Search This Blog

Thursday, January 27, 2011

How I Became Rich The First Time-- And Why The Big Airlines Are All Failing Miserably

On my first day of college-- actually freshman orientation, so even before my first day-- all I wanted was to find someone who would sell me some pot. (This was 1965 so it wasn't as readily available as it has been subsequently.) The beat-types and "heads" were a little closed to rambunctious freshmen wanting to score dope but I noticed that the student body president had long hair and in those days the only males with long hair were drug fiends-- or so I thought; he was the only person with long hair who didn't smoke pot, but it took forever before I figured that out. Anyway, I approached him after his address to the freshmen class. He was eager to find someone with a left-wing perspective to run for freshman class president. I was willing to make believe I knew what a left-wing perspective was if I could get some pot. (He helped me understand the major issues of the day-- from the little thing brewin' up in Vietnam to the stuff Martin Luther King was doing down South-- and he turned me on to rock music, especially the Stones and the Doors-- and helped me become freshman class president, which totally radicalized me. But not pot.)

Ironically, when I finally did score some, he popped up as I was lighting up and was quasi-aghast. It was so hard to get and so expensive-- like $65 an ounce... and what a paranoid hassle. Anyway, eventually I met a real NYC dealer who agreed to sell me awesome California weed for $120 a pound. There are 16 ounces in a pound-- so that was less than $8.00 an ounce. Even if you're not a math major you know that $8.00 is a way better deal than $65.00, right? So what do I do? My grandfather was a Russian democratic-socialist so... I organized a cooperative in which we would all take turns going to the city (90 minutes by train) and scoring and dividing it up and each of us would pay $10 and ounce so the guy who did the work that week would get his free. Everyone loved the idea. I went first. It worked great. But no one wanted to go second. Or third.

So I said I'd do it but I decided to charge $25.00 an ounce, a lot better than $65.00 but still very profitable for moi, although most of the profits went up, so to say, in smoke. In any case, it was just a matter of time before I was the biggest drug dealer in Suffolk County. I learned a lot about business, something that served me well as I eventually started my own business and then ran a corporate one.

Next month I'm going to Mexico for a little vacation. The country's tourism is in the toilet and hotel occupancy rates are way down. Hotels can approach this from a number of directions, none of them ideal from a business perspective. One is to figure that if they can get a customer and charge as much as possible, maybe they can make up for the lack of quantity. Another is to give the customer a great deal in the hope that, a) you'll get some business and, b) others will hear about it and come to your hotel instead of the one charging a lot. The hotel we picked has suites with a rack rate at $950 a night, very high. But the hotel management isn't high and they offer a "discount:" $700 a night. I'm not high either and I'm not shy and was willing to point out that $700 may have been a discount in 2006 but let's be real here, José-- business sucks and you're going to have another empty suite for another week. So we're paying less than $200 a night. Many people are doing this all over Mexico.

Most major airlines have been dealing with the global downturn in other ways. For starters, service has gotten frighteningly bad. In fact, it's at the point that the service is so bad that it kind of makes you want to look for an alternative to taking the trip. David Koenig did a piece about it for A.P. a few days ago.
After a decade of multibillion-dollar losses, U.S. airlines appear to be on course to prosper for years to come for a simple reason: They are flying less.

By grounding planes and eliminating flights, airlines have cut costs and pushed fares higher. As the global economy rebounds, travel demand is rising and planes are as full as they've been in years.

Profit margins at big airlines are the highest in at least a decade, according to the government. The eight largest U.S. airlines are forecast to earn more than $5 billion this year and $5.6 billion in 2012.

U.S. airlines are in the midst of reporting fourth-quarter results that should cap the industry's first moneymaking year since 2007.

"The industry is in the best position-- certainly in a decade-- to post profitability," says Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly. "The industry is much better prepared today than it was a decade ago."

The airlines' turnaround has benefited investors-- the Arca airlines stock index has nearly quadrupled since March 2009-- but it's been tough on travelers.

Fares in the U.S. have risen 14 percent from a year ago, according to travel consultant Bob Harrell. Flights are more crowded than they've been in decades. On domestic flights, fewer than one in five seats are empty. Space is even tighter over the summer and holidays. That's why it took a week to rebook all the travelers who were stranded by a snowstorm that hit the Northeast over Christmas weekend.

Travelers also face fees these days for services that used to be part of the ticket price, such as checking luggage (usually $25 to $35 per bag) and rebooking on a different flight (usually $150 for a domestic flight, more when flying overseas).

"I'm not averse to anyone making money-- that's great-- but (to) take things away and then charge for them, that's not right," said Rick Jellow, an executive who travels in his job for a lighting-systems company in Virginia.

From 2000 through 2009, U.S. airlines lost about $60 billion and eliminated 160,000 jobs, according to an industry trade group, the Air Transport Association.

During that tumultuous decade, airlines were hit with a series of events beyond their control: two recessions; the Sept. 11 attacks; an avian flu outbreak that scared away many travelers, and rising fuel costs.

The industry was profitable in 2000, 2006 and 2007, when the economy was roaring. But those boom years masked the industry's underlying problems, including high costs and more seats than travelers demanded. During 2008 and 2009, airlines lost a combined $23 billion, but they were also attacking their problems, setting the stage for a comeback in 2010.

• They eliminated money-losing flights. When travel demand recovered, airlines could raise ticket prices for the smaller supply of seats.

• They grounded older, gas-guzzling airplanes. The government says the major U.S. airlines, plus freight delivery companies FedEx and UPS, used 11.39 billion gallons of jet fuel in the first nine months of 2010, down 11.4 percent from the same period a year earlier. The price of a gallon of jet fuel jumped 20 percent year over year, but overall fuel spending rose just 6 percent.

• They added fees. In the first nine months of 2010, airlines collected more than $4.3 billion from fees for checking baggage and changing tickets, up 13.5 percent from the comparable period in 2009.

• They consolidated. Delta Air Lines Inc. bought Northwest in 2008, and United and Continental combined last year. That leaves four so-called network carriers that operate from hub airports, down from six. And Southwest Airlines Co.'s pending purchase of AirTran Airways will combine two of the biggest discount carriers. Fewer airlines should mean higher fares.

Delta, Southwest, United Continental and US Airways are expected to have earned nearly $4 billion combined in 2010. The latter two report results on Wednesday. The parent of American Airlines, which suffers from higher costs than the others, said last week it lost $389 million.

The economy is expected to grow faster in 2011 and 2012 than it did in 2010, and this should give the industry a lift. But, there are some challenges on the horizon.

The biggest, is higher fuel prices. With oil hovering around $90 a barrel, jet fuel on the spot market costs about $2.60 a gallon, the highest it's been in more than two years. This will temper industrywide profit margins. Still, Soleil Securities analyst James Higgins says most airlines would make money this year even if oil hits $100.

Another factor that will determine how long the industry's profitability lasts is how individual airlines manage growth. Rightly, the airlines so far have been cautious about adding more flights as travel demand picks up. In the past, they added flights and brought back grounded aircraft too quickly. That led to a glut of seats and falling airfares.

"The wild card is always capacity discipline," says William Swelbar, a director at Hawaiian Airlines' parent and an airline industry researcher at MIT. "All it takes is one carrier to begin to add capacity aggressively, and then we follow and we undo all the good work that's been done."

Yes, capacity discipline... it's always been what makes the capitalist world go round. I know there are some very inexpensive rooms available in Cairo right now. But I bet you can't get a cheap flight.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Is Pakistan Safe For Tourists?

Are you kidding? Most travelers would rank Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan as the most dangerous places to visit on earth. The British government advises it's citizens to avoid all travel to parts of Pakistan because "[t]here is a high threat from terrorism and sectarian violence throughout Pakistan. Attacks could be indiscriminate including at places frequented by expatriates and foreign travelers." And they get very specific:
• 25 January 2011 marks Arba’een (Chehlum) which commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn bin Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, at the battle of Karbala.  Shi’a Muslims observe the day by holding large processions to signify the end of the 40 day period of mourning.  In the past Sunni Islamic extremist elements have targeted these processions and it is anticipated that there may be an increase in terrorist attacks against minority communities in Pakistan over this period.  You should remain vigilant and avoid any processions, public gatherings and crowded areas.

• We advise against all travel to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and much of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, including the areas of Peshawar, Kohat, Tank, Bannu, Lakki and Dera Ismail Khan. We advise against travel to the city of Peshawar and districts south of the city. The Pakistani military is conducting ongoing operations against militants across Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Federally Adminstered Tribal Areas (FATA) .

• We advise against all travel to Northern and Western Balochistan and advise against all but essential travel to Quetta and parts of Interior Sindh to the north of Nawabshah.

• We advise against all travel to Swat, Buner, and Lower Dir, including travel on the Peshawar to Chitral road via the Lowari Pass. In these areas there are ongoing reports of military or militant activity.  Localised curfews may be imposed at short notice.

• We advise against all but essential travel to the Kalesh Valley, the Bamoboret Valley and Arandu District to the south and west of Chitral in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. These areas have seen an increase in militant activity recently which has included abductions, violent armed robbery and murder.

• We advise against all but essential travel to Lahore, due to the recent increase in terrorist attacks in the city. Staff at the British High Commission in Islamabad and the British Deputy High Commission in Karachi are not allowed to travel to Lahore for recreational purposes.

• There is a high threat from terrorism and sectarian violence throughout Pakistan. See Safety and Security - Terrorism & Sectarian Violence.

• The Pakistani authorities are also concerned about the threat to foreigners of kidnapping.

• If you are intending to travel to Pakistan, even if you are a regular visitor with family links, you should follow the developing situation in the news media and consult FCO Travel Advice regularly. You should also register with the British High Commission and take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance before travelling.

The U.S. State Department put Pakistan on it's list of countries to avoid in July and emphasizes the presence of Al-Qaida, Taliban elements, and indigenous militant sectarian groups that pose a potential danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan, especially in the western border regions of the country.
Terrorists and their sympathizers regularly attack civilian, government, and foreign targets, particularly in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPk) province. The Government of Pakistan has heightened security measures, particularly in the major cities. Threat reporting indicates terrorist groups continue to seek opportunities to attack locations where U.S. citizens and Westerners are known to congregate or visit, such as shopping areas, hotels, clubs and restaurants, places of worship, schools, or outdoor recreation events. In recent incidents, terrorists have disguised themselves as Pakistani security forces personnel to gain access to targeted areas. Some media reports have recently falsely identified U.S. diplomats-- and to a lesser extent U.S. journalists and NGO workers-- as being intelligence operatives or private security personnel.

I drove through the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan into Pakistan in 1969 and back the other way two years later. I didn't like the vibe and I couldn't wait to get to India so I drove through as fast as I could and saw very little of the country. Pakistan has been, for as long as I can remember, tourism's "next big thing." But I never really gave it a chance and I now consider that as a missed opportunity. Because I'm sure as hell not thinking about going back any time in this lifetime. Lonely Planet tries to paint an alluring picture without actually misleading anyone:
It’s a destination that has so much to offer visitors; drive the Karakoram Highway through the endless peaks of the Karakoram Mountains, or wander through the architectural glories of the former Mughal capital Lahore, the ancient bazaars of Quetta or the cosmopolitan streets of Karachi. But every time the country seems to be gearing up to refresh the palates of travellers jaded with last year’s hip destination, world media headlines send things off the rails – again. No matter the attractions, tourism in Pakistan has always been something of a hard sell. A glance at the map shows the country living in a pretty difficult region: always-unruly Afghanistan to one side, Iran to another, and a border with India running through the 60-year-old fault line of Kashmir. But since the events of 9/11, Western pundits have increasingly been wondering if Pakistan isn’t just living in a tough neighbourhood, it is the tough neighbourhood.

Yesterday I wrote at length about the similarities between the murder of Punjab Governor Salaam Taseer and the tragic massacre in Tucson around the attempted assassination of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords within days of each other. Both inspired by violent, primitive, extremist factional leaders, Qari Hanif Qureshi in Pakistan and Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin in the U.S.

The Global Peace Index ranks 149 countries in terms of safety from New Zealand, Iceland, Japan, Austria and Norway as the top 5 and Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq as the bottom five. Although Arizona isn't ranked, the U.S. overall is considered far safer than Pakistan at this point. The U.S. comes in at #85, less safe than Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, Greece, Sierra Leone, Morocco, for example, but safer than Bangladesh, Uganda, Mexico, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Armenia, North Korea, Haiti or Serbia.

UPDATE: Now Isn't The Time To Visit Pakistan

Right after the U.S. operation in Abbottabad, the State Department put Pakistan on their Travel Advisory List, where it had already been anyway since February. There's likely to be a tremendous backlash against any American unfortunate enough to fall in fall into the hands of Islamist extremists. In fact, I'd just skip that whole part of the world entirely for a while.

Time For The Two Year Update

Short version: less safe than ever... if you're unlucky. And Saturday night 10 foreign tourists ran out of luck completely. The ten tourists-- three Ukrainians, two Slovakians, two Chinese, one Lithuanian, one Nepalese and an American-- plus their Pakistani guide were climbing Nanga Parbat, the world's 9th highest peak, in remote Gilgit-Baltistan when they were captured, robbed, beaten and eventually gunned down by 15 Taliban militants disguised as policemen.

The Taliban was looking for revenge for a dead comrade who died in a drone attack last month and their spokesperson said that "by killing foreigners, we wanted to give a message to the world to play their role in bringing an end to the drone attacks."
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who wants to pursue peace talks with militants threatening his country, has insisted the U.S. stop the drone strikes, saying they violate Pakistan's sovereignty and are counterproductive because they often kill innocent civilians and stoke anti-U.S. sentiment in this nation of 180 million people.

Sharif responded to the attack on the camp by vowing "such acts of cruelty and inhumanity would not be tolerated and every effort would be made to make Pakistan a safe place for tourists."

Officials expressed fear the attack would deal a serious blow to Pakistan's tourism industry, already struggling because of the high level of violence in the country.

The interior minister promised to take all measures to ensure the safety of tourists as he addressed the National Assembly, which passed a resolution condemning the attack.

"A lot of tourists come to this area in the summer, and our local people work to earn money from these people," said Syed Mehdi Shah, the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan. "This will not only affect our area, but will adversely affect all of Pakistan."

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How Does Political Unrest Impact Tourism?

2010 was a good year for tourism worldwide, with much of the uptick in Asia. According to a new report from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, 2010 saw 935 million people traveling (both for business and leisure) internationally, up 6.7% over 2009, but only 2% above the pre-recession levels of 2008. Obviously, it's a sign of the rebounding economy. Europe's tourist industry-- like it's economy-- was sluggish (up 3%), despite political stability. North America, where the dollar is still cheap, saw a healthy increase (8%), even if tourists are being advised to stay away from dangerous parts of the country like Arizona. The report attributed a slowdown in tourism in Mexico to the impact of swine flu, rather than drug-violence and out-of-control corruption.

Last week, we looked at the deteriorating tourist situation in Tunisia, with tourists being evacuated and flights being canceled because of the political situation there. Today, with reports that the once much feared Tunisian police have been joining the protestors in Tunis, the tourism industry is still uncertain about which way things are going to go for that country's tourist industry. At first a country that markets itself as a comfy, apolitical Mediterranean beach resort saw only cancellations and heard the giant sucking sound of a crucial foreign currency provider going down the drain. Optimists-- like Tunisia's ambassador to Spain-- see the successful revolt as an eventual boost for tourism there.
"Tourists were a bit worried," Ambassador Mohamed Ridha Kechrid conceded in an interview on the opening day of the five-day international tourism trade fair, Fitur, in Madrid.

"Now order has been re-established and from now on tourists can come back to Tunisia," he said.

"There was a crisis of confidence, which is bad for everyone, for Tunisians, for foreign investors and of course for tourists," he added.

But once democratic elections have been organized "Tunisia will be even more beautiful, more credible... and this change will be beneficial for Tunisian tourism and for the economy."

And the UN World Tourism Organisation's Secretary General Taleb Rifai says the industry there should recovery quickly.
Rifai noted that tourists left "in a speedy and regular manner," but many said they would return once the situation returns to normal.

"The history, the infrastructure and the stakeholders in Tunisia are entrenched enough to be able to recover rather quickly," he said.

"Of course, how quick this would be is very much dependent on the political developments that are unfolding," he said, noting that a new government is to be announced and new elections held.

"As far as tourism is concerned, we think that in the medium term, not the long term, Tunisia will come back to what it was."

It certainly has come back strong in Thailand since the collapse of the tourist industry there in 2008-'09. Less than a year ago we were reporting how the tourist industry was still falling apart in the face of continuing political turmoil. This year tourist arrivals were up by 10.8%!
Overall, arrivals in the first nine months of the year grew by 13.3% y-o-y, an impressive recovery from the 5.0% fall in arrivals experienced in 2009.

It is a positive sign that Thailand’s tourist industry has recovered so strongly from the 2008-2009 downturn and is testament Thailand’s ongoing attractiveness as a tourist destination, despite the sporadic outbreaks of social unrest. Much of this unrest has been concentrated around Bangkok, with the coastal tourist areas largely unaffected. As such, we expect tourist arrivals will have continued to pick up, with the high season around Christmas providing a good end to the year.

In a few weeks Roland and I are going down to Mexico for a few days and we decided to spend the time in one of our favorite cities there, Guadalajara. I haven't seen any reports of violence there but the prices were unbelievably low. Airfairs were cheap and hotel rates were phenomenal. The rack rate for the place we stayed last time is around $900/night for a suite. We only the most modest bargaining, we booked it for less than $200/night this time! That's the other side of the impact of violence on tourism, which is still disastrous in Mexico
Mexico’s drug wars lead the week’s financial news again as the city’s wealthiest city, Monterrey, was hit by a spate of 23 killings along with one woman dying of a heart attack upon witnessing a massacre in the city.

Home to some of Mexico-- and the United States’ biggest companies, including Cemex (CX) and General Electric (GE), Monterrey’s income is double the national average. The state of Nuevo Leon, of which Monterrey is the capital, however, has seen at least 60 killings in 2011 alone.

The violence is not confined to drug cartels and that is what is worrying business leaders. A US company executive was abducted, beaten and robbed of his armored car earlier this year while both Fitch and Standard & Poor’s both downgraded the country’s credit rating at the end of 2009, citing drug violence.

Not-so Accidental Tourists: While cities such as Juárez and Tijuana on the northern border are used to the violence, Monterrey and Oaxaca-- which saw the third Mexican mayor killed in just the first two weeks of 2011-- are slowly becoming accustomed to it, pushing out business and tourism.

Evidence of this was news that three cruise lines, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Carnival Corp, announced they would be ending or at least scaling back trips to Mexico from California. While none of their destinations have been affected by the drug violence, customers, they claim, aren't distinguishing between regions of Mexico and are put off the country as a whole by news of violence.

While international tourism may be dropping, there are signs that domestic tourism, or at least travel, is on the up, with the news that InterJet, a low-cost domestic carrier, signed a contract to buy 20 Sukhoi-SuperJet aeroplanes for $650m. The first deliveries are scheduled for the second half of 2012. Flights on the new planes are likely to cover Toluca to Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosi and Querétaro.

Still a problem in Madagascar though-- where only a third of tourists expected are visiting the country and where a new problem is looming for tourism: Somali pirates expanding their operations south!


Tourism, which brings in aover $10 billion annually, accounts for almost 12% of Egypt's gross domestic product and directly accounts for close to one in 8 jobs. Roland and I had just arrived in Egypt in 1997 on the day after over 50 tourists were butchered in Luxor. The country emptied out of tourists and we had the whole place to ourselves. It was totally awesome for us-- problematic for the Egyptians. Right now the Egyptian tourist authorities are trying to put on a brave face and claiming most tourists go to the Red Sea resorts and that everything is hunky dory there. This sounds like bullshit and tomorrow is likely to be the biggest day of protests yet-- both bloody and possibly leading the inevitable collapse of the dictatorship. This is the most recent (Thursday) update from the State Department:
This security notice is being issued to update the U.S. citizen community in Egypt about reports that anti-government demonstrations are expected to continue through the weekend. Since the Police Day protests on January 25, there have been daily demonstrations in several areas of Cairo as well as other cities in Egypt. There have been violent clashes that have resulted in injuries and deaths among both civilian demonstrators and police forces. Several websites are posting calls for demonstrations to take place after Friday prayers on January 28. Areas where people congregate after Friday prayers should be avoided. 

While many of the demonstrations have focused on the downtown Cairo/Tahrir Square area, violent confrontations have occurred at other locations both in the Cairo metropolitan area and in Alexandria, Suez, and other cities. Traffic and the Metro system have experienced serious disruptions. Local authorities have announced that the planned demonstrations are illegal and that police will take appropriate action to prevent unauthorized gatherings. 

The Embassy urges American citizens to review their personal plans and remain alert to their surroundings at all times. Americans should avoid areas of planned demonstrations and be aware that spontaneous demonstrations can occur anywhere on short notice. If caught unexpectedly near a demonstration, Americans should obey instructions from police and leave the area as quickly as possible. Americans resident in Egypt should monitor local news broadcasts and American visitors should ask tour guides and hotel officials about any planned demonstrations in the locations they plan to visit. Americans should carry identification and a cell phone which works in Egypt. 

Although the State Department has issued recent-- meaning 2011-- travel alerts for Haiti, Tunisia, the Central African Republic, Niger, Nepal, and Sudan, there hasn't been one issued for Egypt yet.

There seems to be a conspiracy to downplay the seriousness of what's happening-- full on regime change-- in Egypt. Today demonstrations have spread to Giza and Luxor, the two top tourist sites in the country. But tourists are getting no warnings that would jeopardize the tourism industry. It's actually shocking. But pictures like this are starting to get out now and... well, no one wants to get caught in this kind of a traffic jam:

Even with a human chain encircling the Egyptian Museum to prevent looting and with tanks in the streets of Cairo (and several other cities), the tourist industry still has its collective heads in the sand and is basically saying, "everything is pretty normal for a nice swim in the Red Sea. The shark is dead. Come on in!" On the other hand, EgyptAir has stopped all flights out of Cairo.
Egypt's national carrier on Friday temporarily suspended its flights from the capital, while international airlines scrambled to readjust their schedules to accommodate a government-imposed curfew as mounting street protests presented President Hosni Mubarak's government with its most serious challenge ever.

Separately, the United States warned its citizens against any nonessential travel to Egypt and cautioned Americans already in the country to stay put. The warning came hours after Friday's anti-government protests spiraled out of control, forcing the deployment of the military which Egyptian state television said would work alongside the police to enforce the 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew and restore order.

...An official at Cairo's international airport said some foreign airlines had canceled or rerouted flights slated to arrive Friday night, including Air France. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid breaching instructions about contacting the media.

Air France said its once-daily flight to Cairo was rerouted to Beirut and would continue to Cairo on Saturday morning. The airline said its Saturday flight was canceled while the airline tried to amend its schedule.

And after protests erupted at virtually every tourist site in Egypt, the U.S. and Britain warned tourists away.
"If you are already in Egypt, you are strongly advised to stay put," it said. "We are not, at present, advising British nationals to leave the country."

Foreign Secretary William Hague said the safety of British nationals was "absolutely paramount".

"In light of the ongoing demonstrations in Egypt we have carefully reviewed our advice and now advise against all but essential travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez.

"This does not affect transits through Cairo airport for onward travel to other destinations, and it does not cover Egypt's Red Sea resorts."

...Abta, the organisation formerly known as the Association of British Travel Agents, said it had not heard of any reports of British package tourists being affected by the unrest but said some tour operators had cancelled trips as a precaution.

Travel firm Thomas Cook said it had cancelled all excursions to Cairo this weekend from the Red Sea resorts. But it said flights were operating in and out of Sharm El Sheikh airport as normal this weekend.

British Airways has warned of changes to flight schedules to Cairo because of a curfew imposed in the capital.

Meanwhile the Egyptian Museum has been partially looted. Photos:

Tourist agencies in the West conspired with the Egyptian Tourist industry to downplay the dangers in that country. And the US State Department and British Foreign Office both went along-- seemingly more concerned with the Egyptian tourist industry than with the safety of their own nationals. And today tourists are desperate to get out of Cairo-- and can't. Western governments are finally starting to warn their nationals.
Hundreds of people crowded the capital's main international airport hoping for a flight out on Saturday but Western carriers were canceling, delaying or suspending service after days of violent unrest.

A British airline turned around its Cairo-bound jet in mid-flight.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 people flocked to Cairo Intentional Airport, many without reservations.
Officials said that about half were tourists and half Egyptians.

British Midlands International said its flight from London Heathrow to Cairo turned around because a shift in the start of a nighttime curfew from 6 p.m. to 4 p.m. had made it impossible to land in time for passengers to make it out of the airport.

Lufthansa and Delta have both canceled their Egyptian flights. And the U.S. State Department has done an about face, going from trying to reassure nervous tourists that it was perfectly safe to travel to Egypt-- and not upset the fragile economy-- to preparing to airlift all Americans out of the country!
he American Embassy in Cairo said Sunday it is making arrangements to begin flying Americans out of Egypt on Monday, as an outbreak of mass looting added new dangers to a nation rocked by protests seeking an end to President Hosni Mubarak's rule.

The U.S. government warned that Americans should consider leaving Egypt as soon as possible as residents of Cairo were taking steps to protect themselves against the spreading lawlessness.

Mubarak thugs are trying to incite civil war and mayhem by unleashing a wave of domestic terror against the Egyptian people, including the looting and home break-ins. It is the last gasp of a crumbling tyranny.

And I bet British tourists, who were fed the same line of malarkey by their Foreign Office-- again, putting the Egyptian economy's well-being ahead of their own citizens' safety-- are pissed off as they struggle to get out while they can.
Desperate holidaymakers, heeding Foreign Office advice to leave Egypt, found flights grounded as staff abandoned their posts to join in the national protests.

Passengers who risked venturing out of their hotels to travel to the airport found scenes of complete chaos with queues of several hours snaking around the terminal buildings.

Unable to leave due to the night-time curfew, many were forced to bed down in the departure lounges.

Those stranded said the entire airport had ran out of food and water adding to the misery.

I hope Egyptians are kinder to the Bits than Brits were to travelers who were stranded in their country over the December storms when every conceivable strategy to fleece trapped passengers was carried out to the max.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Better Forget Carthage For A Bit! Let's Go Juba!

I just keep going to Morocco again and again. True, I once spent a month in Egypt, but when it comes to North Africa I fell in love with Morocco in 1969 and was just there again-- maybe the 15th time?-- for most of December. Roland is always bringing up Tunisia and Libya (not to mention Ethiopia and Mauritania, where as many as one-fifth of the population are still slaves) as places we should go. We drove down an endless rutted road to sleepy, art-deco Sidi Ifni once and we spent a month in Mali once, but that's about as close as I'm getting to Mauritania and I don't care how groovy the beach is near Nouakchott or how ancient Ouadane, Chinguetti, Oualata and Tichitt are.

I read Skeletons on the Zahara, about Americans who were captured and made into slaves there and I'm staying away. Even if Algeria isn't, Tunisia has always been a lot more plausible and Europeans flock there, mostly for the shiny new beach resorts around Monastir, especially the cheap ones catering to pachae-tours-- although I have to admit I've always been captivated by the history of Carthage. Tunisia has been trying hard to develop tourism as a major economic sector and as many as 11.5% of the population depends on it for their livelihood. It's overrun with Libyan, French, German, Italian and British tourists; plenty of Eastern Europeans have also been coming but Americans stay away. With the uncertainty of this week's events, Americans are likely to stay away for the immediate future even more resolutely. Russia just evacuated all its nationals today and the uprising devastated the tourist industry... at least for now.
While most Tunisians celebrate the victory of the people in ousting Dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country's key tourism industry sees a large negative impact from the riots and revolution. Tourists are already being evacuated from Tunisia.

While President Ben Ali was a totalitarian leader, tourists from Europe and the Arab world kept streaming to the country at an ever-increasing rate. Only few of the arrivals did even know that Tunisia was a dictatorship, even if they came year after year. Superficially, Tunisia seemed a country in balance.

This widely held picture of Tunisia as a peaceful and safe Mediterranean destination has been completely tarnished during the last week. The Tunisian revolution has been followed closely by media in all of the country's main markets.

With the state of emergency declared in all of Tunisia, and with the unclear political situation after the fall of President Ben Ali, governments from Spain in the south, via Switzerland, Germany and the UK, to Norway in the north have issued travel warnings for Tunisia.

Typically, these travel warnings state that "unnecessary" travels to Tunisia should be avoided. "Unnecessary" travels of course include tourist trips.

In most countries that are Tunisia's main markets, this has great implications. It means travellers can, without extra costs, cancel their trips. Further, it often means charter companies must cancel their trips. In many occasions, it even means travel insurances lose their value, further limiting travellers' ability to visit the country.

In the case of Tunisia, the development has been even more dramatic for the travel industry. Borders, including the Tunisian air space, were closed this afternoon, preventing tourists from entering or leaving the popular destination.

Reports from Tunisia indicate most foreigners on holiday in the country are reacting with relative calm to the ongoing political turmoil. Although the death of a Swiss-Tunisian woman-- who was shot as she watched the protesters clashing with police from her second floor balcony-- has led to an unease among many travellers.

The unsafe situation has prompted several tour operators to consider an evacuation of charter tourists. British operator Thomas Cook has already started repatriating 1,800 holidaymakers, the company stated today. Six extraordinary flights have been ordered to organise the evacuation, although the closure of Tunisian air space may complicate the operation.

Also some German and Belgian tour operators have made arrangements to evacuate their holidaymakers. The move followed a call by the German Foreign Ministry saying tourists in Tunisia could demand an earlier return given the dangerous situation.

Meanwhile, one cancellation after the other is ticking in, with tour operators and ordinary airlines cancelling most planned trips to Tunisia for the weeks to come. Even cruise ships have started announcing cancellations of stop-overs in Tunis.

While the Tunisian economy is very diversified and the tourism sector only contributes with around 7 percent of the country's GDP, the sector is among the largest employers in the country and gathers for a large number of small and medium-sized companies. Tunisia's tourism sector is estimated to provide some 350,00o jobs, representing some 12 percent of the country's entire workforce.

A longer downturn in the tourism sector due to continued turmoil therefore would deepen the social problems related to a high unemployment rate in the country. These social problems were the direct cause of the protests starting in December, which led to the political riots that finally led to the fall of President Ben Ali today.

Tunisia, along with other North African countries, has experienced impressive growth rates in its tourism sector during the last decade, even during the financial crisis. The sector was among the most promising to further reduce unemployment in the country, with many new resorts being planned along the country's Mediterranean coast.

The week long successful-- and relatively peaceful-- referendum, which is resulting in independence for southern Sudan, on the other hand, offers intrepid travelers a new destination that few have seen. The oft-repeated thing about tourism in Sudan: it's hard to get in but if you manage to, you can visit some awesome tourist attractions without ever seeing another tourist. All through Sudan the people are reputed to be among the friendliest and most hospitable on earth. Travelers are still a novelty for the people there so they are really as excited to experience you as you are to experience them. On the other hand, you can't use American credit cards there and in the South, there is malaria, deadly "drinking" water and poisonous spiders and snakes to worry about.

But you can fly into Juba directly from Nairobi, Cairo, Entebbe and Addis Ababa as well as Khartoum. Juba, the capital of the world's newest country, is small enough to walk all through in a day. Trip Advisor readers recommend 3 hotels and 3 restaurants but Juba is going to be a boom town really fast now and things are going to get crazy for the next year. Remember, Southern Sudan-- like Mauritania-- was predominantly a source of dark skinned slaves for lighter skinned Arabs. There's a lot of change that will be happening in the new nation now.
A tribal chief preferred not to ponder the meticulous nature of turning aspirations into a nation: "Look at those happy men over there," said Yout Manyual. "They have been here for three days and every night they dance with drums until morning. This is our right until all the votes are counted. We know then that development will come and children will be taken to school."

Beyond the roadside money-changers and the old army trucks half buried in the dirt, Dr. Hassan Awule made rounds at the unfinished Morobo Clinic he started during the war. He said life would improve in coming years but worried that corruption and tribalism-- the spoilers of many African nations-- might jeopardize a new country. As a lizard scurried up a wall, he opened the door to what he hopes one day will be an operating room.

"We began with just a pharmacy," he said. "Then we added one bed, then two, then three, and now we have 40 beds. They are not enough. We are treating malaria, typhoid, HIV, intestinal worms and infection. Many families can't afford care so we give them credit. You can't turn them away."

Children lay curled next to mothers, two women cut squares from a roll of gauze, and thin men slept on beds in tiny rooms and hallways. The dry season has left the clinic's well nearly empty and Awule pays money he barely has for water trucked in from the river. A genial man with a shaved head and a mercurial demeanor, the doctor said that one day he would open a pediatrics unit and a morgue.

"We had slavery," he said as a stray cow grazed outside his fence, "and now it's time for liberation."

The word "slavery" echoes in the south, seared into the public consciousness, an heirloom that makes independence sweet, if undefined. Southern Sudanese are more eloquent in explaining past persecutions and wars wrought by the Arab-controlled north than they are at rhapsodizing about the future. They know only that it's out there, and should soon belong to them.

Don't forget your Bradt Guide.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ready For That Trip To The Paris Of The Middle East? Or Is Lebanon Suddenly Not That Alluring?

Everybody has always told me that Lebanon is beautiful and a "must see." Roman ruins, Crusader castles, churches, mosques, a bustling night-life, ski-slopes, Mediterranean beaches and awesome cuisine... have all helped to make Lebanon a well-trod tourist destination. A long, long civil war, on the other hand, had all but destroyed that key sector of the economy (once accounting for 20% of GDP) before it started creeping back up again. In fact, just last weekend, the NY Times listed the 41 best places to visit in 2011 and conspicuously not tucked in among trouble spots like Cali (Colombia), Tunisia, Loreto (Mexico), Tlemcen (Algeria), Kosovo, the Republic of Georgia, the Kurdish part of Iraq, Port Ghalib, Egypt, where sharks have been eating tourists lately, and Miami... not a peep about beautiful Lebanon which just a few months ago the Times was pushing as a foodie paradise.
more than 30 years of civil war, invasion and occupation, Lebanon is prospering again, and the downtown area of Beirut, the capital, has risen from the rubble. Among more than 400 projects are a new waterfront area, parks, world-class hotels, high-end shops and restored monuments, churches, mosques and even the synagogue.

And to help the city reclaim its title as the Paris of the Middle East are more than 100 restaurants, some involving notable chefs and restaurateurs.

“We are bringing in world-renowned chefs to make Beirut the food capital of the Middle East,” said Joseph Asseily, chairman of Beirut Hospitality, a division of Solidere, the Lebanese company in charge of the downtown development.

Joël Robuchon, Yannick Alléno, Antoine Westermann, the Parisian baker Eric Kayser and perhaps even Jean-Georges Vongerichten are among the marquee names poised to draw tourists and cosmopolitan locals to the once devastated quarter.

Yesterday's Times had a different kind of Lebanon story, the collapse of the country's-- more or less-- democratically-elected government.

Hezbollah and its allies forced the collapse of the government here on Wednesday, deepening a crisis over a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the assassination of a former prime minister.

Eleven of the cabinet’s 30 ministers announced their resignations, a move that dissolves the government. They said they were prompted to act by the cabinet’s refusal to convene an emergency session to oppose the tribunal, which is expected to indict members of Hezbollah.

Ten of the ministers announced their resignations just as Prime Minister Saad Hariri was meeting with President Obama in Washington. The opposition had hoped that all 11 ministers would resign together, to bring down the government at that time and expose Mr. Hariri to the maximum embarrassment.

...Hezbollah and its foes have wrestled over the direction of the small Mediterranean country since the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was killed in a bombing along Beirut’s seafront in 2005. Twenty-two other people died in the attack. Since then, the tribunal has investigated his death and is now widely expected to indict members of Hezbollah, the country’s powerful Shiite Muslim movement.

Hezbollah has denied involvement and denounced the tribunal as an “Israeli project.” It has urged Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the slain man’s son, to reject its findings. Mr. Hariri, who has so far resisted the pressure, cut short his visit to the United States in order to return early to Lebanon and deal with the widening political crisis.

There has been a sense of inevitability to the resignation by cabinet ministers allied with Hezbollah. For months, Hezbollah has warned that it would not stand by as its members were accused of involvement in the assassination of Mr. Hariri’s father. Though it is technically part of the opposition, Hezbollah joined a unity government formed after elections in June 2009. It has emerged as the single most powerful force in the country, aided by its alliance with a powerful Christian general and the fracturing of its foes.

In contrast to 2005, Hezbollah’s adversaries-- gathered around Mr. Hariri-- have fewer options and less support than they once did, emblematic of the vast changes in Lebanon’s political landscape the past few years. While the Bush administration wholeheartedly backed Mr. Hariri and his allies then, President Obama has not pledged the same kind of support. Syria, whose influence was waning in 2005, has re-emerged in Lebanon, and even its detractors here have sought some kind of relationship with it. Most Lebanese also vividly recall the speed at which Hezbollah and its allies vanquished their foes in just a few days of street fighting in Beirut in May 2008.

“Who are your allies these days?” Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with As-Safir newspaper, asked of Mr. Hariri’s camp. “You are going to get beaten on the streets and you will not be able to respond.”

The decision to resign came after the collapse of talks between Saudi Arabia and Syria aimed at easing the political tension. The two countries have backed rival camps in Lebanon since 2005 and their initiative was seen across the political spectrum as the best chance to end the stalemate. But Tuesday night, Michel Aoun, a former general and Hezbollah’s Christian ally, announced the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.

The father of Saad Hariri, Rafik Hariri-- then Prime Minister-- was assassinated in 2005 and the fragile coalition he's headed since 2009 couldn't withstand demands by the Shi'a Hezbollah movement to denounce the tribunal (which would have been political suicide for himself in the context of the Sunni community, his base). His only backing comes from the Saudi royal family but they didn't back him strongly enough to pressure Hezbollah's masters in Syria-- at least as implicated in the assassination as Hezbollah-- to call off their dogs. There is no good outcome to this mess. And the likelihood of me ever visiting Lebanon has further diminished. Damascus seems more likely.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Are Budget Airlines All Run By Rip-Off Artists?

It wasn't cheap to get from L.A. to Morocco. I flew via British Air to London and then took Royal Air Maroc to Marrakech and Roland took Virgin Atlantic to London and then Royal Air Maroc. Helen and Michael flew from NYC to Madrid on Iberia and then on to Marrakech on Royal Air Maroc. We each paid around $300 for the final legs into Marrakech (and back to Europe)-- cockroaches, abysmal service and all. When we got there all the European tourists were talking about $50 round trip tickets on their local versions of Southwest, like RyanAir. This morning Sophie at Money in the U.K. suggested I republish a story by Sally Darby which takes a closer look into whether budget airlines really are as cheap as they claim to be.
With so-called 'budget' airlines clawing money back with a huge and seemingly unavoidable list of additional charges, we look at whether there is any way to get around paying these airline add-ons.

Of course it would be nice if the price of a flight ticket really did represent the actual cost of flying from A to B, but unfortunately this isn’t the way of the world (not yet, anyway). [Or, at least, not any longer.]

This is particularly the case with budget airlines who need to recuperate the cost of selling such low-cost fares somehow.  More often than not your ticket is likely to be accompanied by a whole host of additional charges and fees that will ultimately bump up the price of your flight-- making that £1 deal seem not so much of a bargain after all.

While some of these charges are largely unavoidable there are certainly ways around many of them-- read on for our top tips.

Many flight tickets nowadays, particularly when booked online, will come with an obligatory booking fee (apparently to cover processing, administration costs and the like). This tends to be around £5 per person per flight so the costs quickly mount up, but there are ways to get around paying it at all if you pay with the right card.

Ryanair for example (though they state this is a for a limited period only) charge no booking fee to those who book with a MasterCard prepaid card. Unfortunately this is likely to incur costs of its own. For this reason it's really important to shop around for the card that costs you the least in purchase, loading and payment fees and then using it to pay for all your Ryanair flights.

The vast majority of other 'budget' airlines won't charge a booking fee to those who book with a Visa Electron debit card. So it's well worth looking into getting either a Visa Electron prepaid card or a basic bank account that comes with a Visa Electron debit card so that you can book without the added cost.

Rather sneakily, some budget airlines will automatically apply additional charges to your flight by default unless you specifically make sure to de-select the option.

For example, Ryanair will automatically apply ‘priority boarding’ to your ticket costing you extra unless you make sure to un-tick the relevant box when booking.

Similarly if you pre-book a particular seat number with BmiBaby this will cost you extra, so it really isn’t worth doing unless you are particularly fussy about where in the cabin you’ll be seated – not to mention, the fact that pre-booked seats can even be over-ridden upon boarding by other passengers if the cabin is very busy.

Requesting a seat with extra leg room will too incur a separate charge so remember to decline this option when offered it if you are happy with a regular seat.

Most buget airlines will also charge you for checking luggage into the hold so only do this if you need to.  Instead, check the hand luggage restrictions and try to fit everything you're taking into a bag you can take on the plane; this is likely to be more possible for short breaks than two week holidays unless you're an expert in capsule packing. 

Remember, if you do forgo hold luggage you'll need to make sure you comply with the hand luggage liquid limits and find out how many pieces of hand luggage you're able to take on.  It's often the case that you can only carry on a single piece of luggage, so handbags and laptop cases will need to be squished in your bag too.

Before you even contemplate leaving for the airport, in fact before you even start packing, it’s vital to check the flight terms and conditions on the website of the budget airline you’re flying with.

These will include crucial points that may not have even crossed your mind, such as the liquid limit you are allowed to carry on board with you and the specific luggage dimensions your hold baggage and hand luggage will need to comply with.

Disobey these limits, and the penalties can be severe-- you may find you’re charged extra, some of your items have to be discarded, or you may even be offloaded from the flight altogether without a refund.

As well as checking these maximum limits you should also check things such as:

• whether you need to check-in before you get to the airport
• whether you need to book in any luggage before you get to the airport
• whether a boarding card needs to be printed off and presented upon boarding
• whether any other specific details such as your passport number and its expiry date need to be entered on booking
• whether you are able to pool your luggage allowance with your travel companions

Again, failing to comply with these sometimes unreasonably strict regulations will mean an additional and often steep charge.

One of the good things about budget airlines is that they frequently hold ‘sales’ on their tickets, dropping them temporarily to rock-bottom prices such as £5 or even 99p. When these come along it is worth taking advantage of them if they fit in with your travel plans as combining an extra-low fare with the tips above will ensure you get the best value flight possible.

However, it is always a good idea to go for the sales that include taxes and charges in their ticket prices otherwise you'll find yourself unavoidably paying extra from the word go.

Planning your travel as much in advance as possible is also a good idea, as it means you can book your cheap flight well ahead of time and be ready for the flight sales when they do come around.

And one bit of good news-- not even RyanAir or EasyJet, despite conventional wisdom, have been permited to charge for the use of toilets on their flights (yet).

Just 4 years ago this was a comedy routine. Today it's a reality show!

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Conservative Demands For Austerity In Italy Are Destroying Tourism-- Pompeii Crumbles, Rome Taxes Tourists

Berlusconi uses the same image consultants as American right-wingers

It was just a year ago that we spent a few weeks living in Monti, a less-known central Rome neighborhood tucked away behind the touristy Forum, very close, much oddly inaccessible to anyone not looking for it. We rented an apartment, although when we returned to Rome a month later we stayed at the Parco dei Principi down by the Borghese Gardens.

It's been kind of scandalous that Italy's clownish Prime Minister has botched the state's preservation and tourist promotion efforts with his breathtakingly corrupt and right-wing austerity agenda. The solution to a potentially crumbling tourist sector-- a major underpinning of the Italian economy-- is a new tax leveled against (non-voting) tourists. The new tax on accomodations began this week.
Tourists will pay an extra €2 per person per night if staying in hotels up to a three-star rating, and an extra €3 per person per night if they have chosen a four- or five-star hotel.

Even campsites fall within the tax’s remit, with campers paying an added €1 per person per night to sleep under canvas-- although youth hostels are exempt from the charge, while the fee does also not apply to visitors younger than the age of ten.

The tax will be levied on the first ten nights of any hotel stay in the city-- or the first five nights for those staying on a campsite.

Local authorities hope it will raise around €80million (£69million) per annum, which will be used on the maintenance and promotion of a city that attracts some 30 million visitors every year. Rome has some 3,800 hotels, guest houses and bed-and-breakfast options.

Although the fee is theoretically small – for example, a three-night weekend away for a couple in a three-star hotel will equate to an extra cost of €12 (£10) at the end of the break, an amount that will barely pay for two cappuccinos in a central coffee shop-- the tax may cause a certain amount of inconvenience when guests come to pay it.

The fee must be settled on checking out of a hotel at the end of a stay-- and only in cash, meaning that 21st century travellers used to paying for everything with a credit card will need to remember to hold back a little paper money to take care of the extra amount.

Some foresee problems with the charge.

“These increases-- especially tax on accommodation-- will make it more difficult to compete with countries such as Spain and Greece, which have more competitive hotel prices,” Giorgio Sansa, a Rome-based tour operator, told The Scotsman.

“Tourism is our main income and prices in Rome are already high enough, so although it appears only a small increase, for a family on a break in the city it will add more to the final bill and be noticed.”

“I don’t think it will stop people coming to Rome,” Mr Sansa continued, “but I think we will see groups choosing to go to other destinations instead, as we now have to add the charge when we sell tours.”

Nor is the accommodation charge the only new fee that will hit visitors to the Italian capital in the pocket this year. January 1st also saw the adding of a supplementary €1 to the price of museum entry in Rome for non-residents.

Since Berlusconi's rightist, corporate government took power half of Italy's cultural budget has been cut to placate Berlusconi's wealthy, selfish backers who simply do not think they should be taxed. The results have been catastrophic. Look at Pompeii, which draws something like 2.5 million tourists a year. Neglect contributed to the collapse of a 2,000 year old frescoed building used by gladiators after heavy rains weakened the foundations.
It's been just over five weeks since the House of the Gladiators collapsed at Pompeii on November 6. Then, in smaller incidents on November 30 and December 1, two walls also crumbled at the site. Outrage over the historical losses led to calls for the resignation of culture minister Sandro Bondi, but Bondi, a close ally of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, has refused to leave his post. How was this disaster allowed to happen, and-- with Berlusconi having just narrowly avoided a vote of no confidence in the Italian parliament today-- how does Italy plan to cope with what has quickly become a matter of worldwide concern?

Heavy rains were said to have been responsible for the collapse of the House of the Gladiators, but underlying issues of drainage and maintenance worsened the structure's ability to weather the storms. As early as 2005, a Naples newspaper reported a commission's findings that almost three-quarters of the site was at risk of collapse, and that 40 percent of its buildings were in severe need of restoration.

Experts have had harsh words for the Berlusconi government's maintenance of the site. An emergency commission was created in 2008 to cut through the red tape and handle Pompeii's many problems. But as journalist and archaeological expert Luigi Necco told NPR, the people in charge of the site have been more concerned with investing in flashy multimedia accessories than archeological preservation.
"This Disneyland here in the center of Pompeii," Necco said of the ill-spent funds, speaks of a "disdain for culture, disdain for the past, disdain for history."

The head of the emergency commission, Marcello Fiori, has specifically been accused of spending too much money on flashy features such as a restaurant and a controversial renovation of the amphitheater, the Art Newspaper reports. Among the changes made at Pompeii, one that came under particularly sharp criticism was a plan to rid the site of stray dogs. After a staggering outlay of €86,000 ($114,000), many dogs still remain. 

...The largest archaeological site in the world, Pompeii is estimated to receive between two and three million visitors annually. Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, an archaeologist who supervised Pompeii for the culture ministry between 1994 and 2009, told the New York Times that it would cost about €260 million ($348 million) to safeguard the excavated city. In an atmosphere of stringent cuts-- the Italian culture budget was reduced by almost 30 percent this year, according to AFP figures, and almost $400 million in cuts to culture are planned for 2011-- there is intense concern that Berlusconi's government will not find the sums of money needed to preserve Pompeii.

Italy's cuts contrast sharply with the approach of France and Germany: this fall, Germany pledged to leave cultural funding unchanged, while France actually increased its culture budget by 2.7 percent. Maurizio Quagliuolo of Herity, an organization that promotes preservation of Italy's cultural heritage, told AFP that "the problem today is that Italy has still not understood that its cultural assets should not be considered a luxury when the economy is in crisis, but rather as a fundamental part of recovery."

UPDATE: More Berlusconi... How Could I Resist?

Looks like Berlusconi has more in common with American conservatives than just image making. The newest investigation is about his romps with underage prostitutes and, of course, the coverup.
Italian prosecutors are investigating accusations that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi paid a 17-year-old girl for sex and abused the powers of his office by trying to cover up the liaison, officials said Friday.

...The public prosecutor's office in Milan said in a statement that it was investigating allegations that Berlusconi and Lombardy regional councilor Nicole Minetti attempted to conceal encounters between the prime minister and a then-underage Moroccan dancer known by the stage name Ruby Heartbreak. Police searched Minetti's office and home as well as sites tied to unnamed "other people" involved with the case, the prosecutors said.

Berlusconi is also suspected of trying to obtain the girl's release after she was arrested on theft charges in May, with his office reportedly falsely telling police that she was the granddaughter of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and that her detention would cause a diplomatic row.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Is Royal Air Maroc Even A Worse Airline Than Delta-- The Worst Airline Of 2010?

I stopped using drugs decades ago. But Saturday I could have used some to start 2011 off on the right foot. I didn't have any, though, and I found a fine substitute, courtesy of Apple-- the new iPod, which is the size of a matchbox, only way thinner. The day started off dreadfully enough in London. I had a flight out of Heathrow at noon but I had noticed the night before that the city had just closed down all the main thoroughfares in the West End to muck things up on New Year's Eve. I had a feeling that the parade-- basically for Russian and French tourists-- on January 1 was going to also be a traffic mess. I was right. I thought the best chance I had of avoiding it would be to leave early. I was out of the hotel at around 7AM-- pitch black, freezing, wet though not raining... and all the streets around the hotel already closed to traffic!

I have a terrible cold I picked up from one of my friends in Morocco and I was a mess-- a mess who had to walk a mile to find a street with traffic and a taxi to get me to Paddington Station and the Heathrow Express. I had a 20 pound note. Paddington should be half that. Turns out the taxis have a 4 pound New Year's Day surcharge. I still made it on budget-- with enough left over to buy a couple of packs of tissues for the plane. The plane, of course, was late leaving and the two new B.A. business lounges in Terminal 5 are not very impressive-- unless the goal is to remind business travelers that there really is a big difference between flying first class and flying business class. Anyway, there were long lines that didn't seem to move everywhere and I was getting jittery. That's when I realized that my music would brighten me right up, the way drugs might have when I was in my late teens. And did it ever. I was soon singing and dancing, entertaining myself and everyone around me. Blink 182, Jesus and Mary Chain, Frank Sinatra, Black Eyed Peas, Bodeans, Libertines, Offspring, Andrea Bocelli, Depeche Mode, Sisters of Mercy, Velvet Underground... The battery ran down while I was waiting for my luggage at LAX. My bag was among the first half dozen to come down the carousel and life was good.

People were still getting off the plane when I was already in a taxi on my way home to a nice, long steam shower. L.A.'s "freezing," people say. It's 60. In London it was in the 30s. There's a difference, a big one. London's already a memory, although I just downloaded some photos Roland and I took of each other at the Tate Modern on Friday. Here I am in front of a triptych by my very favorite artist:

And here's Roland in front of a painting by Cy Twombly, who he really, really hates:

I know I'm always ragging on what a crap airline Delta is. But I have a new nominee for worst airline ever. Roland reminded me of how dreadful Timbuktu Air and Mali Air both are. On one of them a guy got on the plane with a gigantic sword and there was a big brouhaha over whether he could carry it or not. In the end a compromise was worked out. He handed it over to the stewardess, who gave it back to him after we took off. India's Sahara Air was even worse. They were selling standing room and the restrooms were filled with boxes of TVs and items like that that the crew was transporting for themselves. But Royal Air Maroc, considered one of the best airlines in Africa has got to be 2010's pig-in-the-poke. We've flown it back to various European cities in the past and never noticed how really bad it is. This time we did. And so did everyone else we talked to about it.

Back in the U.S. before the trip began they arbitrarily changed Roland's flight from Marrakech to London, meaning we wouldn't be flying together, even though we bought them at the same time with the same credit card. We called their 1-800 number dozens of times. No one ever answers. Never-- no time of the day or night. I asked my travel agent to try. He confirmed my experience. Royal Air Maroc doesn't take phone calls-- nor do they answer e-mails. Everyone in our party had bad experiences flying into Marrakech and in one case, home to the U.S. I'm guessing though that the cockroaches didn't mind.
Royal Air Maroc deteriorating customer service has resulted in some unexpected types of passengers on board lately, cockroaches.
These critters do intermingle with passengers in search for food, as shown in this video, and customers were forced to play exterminators. Customers have complained for some time that unless Royal Air Maroc recruits its personnel based on merit and not on nepotism, and works to instill work ethics in its work force, where good work is rewarded and mediocrity is punished, it will not realize its potential and become a trusted international airline with Casablanca as a major hub.

An analyst, M. Zakaria, said  "Royal Air Maroc prices keep going up while its service continues to go down. On the topic of high fares, Royal Air Maroc management's mistakes are causing the high fares and accentuating bad service.

RAM made four major mistakes. The labor agreement with their pilots, the bad investment especially when they purchased Air Senegal and also starting  low budget airline, Air Atlas (A flagship airline should not be in low cost business) and lastly the high price of Fuel (RAM pre-payed for the fuel back when the barrel was almost $100). So the customers are paying for RAM mistakes.

RAM pilots are amongst the highest paid pilots in the industry. They average is about  $100K/Yr where as EasyJet, Jet4U and Air Arabia pilots make less than $40K/Yr. It's not just the pilots that are burdening  Royal Air Maroc overall payroll, their higher Managers are also getting paid higher than average. So RAM need to charge more to pay the high salaries/benefits. Shipping with Royal Air Maroc is also problematic, their Cargo business has been in the red for many years.

I never begrudge working people decent salaries-- even though the landing in Casablanca was one of the worst I had ever been through. But I did watch the cargo being unloaded and it absolutely looked like the cargo handlers were competing with each other over who could break the most stuff. I should mention that the stewards on the flight from Casablanca to London were very professional and solicitous and that even the food was decent.