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AFRICA: Travel and tourism in focus

Photo by Africa Travel Association
Photo by Africa Travel Association

One of a series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s next.

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

CRUISING: Ocean v. River

Slideshow images courtesy of Amras Cruises

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

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

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

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

And that is pretty much where the similarities end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right. On the same trip.

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

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

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

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

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

GUEST COLUMN: Traveling While Black in Mongolia

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

I knew nothing about Mongolia except that I wanted to go there. Okay, scratch that—I knew two things—I wanted to go there, and it was the birthplace of Genghis Khan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRAVEL TECH THURSDAY: Japan pushes maglev

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I know. Ouch.

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

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

I can hear folks in Beijing gnashing their teeth already.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

There are lots of ways to stave off jet lag:

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

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

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

Here’s a partial list:

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

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

It now may also be your hotel room key.

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

It also allows you to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

My own feelings on all this a little mixed.

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

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

AFRICA: The high cost of flying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where does that other $749 come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VOTE for I B I T !!!!!

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

Greg Gross, founder of IBIT

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

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

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

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

NatGeo Logo 2014

The voting process itself is easy:

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

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

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

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

INTRODUCING: IBIT’s very own travel agency

Trips by Greg biz card 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBIT is a “Traveler of the Year”

National Geographic Traveler magazine names IBIT creator Greg Gross as one of ten “individuals who travel with passion and purpose.”

Every year since 2012, National Geographic Traveler magazine singles out ten Travelers of the Year — in their words, “individuals who travel with passion and purpose, have an exceptional story to tell, and represent a style of travel, motivation, or method that can inform and inspire us all.”

The ten NatGeo Travelers of the Year for 2014 were announced this morning — and IBIT is one of them.

NatGeo did interviews with each of us. Please read them. The only thing better than being inspired to travel is being inspired ten times over. You can read mine here.


I’m very grateful to the folks at NatGeo Traveler, and even more to whoever nominated me (I have no idea who that was). Most of all, I’m grateful to you, the readers of this blog. You keep me going. Thank you all.

Since its launch in June 2009, this blog has grown and evolved, but its purpose remains unchanged, to encourage Americans in general, and Black Americans especially, to get out and see the world.

Actually, instead of “see the world,” perhaps I should say “meet the world.” Because we live in a time when knowing our global neighbors is critical to our well-being as a nation.

Two years after 9/11, a high-powered panel of scholars put together a report on the need for American students not just to study abroad, but to take those international studies beyond the cultural comfort zone that is Western Europe:

  • “As a nation we suffer from a pervasive lack of knowledge about the world. [emphasis mine] There have been periods, indeed entire eras, in our history where Americans have relished their isolation from the world.”
  • “Some have made speaking only English a point of national pride instead of a disgrace. Never mind that the schools of most countries, rich or poor, teach at least two languages to their children.
  • “In the most prosperous nation on the planet, with the most extensive system of higher education, we are notoriously inept at imparting languages to our youth.”
  • “We strongly believe that the events of September 11, 2001, constituted a wake-up call—a warning that America’s ignorance of the world is now a national liability.” [emphasis mine]

That report came out in 2003. Eleven years later, has anything really changed?

Well, maybe one thing has. As I talk and listen to IBIT readers and others, whether in the flesh or in cyberspace, I get the sense that young Black Americans are traveling more than ever before.

I remember having breakfast a few years ago at Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington DC’s famous U Street Corridor, overhearing a young Black woman describe to a friend her working visit to Moscow. It sent my spirit soaring.

More and more of our young people are going farther and more often. Not just for learning or leisure, but to jump-start careers and even build new lives for themselves overseas. You’ve met some of those young people on this blog, and in the weeks, months and years to come, you’re going to meet more of them.

Still, for each of our young people who are stepping up, stepping out and taking their rightful place as a citizen of the world, there remain too many others whose view and understanding of that world doesn’t extend beyond the invisible boundaries of their neighborhood.

That has to change. We have to change it. Because as my friend, Shay Olivarria, likes to remind folks, “The world is bigger than your block.”

The work continues.

AFRICA: The hotels are coming

Western tourists may be staying from Africa because of ebola, but the world’s hoteliers are rushing in. That bodes well for the future of African travel.

The Africa Hotel Investment Forum is an annual two-day meetup of African governments, business leaders and hotel operators. This year’s event was held last week in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.

This isn’t one of those conventions held mainly to give business people an excuse to party. Deals get done here. And the deals coming out of this year’s forum were major.

Nine hotel corporations signed to build 41 new hotels across Africa over the next six years, nearly a dozen in the next three years.

We’re talking Wyndham, Inter-Continental, Accor, Marriott. Also in the mix, Best Western, Starwood (the folks who own the Sheraton brand), W Hotels, Carlson Rezidor (the folks behind the Radisson Blu hotels) and Hilton Worldwide.

All of them household names among the world’s travelers. All of them heavy hitters in the hospitality industry. And all of them looking to step up their game on the Mother Continent.

Meanwhile, you now have multiple African nations all but climbing over one another in hopes of hosting this forum next year.

This is part of an ongoing hotel building boom across Africa. There were more than 200 hotel projects — to create some 40,000 new rooms — in the works even before last week’s deals became public.

If I sound excited, it’s because I am. While there’s no guarantee that all of these places will actually get built, enough of them will to perhaps change the face of African travel and tourism.

Clearly, the world’s hoteliers are looking past the current ebola outbreak and are making plans for the long-term. That in itself is a good thing.

Most of these new hotels are being built with business travelers in mind, as well as MICE tourism.

(MICE has nothing to do with rodents. It stands for Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Events.)

Business types aren’t the only ones who need nice places to stay. So do diplomats. The African Union has its headquarters (seen above) in Addis Ababa, where this year’s forum was held. And several of those hotel deals were for new hotels in Addis.

So what does any of this hotel boom have to do with you, the potential Africa visitor who’s not looking to swing business or political deals?

Potentially, a lot.

Currently, the top form of African vacation travel by far is safari travel. Has been for decades. The best safari operators have it down to a science, an art form, and it annually draws travelers from around the world.

But not everyone interested in Africa is necessarily interested in safaris. And those who aren’t often forgo Africa for other destinations.

The other reasons to visit the Mother Continent are almost too many to list — history and heritage, music, art, food, fashion, film, education, adventure, culture, religion.

But the travelers looking for those things need places to stay, preferably in the cities where they’re most likely to find what they’re looking for.

For this kind of traveler, even the most luxuriously appointed safari camp out in the bush probably won’t work.

Having more and better hotels means that African countries will be able to offer travelers more lodging in their urban centers. Keeping those rooms filled — and adding more of them — will give those nations incentive to do something they have long needed to do — diversify their attractions for the leisure traveler.

African travel and tourism will never reach their full potential until they can offer the traveler a broader range of options and attractions. Building new and better hotels could be an important first step toward achieving that.

Fall foliage: Travel in color

Mother Nature puts on a breathtakingly beautiful color show every autumn, but catching her at her best can be tricky. Location matters, but timing is everything.

About two years after he’d left the West Coast for a job in New York City, I went back east to visit best friend and IBIT guest columnist Walt Baranger. The first thing he did was take me for a drive around his heavily forested Connecticut hometown.

It was October and on every tree, the leaves were changing colors. In all directions, the rolling hills were the colors of French wine, Florida oranges, fine jewelry, colors so vibrant that they seemed to glow, to vibrate.

In some places, solid carpets of reds, oranges, golds. In others, a mixture of all of them. Add a smattering of green from trees stubbornly holding onto their spring and summer colors to the last, and you had a kaleidoscope of hues spread across the horizon.

I don’t remember anything I said during that drive, but I must have sounded like a blithering idiot. It was hard to speak, and then to breathe. Thank God that Walt was driving and not me.

Ask anyone about the first time they saw the fall colors. Odds are, they’ll remember. When all the land as far as you can see turns the colors of a Polynesian sunset, you don’t forget how that looks.

Two things make fall foliage tours a bit tricky, however. One is place. The other is time.

New England has justifiably built a whole industry around fall foliage tourism. The combination of gorgeous views, friendly people and towns whose histories sometimes predate the American Revolution, make it the country’s Number One autumn destination.

The problem: Not everyone can travel across the country to New England, especially at that time of year. Which brings us to the timing problem.

The leaves may change colors every fall, mainly in October, but they don’t do it at exactly the same time — nor to the same degree — every year.

If you want to catch them at their peak, the timing difference from one year to the next can be a matter of days, or even weeks — and timing is everything. The week that yielded spectacular colors last year could be a total bust this year.

What’s more, the leaves change and then fall during what’s known in the travel industry as “the shoulder season,” between the end of summer and the Thanksgiving holiday. That makes it hard for many travelers to get away, especially families with kids in school.

But if your schedule(s) allow for a few days’ break in the early fall, you can do it.

The first thing to realize is that while the northeastern United States may be the best region to take in autumn colors, it’s not the only one.

The Weather Channel offers an online fall foliage page that covers the entire continental US and includes an interactive map. Click on the region or the state of your choice and start checking out those nearest to you.

You’ll also find photos taken by locals and a list of the top 10 fall foliage viewing areas across North America (and one even in the Caribbean, of all places) to use as a vacation planner. There’s even an explanation for why all those leaves turn all those colors, including the influence of weather.

If you’ve already got your heart set on New England, Yankee Foliage is a good online resource for planning your autumn color tour. Lists of foliage sightseeing routes, organized by state. Peak foliage forecasts. Live foliage maps. Even a foliage app for your smartphone.

For those who’d rather leave the driving to someone else (and under the circumstances, that’s not a bad idea), there are companies offering everything from (almost) all-inclusive bus tours to fall foliage cruises — again, mostly in New England.

However you do it, you’re in for one of the great annual shows of the natural world. Your eye for color — and any camera you own — will thank you.

If you think you might be interested in a fall foliage tour, drop me an email at info@tripsbygreg.com.

Reclining airline seats:
Do (not) unto others

Rather than pricey seat-blocking gadgets or juvenile, combative behavior, try this old-school alternative when you fly: courtesy. Works every time.

The buzz in the airline industry these days is about passengers apparently losing their minds when the passenger in front of them reclines their seat.

Airline travelers of a certain age will remember when there was enough space between each row of seats for every passenger to recline in comfort. No need to worry about bruising someone’s knees or maybe breaking their laptop…or their nose.

To put it mildly, things have changed.

The airlines’ determination to squeeze every possible dollar out of every flight has seen them cram extra rows of seats into their aircraft.

That’s how it is in Economy, anyway.

The farther you go toward the front of the airplane, and the more money you pay for your seat, the more legroom you get. Which makes all this a non-issue in First or Business class.

Back in Sardine Class, unfortunately, “it’s on!” Instead of Star Wars, we now have Seat Wars.

Nowadays, when we recline our seats, or the passenger in front of us reclines theirs, it’s increasingly becoming a cue for airline drama. Passengers are defending their precious few inches of “seat pitch” as if they were the Alamo, and the entire Mexican army were occupying the seat in front of them.

Complaints to flight attendants. Foul language. Kicking the back of the offender’s seat. In some instances, fights have broken out — three in the last week or so.

Some passengers are even resorting to using expensive gadgets designed to block the seat in front of them from reclining, leading to yet more drama.

The result: Flights having to be diverted due to disturbances on board. Passengers have been kicked off airplanes, even arrested after unleashing their inner brat at 35,000 feet.

(NOTE: Some airlines prohibit the use of seat-blocking devices. In some cases, breaking them out will automatically get you in trouble.)

Seriously, people, is this the 21st century? Are we grown-ups? Air travel isn’t already miserable enough?

IBIT has a solution to stop this madness. It’s simple. It’s been around forever. Best of all, it’s free.

It’s called “courtesy.”

If you want to recline your seat, ask the passenger behind you. If they object, don’t recline.

As soon as you can, even before the plane takes off, politely ask the passenger in front of you to give you a heads-up when they want to recline their seat. Or even more politely ask them not to.

Anything beyond that, explain the situation to a flight attendant and leave it with them.

I’m reluctant to call this “common courtesy” because, frankly, it no longer seems all that common, if it ever really was. But I’m convinced it still works, especially if we all commit to using it.

And there’s no better time to break out a courtesy jihad than when encapsulated in an aluminum tube moving at not quite the speed of sound seven miles above the ground.

We paying passengers may not have created this situation, but taking our frustration and discomfort out on one another is unlikely to make any of it better.

We’re all in this misery together; we might as well cut one another some slack and make the best of it until we reach our destination, yes?

AFRICA: Ethiopian and United hook up

United logo

The new codeshare agreement between Africa’s largest airline and North America’s third largest promises smoother connections for air travelers between the United States and nearly the whole of Africa.

Little by little, the handful of Africa’s transcontinental airlines are reaching toward the US market. And America’s airlines, slowly and quietly, are reaching back.

The latest gesture came last month, when Ethiopian Airlines signed a codesharing agreement with United Airlines.

Ethiopian is the largest airline in Africa and has a solid reputation among international airlines. United is one of largest airlines in the world, one of the few remaining “legacy airlines” in the United States, and one of only two us airlines flying to Africa (Delta being the other).

Both already were members of the Star Alliance when they signed the agreement.

When two or more airlines agree to codeshare, they are agreeing to let the other airline(s) in the agreement list flights in the name(s) of the other airlines(s).

Essentially, my airline actually makes the flight in your name, under your flight number, while your airline pockets the airfare. And vice versa.

This enables United to sell tickets to African destinations without having to use its own aircraft and flight crews. Ethiopian can do the same for its customers wanting to fly to more US destinations than Ethiopian is now allowed to serve.

(As we’ve talked about before here on IBIT, our FAA allows African airlines access to extremely few US airports. As of this writing, only one of them, Los Angeles, is west of the Mississippi River.)

The new agreement means that Ethiopian will run flights on behalf of United between Washington Dulles (IAD) and a dozen African destinations, from Addis Ababa to Zanzibar.

United, in return, will operate flights for Ethiopian between IAD and 22 US cities, nearly half of which are in Midwest or western states — all the way to Honolulu.

So what’s in it for you as a traveler?

For one thing, it gives you seamless connections between your home airport and your African destinations. It also means that the frequent-flier miles you amass on either airline will be good on both, as well as many, if not all, of the other Star Alliance airlines.

And the Star Alliance just happens to be the world’s largest airline alliance, with 27 member airlines serving 192 countries.

Short form: This is a good thing.

AIRLINES: Know your alliance, Part 1
AIRLINES: Know your alliance, Part 2

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