RELIGIOUS TRAVEL: IN SEARCH OF THE CROSS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They should.

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

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

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

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

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

Yerevan holds three different distinctions in Armenia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BLACK HISTORY: PASSPORT TO THE PAST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WEST AFRICA

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

CENTRAL AFRICA

  • Congo
  • Buganda
  • Luba
  • Lunda
  • Rwanda

EAST AFRICA

  • Axum
  • Kush
  • Ethiopia

SOUTHERN AFRICA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Year of EAST AFRICA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RELIGION
Both Islam and Christianity thrive in this region.

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

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

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

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

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

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DESTINATIONS: Handle with Care

    We travelers love the world’s great destinations, but too often, we don’t respect them — and we’re killing a lot of them as a result.

    Late last November, the world came out from Venice that this ancient and fragile Italian city would no longer allow tourists to bring wheeled luggage.

    One reason supposedly was that the city’s dwindling population was aggravated by the constant noise of little plastic wheels bouncing and rattling over the ancient stone walkways. But it was the other reason that hooked my attention:

    The wheels were said to be wearing on those stone walkways, as well as the footbridges and marble steps of Venice.

    Built in middle of a lagoon and sitting atop millions of wooden pilings, Venice has been pulling visitors for centuries with its history, the romantic beauty of its architecture, where roads are canals and intersections are the hundreds of footbridges that arch above them.

    But that beauty has always been fragile, threatened by wave erosion and rising seas, then industrial pollution from shore — not to mention the very hordes of visitors who so love the place

    After the mass media uproar that ensued when word of the wheel luggage ban went global, Venice’s powers backed off somewhat, saying the ban was aimed at large commercial carts, not the tourists on whom the city’s economic life now depends.

    Whew, that was close.

    Still, it got me thinking about the world’s most beloved tourist attractions, and how many of them are under threat from mass-market tourism.

    From us, in other words.

    Ancient historic sites are under attack from all manner of sources, everything from weather to acid rain. The sheer number of tourists tramping around, all over and through ancient sites made vulnerable over time.

    The mere art of breathing inside ancient Egyptian tombs by a constant stream of tourists creates a humid microclimate that spurs the growth of fungus that eats away at frescoes thousands of years old.

    The other damage we do is thoughtless, even malicious. Litter. Garbage. Spilled food and drink. Graffiti. Initials carved into ancient walls. Stones chipped and broken at Stonehenge — or smiley faces painted on them — because some clown thought it would be funny.

    This doesn’t apply only to those famous sites that are easily reached by anyone with a passport and a credit card. Tourism has done damage and left trash by the truckload in some of the remotest spots on Earth.

    Don’t believe it? The slopes of Mount Everest are littered with everything from food wrappers and empty oxygen bottles to the bodies of climbers — more than 200 of them — who were simply left where they died, in full view.

    (Some of those bodies are actually used today as landmarks by other climbers. Google the term “green boots Everest” and you literally will see what I mean.)

    In places like Easter Island, world-famous for its gigantic, mysterious ancient stone statues known as moai, harm done by tourists — and the tons of garbage they leave behind — has led to calls from locals to restrict the flow of visitors.

    In Rome, authorities have banned food and drink at many of its famous landmarks, including the Spanish Steps. Are they serious, you ask? Fines that can run you more than $500 suggest they are.

    This is a global issue that civic leaders and the travel industry worldwide will struggle with forever. Somehow, we need to balance the desires of the visitor with the need to protect the places he or she wants to visit.

    We love the idea of seeing the world’s great destinations. We need to make sure we respect them once we get there.

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the IBIT Travel Digest 1.25.15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly, who thinks of this stuff?

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR

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

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

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

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

LAND

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

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

SEA

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

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

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

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

FOOD & DRINK

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

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

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AFRICA

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

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

AMERICAS

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

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

ASIA/PACIFIC

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

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

EUROPE

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

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

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

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AIRLINES: Mind your miles

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

Does this sound like you?

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

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

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

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

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

That indifference could prove costly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TRAVELERS: Use caution, not hysteria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the IBIT Travel Digest 12.21.14

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


EDITORIAL

DUMP THE TRADE EMBARGO AGAINST CUBA? NOT YET!

That’s right, I said it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that would be a shame.

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

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

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

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

Just in time to absorb a tsunami of American visitors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, the hunt is for medals, not lions.

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

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

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

This is something to be encouraged.

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

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR

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

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

LAND

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

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

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

from About.Travel
Five ways to pack lighter.

SEA

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

FOOD & DRINK

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

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

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

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

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

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AFRICA

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

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

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

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

AMERICAS

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

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

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

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

ASIA/PACIFIC

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

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

EUROPE

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

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

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

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US-CUBA: Sanity At Last?

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

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

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

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

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

The details are this official White House announcement.

The President said in part:

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

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

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

IBIT has said that for five years now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the IBIT Travel Digest 12.7.14

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

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

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

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

Among the other trends identified in the report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote this just last October:

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

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

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR

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

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

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

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

LAND

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

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

SEA

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

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

FOOD & DRINK

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

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

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AFRICA

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

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

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

AMERICAS

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

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

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

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

ASIA/PACIFIC

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

EUROPE

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

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

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

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“Who built this house?”

Slave memorial wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That, I can believe.

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

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

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

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

“Who in the hell built this house?”

IF YOU GO
WHAT: Whitney Plantation

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

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

 

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URGENT: Holiday ban on carry-ons?

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

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

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

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

Or not at all.

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

Meanwhile, IBIT will report on any further developments.

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