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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Planning Ahead For Nepal And Tibet

My trekking permit from 1971

The first time I was in Kathmandu was 1971. Nepal had just gotten it's first paved road-- in honor of the marriage of the Crown Prince. For me it was like a pilgrimage... the end of the road after a long, hard trip from England, across Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. This summer we're going again, my third time, Roland's second. The reason isn't just to visit Nepal again, but to take the next step: Tibet.

The Chinese don't make it easy to get in. In the past you could drive up to the border and stare. It opened up quite a bit in the last few years-- even to the point of allowing individuals to wander through the country. That's over now. The only way to get an entry permit is through an authorized travel agent and you're obligated to book a tour with a guide/minder. Getting the tickets are difficult too. You can't buy them online and doing it on the phone is fraught with roadblocks. I had to spend the entire day arguing with people at Air China yesterday. But in the end I got the tickets, $709.70 roundtrip, although they made me sign a letter saying that if I couldn't get the entry permit I wouldn't get a refund.

I'll keep copious notes on Tibet and report back. As for Kathmandu, we'll see how different it is from the link above (which mostly covers 1971). The monarchy is gone, of course. I was just reading yesterday that the new Prime Minister, Jhalanath Khanal, is the chairman of the Communist Party. The political stability of the country is tenuous. Great report in the Al Jazeera video below. Last time we stayed at the Yak and Yeti but we're thinking about Dwarka's this time. Anyone been to Kathmandu recently with any suggestions about a hotel?

I don't want to get anyone in trouble-- especially not myself-- so let me figure out how to give away all the secrets of booking this whole Tibet thing for after I get back. I'll say one thing though-- well two: normal travel agents can't or won't do it and everything is very negotiable... everything.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

You'll Have to Postpone Seeing Yemen's Mud Skyscrapers Until The Revolution Is Over

In the best of times Yemen is always rated among the top 10 most dangerous countries to visit. And things have gotten worse this year. In fact, this weekend, every member of the cabinet who hadn't already resigned to protest President Ali Saleh's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, was summarily dismissed by Saleh. The minister of tourism, Nabil Hasan al-Faqih, had already quit Friday, citing the "unjustifiable use of force" against protesters. After all, there hasn't been much for him to do lately. In 2009 we looked at how dangerous Yemen was for tourists even when revolution was just smoldering in the background. And now Arab and international investment has decreased and tourism has dried up. Five star hotels in Aden, Sana’a, Mukala and Taiz are complaining about the significant decrease of tourists from Yemen and abroad.

Yemen's nascent tourist industry isn't the only one hit. Tourism across the whole Middle East is suffering-- if not comatose. Travel agents and governments are warning tourists away from Yemen-- as well as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman and Algeria.
Travel to the Middle East is suffering a double whammy. Images of mass protests and outright war have scared visitors away while oil prices are lifting the cost of jet fuel and airfares. Last year’s fastest-growing travel market and looking forward to another good year in 2011, the Middle East industry is now in trouble, Euromonitor International says in a report.

...As of last week, the US State Department has travel warnings issued for nine Middle Eastern countries and travel alerts for two others. The latest addition to the list was Yemen. Britain has advised against any travel to Libya and Yemen and has more limited warnings for Bahrain, Iran and Iraq.

Here's the official State Department warning as of March 6 (and, keep in mind, things have gotten far worse since then, with hundreds of people killed by Saleh's forces:
The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest. The Department urges U.S. citizens not to travel to Yemen. U.S. citizens currently in Yemen should consider departing Yemen. The Department of State has authorized the voluntary departure from Yemen of the family members of U.S. Embassy staff and non-essential personnel. This replaces the Travel Warning for Yemen issued October 15, 2010.

...The security threat level in Yemen is extremely high due to terrorist activities and civil unrest. Piracy in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean is also a security threat to maritime activities in the region. Terrorist organizations continue to be active in Yemen, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The U.S. government remains concerned about possible attacks against U.S. citizens, facilities, businesses, and perceived U.S. and Western interests. There is ongoing civil unrest throughout the country and large-scale protests in major cities.

Sounds very different from the WikiTravel description:
Yemen is country that everywhere just simply must be visited. It is a tourist's country, where although the accommodation might not be the best, but the country itself holds so many treasures that appeal to any open-minded visitor. The sights are amazing, the people are friendly, their culture is unique, and their food is tasty. Take trips with a personal driver through the mountains to see natural beauty located nowhere else on the planet. See the historical role Yemen played as it survived even during the times of the Sumerians and the Ancient Egyptians, and how no one was able to completely conquer Yemen. And enjoy what the country provides, like gemstones literally littered throughout the mountains, precious beaches, and historical artifacts from this multi-faced nation with one heartbeat... [T]he rewards for the persevering tourist are an unforgettable experience, populated with very friendly and open hosts. Despite being adjacent to Saudi Arabia and on the same peninsula as the United Arab Emirates, Yemen is definitely a place apart.

UPDATE: Tyrant Offers To Step Down

Now that many of the country's top generals have joined teh tourism minister in deserting Ali Abdullah Saleh, the dictator, the government has all but collapsed. Saleh is trying to negotiate for his life by offering to step down.
Back-channel negotiations between the controversial U.S. ally and Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar-- a top commander who withdrew his loyalty from the president on Monday-- haven't yet yielded a clear transition of power, but the political process so far has succeeded in keeping the power struggle from devolving into military conflict or civil war.

Tanks commanded by Mr. Saleh's son are deployed around the presidential palace in the capital, while tanks manned by forces loyal to Gen. Ahmar have set up nearby, as well near several sensitive government buildings, like the Central Bank, according to residents.

The prognosis of the talks remain unclear, and the threat of military conflict remains a possibility, according to officials in San'a. Saudi Arabia and Yemeni tribal leaders are involved in the negotiations, according to people familiar with the situation, but President Saleh appears to be staking out untenable terms.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hawai'i's Tourism Industry Takes A Big Hit

Hawai'i's economy isn't totally based on tourism. Military spending is also a factor. But mostly it's tourism. The state, basically 19 volcanic islands, offers unparalleled natural beauty, great surfing, tropic rainforests, a choice between a slick, luxurious tourist industry or an opportunity for spiritual peace and quiet. And it isn't seasonal; the weather is always alluring. Hawai'i gets around 8 million visitors a year-- and they bring over $10 billion a year into the economy. A rule of thumb around the world is that American tourists spent five to ten times more than tourists from other countries. Hawai'i is the exception. The average Japanese tourist spends more than the average American tourist in Hawai'i-- and their presence-- even as more South Koreans and Chinese are starting to visit-- has declined. 2009's sharp increase in South Korean visitors (55,000, up 43% over 2008) came at a time when declines in Hawai'i's top five visitor markets contributed to an overall 4.5% drop in visitor arrivals. Arrivals from Japan, long the mainstay for tourism-- about $2 billion worth in 2010-- fell by 4.9% to 1.1 million visitors.
Hawaii tourism officials are worried fewer Japanese tourists are visiting the state and are trying to figure out how to reverse the trend.

Figures show 1.37 million Japanese visitors came to Hawaii last year, down 9.4% from the year before. That's 36% lower than the peak of 2.15 million hit in 1997.

Japanese visitors spend more on average in the islands than travelers from the U.S. mainland and other countries, making them valued customers for the state's tourism industry.

"We're all concerned because Japan is still a much-sought-after and important market for the state," said Marsha Wienert, the state tourism liaison.

Industry experts say fewer flights from Japan, fuel surcharges on those flights, and a rise in Hawaii hotel room rates are encouraging Japanese tourists to go elsewhere for their vacations.

Hawaii remains popular for U.S. mainland and Canadian tourists, however. Data shows 2.6% more travelers from the U.S. mainland visited Hawaii last year and travelers from Canada grew 9.9%.

And that was before the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima. The average Japanese tourist in Hawai'i spends $261.90/day (compared to $231 for a Korean and $322.70 for a Chinese tourist). The NY Times reported this week that the catastrophic in Japan is making an already bad trend for Hawai'i even worse.
The tour and hotel cancellations began within hours, and they have been continuing-- a reminder of how dependent Hawaii is on tourists who make the nine-hour trip here from Tokyo. State officials, well aware of the history of Japanese tourism fallout after other calamities-- including the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the swine flu epidemic in 2009-- are now bracing for a sharp drop in tourism and the revenue it produces.

“We are heavily dependent on Japanese visitors,” said State Representative Marcus R. Oshiro, a Democrat from Honolulu and the chairman of the House Finance Committee. “There is no doubt in my mind that at least in the short term, we are going to be severely impacted by the earthquake and tsunami. It may be anywhere from $15 to $20 million in state revenues lost just from that tourist market.”

Japanese tourism is not what it once was: Last year, 1.2 million Japanese visited Hawaii, down from a peak of about 2.2 million visitors in 1996. The downturn reflects the effects of the worldwide recession but also changing travel tastes of Japanese tourists. But by any measure, Japanese citizens are a critical part of the tourism industry, which is a critical part of the state’s economy.

Japan ranks third in the number of visitors it sends to Hawaii, following the Western and Eastern United States mainland, but Japanese tourists are much more aggressive spenders and thus contribute disproportionately to the economy. They spend far more money per day on food, hotels and shopping, particularly luxury goods. A typical visitor from the Western United States spent $146 a day last year, while a Japanese tourist spent $274, state officials said.

Hawai'i itself didn't suffer too much physical damage from the tsunami. The Big Island’s Kona Village Resort and the Four Seasons at Hualalai took some major damage and both are closed. So far there hasn't been any radiation from Japan detected.
Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie estimates the loss in revenues from Japanese tourists will be in the tens of millions of dollars.
According to Abercrombie, “The economic consequences will be severe for us… it’s going to be terrible. It’s something we have to come to grips with.” David Uchiyama, the Marketing Director of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, told USA Today that “this is just the first shock wave… a cultural sense of obligation and responsibility ” holds Japanese from international travel during domestic crises.

This sentiment is also shared by J├╝rgen Thomas Steinmetz, president of the privately-held Hawaii Tourism Association (HiTA). Steinmetz has made some waves in Hawaii in recent years, criticizing the government-run Hawaii Tourism Authority for not diversifying enough beyond traditional markets such as the U.S. West Coast and Japan… a shortcoming that is now coming to roost as the state will have to scramble to make up for the expected drop in arrivals from Japan.

According to Steinmetz, the Japan tsunami and its aftermath are a wake-up call for Hawaii to reach out to new markets. At the top of his list: wealthy countries whose citizens don’t require a visa to enter the US, such as most of Europe, Singapore and Brunei. Steinmetz, who hails from Germany, believes that Europe is a particularly promising opportunity: “Europeans not only love to travel but get a lot of vacation time. Where Americans might stay for days, European tourists can afford to think in terms of weeks.” The Aloha State might not exactly be around the corner from Frankfurt or Rome, but Europeans don’t hesitate to travel to New Zealand, or Fiji. So why not Hawaii? China and India are also promising markets in Steinmetz’s view.

For starters, Hawaii Tourism will need to learn that showing up is half the battle. At ITB Berlin, the world’s largest tourism trade show, Libya and Afghanistan were represented. Even the Seychelles, which has a small fraction of the population and per capita income of Hawaii, had dozens of exhibitors. According to Steinmetz, Hawaii had no comparable presence.

It might be too early to tell if Hawaii’s 2011 and 2012 tourism prospects will be a case of “too little too late” or “saved by the bell.” But one thing is clear: it’s high time to diversify.