Tag Archives: African travel

AFRICA: Of Christians and kings

Want to take your Christian religious travel outside the usual European box? Head for Africa.

When you think of religious travel for Christians, what destinations come to your mind?

Maybe those portions of the Middle East we’ve come to know collectively as the Holy Land? Perhaps Europe, starting with Rome and Vatican City, and working your way through France, Spain or Armenia, the world’s first officially Christian nation?

Africa may not leap to your mind when it comes to this kind of travel. And that’s too bad, because it should.

IBIT readers already know about Ethiopia, a country whose Christian roots go so deep that the country is mentioned by name in the Bible.

The country annually celebrates seven different Christian festivals, the two most important being Timket and Meskel: Finding of the True Cross.

Are you one of the many young Black Americans taking an interest in the Kushites, the Black African pharaohs who came up from what is now Sudan and ruled Egypt for a hundred years?

These days, tourism in Sudan is only for the most intrepid adventurous souls. But one day, you’ll be able to visit the ancient Kushite capital of Meroë, a UN World Heritage Site where you’ll find more than 200 pyramids.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians can claim to be among the earliest Christian churches in the world, and you can find Copts today in more than a half-dozen African countries, but in just as many European nations and as far away as Australia and the United States.

But perhaps nowhere in Africa is Christian commemoration more poignant — or more tightly melded with the bitter history of European colonialism — than in Uganda, where traditional kings felt their kingdoms under threat from three different alien religions — Catholics, Protestants and Islam.

While his predecessors tried to hold their kingdoms together by playing off the three different religions against one another, King Mwanga II apparently felt the Christians posed the greatest threat to his realm. He went at them head-on, expelling missionaries and even arranging the assassination of an archbishop from the Church of England.

To his own people who converted to Christianity, Mwanga offered bitter terms: Renounce the Europeans’ faith and return to the old ways, or die.

Twenty converted Ugandan Catholics chose the church. Mwanga had them taken to a place called Namugongo. There, they were bound, wrapped in bamboo reeds, thrown onto a bonfire and burned alive. That was in 1886.

They were among 45 Catholic and Anglican converts in Uganda between 1885 and 1887 who opted for martyrdom.

Mwanga eventually went to war twice against the British colonizers, losing both times, ultimately to die in exile in what is now Tanzania.

You know the rest of the story. Uganda ultimately became a British colony. But Ugandans would not forget those who had held onto their newfound beliefs to the death.

They built a shrine at Namugongo, a few miles northeast of the Ugandan capital city, Kampala, to the men now known as The Ugandan Martyrs.

Every year, Catholics from Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond the Mother Continent converge on the shrine for an annual pilgrimage that begins May 25 and culminates with Martyrs Day on June 3, a national holiday in Uganda. Millions of people take part, many of them walking for miles — and for weeks — to reach the shrine.

Vatican City didn’t forget its African converts, either. The 20 martyred Ugandans were canonized as saints in 1964.

For more information on the Martyrs’ Day pilgrimage and how you can take part, visit Trips by Greg or send an email to info@tripsbygreg.com.

If Ugandans did not forget their Catholic martyrs, neither did they forget their ancient kings, including Mwanga.

In what is now the Kasubi district of central Kampala, they built the Tombs of the Buganda Kings. It’s a UN World Heritage Site, and here’s how they describe it:

“The Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi constitute a site embracing almost 30 (hectares) of hillside within Kampala district. Most of the site is agricultural, farmed by traditional methods.

“The site is the major spiritual centre for the Baganda where traditional and cultural practices have been preserved. The Kasubi Tombs are the most active religious place in the kingdom, where rituals are frequently performed. Its place as the burial ground for the previous four kings (Kabakas) qualifies it as a religious centre for the royal family, a place where the Kabaka and his representatives carry out important rituals related to Buganda culture. The site represents a place where communication links with the spiritual world are maintained.”

The Namugongo shrine and the Kasubi tombs are close enough that a traveler could visit both on the same day.

Whether it’s Africa’s own unique and original strains of Christianity or European worship transplanted to African lands, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to witness both history and your faith on the Mother Continent. Because when it came to Africa and the world’s religions, people’s faith and their freedom were equally at stake.

Namugongo pilgrimage

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  • Congo
  • Buganda
  • Luba
  • Lunda
  • Rwanda


  • Axum
  • Kush
  • Ethiopia


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both Islam and Christianity thrive in this region.

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

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

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

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

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

the IBIT Travel Digest 1.25.15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Honestly, who thinks of this stuff?


And now, here’s The Digest:


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

the IBIT Travel Digest 12.21.14

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



That’s right, I said it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that would be a shame.

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

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

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

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

Just in time to absorb a tsunami of American visitors.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Here, the hunt is for medals, not lions.

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

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

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

This is something to be encouraged.

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


And now, here’s The Digest:


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

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


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

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

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

from About.Travel
Five ways to pack lighter.


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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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

AFRICA: Go North, East or South

Does the ebola virus outbreak make you nervous about visiting West Africa? That still leaves you with a whole continent to explore and treasure.

A longstanding, widespread ignorance about Africa in the United States predisposes a lot of would-be visitors to a hysterical view of events on the Mother Continent. And when it comes to Africa, mainstream media always stand ready to deliver hysteria in abundance.

The latest example is the current outbreak of the ebola virus that now affects a total of six African nations.

Five are in West AfricaLiberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and most recently, Senegal. The sixth is the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa.

As a virus that creates deadly infections and has no cure, ebola certainly is no joke, but a little perspective may be in order here.

As of this writing, ebola has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa since the outbreak was first recognized as such in February of this year.

Across the African continent, malaria will have killed more people than that by the end of the day, maybe even before you finish reading this. It’s been that way for centuries.

Yet malaria somehow has never stopped people from traveling to Africa for business, education or leisure.

A little more perspective. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide, some say as many as 100 million, more than were killed in World War 1. Did the world stay home after that? I think not.

Ebola is scary. Terrifying, in fact. So if you’d rather wait until West Africa gets the current outbreak in hand before returning the region to your list of must-see destinations, that’s perfectly understandable. And at this point, it’s highly unlikely that the DRC was on your must-visit list, anyway.

Africa flags

Meanwhile, allow me to point out something that mainstream media will not tell you: Africa is a continent of 54 nations, 48 of which are utterly unaffected by ebola.

At least nine of those nations are in West Africa, but you’ve written off that entire region for the time being, right? So what does that leave us?

It leaves us the northern, eastern, central and southern regions of the world’s second largest continent to see, explore and treasure.

In North Africa, it leaves Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Yes, Egypt. You remember Egypt, right? Cairo. The pharaohs, the pyramids, ancient history and culture that predate the birth of Christ.

There are no State Department travel alerts or the more dire travel warnings in effect on Egypt. None. Not on Morocco or Tunisia, either.

Most travelers associate the Nile, ones of the world’s great rivers, with Egypt…and only Egypt. In fact, the Nile is not just a river, but a river system shared by 11 African countries — Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.

To see where that system begins, and what it means to life in nearly a quarter of the African continent, you’ll have to go south of Egypt and into East Africa.

The first thing you’ll find out is that the Nile has more than one source. The Blue Nile originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia. The White Nile has as its mother the far larger Lake Victoria, whose shore is shared by three East African nations — Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

This also is where you find out that Lake Victoria is one of the Great Lakes.

That’s right: North America is not the only continent in the world with a Great Lakes region. The North American version has five lakes in all. Africa’s boasts 15.

Cross-border incursions from Somalia by the jihadi terrorists of al Shabab might make some folks a bit nervous about visiting Kenya these days, but Tanzania and Uganda have no such issues.

And no ebola, either.

So what do they have? Start with great natural beauty. Tanzania has 13 national parks, Uganda 10. Thirty percent of Uganda is covered by water, not bad for a country that is 100 percent land-locked.

Tanzania has Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa and one of the world’s Seven Summits. In the entire world, there are 700 mountain gorillas; 400 of them live and can be seen in Uganda.

Another good place to see the beauty of nature and the majesty of the mountain gorillas is Rwanda. Indeed, TripAdvisor can show you a list of 62 different things that make Rwanda worth a visit.

Kenya has worked hard to give the world the impression that all the Maasai people live within their borders, to the point where they’ve practically become a living symbol of the country, a very tall national brand.

But if you’re skittish about visiting Kenya these days, you can still get to know the Maasai in northern Tanzania, one of the 125 different ethnic groups that live in the country.

Uganda, a country no bigger than Oregon, has 56.

(NOTE: You’ll be hearing more — a lot more — about Uganda on IBIT in the coming days and weeks.)

Keep going south and there’s South Africa. Its wildlife. Its cities. Its wine country. Its coastline. Its history. A whole nation still sorting itself out, post-apartheid, post-Nelson Mandela.

But as you look south, you’ll soon realize there’s a lot more to southern Africa and just South Africa.

Angola. Zambia. Malawi. Mozambique. Botswana. Zimbabwe. Namibia. Each with its own charms, its own attractions, its own layered, complex past.

Off the eastern coast of southern Africa, a short cruise or even shorter flight from the mainland, you have the islands — the Comoros, Reunion, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles.

Speaking of islands, there’s a lovely set of them off West Africa, untouched by ebola — the Cape Verde Islands. They even have their own airline that connect to the United States via Boston.

So as you can see from all the above, if you want to visit Africa without exposing yourself to major hazards, be they natural or man-made, it really isn’t all that hard when you’ve got most of a continent to work with.

All you have to do is turn off the hysteria of the mainstream media and do some research of your own.

Then find yourself a good, knowledgeable travel agent and start making plans for journey of a lifetime.

Some links to help jump-start your research. Let me emphasize that this is just to get you started. If you encounter a problem with any of these links, leave a comment or send me an email:

North Africa
Morocco (in French)

East Africa

Southern Africa
South Africa

African islands
Cape Verde
Comoros (in French)

In addition to guidebooks and Web sites, make a point of seeking out expats from the African countries you wish to visit. Let them know of your interest and ask questions.

LAX to Africa?

Boeing 787 Dreamliner of Ethiopian Airlines
Imagine courtesy of Boeing

Ethiopian Airlines could become the first African air carrier to connect the Mother Continent to the US West Coast.

This time next year, you may be able to fly to Africa from the West Coast of the United States — on an African airline.

Ethiopian Airlines has announced plans to begin flying out of Los Angeles (LAX) to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa (ADD).

The LAX-ADD flight would make a European stopover in Dublin, Ireland (DUB).

This is not just huge. It’s historic.

Currently, the FAA allows only six African airlines to fly to and from the United States. Ethiopian will be the first to touch down anywhere west of the Mississippi.

The airline already flies to ADD out of Washington Dulles (IAD).

It’s but one in a series of ambitious moves signaling the intent of Ethiopian to be recognized as a major player in the air travel industry.

(NOTE: Skytrax, the British airline rating Web site, gives the airline three stars out of a possible five, putting it on a level at least equal to that of most US-based airlines. The highest rated African airline flying to the US is South African Airways, with four stars.)

Ethiopian already is Africa’s largest airline.

For the last several years, it’s been expanding its route map to Europe and Asia, and gone to Boeing for jumbo jets with extended range, including its new state-of-the-art 787 Dreamliner.

In 2017, another long-range specialist, the Airbus A350-900, will join Ethiopian’s fleet.

Its arrival at LAX will definitely raise its profile among international travelers, especially in the US, and could pave the way for the arrival of other African air carriers to the US.

But they aren’t stopping there.

The airline also is looking to open new routes to Madrid and Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.

Clearly, these guys are serious about taking the Ethiopian Airlines brand — and by extension, Ethiopia’s national identity — to almost every corner of the world.

When Boeing was catching hell for the teething pains of its new 787, from being three years late on its first deliveries to a series of problems with its lithium-ion batteries, Ethiopian Airlines stood strong behind both Boeing and the Dreamliner, even as other airlines delayed or cancelled their orders. That loyalty may have helped save the Dreamliner program.

A Dreamliner of Africa
AFRICA — The air game changes
The “Wings of Nigeria” reach the US
AIRLINES: Africa extends her reach

Travel for the dis…enabled

woman in wheelchair on the beach flashing a double victory sign.
© Mauricio Jordan De Souza Coelho | Dreamstime.com

For those with physical disabilities, travel remains a challenge. But there’s now a global industry devoted to helping disabled travelers see the world.

Since I started writing about travel, I’ve fielded a lot of questions about Africa, but the one I got recently at the San Diego Travel & Adventure Show was one I never saw coming:

“Do you have any information on wheelchair access in Morocco?”

The question came from a man in a wheelchair.

Funny how it never occurred to me that people confined to wheelchairs by injuries or illness might be just as interested in seeing the world as everybody else.

Actually, it’s not funny. I should’ve known better. So I started looking into the possibilities.

I’ve seen enough on my own travels around the world to realize that accessibility for travelers with handicaps is, to put it mildly, uneven, spotty, hit and miss — in developed as well as developing countries.

Lots of public buildings with stairs and escalators, but no elevator. Curb cuts, supposedly to enable wheelchair users to safely cross streets, that were barely wide enough to handle two skateboards side by side.

Public restrooms with doors and stalls so narrow that a physically unhindered person could have a tough time using them.

Not long ago, I saw a place using a piece of corrugated iron laid over a set of stairs as a wheelchair ramp. It was steep enough to use for an Olympic ski jump and barely wide enough to accommodate a child’s tricycle, much less a wheelchair.

And that was in Los Angeles.

Still, I reasoned, there had to be some tour operators out there specializing in accessible travel.

In fact, there’s an army of them, specializing in creating independent tours for individuals, family trips or group tours to virtually every major region of the world. Cruises, adventure tours, you name it.

The first one I looked at had already run tours this year to Alaska, Chile and Argentina, with more upcoming to Amsterdam, Italy, Peru and South Africa.

I found others offering “wheelchair holidays,” as well as guidance and suggestions for independent disabled travelers, in Quebec, London, Ireland, Rome, Barcelona, Beijing, Thailand, Bali, Vietnam, Ecuador, Australia, Israel, Mexico, Russia, Jamaica, Greece, Portugal, Iceland, Egypt, Switzerland.

And yes, Morocco.

That’s only a fraction of the destinations where you’ll find people working to offer accessible travel. I even came across an outfit that specializes in safaris in southern Africa for the disabled.

If you can do a safari from a wheelchair, there aren’t many places in the world where you can’t go.

Noir is it all about those confined to wheelchairs. Dialysis patients are no longer tied to static locations. An IBIT reader who happens to be both a good friend and a dialysis patient passed along these links to share with you (thanks, kimmers!):

There’s also a non-profit organization devoted to advocating for accessible travel. It’s called SATH, the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality. It provides a lot of good advice to disabled travelers and looks as if it could be a pretty good resource for travel agents with disabled clients.

A ton of challenges remain for disabled travelers, and those who must deal daily with the realities of wheelchairs and braces and oxygen and dialysis are far more aware of the full extent of those obstacles than I.

Also, the sheer number of travel providers for the disabled, in the United States and worldwide, almost guarantees that there may be a few wolves lurking among the sheep, looking to rip off the unwary travel planner.

So you need to check out such companies as thoroughly as you can before committing your money — not to mention your health and safety — to traveling with them. SATH might be able to help with that. So too can the Better Business Bureau and TripAdvisor.

But the fundamental fact remains. Disabilities and all, you can still see the world, and have a grand time doing it.

And if you’re a travel agent, this is a market you need to take seriously.

CRUISE: Autism at sea