

from USA Today
Carnival Cruise Lines, battered by multiple mishaps aboard its vessels, starts its comeback by adding more ships in Port Canaveral, FL and bigger ones in New Orleans.

FOOD & DRINK
from CNN Travel
Beijing discovers microbreweries. In a country whose homegrown beer selection currently consists of Tsingtao and a bunch of forgettables, this is good news.

from CNN Travel
Barbecue Brazilian-style. How to navigate your way around a churrascaria in meat-mad Brazil.

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AFRICA
from Africa Review
In the tug-of-war for global influence between the US and China, Africa is now the rope.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
Two sites of wilderness beauty near Mt. Kenya named as World Heritage sites by the UN.

from Africa Review
The Next Big Thing on the world cultural scene: African art.

from Capitol FM (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
A tough-talking tourism minister puts her country’s unlicensed tour operators on notice: “Your time is up.”

AMERICAS
from the New York Times
Family visits to New York City — how to tackle the Big Apple with little kids.

from the New York Times
The long-neglected coastal city of Valparaíso in Chile is making a comeback, led by major cultural attractions and a thriving restaurant scene. Having the Pacific Ocean on your doorstep doesn’t hurt, either.

from the Boston Globe
A journalist decides to spend a week in Cuba before the inevitable end of the US trade embargo against the island, the place she calls an “exotic mystery.”

ASIA/PACIFIC
from The Guardian (London UK)
In the same year that UNESCO meets in Cambodia’s capital to add new locations to its list of World Heritage sites, archeologists uncover an enormous ancient lost city near the famed ruins of Angkor Wat, at least seven centuries old.

from CNN Travel
Ten new hotels in Hong Kong, each designed to appeal to a different type of traveler. Which one is your style?

from the Washington Post
When you think of alpine wildflowers, Asia probably is not the first region that comes to mind. The Daxue Mountains in China’s Yunnan province could change that.

EUROPE
from The Guardian (London UK)
Bear watching and booze cruising in Croatia.

from the New York Times
How to enjoy the alternative arts scene in Europe the way the locals do, on the cheap.

The IBIT Travel Digest 6.9.13

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

Yuyuan Bazaar, Shanghai, China
Yuyuan Bazaar, Shanghai, China — ©IBIT/G. Gross

WINNING ON POINTS
There are travelers who have become so adept at using credit-card points, loyalty points and frequent-flier miles that they almost never pay for trips anymore.

One of those people is Brian Kelly, who calls himself The Points Guy. If you want to see how Brian rolls — and flies — check out his site.

Meanwhile, he also recently talked to USA Today about how he does what he does.

TECHNO-TRAVEL
The New York Times has a fascinating — and perhaps somewhat disturbing — piece on the growing use of technology in our travels, especially biometrics.

We’re talking everything from fingerprint and eye scans at airport security checks to a hotel wristband with an embedded sensor chip that automatically lets you update your Facebook status.

And there’s more coming, being used not only with travelers but with employees of hotels of other establishments that serve travelers, sometimes without even their knowledge.

The day is rapidly coming, if it isn’t here already. when we may need to take a vacation as much from our technology as we do from our jobs. From here, it looks as if getting away from the job will be a lot easier.

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BETTER TRAVEL SMARTPHONE TRAVEL PICS
And speaking of technology, are you among that growing number of travelers leaving their cameras at home when they travel and taking pics and videos with their smartphone instead?

The folks at Condé Nast Traveler have produced a truly useful online slideshow with tips on how to get better travel pics with your phone.

Smartphone cameras have a lot of travelers believing that getting great snaps is now just a matter of pointing and shooting, no need to fiddle with settings as you would with a camera. Others believe their phone has no way to adjust for those differences.

Wrong and wrong.

Even if your camera is built into a phone, you still need to understand its powers and its limits. The slideshow shows the kind of results you can get when you work with both.

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AFRICAN AIRLINES: GOING LONG, GOING BIG
Two of the big dogs among Africa’s national airlines — Ethiopian Airlines and South African Airways — appear to be going all-in with the newest ultra-lightweight, long-range jumbo jets.

According to the African Aviation Tribune, Ethiopian, the first African airline to acquire Boeing’s 787 Dreamliners, is looking to add more of them to its fleet over next several years.

Its well-reported battery problems notwithstanding, Ethiopian is said to be well pleased with the Dreamliner’s performance and already is planning new routes to take advantage of its added range.

At the tip of the Mother Continent, meanwhile, SAA is eyeing both the Dreamliner and its competitor being developed by Airbus, the A350.

With African airlines having to fly thousands of miles to reach markets in Europe, Asia and the Americas, adding modern aircraft designed to make longer flights without stopping to refuel only makes sense.

While Ethiopian and SAA are going for distance, Zimbabwe, which has been pushing hard to boost its tourism in recent years, is going for size. The country’s national airline, Air Zimbabwe, reportedly is making noises about acquiring the world’s largest civilian airliner, Airbus’ massive double-decked A380.

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from CNN
Airline kicks 101 allegedly rowdy high school students off a flight. The school wants to investigate the airline. This is going to get ugly.

from the San Francisco Chronicle
In a moment of apparent sanity, the TSA reverses itself and drops its plans to allow small knives aboard airliners.

LAND
from Budget Travel
If your idea of a cable car is confined to the ones running the streets of San Francisco, you may not be ready for these. No, you definitely aren’t ready for these.

from USA Today
Free things to do in ten of the world’s great cities. SLIDESHOW

from The Guardian (London)
Simon Gandolfi, by his own description, is an out-of-shape Briton who just turned 80. So how does he celebrate eight decades of life? By flying to India and making his way back to London by motorcycle, solo. Rocking chair? What rocking chair?

from The Guardian (London)
Now, this is my idea of a European rail trip — Paris to Sicily, by train. Yes, I know Sicily is an island. And no, it doesn’t matter to the train.

from the New York Times
Bike sharing comes to Manhattan. One user finds it a mixed blessing for tourists.

SEA
from USA Today
Bad news for the cruise industry: A Harris Poll finds that the spate of shipboard fires in the last year is causing travelers to lose confidence in cruising as a travel option.

FOOD & DRINK
from USA Today
Do U know your Q? A regional breakdown of barbecue in the United States. Because unlike men, all BBQ is not created equal.

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AFRICA
from the Times of Zambia
Zambia’s Liuwa Plain National Park may be unique among the world’s land reserves in that it spends the first four months of the year underwater.

from Associated Press via Yahoo!
A UNESCO survey team finds damage to cultural artifacts done by Islamist rebels in the fabled Mali city of Timbuktu to be fare more extensive than first thought.

from the Seattle Times
Beautiful, diverse, edgy Cape Town.

AMERICAS
from the Washington Post
In San Francisco, the neighborhood known as Dogpatch, once a collection of meatpacking plants, is stepping up in class.

from NBC Travel
Tornado tourism? Yes, people actually pay to go out and look at — and pose for pictures with — tornadoes. A potential killer of a trip.

ASIA/PACIFIC
from Agence France Presse via France 24
A Chinese farmer restores a run-down section of the Great Wall of China on his own time and his own dime…about $800,000 worth of his own dimes.

from France 24
About two hours outside of Beijing, a luxury hotel opens in the birthplace of Confucius.

from France 24
Promoting South Korean tourism…Gangnam style.

EUROPE
from the San Francisco Chronicle
Is tourism in Turkey likely to take the same kind of hit from the current spate of street protests that Egyptian tourism did? In Istanbul, they don’t seem to think so.

from the New York Times
Do you love the fluid, vibrant colors of Claude Monet, the godfather of impressionism? Would you like to explore his country garden from which he drew his inspiration? You can, and without fighting your way through mobs of tourists.

from USA Today
In Europe, spending less for a hotel can actually contribute to a better travel experience. So says European travel guru Rick Steves. Been there, done there. It’s true.

from CNN
Want to chill out and kick back in style, and maybe work in a little exercise at the same time? Consider barge cruising in France. SLIDESHOW

the IBIT Travel Digest 2.3.13

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

cropped-hburghof.jpg

When you’ve finished overdosing on Super Bowl hype, chips and dip, come refresh your mind with a peek at what’s happening in the world of travel

PRICELINE+KAYAK=?
We are soon to find out, because according to Travel Weekly, the Federal Trade Commission has signed off on Priceline’s bid to buy the popular travel search engine for $1.8 billion.

That pretty much makes the sale a done deal, which could go down as soon as next month.

Snapping up Kayak gives Priceline a powerful search tool to tie in with its existing travel sales service. Less clear is how this marriage will benefit the traveling consumer.

On the other hand, Priceline has said that Kayak will to function as an independent entity, so we’ll see what happens.

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CAR SHARING: THE BIG BOYS TAKE NOTICE
You know that a new way of doing things really works when the big, old-line corporations start diving into it. That’s what has happened with car sharing.

Car sharing is kind of the automotive version of couchsurfing. It got its start in Switzerland in 1948 and took hold in the rest of Europe in the 1970s.

Once you become a member of a car-sharing service, you can rent a car for an entire day, a few hours or even a few minutes, if that’s all you need. You pick up the car in town, use it around town, drop it off in town. Cheaper and often more convenient than conventional car rentals, more flexibility and independence than taxis.

The concept doesn’t appeal only to travelers. Some people who don’t need a car full-time every day are actually getting rid of their own wheels (and the costs that go with them) and resorting to car sharing instead.

It’s also a good way to get a real-world feel for operating an unfamiliar vehicle type, whether it’s a pick-up truck or an electric car — without having to put up with a car salesman.

One of the pioneers in this field has been Zipcar, available in 34 states and the District of Columbia, as well as Ontario and Vancouver in Canada, as well as Barcelona, Spain and five cities in the United Kingdom.

How well does this concept work? Well enough for some of the rental car industry’s biggest players to take notice.

Hertz is answering its challenge by creating a car-sharing service of its own which it calls Hertz On-Demand. Enterprise followed suit with what they call WeCar. Even U-Haul has jumped into this game with U Car Share.

Avis, too, is buying the Zipcar concept. It’s also buying Zipcar…for $500 million.

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MORE (CRUISE) SHIPS AHOY
At this point, I’m not sure if the cruise industry’s shipbuilding binge is entering its second decade or its third. The one thing I do know: It’s not stopping.

Royal Caribbean, locked in mortal combat with Carnival for the dominant share of the market, is showing every sign of both expanding and updating its fleet super-sized cruisers.

They’re already moving to trademark the names of six new Oasis-class vessels that haven’t even been built yet.

The Oasis-class — led by its namesake, the Oasis of the Seas — is currently the largest cruise ship afloat, maxing out at 5,400 passengers.

But Royal Caribbean isn’t stopping there. The line also is working on a new, slightly downsized cruise ship, the Sunshine-class, designed to transport and entertain a mere 4,100 passengers at a time.

This ship is so new, the first one hasn’t been named yet, much less built. But according to Travel Weekly, Royal Caribbean has already committed to building a second one.

I have no idea how the folks at Carnival will respond to this, but you know that they will be respond. It’s like an arms race, only with oceanview suites, water slides and Bahama Mamas.

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AND FINALLY…
If you were (or perhaps still are) a regular viewer of the 1970s TV series M*A*S*H, you might vaguely recall lots of occasional references to some mythical town or village whose name sounded like “Wee-John-Boo.”

Well, it turns out that Uijeongbu is no myth. It’s a real place, where the real Mobile Army Surgical Hospital operated during the Korean War. And in South Korea, its legacy extends far beyond film and television.

The people of Uijeongbu, desperately hungry during the war, made meals of whatever they could get their hands on. The result was a dish the locals called budaejjigae, Korean for “army base stew.”

Basically, it combined traditional Korean ingredients with whatever leftovers the locals could scrounge or smuggle from U.S. Army mess tents.

The shooting eventually stopped (the Korean War has never formally ended), but “army base stew” remained a staple of Uijeongbu — and Julie Wan of the Washington Post took advantage of a visit to her family in Seoul to seek out this most unconventional dish in its birthplace.

And as you’ll see when you read her story, she found it.

If you know the origins of things like gumbo, barbecue or fried chicken, you can relate to budaejjigae. Cookbooks today are full of dishes devised by poor, hungry people who tossed anything and everything into a stew pot and used a slow fire, a lot of spices and their imaginations to create something unforgettable.

If I ever find myself in South Korea, I may need to make a small side trip to Uijeongbu.

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from Travel Weekly
JetBlue experimenting with an expedited security service that could — maybe — speed you past regular airport security lines. For a fee, of course.

from Smarter Travel
Visual advice on how to dress for air travel. Aimed mainly at women, but the fellas can learn a few things from this, too. SLIDESHOW

from Smarter Travel
The TSA shuts down an airport terminal in Atlanta because of an unattended…toothbrush? You can’t make this stuff up. I mean, those Colgate bombs can be deadly…

from Smarter Travel
Did you know that fresh oranges, in addition to being healthy for you on the ground, can help keep you hydrated in the air? These and other healthy food tips for air travelers.

LAND
from Travel Weekly
Hertz now letting its Gold Plus Rewards members upgrade their rental cars via their smartphone app.

SEA
from Travel Weekly
Carnival cancels Belize port calls for two of its biggest ships through 2013. The cruise line says the port is overcrowded with ships.

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AFRICA
from Tanzania Daily News (Tanzania) via allAfrica.com
Serengeti National Park, already a UN World Heritage Site, wins a prestigious international tourism award.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
The German cruise ship MV Astor makes a historic port call at Lamu, setting aside fears of kidnappings by Somali bandits.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
Are British Army units training in East Africa arming and equipping poachers?

AMERICAS
from CNN Travel
Today’s Super Bowl is more than just a battle between two pro football teams. It’s also a tale of two cities, Baltimore and San Francisco, and how they play. SLIDESHOW

from NBC News
New York City’s Grand Central Terminal celebrated its centennial last Friday. The Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty may be great monuments, but if you want to locate New York’s beating heart, you’ll find it here.

from the New York Times
Yes, you can send an email to the Bahamas, but a mail boat can send you there.

from Travel Weekly
Haiti officially protests the latest U.S. State Department travel advisory on visiting the island nation, which reads in art: “No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender or age.” State denies trying to discourage Haitian tourism.

ASIA/PACIFIC
from Yomiuri Shimbun
Deep in a forest, well away from the mad urban bustle of Tokyo, a village of Japanese craftsmen hand-builds elegant wood furniture with skills honed over 15 centuries.

from France 24
Missed out on the New Year’s Day festivities Jan. 1? Well, there’s still Chinese New Year coming up on Feb. 10, and the place to party is Hong Kong.

from CNTV
A small lake fishing village in China’s Yunnan province becomes a hidden tourist gem.

EUROPE
from the New York Times
Feel yourself choking on mobs of tourists in Venice? Find a way to go eat with some of the locals.

from Lonely Planet
Is this the world’s most beautiful train ride? It’s in Norway.

from Travel Weekly
The Waldorf-Astoria hotel chain is making a serious move on Europe. With hotels already in London, Rome and Versailles, the luxury brand is now opening a Waldorf-Astoria in Berlin. And they’re not done. SLIDESHOW

the IBIT Travel Digest 1.27.13

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

IMG_1605

DANCING THROUGH CUSTOMS
One of the fringe benefits of writing a travel blog is that you can make some great friends doing great work. One such friend of mine is Renee King, who publishes A View to a Thrill.

In her most recent installment, she gives us the 4-1-1 on of the US government’s trusted traveler programs that can seriously speed you through the Customs process upon your return to the United States. It’s called “Global Entry” and here’s what Renee had to say about it:

“Originally created to target frequent international travelers, the U.S. Global Entry program has been a virtual god-send for travelers who want a fast and secure way of skipping the lines altogether when re-entering the United States.”

To pick up all the details on “Global Entry,” check out Renee’s article here. And then bookmark it. You’ll want to keep this one handy.

Anyone who doesn’t “get” the importance of this program has never walked/stumbled/staggered off a jumbo jet with about 300 other exhausted souls after a transoceanic flight lasting 12 hours or longer, only to queue up in a Customs line…with the passengers of two, three or four other jumbo jets, all doing the same thing you are.

I have. I don’t recommend it.

If such a trip is a one-in-a-lifetime deal for you, then you may not need this program, especially when it costs $100. You’ll also have to make an appointment to be interviewed, electronically fingerprinted and see if you qualify for the program — and frankly, not everyone will.

But when you walk off that plane in a jet-lagged fog and breeze by all those folks suffering in line, you’ll swear it was the best time and money you ever spent on travel.

And if you make more than, say, three or four globe-girdling flights per year, you need this.

To apply for the Global Entry program, start here.

ALL ABOARD…THE NIGHT TRAIN
If it’s true that, in the words of the old Amtrak commercial, “there’s something about a train, then there’s something even more captivating about an overnight “sleeper” train.

Watching the sun set from the privacy of your own compartment, then bedding down for the night with a window full of stars and awaking the next morning in a different city — or a different country — is unforgettable.

It’s also practical. A sleeper train combines transportation and lodging in one. Instead of losing a day traveling between points, you arrive at your destination early the next morning.

It’s not cheap, but a private compartment often includes all your on-board meals, as well as other perks unavailable to Coach passengers, all of which makes the sleeper experience worth considering.

London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper has considered it at length, and compiled a slideshow of what they consider to be the top ten overnight sleeper train runs in Europe, including one between Europe (London) and Africa (Marrakech, Morocco).

Paris-Barcelona? Paris-Berlin? London-Penzance? Yeah, I could happily do any of those.

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AFRICAN FASHION MADE EASY
Not many folks on this side of the Atlantic are aware of it, but Africa has developed quite the fashion scene. We’re talking high-end threads for men and women from high-profile designers from the length and breadth of the Mother Continent.

Until a few years ago, your best shot at checking out this vibrant and growing fashion world was to fly to one or more of perhaps seven African cities:

  • Lagos, Nigeria
  • Nairobi, Kenya
  • Cape Town, South Africa
  • Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Dakar, Senegal
  • Luanda, Angola

And if you want to get a feel for the sources of inspiration that drive these African fashions, that still might be the best idea.

However, you do have alternatives. Lots of them, in fact.

New York City, Los Angeles and Dallas both annually hosts African Fashion Weeks. But if you feel like giving your fashion trip some international flavor — with a bit less expense and a lot less flight time — there’s the Black Fashion Week in Paris and the Africa Fashion Week London, now in its third year.

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from Business Insider via Yahoo
A Germany-based air safety monitoring group lists the world’s ten most dangerous airlines over the last 30 years. Read with some large grains of salt.

from eTurbo News
An Indonesian airline adopts new Sukhoi Superjet 100 airliners from Russia. The reason: They can operate from the country’s short runways.

from NBC News
Southwest Airlines is betting that you’ll be willing to pay $40 extra to board their planes early. Would you?

from eTurbo News
Ethiopian Airlines cuts flights from Addis Ababa to Europe.

LAND

from Travel Weekly
A heavy late-December snowfall has the skiing looking good at America’s ski resorts.

from The Telegraph (London UK)
What do you get when you take an Amtrak train between Toronto and New York? A 12-hour rail cruise through US history and some of North America’s most gorgeous scenery.

from Forbes via Yahoo
Can you measure a country’s happiness? The Legatum Institute of London says it can, and it’s produced a list of the world’s ten happiest nations. And no, the United States is nowhere in the top ten.

from Time
Has snowboarding lost its mojo?

SEA
from Cruise Industry News
More evidence of the cruise industry’s growing tilt toward Asia: Princess Cruises to homeport a second cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, in Japan.

from Cruise Critic
For those of you dying to escape the frigid winter, there are six cruise ships sailing in warm waters that nearly always have cabins offered at a discount.

from Cruise Industry News
The upscale cruise line Silversea plans to offer shorter (and thus cheaper) cruises in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean.

from Cruise Industry News
As cruises go, this one’s the ultimate icebreaker. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises is planning an August cruise of the Northwest Passage fron Greenland to Alaska on one of its expedition ships, the Hanseatic. You don’t often see the words “expedition” and “5-star” in the same sentence.

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AFRICA
from Reuters
You might want to hold off on that Cairo vacation a little longer. Things are getting hectic — and deadly — again in Egypt.

from al Jazeera
Museum in Mali trying to protect some of the country’s historic artifacts from the threat of destruction by radical Muslim insurgents.

from eTurbo News
British Airways pulls out of Tanzania, and Emirates is the first airline to step into the void.

from The Telegraph (London UK)
Tourism officials in Egypt report that foreign visits are up, but not as much as expected.

from eTurbo News
Ethiopia turning to China, India and Russia as potential new tourism markets.

AMERICAS
from the Huffington Post
George Hobica says Albuquerque NM has been overshadowed by Santa Fe, but it deserves a closer look. Especially if you’re a fan of beer, road trips and under-the-radar cool.

from Travel Weekly
Want a shot at some warm winter weather and a whiff of that new hotel smell? Start saving your coins and circle Dec. 2014 on your calendar. That’s the the 1,000-room $1 billion Baha Mar casino resort is set to open its doors.

from the Chicago Tribune
If you’re a baseball junkie, a visit to Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field is something close to a religious pilgrimage. Now, the Sheraton hotel chain is planning to put up a boutique hotel directly across the street from the old ballpark. Think they’ll pt bleachers on the roof?

from Reuters via NBCNews
More flights and a weaker dollar have combined to create record-setting tourism in Hawaii.

ASIA/PACIFIC
from BootsnAll
Southeast Asia is a great destination for rail travel.

from China Daily
The dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku (or if you’re Chinese, Diaoyu) Islands is throwing cold water on tourism between the two countries.

from SFGate.com
Walking in the path of samurai. Scenic medieval walkways in Japan.

from The Guardian (London UK)
What would you see on a 40-mile walk across a city of 30 million souls? Marcel Theroux gives us his answers from his trek across Tokyo, the first of a series of walks across the largest cities on Earth.

EUROPE
from ABC News via Yahoo
Welcome to County Kerry in southwest Ireland, where drunk driving is legal. And no, that’s not a typo.

from eTurbo News
Ukraine’s largest airline, AeroSvit, goes belly up, stranding hundreds of passengers in the process.

from The Guardian (London UK)
It wasn’t that long ago that the term “luxury hostel” might have been the ultimate oxymoron in travel especially in Europe. It’s fair to say that things have changed. A lot. SLIDESHOW

Japan in pictures

Akihabara, Tokyo
Anime eyes
Anime vendors in Japan

Since gaining international attention in the 1970s and 80, Japanese comics called manga and animated shows known as anime have won a worldwide following. But to truly delve into the heart of this pop culture phenomenon, you need to visit Japan.

Tenchi. Inuyasha. Momiji. Yu-Gi-Oh. Dragonball. Voltron. If these and similar names have meaning for you, it means you may be or may have been a fan of anime.

Anime are Japanese animated productions, ranging from TV shows to short films and feature-length movies. They are closely related to manga, the popular comics read in Japan by people of all ages.

They all share a common style — human characters with super-large eyes and faces, with the rest of their bodies often out of proportion to the head.

The storylines can be simple or complex, but often carry a moral message or delve into the struggle to find one’s way in a difficult, complex world. The images and storylines alike can range from innocent and playful to dark and sinister, or very sexy. They also often touch on themes in Japanese history and culture, as well as Japan’s relationship with the outside world.

Anime has been around since 1917, but it took the work of Osamu Tekuza, a physician who found his true calling as a cartoonist and animator, to set down what is now universally recognized as anime. The art form gained recognition outside Japan in the 1980s and its popularity now is virtually worldwide.

So why, you wonder, am I talking about Japanese animation on a travel blog? For the same reason I’d be talking about Disney characters or Harry Potter. That’s right, there actually is such a thing as anime tourism.

Just as the Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle provided the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle in California, and Alnwick Castle in northeast England was the real-life inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, many of the anime storylines are set in or inspired by real places across Japan.

But Ground Zero for a true anime fanatic has to be Akihabara in central Tokyo.

This district started drawing tourists in the 1970s for its dizzying array of electronics shops, selling everything from small hand-held radios to cameras, stereo equipment, cell phones, video games and much more, often including gear “not sold in any store” outside of Japan.

It was enough to earn Akihabara the nickname “Electric City.”

More recently, it’s become the headquarters for otaku, people of all ages devoted to all things manga and anime. If you’re into both anime and collectibles, Akihabara is where you want to be.

But Akihabara takes it even further with its comic cafes called “manga kissaten,” where you can watch anime DVDs and read manga to your heart’s content. Then there are the “maid cafes,” where waitresses dress up and act like famous anime characters.

Cultural kitsch to the max.

If you’re wondering if anyone in Japan runs anime tours, the answer is a definite “Hai!” The tours themselves range in length from a day to a week or more, covering one or more districts in Tokyo or multiple cities. A cursory Web search found these:

  • POP JAPAN TRAVEL
    Group tours with bilingual guides. Owned by Japanese comics publisher Digital Manga. These guys immerse you in Japanese pop culture in your choice of four cities — Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama and Kyoto. They also can hook you up with manga artists and anime studios.
  • PACSET TOURS
    Two things about this outfit caught my eye. The first was that they offer payment plans for their tours that don’t require you to buy the whole package up front (why don’t more tour operators do this?). The other was a vague Twitter reference to “anime-themed liquor.”
  • DESTINATION JAPAN
    They say their weeklong “Tokyo Anime Freedom Tour” is the most popular tour package they offer. The disastrous 2011 earthquake knocked them out two years ago, but they returned last year and are back again for 2013.

Believe me, this is only a very small sample of the tours available in Japan, but this should be enough to get you started. You also should contact the Japan National Tourism Organization, which can hook you up with tons of information on anime tourism.

Anime tours tend to run in the spring, so if this kind of Japanese visit sounds appealing, you really need to start planning now.

You come to understand ancd appreciate anything that much more when you get a look at it from the inside. An anime tour can take you deeper into this phenomenon than mere readers or viewers will ever get, and by extension, give you a richer understanding of Japan itself.

That alone is reason enough to seriously consider a wide-eyed flight into Japanese animation.