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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tourism Is Growing Fast In Some Countries... But Don't Expect Offerings Like Paris, Rome Or Bali

Roman ruins in Sbeitla, Tunisia-- seems worthwhile

Egypt may be the country with the fastest sinking tourism-- not counting Syria and Mali-- but tourism in unlikely countries you probably never thought of going to is supposedly growing fast. Market Watch has a business report on 10 countries with rapidly growing tourism sectors. I've never been to any of them, other than Montenegro for an hour by accident once-- although I have always wanted to go to the "Stans," at least in theory.
Kyrgyzstan and Belarus might not immediately come to mind as hot spring break options. Or vacation destinations, period, for that matter. Yet they’re among the countries with the fastest-growing tourism industries, according to a new report from the World Travel & Tourism Council. The group made the calculation based on where total travel and tourism revenues, as a contribution to gross domestic product, grew fastest in 2012... Here are 10 destinations where tourism saw big leaps in 2012:


Nearly two-thirds of its tourism revenue stems from business travel, but Qatar, on the Arabian Peninsula’s northeastern coast, saw leisure travel rise 29.9% last year, reports the WTTC. Spending by foreign visitors increased 36.7% to $6.4 billion-- the third-biggest jump worldwide-- and contributed to 23.6% growth in travel and tourism. “Qatar is definitely on people’s radar in a way it hasn’t been before,” says Saglie. It’s marketing itself more as a destination for leisure travelers, touting luxury hotels as well as attractions including beaches, museums and souks.


The country’s tourism ministry has beefed up its efforts to attract visitors, announcing in 2011 that it was offering more training for local hoteliers and other industry professionals, and putting more resources toward tourism. The effect was noticeable in 2012, helped by “calmer political seas” in the area, says Taylor Cole, a spokeswoman for Spending by foreign tourists visiting the former Soviet state-- which edges the Caspian Sea in Eastern Europe and Western Asia-- jumped 56.4% in 2012, to $2.3 billion. Overall, travel and tourism spending rose 22.8%, to 2.2% GDP, according to WTTC-- and this year, another 9.3% in growth is expected.


Last year, the Central Asian country began allowing citizens of 44 countries to visit for up to 60 days without first obtaining a visa, aiming to get more tourists for its high-altitude mountain lakes, mountain-climbing tours and other attractions. Among the effects: Tourism employment rose 24.8%, according to the WTTC, and spending by foreign visitors grew 34.5% to $694.6 million. Overall, travel and tourism increased 21.6% in 2012, to 3% of the total GDP, according to WTTC.


Slow to recover after the Kosovo War and the breakup of Yugoslavia, Montenegro could well be a top tourist destination in a few years, experts say. The Southeastern European country is becoming well known among tourists as an adventure and eco-travel spot, and more cruise lines have added its Adriatic beaches as a stop on Mediterranean itineraries. “It’s a huge comeback,” says Matt Wallaert, a travel expert at Bing. In 2012, travel and tourism increased 12.6%, to 9.9% of GDP. (For perspective, travel and tourism makes up just 2.8% of the United States’ GDP.) For 2013, the WTTC expects growth of another 13.3%.


This Central Asian country’s emerging tourism economy has benefitted from the adventure-travel trend, says Lamoureux. Travel and tourism grew 11.7% in 2012, according to WTTC, and foreign visitors’ spending rose 32.5%-- the fifth-biggest increase worldwide. “More and more travelers are looking for some kind of soft or hard adventure,” she says. That might mean wandering the bazaars and staying in a yurt, or more adventurous mountain climbing and heli-skiing.


Another young tourism economy, this small Eastern European country benefits from regional traffic (mostly Russians) to its ski resorts in the winter, and lakefront resorts in the summer. Travel and tourism grew 11% in 2012, to 2.1% of GDP, according to WTTC. Spending by foreign tourists rose 39.7%-- the second-biggest jump worldwide-- to $960 million. It’s also known as a gambling destination.


A booming economy has fueled hotels and airlines in Central America’s southernmost country, with spending on tourism-related structures and equipment contributing to Panama’s 10.5% growth of travel and tourism, to 5.2% of GDP, according to the WTTC. “There’s a lot of construction and development on the ground,” says Saglie. “Travel will follow naturally from that activity.” Those hoteliers and airlines are also offering more sales to fill rooms and seats with tourists interested in hiking, whitewater rafting and, of course, traversing from the Caribbean to the Pacific via the Panama Canal.


Experts say there’s plenty to extol about the Southeast Asia island nation: “The people are friendly, the food is great-- it’s one of those places that hasn’t been overrun with tourists,” says Wallaert. But it’s the locals who are spending the most on travel. While travel and tourism spending rose 10.4% in 2012, to 2% of the GDP, a little less than 40% of spending comes from foreign visitors, reports to the WTTC. Some islands are more travel-suitable than others, he says. (The U.S. State Department issued a warning earlier this year, urging citizens to avoid nonessential travel to the Philippines’s Sulu Archipelago due to terrorism-linked violence there.)


Even before Disney announced this year that a new “Star Wars” film is in the works, tourism to this North African country was on an upswing. (In addition to Tunisia’s beaches and archaeological sites, a major attraction is Tatouine, home to sets for the Star Wars franchise’s fictional planet Tatooine.) Spending by foreign tourists grew 22.9%-- the ninth-biggest increase worldwide-- to $2.7 billion. Overall, travel and tourism grew 10.3%, to 7.3% of GDP, according to the WTTC. Prices have gone up too. Gammarth, an oceanfront suburb of capital Tunis, saw hotel prices rise 59% last year to $463, according to That was the fourth greatest price increase worldwide, says Taylor.


Seven climate zones encompassing natural features, including fjords, deserts and the Andes, have helped the South American country push itself as a major adventure and ecotourism destination, says Saglie. Yet, just 17.7% of spending is from foreign visitors, perhaps in part due to expensive airfare and a dollar that’s a bit weaker against the Chilean peso. It’s Chilean travel and spending that accounts for much of the growth. A booming economy prompted a 15% increase in citizens’ spending on travel abroad in 2012, according to WTTC. Overall, travel and tourism spending rose 10.3%, to 2.9% of GDP.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

India, Pakistan, Mali, Maine... You Know... Everywhere

When I got to India the first time, having driven my VW van across Asia, I was just getting out of my teens. I entered in the Punjab, drove to Delphi, Bombay, Goa, through Kerala, took the ferry across to Ceylon for a few months, then drove to Pondicherry, Madras, north through Andhra Pradessh and Orissa (where Tom Wolf, probably the next governor of Pennsylvania was serving in the Peace Corps at the time), on to Calcutta, Benares and up into Nepal for a couple months, Oh, and what fun it was! I'll spare you the unsavory details of what the Kabul Runs entails, but I can still remember the first time I realized that the slab of dead animal hanging from a hook in every (unrefrigerated) marketplace across Asia was black because it was covered in flies.

Around a decade later, one of my closest friends, at least in part inspired by my stories of India, the painter Eveline Pommier, traveled to India, contracted cholera and died, not yet 30. India has never been-- and never will be-- at least not in our lifetimes-- a walk in the park. Anyone who forgets this a trip to India is a serious undertaking, vacation, business trip, spiritual pilgrimage or what-- is putting their health and even their life in jeopardy.

Years later, Roland and I were driving around Rajasthan when we stopped for dinner at a high-end restaurant in Jaipur. Yum, yum. Afterwards we were walking around town and we wound up back behind the restaurant, where we saw some small boys filling up the bottled water they had been serving from a hose. I keep traveling to the Third World-- we were back in India last Christmas, for example-- and the hygiene everywhere is... spotty. On our way to a wonderful restaurant in Bamako a few years ago, perhaps the only really "wonderful" restaurant in the whole country, we counted a number of people using the public sidewalk to squat down and... well... #2. You get used to it. Or you go to Disneyland or, maybe, London and Paris, instead.

A couple days ago I was driving around L.A. listening to Terry Gross interview Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid about his new book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Hamid isn't some Pakistani bumpkin or, despite his previous book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a fundamentalist, a movie version of which opens next month. He spent a lot of his childhood in Palo Alto and earned degrees from Princeton and Harvard. How to Get Filthy Rich seems to be set in his hometown (and where he lives now), Lahore, a city I first visited in 1969 (when it had a million people; today it has 10 million). Wonderful place!

The main character in Filthy Rich, which is actually written like a weird How-To book, feels his best way to get rich is through a series of scams, a tried and true tradition across cultures, as we've seen in the History Channel series, The Men Who Built America. Hamid's character doesn't seem all that foreign when he takes goods that have expired and makes labels for them with longer shelf lives. Eventually he strikes it rich by boiling tap water and selling it as expensive mineral water. When I mentioned it to Roland, he seemed relieved. "At least," he said, "he was boiling it."

"[T]he marketization of water, the sort of application of a kind of uber-capitalism that you see really all over the world and certainly in Pakistan, is in some senses you can see it most clearly in water because water used to be almost free. You could get water, you know, from a river, from a canal, from a well, from wherever. And now, of course, we're running out of clean water in most of Asia and much of Africa and much of Latin America. And so people don't have clean drinking water. And we can live for a month without food, but we can't last more than a couple of days without water. So people are selling water, and both at the luxury level, where you have these high-end mineral waters and also at the level of just poor people needing something to drink. So his scam is to take mineral water bottles that have been consumed at high-end restaurants, buy the empties, take tap water, boil it a little bit, pour it into these mineral water bottles and reseal it so it looks like it's an authentic water bottle and sell it back to the exact same restaurants, who probably suspect that it's a scam product, but because it's so much cheaper than the water they buy normally are happy to take it on." The book, Gross explains in her introduction "is both a satire of self-help books and an examination of life in an Asian city with a growing middle class and an infrastructure that can't support it, except for the crime infrastructure, which is thriving."
This book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia, and to do that, it has to find you huddled, shivering on the packed earth under your mother's cot one cold, dewy morning... I originally didn't want to write it as a self-help book. I was trying to write this as a straight novel, and as usually happens with me, I did that for a couple of years and failed and eventually stumbled across this self-help book form. And what I liked about the self-help book form was I started to realize that in a way I actually do write novels to help myself.

...I think it's a story that is a type of story that is common in Pakistan, but more than Pakistan in the entire world, because something like half the world's people now live in cities for the first time in human history. But in the course of the next generation, 25, 30 years, that number is going to go to 80 or 90 percent, which means a couple billion people are going to move to cities in Asia and Africa and Latin America, all over the world. And I think there's a lot of similarity between going from a poor countryside to a Third World megacity, which is a journey that these billions of people are on. So in a sense this is a story of that mass migration in Pakistan but also elsewhere.
Gross mentions the rotting water pipes and how "the contents of underground water mains and sewers mingling with the result that taps in locales rich and poor alike disgorge liquids that while for the most part clear and often odorless reliably contain trace levels of feces and microorganisms capable of causing diarrhea, hepatitis, dysentery and typhoid." Hamid's wife was diagnosed with hepatitis the day after their wedding. "And it was the second time she had had it," he said. "Virtually everybody in my family has had either hepatitis or typhoid or something of that sort. You know, water-borne illness is everywhere. It affects the poor, and it also affects the affluent in a place like Pakistan... [Y]ou get it from either drinking water, you know, brushing your teeth with tap water, or perhaps somebody prepared your food, and they had washed their hands in that water or touched the water or hadn't washed their hands at all. I mean it's-- the mode of transmission is what's called oral-fecal, and that sort of unsavory term really sums up how you get it." His character, the bottled water scammer millionaire had hepatitis too.
[H]e has it as a boy, and so many of us had it, and it's a strange situation. You know, living in America, where in most cities you can drink tap water, and even so, people do have bottled water, but the tap water is perfectly safe to drink almost all the time, there is an enormous difference in a society where you can do that and a society where you cannot do that. And most of the world actually you cannot do that. So the government, the state, hasn't performed the basic, basic service of taking this most common of all commodities that we use and making it safe for everybody to drink as they please.
Not even in Poland Springs, Maine.
Low wage workers at the Poland Springs Bottling Plant in Maine, which is owned by Nestlé, are so angry with the way the company treats them that they're doing pretty disgusting things to pollute the water-- not that Nestlé gives a damn. Nestlé settled a law suit accusing it of using water under a former trash and refuse dump, and below an illegal disposal site where human sewage was sprayed as fertilizer for many years. Nestlé paid $10 million in the settlement but continues to sell the same Maine water under the Poland Spring name.
And they make a lot of money selling that crap too. People are trying to get their hands on money now... everywhere. And many will do anything to get it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Delta-- 2013 And Still The Worst Airline Since Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi Jumped Off The Galata Tower in 1638

Let me start with the end of the story. I bought a business class ticket on Lufthansa from L.A. to Florence for $3,112. There's a stop in Frankfurt coming and going. The departure and arrival times are all perfect and the wait times in Frankfurt are minimal. Two free bags in cargo and two free bags in the cabin. The plane has WiFi. The whole procedure of buying the ticket took 20 minutes, tops.

I had spent the better part of the day before that-- something like four hours, on the phone, mostly on hold, trying to buy a ticket from L.A. to Florence on Delta. I know, I know... Delta is the worst airline in the western world and only an idiot even attempts to try on it. The problem is one of my credit cards-- an American Express card that I almost never use any longer (because of Delta's affiliation) had racked up tens of thousands of miles on Delta years ago and I've never been able to use them because Delta has a policy of putting up every obstacle imaginable to prevent their customers from ever using miles. Have I mentioned that Delta is the worst airline?

Anyway, I would love to get rid of those miles... so I tried booking a ticket. My dates were flexible and, although I was trying to get to Florence, I told the agent I would be willing to fly into Rome, Milan or Pisa is nothing was available into Florence. I said I didn't mind a layover in any European city if that was necessary. I made it as easy as I could. It didn't matter. Nothing was available. OK, how about if I buy a coach ticket and I use the miles to upgrade to business? She said that she could do. OK. Hours later-- and I'm sure it was more grueling for her than it was for me, who, after all, was just sitting here writing a post about the catastrophe in Cyprus while she scoured the Delta system and the system of all Delta's partners.

Eventually she came up with a somewhat inconvenient flight for $3,400 and something (in coach, but upgradable to business for 50,000 miles). I said OK. I gave her all the info right through to the secret code of the back of my credit card. But by the time she tried to finalize the deal the price had jumped to $6,000 and something. I said, "No, let's find another flight." She made up a story that she had spent more time with me than she was allowed and that she would have to transfer me to another agent. I said OK. She didn't transfer me to anyone, just put me back in the wait line.

That's when it dawned on me that it was CHEAPER to buy a business ticket on Lufthansa (as well as half a dozen other airlines) than an upgradable coach ticket on Delta. I can't believe Delta stays in business. Really, I can't.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Egyptian Tourist Industry Still In A State Of Collapse-- A Matter of Safety

People have been visiting Egypt since before records were kept. But with all my traveling all over the world, I didn't make it there until 1991 or something like that. It's not really on the way anyplace. It's its own destination-- and a worthwhile one for sure, obviously. The food's nothing to write home about, unfortunately, but the history, the culture, the people and the sites... all make it more than worth the time and effort. But U.S. tourists have almost completely stopped going there now. It's just considered too unsafe by most American tourists and travel agents. In 2005, Egypt had around 5.5 million foreign tourists. By 2008 that had jumped to 12.8 million, bringing in around $11 billion and employing approximately 12% of the country's workforce. It peaked at 14.7 million tourists in 2010 (with $12.5 billion in revenue). It's been seriously downhill in the last couple of years.

And that's not because some sharks off Sharm el-Sheikh developed a fondness for Germans, Russians and Ukrainians. Wrecking the country's tourism industry hasn't been a goal of sharks; it has been a goal of revolutionaries. The 2013 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report was another bad blow to Egypt's tourist sector. It ranks 85th in the world, between Colombia and the Dominican Republic, not as highly recommended as trouble spots like Sri Lanka, India, Israel, Lebanon, Mexico and Azerbaijan... but still a better bet than places with open warfare, like Mali, Syria, Yemen, Burundi and Pakistan. A consideration that hurt Egypt was the safety and security category which looks at "the costliness of common crime and violence as well as terrorism" and considers road the prevalence of road accidents and the reliability of police.
It is perhaps little wonder that tourists are spooked — amid ongoing political unrest, Molotov cocktails, gunfire and tear gas have become almost commonplace in some areas.

Two years after the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, protesters still return to Cairo’s Tahrir Square-- where it all began-- to demonstrate against the Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and lament the country’s failing economy.

Earlier this month, Bedouin gunmen kidnapped a British couple who were on their way to the glittering beaches of Sharm El Sheikh. They were quickly released, but Bedouins have taken other hostages and also attacked police stations and blocked access to towns to show their discontent with what they see as their poor treatment by Cairo.

Last month, thugs attacked and entered the InterContinental hotel in Cairo, forcing it to close down while it implemented heightened security measures.

...Emile Asaad, manager of an American Express travel agency in the ancient city of Luxor, home to King Tut's tomb and the famous temples of Luxor and Karnak, said that “the important thing is that when people need to walk in the street they want to feel safe."

"We have over 400 boats on the Nile, there is still 20 to 25 percent occupancy on some of the most popular boats, but others are just sitting and not operating," he said. "We don't know how the future looks."

...[T]ravel companies said many people were staying away.

Bob Atkinson, a travel expert with the U.K.-based price-comparison website, said unrest in Egypt had "seriously affected the tourist trade."

"The Arab uprisings very much put the Egypt market into a tailspin," he said. Flavia Jaber, owner of Toronto-based company Road to Travel, which includes Road to Egypt, said that "our business to Egypt is dead in the water at the moment."

"People are not going to Egypt right now, at least not from North America," she said.
I've told the story many times how Roland and I arrived in Egypt a day after a massacre of tourists near Luxor. The whole country emptied out of tourists. We had the whole place to ourselves. It was just "too dangerous." We literally shared a gigantic Nile luxury liner with 2 other people-- instead of 200. It was one of the best trips we had ever taken-- and it wouldn't have been if it was packed with tourists. And we never felt unsafe anywhere for one second. Is it more dangerous than Manhattan? I'm not sure-- but I would take the same precautions... and Egypt is a lot less expensive. It's the fourth cheapest tourist destination in the world. Everything is a bargain... as long as you're not in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Urban Gadabout: Say, NYC-area dumpling lovers, are you up for a Dumpling Crawl tomorrow (Saturday)?

There's a serious goal: to bring customers
back to NYC's Sandy-whacked Chinatown

It's dumplings, dumplings, dumplings tomorrow (March 2) in New York's Chinatown, thanks to Rally Downtown's four scheduled "Dumpling Crawls" -- at 12n, 2pm (two crawls), and 4pm. Of the two crawls at 2pm, one will be led by NYS Sen. Daniel Squadron, who hatched the idea for the "Dumpling Rally."

"[NYS Sen. Daniel] Squadron, who held his wedding's rehearsal dinner as well as his first-ever political meeting in Chinatown, passionately described the ideal dumpling as 'a rich and satisfying filling' that 'unleashes the full power' of its flavor from its dough wrapping at exactly the right moment.

"'Chinatown is full of small businesses run by independent entrepreneurs -- many of them immigrants -- who, despite all the challenges of succeeding in the city, work hard, stick with it and provide extraordinary food,' he wrote in an email to New York."

by Ken

Talk about an obvious mark! I only had to learn that a new conglomeration of downtown Manhattan businesspersons called Downtown Rally has scheduled four "Dumpling Crawls" for tomorrow (Saturday, March 2) than I was searching frantically for the "more info" and "buy tickets" buttons. I love dumplings more than just about anything on the planet.

As the invaluable NYC news source New York's Serena Solomon explains below, "Rally Downtown is a project to help businesses get back on their feet post-Sandy with events that bring shoppers through their doors once again." As I noted in the caption, the Dumpling Rally was conceived by State Sen. Daniel Squadron, as one way of bringing cash-carrying patrons back into this portion of his district which was devastated by Superstorm Sandy.

In case you can't bear to read through Serena's piece to get to it, here's the link for the page on the Rally Downtown website devoted to the Dumpling Crawls.

Dumpling Rally Looks to Bring Business Back to Sandy-Damaged Chinatown

March 1, 2013 7:14am | By Serena Solomon, DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

CHINATOWN -- To successfully eat a soup dumpling don't bother with chopsticks, according to Christine Seid, the second-generation owner of the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.

"You have to really carefully put it onto a soup spoon and eat it in one bite so you don't break it and the soup comes out," she said, adding that waiting a few minutes for the broth to cool down is ideal to avoid burning your mouth.

This is the type of knowledge Seid and others will be passing on to amateur dumpling eaters during this Saturday's Dumpling Rally that is providing tours to some of Chinatown's best dumpling houses.

The rally, an idea from State Sen. Daniel Squadron who is a self-professed authority on Chinatown food, is aiming to bring business back to Chinatown as stores still fight to recover from Hurricane Sandy.

"That is one of our goals, to showcase the gems of New York," said event organizer Tom Gray, executive director of the Greenwich Village Chelsea Chamber of Commerce and co-founder of Rally Downtown that is organizing the tours. "People will go to places they have never been before. The event will drive traffic, raise awareness and get people to come back to these dumplings houses."

Rally Downtown is a project to help businesses get back on their feet post-Sandy with events that bring shoppers through their doors once again.

The Dumpling Rally is offering four tours this Saturday -- one at noon and 4 p.m. and two at 2 p.m. Squadron will host one of the 2 p.m. crawls.

Squadron, who held his wedding's rehearsal dinner as well as his first-ever political meeting in Chinatown, passionately described the ideal dumpling as "a rich and satisfying filling" that "unleashes the full power" of its flavor from its dough wrapping at exactly the right moment.

"Chinatown is full of small businesses run by independent entrepreneurs -- many of them immigrants -- who, despite all the challenges of succeeding in the city, work hard, stick with it and provide extraordinary food," he wrote in an email to New York.

Tickets for the dumpling crawl are $25 and include dumplings at houses such as Prosperity on Eldridge Street and Lam Zhou on East Broadway. The tour ends at the Chinatown Ice Cream factory for dessert.

"It will be a little bit cheaper, you get the social aspect, a set of chopsticks. The dumplings are included and you get ice cream at the end," said Gray. The tour also gives out a map so those who attend can return to the dumpling houses.

While the organization is yet to apply for nonprofit status, Gray said any funds left over will go to planning more business-generating events for Sandy affected areas.

Ten percent of the ticket price will also go to the Chinese American Planning Council, a local nonprofit.

"It took a lot longer for business to pick up for a long time after Sandy," said Gray. "At the very least everyone went without power."

To purchase tickets for the Dumpling Rally go to the event's website.

My first temptation was to try to sign up for one of the 2pm crawls led by Senator Squadron, who has been impressing me as one of the more watch-worthy of the city's rising pols. And I could probably get to one of the 2pm crawls from my 11am Municipal Art Society walking tour with Matt Postal, revisiting one of the Midtown Manhattan walking tours originally proposed by longtime New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable's ground-breaking 1961 book Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City. (Tomorrow's walk is sold out, but there may still be space in the second walk from the book which Matt is re-creating, on March 16.) But I'm thinking the senator will be wanting to talk dumplings, or maybe economic development, rather than politics, and am I really that confident of his self-proclaimed dumpling expertise? In the end I decided to play it safe and sign up for the 4pm crawl, with Julie Menin.

As it happens, I'm familiar with two of the stops, Excellent Dumpling House on Lafayette Street, just below Canal (where in fact I came very close to popping in this afternoon after a physical-therapy session, but it was just too crowded), and Prosperity Dumpling on Eldridge Street (which I first visited on a NY Transit Museum eating tour led by Saveur magazine's Todd Coleman). But I'm only too happy to go back to both! Maybe I'll even get some tips about ordering at Excellent Dumpling House. I have eaten there while on jury duty, but the menu doesn't seem terribly dumpling-oriented, merely listing a few varieties as appetizers.