Tag Archives: United States

WINE, Part 1 — The Undiscovered Countries

First of a two-part series

Pursuit of great wine is as good a reason as any to travel. That pursuit can take you to places you might not expect, or even believe.

Not long ago, I was skimming through a catalog of university extension classes when I came across a course about competition in the world wine market, focusing on four countries — France, Italy, the United States and Australia.

Seeing that course description made two things instantly clear:

  1. Wine is a great reason to travel the world.
  2. If you’re looking at only four countries, whether as a traveler or as a winemaker, you are NOT ready for what awaits you in the world of wines.

The reality is that most of the world’s nations produce wines. Some are as far away as Kazakhstan, others as close as Canada and Mexico.

Baja California’s wine country, less than an hour’s drive from the port city of Ensenada, is turning out some truly world-class wines. Canada, meanwhile, produces something truly unique — ice wine, made from grapes frozen on the vines.

In Europe, it’s easier finding countries that don’t make wine. Indeed, you can find a truly world-class wine almost in any corner of the world, including several that might not occur to you when you’re thinking of a wine vacation.

As the video above shows, a journey to begin discovery to the world’s undiscovered wine countries doesn’t even require a passport, just a road map.

Yes, California, Virginia is also wine country. As are New York, Washington, Oregon, Michigan — in all, at least 35 of the 50 United States. Add it all up and it’s easy to see why this country is the world’s fourth largest wine producer, behind France, Italy and Spain.

So who holds down the fifth spot, behind the US? That would be Argentina, which I can tell you from my experience produces some spectacular red wines. As does rival Chile. But both those South American nations now qualify as “usual suspects” in the wine world.

Where are the others? Believe me, there are lots. The Wine Institute lists at least 58 countries in the world that produce wine.

Mention Germany and we automatically think of beer, but Deutschland also happens to be the world’s tenth largest maker of wine. Right behind GermanyRussia. Yes, the land world-famous for its vodka also makes wine.

We know about Portugal because of its famed port wines. So given its cultural connection on the other side of the Atlantic, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Portuguese-speaking Brazil is right behind them on the list of winemaking nations.

Greece is on that list. So is Turkey. So is China. So, too, are places like Moldova and Morocco, Uruguay and Paraguay, Uzbekistan and Japan.

Britain — yes, Britain!has a wine country. So does Ethiopia.

You want to really get crazy with this? Saudi Arabia makes wines.

All the world’s wines won’t be of the same variety or quality, but that’s not the point. Travel gives you a chance to experience things you can’t find at home, and you never know where you might find a liquid gem in a country flying under the world’s winemaking radar.

Nor is that concept limited to wines.

On a trip to the Dominican Republic to attend the Serie del Caribe, the Caribbean World Series, a seaside restaurant in Santo Domingo polished off our dinner with a shot of Guavaberry, the national liqueur from the Caribbean island of St. Maarten, made from the fruit of the same name.

I would spend the rest of that week stalking liquor stores in the DR, looking for a bottle of it to bring home. In vain. Turns out that Guavaberry is made nowhere else in the world, and they don’t export it. There are only two ways to get it, order it online or go to St. Maarten.

The traveler in you will want to pick Door Number Two.

So when you head out to see the world, try to leave enough room in your suitcase for at least one bottle of good drink. Odds are, wherever you are, you’ll have a chance to bring something back.

NEXT: The world’s black winemakers

CRUISING: Up a lively river

River cruise ships

River cruise ships — © Alenmax | Dreamstime.com

There’s a lot more to cruise travel than sailing the seven seas on gigantic floating bazaars. River cruises offer a smaller scale, more intimate, and sometimes even hands-on experience.

The hottest segment of cruise travel is river travel — new ships being built, new itineraries and destinations in the works, new cruise packages being offered. In Europe and Asia especially, river cruising is big and getting bigger.

Cruising a river as a different vibe than ocean cruising. In general, the whole experience is more intimate. If anything, it might be closer to what ocean cruising used to be, before the cruise ships evolved into enormous floating theme parks.

A typical modern river cruise vessel will typically carry only about 100-200 passengers total, maybe as many as 400 for the very largest ones. Your newer ocean cruise ships nowadays carry more than double that on one deck.

That means just about everything on the river cruise — from boarding to meals to disembarking — figures to be faster and a lot less hectic.

River cruisers aren’t just smaller. Their cabins are all lower to the water and every cabin gets a nice big window. The newer ones come with a balcony, as well, the better to take in the views.

When you cruise the world’s oceans, there will be days when all you see is ocean. Endless sea, endless sky, air that doesn’t smell like auto exhaust. If you’re lucky, maybe a few or a few hundred dolphins showing off beneath you. For some folks — and I’m one of them — that’s plenty entertainment enough.

Lots of other folks aren’t nearly that easily amused at sea, however. The cruise lines know it, and they’re designing their newer ships accordingly.

The two biggest lines today, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, are so worried that their thousands of passengers might grow bored that they’ve spent the last decade or so transforming their ships into floating entertainment centers — restaurant districts, amusement parks, theaters and shopping malls at sea. Not to mention the bars and casinos, of course.

The only thing missing, mercifully, is the parking lot.

You won’t find all that hype aboard a river cruiser. The river itself, and the lands through which it passes, are the stars of the show. And unlike an ocean cruise, when you’re plying a great river, the scenery changes by the day, the hour, the minute.

Towering skylines give way to towering forests, mountains, sand dunes, farm fields, vineyards. Above the banks of European rivers, you may spy castles, cathedrals. In Asia, perhaps ancient temples. In Africa, wildlife.

Vessels of all kinds, from small pleasure boats to low-slung barges laden with cargo, huge freighters and tankers, and even the occasional sea-going cruise giant, form lines of traffic that literally flow on either side of you.

You’ll also see people — working, playing, living on and with the river.

I discovered all this, oddly enough, during a Caribbean cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas. The cruise originated in New Orleans, which meant that the first day was spent slowly negotiating a hundred miles of the twisting, turning Mississippi River.

Around every serpentine bend, it seemed, there was something waiting to hook your attention — a massive oil refinery here, a historic battlefield there, huge commercial vessels flying the flags of seemingly half the United Nations.

Who needs a television in the cabin when the best show going is right outside?

And river cruises offer shore excursions, just like than sea-going counterparts.

Nor is river cruising a one-size-fits-all affair. As small as most river cruise vessels are compared with oceangoing cruise ships, you can go smaller still, aboard commercial barge converted to carry passengers, some carrying as few as six. You’ll see a lot of these in Europe, plying the smaller rivers and canals long abandoned by most commercial traffic.

The pace is leisurely enough that you can take a bike ashore and ride ahead, exploring the countryside and stopping in villages along the way, then re-boarding downstream in time for lunch or dinner.

In places where old hand-cranked locks help raise and lower barges along the canals, you can even get off the barge and lend a hand cranking the gates open and closed.

Unlike the ocean cruise industry, which is dominated by a relative handful of giant companies, there are far more river cruise operators around the world. Some sail in multiple regins around the world, while others limit themselves to a single country or continent:

RIVER CRUISE LINES
Ama Waterways (Europe, Asia, Africa)
Avalon Waterways (Europe, Asia, Africa, USA)
Grand Circle Travel (Europe)
Tauck (Europe)
Uniworld (Europe, Asia, Africa)
Vantage Travel (Europe, Asia)
Viking River Cruises (Europe, Asia, Africa)
President Cruises (China)

Europe is the old-school venue for river cruising, and you can cruise the Amazon River in South America, as well as Russia. But the hot new river cruise market is in Asia.

The growth of tourism in China and Vietnam, coupled with the opening up of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is opening up ancient river and breathtakingly beautiful country little seen by Western travelers. It’s the reason river cruise lines like Viking are busily building new ships.

China in particular is offering tour packages that include not only Yangtze River and Three Gorges cruises, but airfare to and from China as part of the package, sometimes for substantially less than $2,000 per person.

Indeed, the one country that seems to be lagging when it comes to river cruising is the United States, which has some of the world’s major rivers — including the one that Native Americans dubbed “the father of waters,” the Mississippi.

What you find mainly in this country is a relative handful of steamboat cruises, aboard actual old-time steamboats or modern replicas of them. The theme is almost always the same, trying to re-create the ambiance of Old South. Antebellum 2.0, so to speak. Mansions, plantations, cotton and sugar cane fields. Slavery. Ah, the “good old days.”

I’ll pass.

IBIT says: Until somebody comes along to make river cruising as modern and attractive here in the States as it is elsewhere in the world — without the sanitized version of US history as a bonus — I’ll look Europe, South America and Asia for a chance to head upriver.

ALSO CHECK OUT:
CRUISE TRENDS 2013: The heat is on

the IBIT Travel Digest 2.10.13

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

Hong Kong fireworks

Hong Kong fireworks — © Farang | Dreamstime.com

Wishing peace, health and prosperity to our IBIT friends in China and Chinatowns around the world as they ring in the Year of the Snake on this Lunar New Year.

EAT, DRINK AND GO TRAVEL
Every so often, I go back through old digests of mine to look for recurring themes — and if you’re a regular reader of the IBIT Travel Digest, there’s at least one you’ve spotted already. Nearly every digest, it seems, features at least one mention of food or drink.

So starting today, FOOD & DRINK gets its own section in the digest — and it kicks off with two subjects equally dear to my heart and my tastebuds.

New Orleans was a foodie town long before someone invented the term “foodie.” The word itself is out of favor these days among the blogerati (not that I give a damn), but the NOLA’S flare for flavor will never die.

From its beginnings, New Orleans cuisine has blended a mélange of influences — French, Spanish, Native American, African, Italian, Irish. Starting with the 1980s, though, a new taste fell into the city’s gumbo pot — the flavors of Vietnam.

San Diego was the first American city to receive South Vietnamese refugees en masse following the 1975 fall of Saigon, which made it the first to be exposed to Vietnamese dishes in a big way.It didn’t take long for pho and banh mi, with their fresh ingredients and vibrant mix of flavors, to become staples here.

And for you gumbo purists out there (and you know who you are): Yes, they do put in okra on request.

But while the Vietnamese cuisine tsunami was washing over San Diego, other refugees gravitated to the Gulf of Mexico to resume their lives as fishermen. Inevitably, many settled in New Orleans.

A city that already treated po’boys and gumbo as basic food groups had little trouble embracing pho soups and banh mi sandwiches. And among the Vietnamese and their descendants who grew up in the NOLA, the feeling seems to be mutual, as the New York Times recently discovered.

Today, within an easy drive from my house in San Diego are at least two Vietnamese restaurants whose menu is a mix of Vietnamese and New Orleans Creole dishes, run together by people from both locales. The nearest one features a daily special that includes half a banh mi and a bowl of gumbo.

But the best place to see the result of this marriage of cultures is in the Crescent City itself and you’ll see it below in the inaugural FOOD & DRINK section of the IBIT Travel Digest.

IBIT says: Bon appétit…or perhaps, chúc ngon miệng!

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WILL TRAVEL FOR JAZZ
Back at the turn of the 20th century, as Europe was plunging into the first of its two disastrous world wars, Paris witnessed the arrival of blacks from America, mostly soldiers, who brought with them a style of music Parisians had never heard before.

The Americans called it jazz, and Paris promptly fell in love with it. And as Jonathan Lorie discovered when he went roaming Ernest Hemingway’s old Parisian haunts for London’s The Guardian newspaper, the love still burns.

Jazz may be an American invention — perhaps the best of all American inventions — but there may be no better place to enjoy it than Paris. And as you’ll see in Lorie’s article, there are a lot of venues in the City of Light where you can enjoy it.

Lorie’s piece also links four other famed Jazz Age authors — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Christopher Isherwood and Somerset Maugham — and their jazz hangouts from New York to Germany and even Sri Lanka.

But if all these folks were still around today, they all might leave their hearts in San Francisco. The reason is SFJAZZ, which opened late last month in the city’s Hayes Valley neighborhood.

It is the first concert hall in the United States — and maybe the world — built expressly for jazz. It features an auditorium, an ensemble room, rehearsal areas, a digital learning lab, and even a sidewalk cafe.

IBIT says: Hemingway would’ve dug it…once he got used to the no-smoking rule.

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AND FINALLY…
USA Today reports that Kate Hanni, head of the airline consumer organization FlyersRights.org, is stepping down as the group’s executive director, walking away from the outfit she founded in 2006.

You can read the entire USA Today story here.

She formed Flyers Rights after being stuck on the tarmac aboard an American Airlines flight in Austin, TX — for nearly nine hours — and getting little more than lip service from the airline. Her outspoken efforts since then led to federal regulations governing how the airlines handle flight delays.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Hanni didn’t make a lot of friends in the airline industry during her time with Flyers Rights, but she did prove that consumers who organize at the grassroots and speak truth to power can make a difference.

IBIT says: Thanks for all you did, Kate, and all you tried to do.

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And now, here’s The Digest:

AIR
from the Los Angeles Times
In the eternal hunt for airfare bargains, booking too early can be as costly as booking too late.

from Travel Weekly
You may soon be able to watch in-flight shows and movies on-demand on Southwest Airlines flights, streamed to your own personal electronic devices. That’s the good news. The bad news? You’ll be paying extra for it.

from Budget Travel
A survey of travel agents says that when it comes to booking their clients on connecting flights, Atlanta-Hartsfield is one of their most favorite airports. It’s also one of their least favorite airports. Am I confused? No. I’m just booking non-stops.

from Travel Weekly
Frequent-flier miles…from an airport? Starting in June, the parking, food, merchandise or airport hotel stay you buy at Dallas-Ft. Worth International (DFW) will count toward airline miles.

from FareCompare
When is a “free” airline ticket not really free at all? FareCompare’s Rick Seaney counts the ways, and there are five of them.

LAND
from Condé Nast Traveler
The world’s ten most beautiful train stations, according to CN Traveler, right on time as New York’s Grand Central Terminal marks its 100th anniversary. Some are classic, others ultra-modern, and some brilliantly mix old and new. SLIDESHOW

from Travel Weekly
For the third time since it first opened in 1981, San Francisco is set to expand its Moscone convention center.

SEA
from the New York Times
Lust and luxury aboard the Queen Mary 2. Just don’t call it a “cruise.” It’s just not done, you know…

from Travel Weekly
Kai Tak, Hong Kong’s old airport, where almost every landing seemed like an adventure, is returning to the travel business — this time as a gleaming $1 billion cruise ship terminal that can handle the largest vessels in the business, even Royal Caribbean’s behemoth Oasis-class ships.

FOOD & DRINK
from the New York Times
In New Orleans, they know their pho — and their yaka mein. If you don’t know either, read up. WARNING: Your mouth may involuntarily water while reading.

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AFRICA
from Travel Weekly
The Radisson hotel chain opens its first Radisson Blu hotel in Mozambique.

from TechZim (Zimbabwe)
New travel startup, Zimbabwe Bookers, aims to make finding hotel rooms easier for travelers in one of Africa’s growing tourist markets.

from Tanzania Daily News (Tanzania) via allAfrica.com
Tanzania draws up plans to aggressively promote tourism in overseas markets. Its top four markets — Britain, the United States, Germany and Italy.

from Angola Press via allAfrica.com
Angola’s environmental agency building bungalows, other facilities in the country’s national parks in a bid to boost ecotourism.

AMERICAS
from The Guardian (London UK)
When your mother takes you on a sailing excursion to Central America at the age of six, just the two of you — and it lasts for four years — school field trips may have a hard time holding your attention after that.

from the New York Times
A look at San Juan, Puerto Rico, starting with one of my favorite spots — Condado Lagoon. SLIDESHOW

from The Guardian (London UK)
Are you into “Girls?” I’m referring here to the HBO hit TV series, set in Brooklyn. A look at the neighborhoods that give the show its inspiration.

ASIA/PACIFIC
from the Washington Post
Singapore spent so many decades living with the reputation of being the straight-laced capital of Asia, that it’s hard to imagine this city-state having a quirky side. But it does have one. Yes, it does.

EUROPE
from France 24
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of…graffiti? The city’s Shoreditch neighborhood is becoming a mecca for lovers of street art.

Edited by P.A.Rice

the IBIT Travel Digest 1.27.13

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

IMG_1605

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

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

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

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

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

I have. I don’t recommend it.

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

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

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

To apply for the Global Entry program, start here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And now, here’s The Digest:

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

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

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

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

LAND

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

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

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

from Time
Has snowboarding lost its mojo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RANT: Does America need a tourism czar?

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image26963455

Our haphazard, unfocused, uncoordinated efforts to sell America to the world’s tourists won’t cut it in the 21st century. We have to do better.

President Barack Obama last year signed an executive order creating a task force to design a National Travel & Tourism Strategy. It was a follow-up to his 2010 signing of the Travel Promotion Act of 2009.

Believe it or not, it’s the first time in our history that the US government has set promoting foreign travel to America as a national priority, something that most of the world’s nations, from the poorest to the richest, have been doing for decades.

To American ears, the title “tourism minister” has a quaint, even comic ring to it. To the rest of the world, however, it’s no joke, and here’s why:

Some time last month, a man or woman packed a bag and boarded a plane, train, bus or a ship to travel from one country to another, maybe for business but more likely for pleasure. That person was the one billionth traveler of 2012, the first time the world has ever seen that many people traveling in one year.

Tourism worldwide generates about $1 trillion and hundreds of millions of jobs annually. It’s growing almost in defiance of the recession. Just about every nation on Earth wants as big a piece of that action as it can get, and they’re all working very hard at getting it.

The world’s top ten tourism destinations, in order, are France, the United States, China, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Germany, Mexico and Malaysia. The US is the only one of the ten that doesn’t have a Cabinet-level official devoted to promoting tourism.

Some may argue that America has done well enough at attracting tourists without needing one. “We’re Number Two! We’re Number Two!” What’s the problem with that? Let me count the ways.

  1. Our Economy American unemployment is unacceptably high. This country has been bleeding manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs for decades and those jobs are not coming back. At the same time, you will be hard-pressed to find another industry in the world generating more new business and new cash flow than tourism. Think this economy could use some new jobs?
  2. Our Pride Since when were Americans content to be Number Two in anything?

And yet we sort of muddle our way through the business of attracting more visitors — and their money — to this country.

New York City is America’s top travel destination, and last year, the Big Apple drew a record 52 million visitors. The fact that the City of New York runs 18 tourism offices around the world probably had something to do with that.

It’s great that New York can afford to run its own overseas promotional campaign, but why should it have to? And what about all our other great cities that can’t afford to run their own foreign offices?

The Travel Promotion Act of 2009 created something called the Office of Travel Promotion within the US Commerce Department. Show of digital hands: How many of you out there ever heard of the Office of Travel Promotion before this moment?

If I dig long and hard enough, I can probably find out who runs this office and what it’s doing on behalf of American tourism — but why should I have to? Why should anyone have to?

I could easily tell you who’s in charge of tourism in Denmark, Brazil, Singapore, Botswana, or more than a hundred other countries. All the government’s efforts to bring in more visitors flow with a single, concentrated focus through that person’s office.

Who holds that responsibility in the United States? Who is the face of American tourism in Washington? Thirteen years into the 21st century, I have no idea — and I’m betting you don’t, either.

The federal government’s attempts to push American tourism abroad hasn’t even taxied to the head of the runway yet and already, it’s a hot, disjointed mess — a board here, an office there, a task force over in the corner.

Who’s running this?

Somebody needs to take charge here, a Cabinet-level official with the clout to pull all these scattered efforts together, and a profile that guarantees direct access to the President and Congress when necessary.

A tourism secretary. A tourism minister. A tourism czar. The title itself doesn’t matter, but the need for it does. Because the global competition for those $1 trillion is heating up, and the rest of the world is not waiting around for Washington to get its act together.

the IBIT DIGEST 10-28-12

The good, the bad and the bizarre from the world’s best travel media

awash coffee ceremony

©IBIT/G. Gross

HIT THE COFFEE ROAD
In addition to wildlife safaris, history and heritage, you now have a new reason to visit East Africa: coffee. An outfit called ET African Journeys is offering a 14-day tour next month called Ethiopia & the Birth of Coffee.

Don’t expect a lot of “down” time on this trip. The package includes visits to a coffee cooperative and at least three different local tribes — the Erbore, Kanso and Woito peoples. You’ll also head into the Great Rift Valley for 4×4 drives and boat rides on valley lakes, as well as the Blue Nile Falls. You’ll also be seeing two different UN World Heritage sites, the castles of Gondar and the rock churches of Lalibela.

Lest you drop from sheer exhaustion and sensory overload, they’ve also worked a couple of resort and spa stays into those 14 days, as well.

Ethiopia is where coffee was born and there are those of you who will swear it’s the best in the world. It spread east into the Arab world and then to Europe before finally making its way to the Americas and the rest of the planet.

I’ve never been a big coffee drinker, but after getting my first taste of it during San Diego’s African Restaurant Week, I can tell you this: Ethiopian coffee is the only coffee I’ve ever had that I would willingly drink black. It’s smooth, it’s flavorful and it won’t bite your tongue off.

I’ll make my apologies to Juan Valdez later.

The tour departs Washington DC’s Dulles airport on Nov. 30 aboard a long-range Boeing 777 jumbo jet from Ethiopian Airlines. For more information, go to the ET African Journeys site here.

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AMERICAN DELIVERS…SORT OF
Think of this as a kind of pre-emptive strike from American Airlines.

We all know how much travelers resent those airline baggage fees. We also know that travelers are starting to turn toward air freight companies and luggage shipping services to get their bags picked up and delivered, thumbing their noses at the airlines in the process.

Well, before too many more folks opt out of letting the airlines handle their bags, American has decided to partner up with one of those services to offer its own baggage delivery. For a fee, you can now bypass the luggage carousel and let American deliver your bags to your home or hotel.

You can read about it here at Travel Weekly.

Sounds like a great idea, and a pretty slick move by American…until you learn that you pay for this extra service on top of the airline’s checked bag fees. That, I suspect, will be a deal-breaker for a lot of travelers.

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AIR ALTERNATIVE TO PARIS
OpenSkies is a small upscale subsidiary of British Airways that flies trans-Atlantic routes with smaller Boeing 757 narrow-body jets set up to be more comfortable for travelers willing to pay for a pricier ticket.

In addition to offering more legroom, nicer meals and seats that don’t leave you feeling you’ve spent six hours in a vise, the airline is now offering flights from New York into Paris’ other major airport, Orly.

Most international travelers, especially from North America, usually fly into Paris via the massive, chaotic and perpetually packed Charles de Gaulle international airport. If you’ve experienced CDG in the past — and would do anything to avoid a repeat of it — this may be your chance.

And now, here’s the Digest:

AIR
from SmarterTravel
You know those controversial airport X-ray body scanners? The TSA is quietly replacing them with scanners believed to be less potentially harmful. But the old machines aren’t going away, just being moved to smaller airports.

from Yahoo Travel
Coming soon to an airline near you — personalized airfares. Individual airfares based on your personal profile data and travel history. Good deal or something sinister? Read and decide.

from Smarter Travel
Eight foods and beverages to avoid when you fly. Some, like beans and garlic, are no-brainers. Others, like alcohol, are no surprise. But sugar-free gum?

from Travel Weekly
With Orbitz, you may not always know: the federal government fines the online travel agency $25,000 for failing to properly disclose airline baggage fees.

from USA Today
Feel like living dangerously? North Korea’s Air Koryo, judged by aviation experts around the globe as the world’s worst airline, launches a Web site. Apparently, the site is about as functional as the airline it represents. Pyongyang, anyone?

LAND
from the Travel+Lesure via the BBC
The five best neighborhoods in America for authentic ethnic food — and you won’t see a lot of “the usual suspects” on the list. If you have dissenting opinions, list your own nominees in the Comments section. SLIDESHOW

from SmarterTravel
Was it something you said? Five phrases never found on the lips of a good traveler. SLIDESHOW

from Travel Weekly
There’s a little less competition in the rental car business these days. Hertz is buying up Dollar Thrifty. Good news for Hertz. For the traveling consumer, probably not so much. But the feds still have to bless this merger, and there’s no guarantee that they will.

from the United Nations
UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, adds 26 new locations to its list of world Heritage Sites. Meanwhile, the crew at SmarterTravel picks its ten favorites. Your bucket list may need a bigger bucket.

from USA Today
Few visitors to New York City have reason to hit Staten Island, even with the lure of a free ferry ride from Manhattan. That could change by 2016 if plans go ahead to build the world’s biggest Ferris wheel in the Big Apple’s most ignored borough.

SEA
from Travel Weekly
This from Carnival Cruise Lines: No more saving deck chair for someone who’s not on deck.

from Travel Weekly
For those who plan ahead: The Cunard line has already set its world cruise itineraries for 2014 The cruises can last three months — but Cunard will let you buy much shorter segments, as short as eight days.

AFRICA
from CNN Travel
If unique wildlife is your thing, then Tanzania may be your place. Who’s up for a safari?

from Bulawayo 24 via Travel Comments
Ahead of next year’s big general assembly of the UN World Tourism Organization in Zimbabwe, three African airlines are adding more flights to Victoria Falls. You don’t have to be a UNWTO attendee to take advantage.

from Gadling
Forget trick-or-treat. If you want to see something truly spooky, check out the annual migration of 8 million African bats. Relax, they only eat fruit.

AMERICAS
from the BBC
New entry fees and visa requirements going into effect in Argentina and other South American countries. If you’re planning a trip to South America, don’t wait until departure day to get yourself up to speed on the new requirements. If you do, you may never get out of the airport.

from Agence France Presse via France 24
You know all that stuff you’ve been hearing about how the Mayan calendar forecasts the end of the world in 2012? Well, the Mayans say it’s all bogus and they have one word for all the folks out there pushing this myth: STOP.

from the New York Times
Want to really go New Age in Santa Fe, NM — and get healthier at the same time? Explore it by bike.

from The Guardian (London UK)
El Vilsito. Auto mechanics by day, wonderfully fixed up tacos al pastor by night. Only in Mexico City.

ASIA
from Xinhua News Agency via CNNgo
China is taking not quite $1 million to turn its first atomic bomb test center into…a theme park? Swords into plowshares is one thing but, uhh…wow. This is one new tourist hotspot that could be just that.

from China Daily
For decades, travelers from around the world have descended on Hong Kong in search of bargains. Now, te Chinese are doing it, too.

from The Province (Vancouver, BC, CANADA)
There’s a lot to see and do in Hong Kong. There’s even more to see and do outside one of the world’s most densely crowded cities. Venture out.

EUROPE
from The Guardian (London UK)
There are lots of good reasons these days to visit the Czech Republic. Here’s one you may not have heard about — good skiing, incredibly cheap.

from the BBC
In Paris, the Seine is getting a 35 million euro makeover that will make the riverbanks more pedestrian friendly and even more attractive to locals and visitors alike. It comes at the expense of daily commuting motorists, who are less than thrilled.

from CNN Travel
Ten cool and free things to enjoy in Paris, including your own guided tour with a local. Did I mention that it’s all free?

TRAINS: Bring back the North American Rail Pass

old train station

© Josefhanus | Dreamstime.com

A month-long pass for rail travel between the United States and Canada? It seemed like a great idea. So why did Amtrak decide to kill it?

Anyone who’s even explored the possibility of traveling in Europe has probably heard of the Eurailpass, which lets you travel between a certain number of European countries in a month, or allows you a certain number of train travel days per month.

It’s a great, economical way to see Europe, with the comfort and convenience of train travel as a bonus. And as an absolute fan of rail travel, I sure wish we had something like that here in North America.

So it came as a somewhat unpleasant surprise to learn that, until relatively recently, we did. It was a cooperative venture between our Amtrak and Via Rail of Canada. For one set fee of $423, you could travel for 30 days in both countries.

It was called the North American Rail Pass and it was a great idea. Until 2008, when Amtrak unilaterally discontinued it.

You can get a USA Rail Pass good for 15, 30 or 45 days of rail travel, or a California Rail Pass good for 21 days up and down the state, but those obviously are good only in the United States.

Likewise, you can get a Canrailpass from Via Rail good for coast-to-coast travel across Canada, but only Canada.

The idea of a rail pass that allows travel between the two neighboring North American giants, with all their beautiful scenery and great cities? Gone. Dead.

It wasn’t Via Rail’s idea to kill it off. Amtrak did that. I just don’t know why.

To make it easier for U.S. and Canadian rail passengers to travel between the two countries by train made so much sense for both sides.

Canadians could do a lovely little loop from Toronto south through Chicago and Memphis to New Orleans, then back north via Atlanta and Washington DC aboard the Amtrak Crescent before crossing back into Canada and hitting Quebec City and Montreal on the return.

Americans, meanwhile, could head north from Los Angeles aboard the Coast Starlight up to Vancouver, BC, where they could head east across the Rockies and the great plains, then past the Great Lakes to Toronto before heading south to New Orleans, only this time swinging west aboard the Sunset Limited back to LAX.

So far, I haven’t found anything that gives a clear explanation for why Amtrak decided to do away with this. What was Amtrak afraid of?

If it wants to emphasize USA Rail Passes, fine, but why not offer both? Rail travelers who wished to confine themselves to the US or Canada would simply buy one of the national rail passes in either of those countries, while travelers who wanted to ride the trains on both sides of the border would still be able to do so for a great price. Everybody wins.

Or they did…until four years ago.

Especially in this era when so many people find air travel to be such a miserable experience, wouldn’t it make sense for Amtrak to seize on every opportunity it can find to encourage travel by train, even if it meant sharing some of the proceeds with its northern neighbor?

If I ever find out what Amtrak’s rationale was behind killing the North American Rail Pass, I’ll be sure to share it with you. Meanwhile, we fans of rail travel can hope that sanity one day returns — and brings back the North American Rail Pass along with it.

ADDENDUM
I’ve reached out to Amtrak’s public affairs people to see if anyone will tell me why Amtrak chose to unilaterally do away with the North American Rail Pass. When I get an answer, IBIT will publish it.

Edited by P.A.Rice

VISAS: The traveler’s hall pass

Obtaining visas for international travel can be more of a pain than getting a passport, and you’ll do it a lot more often. Luckily, there are folks who will help you — for a fee, naturally.

The most important travel document you’ll ever own is your passport. Number Two may well be those visa stamps imprinted in it.

A visa is essentially your hall pass to enter someone else’s country, so it stands to reason that governments would be careful in issuing them, especially in a post-9/11 world. Still, obtaining visas in advance of a trip can be a time-consuming, expensive headache, especially when dealing directly with foreign embassies.

I’ve heard some real horror stories from travelers trying to obtain simple tourist visas.

There are passport agencies, usually government offices, that can help you get your passport within a matter of several weeks — or for an extra charge, even faster. There also are privately-run passport expediters which, for an additional fee, can get your passport for you in a week or even less.

But you only have to go through the hassle of obtaining a new passport every ten years. You could need two, three or more visas in a single year. Wouldn’t it be great if there were services to help you cut through the aggravation of acquiring a visa?

Well, I just discovered that there are. They’re known as visa service agencies, and there are scores of them, if not hundreds, across the United States. A few examples include:

(NOTE: I pulled these outfits at random as examples of what’s available. Their listing here in no way represents an endorsement by IBIT.)

Some agencies provide visas for virtually any country requiring one from US visitors. Others specialize in certain countries or regions of the world. Several offer to expedite your passport, as well as visas, some in as little as 24 hours.

They may offer other services, too, such as notary public and/or power of attorney services to authenticate documents for legal use in other countries. They also may translate your legal documents from English into other languages.

A few things to bear in mind:

  1. Due diligence is the watchword here. Check out these agencies with the Better Business Bureau, travel trade organizations with codes of ethics, such as the American Society of Travel Agents, the US Tour Operators Association, the Global Business Travel Association, and anyone else you can think of. You are entrusting important personal documents to the care of strangers, so it behooves you to make sure that the agency itself is trustworthy.
  2. Being private, for-profit enterprises, the visa service agencies will be charging you a fee on top of what the government charges for the visa itself. The faster the service, the higher the fee.
  3. Each agency has its own way of doing things. Once you’ve chosen an agency to help you with your visa, make yourself familiar with their procedures beforehand, preferably by talking to a live human being who can explain the steps.
  4. In terms of the documentation required, applying for a visa is almost identical to applying for a passport. You’ll need proof of identity, proof of citizenship, and a couple of passport-sized photos of yourself.
  5. Unless there’s an agency in your town, you will have to mail the agency your passport or other required personal documents for processing. This makes some folks nervous but there’s no way around it — and in truth, passports move this way all the time, almost without incident.

One last thing, which could end up saving you money as well as time.

If you’re taking a package tour to a country that requires a visa, your tour providers may offer to obtain your visa for you (for a fee, of course). Check with a visa service agency to see if they can do it cheaper.

Bear in mind that you’ll have to pay the agency fee, the mailing costs and the visa application fee charged by the country you plan to visit. Even so, if you act early enough, you just might find that going through the agency for your visa is cheaper than the tour operator.

Remember too that he who hesitates pays more. There may be emergencies that suddenly crop up that leave you no choice, but that’s not most of us, most of the time. Don’t let procrastination cost you money that you could’ve brought with you on your trip.

THE ENTRY FEE AMBUSH
Even with your prepaid visa affixed to your passport, you still may have to crack open your wallet one more time before being admitted into the country you want to visit.

Many countries around the world charge entry fees just to enter the airport as a foreign visitor. These fees can range from a few bucks to well in access of $100 — per person.

It’s retaliation, and it has everything to do with 9/11.

After the World Trade Center attacks, the US government needed ways to fund its newly created Department of Homeland Security. One was to start charging entry fees to a wide range of foreign visitors, most of them from countries with no history of terrorism against the United States.

Most of the countries whose citizens were stung by these new fees answered with entry fees of their own, strictly for Americans. And like seemingly everything else in life, they have been creeping upward ever since.

Edited by P.A. Rice

the IBIT TRAVEL DIGEST 4.22.12

The good, bad and bizarre from the world’s best travel media.

©James Vallee | Dreamstime.com

AIR
AIRPORT APP
You’re at the airport, with hours to kill before boarding, but your laptop’s battery is running low. Ever wish there were a smartphone app that could not just tell you, but show you where the electric outlets are in your particular airport terminal?

Well, according to the folks at TNOOZ, there is one — or soon will be. It’s called AirportPlugs.

It’s stil in beta test mode, and so far, it’s only set for five airports in the western United States, but you’ve got to love the concept. Can’t wait to see how it looks — and performs — once it’s ready to go.

DON’T TEXT AND FLY
It was bound to happen: An Australian airliner blew a final approach into Singapore’s Changi airport recently. The reason: Instrument interference from the pilot’s cell phone, which he later said he’d forgotten to turn off.

It forced the crew to declare a “missed approach” and go around for a second landing attempt, which is serious business at any airport and led to an official inquiry.

They’re lucky Alec Baldwin wasn’t in the cockpit; the plane might’ve crashed.

CHARGING FOR CARRY-ONS
Allegiant Airlines has become the second air carrier in the United States to charge passengers for stowing carry-on luggage in the overhead bins.

Spirit Airlines, not the most passenger-friendly carrier in the industry, started this nonsense back in 2010. Two years later, Allegiant has seen fit to follow suit. Allegiant president Andrew Levy calls this latest add-on fee part of “an ongoing effort to develop an innovative, new approach to travel.”

I have my own terms for this kind of “innovation,” but I try not to use that kind of language here on IBIT.

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from the New York Times
Take advantage of the federal government’s express check-in programs to speed past security lines. You’ll have to pay for them, but the time saved — and aggravation avoided — just might be worth it.

from the Washington Post
Even as those federal express check-in programs take hold, however, one of them may already be on shaky ground. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s from the TSA. What a surprise…

from USA Today
For the airline business, rising fuel costs are becoming like Jason in all those Friday the 13th horror movies, a killer that won’t go away.

from msnbc
A TSA inspector at Dallas-Fort Worth airport finds an envelope with $9,500 in cash inside…and not only turns it in, but tracks down its owner and returns it to him. There may be hope for this outfit yet.

from CNNgo
Is airline code-sharing dead? The head of an up-and-coming low-fare Asian airline says yes, among other things.

LAND
RENT THY NEIGHBOR’S RIDE?
It was Airbnb that really launched the idea of couch-surfing, travelers saving money by renting rooms in private residences instead of more expensive hotels or even hostels. Now, there’s a new site called Getaround that’s trying to do the same with cars.

It’s still in beta, but it’s a beta worth looking at.

Basically, Getaround connects people looking to rent a set of wheels with individuals willing to rent out their own vehicles by the day or even the hour. It claims to screen the renters, and even provides insurance. The renter gets cheap local transportation. The car owner gets paid.

Couch-surfing…say hello to car-surfing.

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from the New York Times
With travelers able to hunt for bargains and book their own trips online, travel agents looked to be headed for extinction, but it’s not panning out that way.

from USA Today
Five smartphone apps that literally could save your life when traveling overseas.

from CNN Travel
Climate change is gradually turning Greenland into a tourist hotspot. Why? Because so much of its ice has melted that you can actually see the place.

SEA
ANOTHER CRUISE FAIL
The cruise industry has taken yet another hit with reports that the cruise ship Star Princess ignored a drifting fishing boat desperately signaling for help, even after passengers pointed out the stricken boat to a member of the cruise ship’s staff.

By the time help finally reached the boat, two of the three men on board were already dead from hunger and dehydration. In its subsequent apology, Princess said word of the crippled boat never reached the captain nor the officer of the watch.

Do you buy that? Modern cruise ships have powerful radars to detect surface traffic, and bridge officers with binoculars whose job is to scan the waters around them. It shouldn’t even have been necessary for someone to tell the bridge crew about the fishing boat and its frantically waving victims.

When your passengers are more conscientious than your crew, you’ve got a problem.

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from USA Today
If you’re leaving from Seattle on a cruise and need a place to stay before you embark, these hotels come with a “cruise concierge” to help you out.

from USA Today
What do you get when you subject a 15-year-old cruise ship to a $54 million makeover? In the case of Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas, you get a virtually new ship.

from msnbc
With the cruise lines trying to shore up sales in the midst of a problematic year, this might be a good time to score some serious bargains on cruises to the Bahamas.

AFRICA
CRUISING INTO THE FUTURE?
Quiet as it’s kept, the coast of West Africa has enormous potential as a cruise venue, and some folks are positioning themselves to make the most of it.

Already there’s an outfit called G Adventures offering 27-day all-inclusive cruises between Cape Town, South Africa and Dakar, Senegal.

In both time and money, the G Adventures cruises are out of reach for a lot of travelers for now, but they show what’s possible once more competition and more West African ports enter this market.

It’s not hard to envision a great circle trip from the United States — a flight to Cape Town, a cruise with stops along the West African coast, then a flight home from Cameroon, Nigeria or Ghana, perhaps.

It’s going to happen. You watch.

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from IOL Travel
In South Africa, the Protea Hotel Ranch Resort will let you walk with a pride of what it calls “disciplined and well-trained” lions, including three rare white lions. The lions will even let you hold their tails while you walk with them. Am I the only one who finds this disturbing?

from Eyewitness News (South Africa)
South Africa has some of the world’s best surfing. Unfortunately, it also has some of the world’s most dangerous sharks.

from The Star (Kenya) via allAfrica.com
The government is urging Kenyans to embrace wildlife conservation as a way of boosting the country’s tourism.

from The New Times (Rwanda) via allAfrica.com
Another sign that tourism in Central Africa is on the rise: Expedia is expanding its presence in Rwanda.

AMERICAS/CARIBBEAN
AGRITOURISM: A GROWING ATTRACTION IN HAWAII
There’s always been more to Hawaii than pristine beaches, towering waterfalls, volcanoes and big waves. Even the most casual tourist can’t help but notice everything from pineapples to poinsettias, coconuts to coffee beans, just growing wild along the sides of the roads.

It’s as if the islands were a giant collection of farmers markets.

Now, the phenomenon known as agritourism is turning Hawaii’s agriculture into a growing tourist draw in its own right. Farmers markets. Ranch tours on horseback.

And the souvenirs are delicious.

A NEW MONUMENT
Near Monterey on the central California coast — one of the most gorgeous stretches of the Golden State — more than 14,000 acres of federal land that once belonged to the Army’s Fort Ord installation have been designated by the Obama administration as a national monument.

If hiking, mountain biking and camping on rolling hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean sound like your idea of a good time, you’re going to love this place. The fact that you can take one of the world’s most scenic highways to get there — California’s famed Highway 1 — doesn’t hurt, either.

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from the New York Times
Need a reason to visit Bend, OR? If you love lots of good, locally-crafted beers, you’ve already got one.

from USA Today
For those who don’t find the Las Vegas Strip exciting enough, a zipline is being planned between the Luxor and Excalibur resorts, apparently high enough and close enough to McCarran airport that the FAA had to sign off on it first.

ASIA/PACIFIC
REAL LIFE, CHINESE STYLE
If you’re like me, you don’t just want to see “the sights” when you visit a different country. You want to get a feel for what real life looks like — or used to look like — before modernization swept over everything.

If you’re in Beijing, China’s sprawling capital, that means you’ve got to check out a hutong, a traditional Chinese neighborhood.

Many have been torn down to make way for high-rise apartments and office towers, while others are runddown, but a relative handful survive as well-maintained communities and are open to visitors. This slideshow from CNTV lists some of the best to visit in Beijing.

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from CNNgo
At the Bamboo Nest guesthouse in the mountains of Chiang Rai in Thailand, bamboo is everything. and I do mean everything. SLIDESHOW

from CNNgo
Want to play soldier? Then put down the remote, put on your cammo gear and head for the jungles of Thailand, where the Royal Thai Army will put you behind the trigger of an M-16 assault rifle or the controls of a tank. As real as it gets, including the insects you’ll be eating for dinner.

EUROPE
CATALUNYA: VISITORS UNWELCOME?
Spotted this on the TypicallySpanish.com site. Check out what this commenter has to say about Catalunya, a semi-autonomous region where people have a reputation for being fiercely proud of their Catalan heritage:

“…here, not only do most of those involved with tourists refuse to speak English (apologies but it is recognised as the ‘World’ language) – most insist on not speaking Spanish!!! It’s a case of ‘if you can’t be bothered to speak Catalonian, then I can’t be bothered with you, wherever you happen to be from!’ “

If this is true, it’s a real problem for Catalunya and for Spain in general. This is the kind of word-of-mouth advertising no country can afford, especially one in the midst of an economic crisis.

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from The Telegraph (London UK)
Speaking of Spain, an extensive guide to the Andalucia region sponsored by the Spanish tourism folks. Extensive and potentially useful.

from The Guardian (London UK)
The tiny Greek island of Kalymnos is carving out a niche for itself as a destination for climbers and cavers.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Europe has a vibrant, diverse music scene, and that extends to its summer music festivals.

Edited by P.A.Rice

The Red White Black and Blue

Black Americans traveling outside the United States for the first time often worry about how they’ll be treated. What they find often takes them totally by surprise.

A funny thing happens to black folks when we travel outside the United States for the first time. We find out that we’re Americans.

More specifically, we find out that the rest of the world often sees us more fully as Americans than do a lot of our so-called “countrymen.”

We also find out that being perceived as an American often makes a difference in how we’re treated abroad — compared with, say, Africans.

We’re treated better.

All this is gratifying in some ways, unsettling in others. Either way, it’s not what we expect when we get that U.S. passport stamped with its first foreign visa.

When you grow up in a country, any country, your life experience in that land shapes the way you see yourself, and the world.

Growing up black in America means learning to see yourself as being “different,” a few degrees apart from the mainstream. We didn’t voluntarily separate ourselves from that mainstream. We’ve been pushed and walled off from it — blatantly in my elders’ day, more subtly in mine.

TWILIGHT ZONE CITIZENS
You go through life being viewed by turns as a threat, a freak of nature, an issue, a cause, a voting bloc, a market, a whole series of stereotypes — almost anything, it seems, other than just another U.S. citizen.

For that reason, black American citizenship often has a kind of Twilight Zone feel to it. You’re an American officially, but not entirely. Your citizenship status comes with a psychological, emotional asterisk that never goes away.

So when you venture beyond your borders for the first time, you expect the rest of the world to come at you more or less in the same manner.

Surprise…it doesn’t.

When you step off the plane in Paris or Istanbul or Sao Paulo or Beijing — or for that matter, Dakar or Lagos or Cape Town — the locals see you exactly as what you are.

Someone born in the United States, steeped in the American life experience and thoroughly saturated in American culture.

In other words, an American.

You don’t have to wear a USA T-shirt. You don’t have to say a word. One look at you and they just know, instantly. American, through and through.

WE DON’T BLEND IN
Even in urban, sub-Saharan Africa, where you might expect to blend in seamlessly with the locals, you don’t. You stick out like a sore red-white-black-and-blue thumb.

For the black American traveler, this has both advantages and drawbacks.

Among the biggest drawbacks: Everybody thinks you’re rich. After all, everybody’s rich in America, right? Our television shows, our music videos, our movies are broadcast the world over — and on screens large and small, we sure look rich.

Which means that when you walk into the local market or shop, the vendor instantly raises his prices, just as he would for any other American. Beggars and street hustlers will follow you a little farther down the block than they would some other tourist, and much farther than they would any local.

You deal with it. You learn how to haggle, how to fend off the hustlers. It goes with the territory. You’re an American.

But there are advantages, too. For one thing, you’re likely to find out that, contrary to some of the political propaganda you hear back home, most of the world really doesn’t hate American people, even if it’s appalled by American politics.

UNEXPECTED ACCEPTANCE
People will smile at you, especially if you smile at them. People will talk to you, no matter how pathetic your halting attempts to speak to them in their native language. They will welcome you to their country, maybe even invite you into their homes. If you run into problems, they may go to extraordinary lengths to help you.

All because you’re an American, and you cared enough to come for a visit.

You also may find yourself periodically displaying the same kind of cultural chauvinism abroad that “other” Americans do. You’ll know it the first time you catch yourself thinking, or even saying aloud, “Wow, that’s not how we do things back home!”

And when you laugh about it, you’ll be the only one who gets the joke. After all, you’re kind of new to this whole “American” thing. From that point on, you just accept it, the way virtually everyone else around you does.

That’s when you realize that all those worries and fears you had about how you would be treated were just so much excess cultural baggage, dead weight that won’t be coming with you on your next international trip.

Even this little bit of delight has a flip side, however. You realize that the moment you see how Africans are often treated abroad.

THE FLIP SIDE
When you see taxi drivers in London or Paris or Beijing stop to pick you up — unlike the way so many of them pass you on the street in, say, New York — you may not realize at first that those same cabbies who were happy to stop for you will pass up Africans all day long.

Just as you might be followed throughout a shop by store security back home, so too will the African be followed overseas. Discrimination in jobs, housing, education, systematic hassling by the police — the full gamut of the black American experience — the African from the Caribbean or the Mother Continent receives elsewhere in the world.

But not you. You’re okay. You’re an American.

That may jar you a little bit. It also may explain why, when you give that little nod to the African passing by on the street — that little nod of acknowledgement that many black Americans traditionally give one another — the African may not return it.

That, too, can be unsettling. Actually, it hurts. Both sides have some serious bridge-building to do.

But pretty soon, you’re back to enjoying your unexpected status as an American abroad. People being nice to you. People treating you as if you were the same as everybody else.

For the first time, you really understand why so many black American soldiers, shipped to France during World War 1, opted not to return to the States. And you find yourself wishing every day could be like this.

But even as you’re having the time of your life, in the back of your mind, the clock is ticking. All too soon, you will have to get on the plane to return home, where all that’s familiar in your life will be waiting for you.

Right down to that asterisk.

That’s the tradeoff that comes with travel. It always opens your eyes, but it doesn’t promise that you’ll always enjoy the view.

Edited by P.A.Rice

the IBIT TRAVEL DIGEST 4.9.12

The good, bad and bizarre from the world’s best travel media.

With this edition of the IBIT Travel Digest, we’re trying a slightly different format. Let me know if you prefer this approach or you’d rather keep it “old school.” Because unlike other social media (*cough* Facebook! *cough!*), IBIT prefers not to force changes down your throat.

And now, here’s this week’s Digest:

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AIR

RYANAIR…AGAIN
Ryanair, Ireland’s low-fare airline will try anything to to lighten its airplanes to cut fuel costs — lighter on-board magazines, less ice in passengers’ drinks. At one point, they even considered removing armrests from seats and imposing a “fat tax” on passengers.

Now, Ryanair is after their female flight crew to watch their weight.

You can’t make this stuff up — and here’s the proof, courtesy of London’s Daily Telegraph.

from msnbc
Flying while (extremely) pregnant — a risk worth taking?

from Smarter Travel
JetBlue and Hawaiian Airlines are hooking up to make it easier for Americans back East to head for the islands.

fromUSA Today via DearSkySteward
Looks like Delta has found a formula to beat rising fuel costs: Higher airfares and fewer seats. Meanwhile…

from the New York Times
Delta actually may be looking to buy its own oil refinery. Genius or madness? You decide.

from OutOfTown
IBIT readers absolutely adore gleaming new Asian airports like Changi (SIN) in Singapore and Seoul Incheon International (ICN) in South Korea. An abundance of Internet-friendly facilities is one reason. Changi’s extra effort to make the airport a pleasant experience is another.

from msnbc
Five of the world’s best airlines and the lengths to which they go to earn their reputations.

LAND

TAX SHELTER, OF SORTS
Federal income taxes this year are due April 17, and there’s a New York hotel that’s offering you a different kind of tax break.

According to USA Today, if you check into the Andaz Wall Street, A Hyatt property, between now and April 15, they will have their “Accountant in Residence” file your taxes for you — free.

All the hotel needs is your tax information and 72 hours’ notice. So get those receipts together.

from GOOD
Where in America do people walk and bike the most? Probably not where you think they do.

from Eater.com
Want to reserve a table at one of these 11 ultra-exclusive restaurants? It won’t be easy.

from National Geographic
NatGeo’s nominees for the world’s ten best food markets. Most are in Europe, a couple in Asia, a few more in Latin America and the Caribbean. But their top choice is in Canada.

from Wandering Educators
Can’t visit the world’s great art museums because your bored children make it a miserable experience? The art of getting kids to appreciate art.

SEA
COSTA ON THE COMEBACK?
Travel Weekly is reporting that Italy’s Costa Cruises is showing its Easter cruise bookings for 2012 up from 2011.

If so, it represents a nice rebound for a catastrophic first quarter following the Costa Concordia disaster and an engine-room fire that knocked another of their ships, the Costa Allegra, out of service.

But if everything is coming up so rosy now for Costa, why is it — as TW also reports — that Costa is making these upbeat pronouncements solely to Italian media? You’d think the company would want the whole world to know, yes? Curious, to say the least.

from National Geographic
The stream of tsunami debris from the 2011 Japan earthquake/tsunami disaster has tourists paying to see — and literally dive into — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

from Vacation Cruises Info
A review of the new cruise ship Celebrity Eclipse. Half-acre on-board lawn? Check. Glass-blowing studio? Check. World-class dining? Well…

from CNN Travel
What is about the Titanic that people find so endlessly fascinating? A full century after she went down, people are still bringing her up.

from the Toronto Star (Canada)
New York to Toronto…by cruise ship? Welcome to the world of small-ship and inland waterway cruising.

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AFRICA
EDITORIAL
It’s been a turbulent week or so for the Mother Continent. A tense presidential runoff election in Senegal. A military coup coupled with a Taureg revolt in Mali. A dispute over presidential succession in Malawi after the incumbent succumbed to a heart attack.

Enough to make most Westerners shrug. Just business as usual in Africa, right? Not really.

In the Senegal presidential runoff, the challenger swamped the incumbent, who gracefully bowed out. In Malawi, politicians obeyed their own constitution and elevated the country’s female vice-president to the top job. And Mali’s neighbors imposed their own sanctions to force the coup plotters to return the country to civilian rule.

Imagine that. West African nations handling their business through diplomatic channels and democratic means. It’s a sign not just of political stability, but maturity. It’s an example for the rest of the continent.
— Greg Gross, IBIT

from The Witness (South Africa)
Soldiers posted in Kruger National Park may not be having much luck stopping poachers, but they’re great at terrorizing lost tourists. Who trains these guys, the TSA?

from the New York Times
A year after its revolution launched the Arab Spring, Tunisia is once again beautiful, serene, historic — and peaceful. It might be a good time to visit, before the tourist hordes come back.

from The Nambian via allAfrica.com
Namibia is trying to become the first African country ever to host the Adventure Travel World Summit, in 2013.

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AMERICAS/CARIBBEAN

from Gizmodo
For those who’ve forgotten how incredibly beautiful Yosemite National Park is, this time-lapse video will remind you.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Easter is every weekend at the Tierra Santa (Holy Land in Spanish) religious theme park in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

from the Toronto Star (Canada)
You know Francis Ford Coppola for his movies. Get to know him for his California wines.

from the Washington Post
On location in the Big Easy: A two-hour tour of New Orleans sites used as film backdrops.

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ASIA/PACIFIC

CAN ANCIENT CHINESE MEDICINE HELP MODERN TRAVELERS?
After China opened itself to the world in the 1970s, we started learning about traditional Chinese healing techniques such as acupuncture, the use of delicate needles to relieve pain by manipulating pressure points in the body.

Not quite as well known is acupressure, which works on the same principles, but without the scary-looking needles.

Could acupressure work on some of the aches and pains common to travelers? There’s a small story on the CNNgo site that suggest the answer could be “yes.”

As always, CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR FIRST.

from Travel With A Mate
Ten cool things to do in the South Korean capital, Seoul, on a budget.

from We Blog the World
Speaking of overlooked destinations in Asia, Manila almost never comes to mind. Maybe it should.

from Agence France Presse via France 24
Got a road-rage fantasy? Want to unleash your inner Patton? A company in Christchurch, New Zealand will put you at the controls of a main battle tank…and let you run over cars with it.

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EUROPE

from About.com/Eastern Europe Travel
Croatia is not your typical European destination — and that can be a good thing.

from The Guardian (London UK)
Speaking of Croatia, the Balkans may still be a politically fractured and fragile region, but these days, it’s also one ruggedly beautiful landscape that’s welcoming visitors.

from Go World Travel Guide
Cheap flights to Europe are only half the battle. Tips for saving money once you get there.

from Agence France Presse via France 24
In the Black Sea resort town of Batumi, they’re building a tower with a fountain at the top. Once a week, the fountain will flow not with water but with chacha — also known as “grape vodka.” And you get to taste. Pray that your tour bus has a designated driver.

AFRICA: Once upon an airline

McDonnell-Douglas MD-11

© Ramon Berk | Dreamstime.com

Few people have ever heard of USAfrica Airways. A combination of forces made sure it would stay that way.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time bemoaning the relative lack of US-based airlines connecting the United States to Africa — not realizing that once upon a time, there was an American air carrier devoted solely to that purpose.

Never heard of it? That’s no surprise, for reasons that will become all too clear very quickly. But for one brief, shining moment, America had her own direct air link to the Mother Continent.

USAfrica Airways consisted of exactly two airplanes. They were McDonnell-Douglas MD-11s, an updated version of the original three-engined Douglas DC-10 jumbo jet.

Both were leased from American Airlines, which was USAfrica Airways’ parent company. Sort of.

Starting in 1994, they flew seven times a week between Washington-Dulles (IAD) and South Africa — six flights to Johannesburg (JNB) and one to Capetown, South Africa (CPT), with a refueling stop in the Cape Verde Islands.

There was talk of eventually extending routes to Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Angola.

At the time, it was the only US airline flying strictly international routes. As far as I can tell, it was the only US airline ever dedicated exclusively to Africa.

AN OPPORTUNE TIME
That the airline began operation in 1994 was no accident. It was the year that Nelson Mandela had become the first black president of a South Africa free of apartheid.

US government sanctions against doing business in South Africa had lifted. The way was clear to dive into a large and largely untapped market. And as South African aviation writer Paul Dubois tells it, the founders of USAfrica Airways had visions of a large black American clientele:

“With the first black president of South Africa, [the airline's founders] saw a huge potential for a new market of African-Americans wanting to visit Southern Africa and a general growth of the leisure trade between the two countries. Also the business market would grow with the development of South Africa as sanctions fell away.”

At first glance, they seemed to have their game tight. The MD-11 was supposed to be a state-of-the-art upgrade over the proven DC-10, but having three engines instead of four like the giant Boeing 747 meant less fuel and less maintenance cost.

Washington-Dulles airport (IAD)

©Poobear88 | Dreamstime.com

And according to Dubois, USAfrica Airways was putting the kind of emphasis on on-board service that had already won several Asian airlines a worldwide reputation:

“Leather seats with extra legroom in the configuration of 18 (First Class), 66 (Business Class) and 154 economy class. The extra legroom was obtained by removing seats and can be compared with the American Airlines configuration of 19 FC, 49 BC and 203 economy class. Economy class meals were served on crockery and first class meals were served a la carte on board the aircraft. They served the finest South African and Californian wines.”

Sounds like a winner, doesn’t it?

So why did USAfrica Airways vanish from the skies after only eight months?

BAD LUCK, BAD MATH, BAD CHOICES
Some of it was bad luck. The MD-11 turned out to be a dog, plagued with all manner of technical problems, the biggest of which were its engines.

The three engines didn’t perform as advertised, which meant the jet’s range was 500 miles shorter than it was supposed to be. When you make your living flying across oceans, lack of range is a problem.

In short, the MD-11 was a hooptie with wings.

The airline got off the ground with $30 million in seed money; it cost $9 million just to set up their inaugural flight. Then they had to pay the leases on those two underperforming planes to American Airlines — $7,000 per hour, per plane.

It takes 15 hours to fly each way between Dulles and Johannesburg, a 30-hour roundtrip. Do the math.

In my next life, I want to have a jumbo jet leasing business.

Washington-Dulles, distant, inconvenient and expensive to reach from the nation’s capital, was a lousy choice for the airline’s “hub,” especially if you’re intent on having a large black American passenger base.

Any number of East Coast airports would’ve been better — JFK or LaGuardia in New York City or Newark across the river in New Jersey, Reagan National in DC. Instead, they went with Dulles.

SET UP TO FAIL?
There were other problems. The airline wanted to make changes to the aircraft interiors; American wouldn’t let them.

As Dubois explains it, its US-based business executives had little experience and less understanding of what it takes to operate in Africa, and burned through even more cash on consultants who didn’t seem to help much — and may have been motivated not to:

“Vast sums of money [were] spent on “consultants” who quite frankly appeared to me to be clueless and only interested in their egos. Too many being ex-American Airlines [employees] who were clearly “in bed” with SAA.”

“SAA” is South African Airways, the big dog of southern African air travel. From the look of it, they didn’t appreciate the presence of USAfrica Airways on what they saw as their turf.

When SAA entered into a code-share agreement with USAfrica Airway’s parent, American Airlines, that pretty much spelled the end.

USAfrica Airways made its final flight in Feb. 1995. Eleven years would pass before another US airline would touch down in Africa on a regular basis.

You can read Dubois’ entire description of the life and death of USAfrica Airways here.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN, WHAT COULD YET BE
The story of USAfrica Airways is a story of what was and what might have been. An airline devoted exclusively to Africa would’ve interested a lot of potential American visitors, especially visitors of color.

American travelers reluctant to fly on foreign carriers would’ve had a US airline to take them to the Mother Continent. Black Americans looking to reconnect with their heritage or seeking to hook up with their African brothers to create new businesses would’ve had a ready connection.

Indeed, the airline itself eventually could’ve become an engine generating new businesses, and new jobs, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Instead, it became a brief, but hectic and cautionary tale about the difficulties of starting an airline and the challenges of doing business in Africa.

It also is yet another reminder that the so-called “free market” really isn’t all that free. Sometimes, the game really is rigged, the table tilted, the playing field uneven.

Still, the incurable optimist in me hopes that one day, someone else will take a crack at this, learn from the mistakes of the past, and give American and Africa the aerial connection they both need and deserve.

Edited by P.A. Rice.

ALSO CHECK OUT:
the AFRICA page
AFRICA: The Delta Connection