Richard’s Reporting

Dispatches from Around the World 

By traveltruth.com Managing Editor Richard Bruce Turen

Richard is a Columnist and Contributing Editor at Travel Weekly, the national magazine of the travel industry. The articles that appear below originally appeared in Travel Weekly and are protected by copyright.

letter_reykjavik

THE ROOM BEHIND THE BLACK DOOR:

A LETTER FROM REYKJAVIK

Landing in Reykjavik brought back a surge of sudden memories. This is how I had traveled in the distant past, saving my money for the Icelandic flights to Europe with a few hours on the return to spend in the world’s top-rated duty-free shop. The 757 had headrest covers with patriotic sayings. Mine read “The most amazing thing about Iceland is not Vatnjaokull, the largest glacier in Europe or that Iceland uses 99% renewable energy. It is the fact that the most popular restaurant in Iceland is a hot dog stand.”

This time I am not passing through Iceland in order get somewhere else. I am going to stay for a while

Let me begin at the end and work backward. For the remainder of my days, I will be recommending that anyone within the sound of my voice consider a visit to this enchanting, quirky, open yet culturally closed, country. If it isn’t as wonderful as I say it is, call up the prime minister. You will find his number in the phone book, a phone directory, by the way, that lists the country’s 320,000 residents by their first name, since nearly everyone shares the same nine or ten last names. In fact, virtually every Icelander can trace their family roots all the way back to the land’s first settlers.

Every nation in the world aspires to be ranked at the very top of the United Nation’s Human Development Index, an index that tracks quality of life. In 2008, Iceland was at the top of the index. They were thriving. They were making lots of money, they enjoyed excellent health care, and exercise was a way of life. People were eating fish and they were a nation of fisherman

But in October of that very same year, the Icelandic financial markets crashed.  The country’s three largest banks, Landsbanki, Kaupthing, and Glitnir, went under after stockpiling foreign assets worth more than $140 billion. It became clear that the losses in Iceland would bring about worldwide economic collapse.

How could such a thing happen? And how can Iceland be such a delightful summer destination given the fact that its average citizen owed approximately $310.000 as their share of lost GNP.

In his fascinating book about the crisis, “Boomerang”, Michael Lewis explains that bankers, including several who were new to the game and former fisherman, looked at what was going on at Wall Street and essentially decided, “well hey, we can do that.” The bankers in Reykjavik devised hedge funds that were based on a heady mix of foreign currency options, a concept so new and  convoluted, that not everyone the room really understood them.

I couldn’t wait to check into my hotel. Hotel 101 played a pivotal but little-known role in the financial collapse because this is where Iceland’s young bankers met. The 101, named after Reykjavik’s richest postal code, is a high-design boutique hotel on a side street that connects to some of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods

My room was superbly placed given my goal. Just below my heated oak floors, was a designated conference room. The hotel only had one. I asked to see it and I was told that would not be possible.

I went downstairs anyway and confronted a black door with no inscription of any kind. I persuaded a maid to let me in and I entered a simple but elegant room with modern furnishings and no hint of what had occurred here. I sat at the head of the table.

When they began their meetings in the basement meeting room in 2003, Iceland’s banks had total assets of several billion dollars. That amount about equaled the entire country’s GNP. By the middle of 2006, that figure had grown to more than $140 billion.

As Lewis points out, this was clearly the fastest expansion of a banking system in the history of mankind. While the US stock market was doubling from 2003-2007, the Icelandic stock market increased nine-fold. Everyone in Iceland was rich. Everyone who could wanted to study the option-pricing model called “Black Scholes.” University finance programs were popping up like lava rocks.

In January of 2008, the investment firm Bear Stearns, flew a group of the world’s leading hedge fund managers to Reykjavik. They met at the Hotel 101’s bar, where drinks were to be followed by dinner. But by the time the first appetizers were offered, this dinner would clearly go down in history. The local bankers realized that almost everyone in the room was betting against them. Iceland was being “shorted.” Many of the local bankers just gave up on dinner and continued to drink.

The collapse of the Icelandic economy came swiftly and large numbers of residents lost their homes, their boats, and their dreams.

They reacted by putting many of their bankers in prison, a prison I visited on the day before I left. It is a rehabilitation facility with low fences and a pre-fab look in a small settlement not very far from the airport.

In Reykjavik, Jon Gnarr, who is both an anarchist and a professional comedian, was elected mayor. His party is called “The Best Party” and his platform included the promise of a “drug-free Parliament by 2020” and “free towels at public swimming pools.” When asked how he would solve the country’s disastrous economic crisis, he would respond “I have absolutely no idea.” This appealed to Icelanders and everyone I spoke to seems to feel that the country has righted itself.

There is a lovely store in Reykjavik that sells Icelandic-made clothing and my wife and daughter decided that they needed matching ski jackets. This to keep them warm, I suppose, on those chilly mornings in Naples, Florida, where we reside. In the store, my daughter noticed that in addition to a stairway and an elevator, there was a slide in the middle of the floor leading to the floor below. She asked the young sales person why the store had a slide and the woman thought about it and replied, “I suppose it is because it could be fun.”

That is why Iceland will thrive once again. That is part of the magic. They tried playing with the banking system and it wasn’t so much fun. But this is a country that where 80% of the population refuses to rule out the possibility that trolls and elves play an important role in their lives. Roads have been rerouted and building plans have been redesigned to avoid disturbing rocks where elves are said to dwell.

This in a country where the number of published books equals the number of residents, where internet use is the highest in the world, and where, inexplicably, residents enjoy the world’s highest consumption of Coca Cola. This is the coolest country in the world.

 

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A TRUSTED TRAVEL CONSULTANT AND A TRAVEL AGENT?

• Travel agents use a GDS to book trips. Travel consultants use their personal contacts around the world to make reservations.

• Travel agents are adept at finding the client what they want. The Travel Consultant is rarely an order-taker and most often is part of the collaborative decision process.

• Travel agents make hotel reservations through a computer system. Travel consultants work directly with the hotel’s executive team to secure a personalized stay with proper amenities.

• Travel agents book trips using computers that have never been anywhere. Consultants rely on their personal knowledge and destination experience to create memorable experiences.

• Travel agents can access a profile of their clients. Travel consultants can access their own personal knowledge of their client’s likes, dislikes, travel background, and interests.

• Travel agents will call the frequent flyer desk on behalf of their clients – for a fee. Travel consultants have the personal telephone numbers of the nation’s top mileage experts in their Rolodex.

• Travel agents go on “Fam” trips. Consultants receive personal invitations to travel on the world’s best travel products.

• Travel agents book packages on price. Travel Consultants seek out value always remembering that “discounted garbage is still garbage.”

• Travel agents book cruises. Travel Consultants create customized cruise experiences.

• Travel agents will sell products that produce low commissions in the hope that the client will return to book something more expensive the next time. Travel consultants refer bargain hunters and those willing to sacrifice quality to travel agents.

• Travel agents book products with which they are familiar. Travel consultants arrange travel with people with whom they are familiar.

• Travel agents try to know their sales reps. Consultants get to know the best travel firms and enablers worldwide. They know the top executives at the firms they support and can call them directly when necessary. And their call will be answered.

• Travel agents book what the computer says is available. Travel consultants offer their clients complimentary upgrades, amenities, VIP services, special gifts, customized destination reports, qualified hotel inspection reports, pre-trip briefings and post-trip debriefings.

• Travel agents tale pride in making a successful booking. Travel consultants tale pride in creating a truly memorable experience based on going beyond expectations.

• Travel agents are, first and foremost, agents of the airlines.
Consultants are, first and foremost, agents of the client.

What we call ourselves ought to have meaning. After all, it was Socrates who said:

“Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly be possessed of. ……The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear”

 

THE LAST VIKING INVADER

If you go back and look at ancient runic inscriptions from the Age of the Vikings, you will find medieval texts using the verb “fara I Viking.” It means “to go on an expedition”. This was refined a bit in the Icelandic sagas, when the phrase “to go Viking” clearly implied more than an expedition. Going Viking meant you were on a raiding party and it is unlikely that you meant to take prisoners.
The latest Viking raiding party is being led by Torstein Hagen, a physicist by training, an MBA from Harvard, and the driving force behind Viking River’s transition from launch in 1997, to current dominance in the River Cruise Market. The company operates 41 vessels in Europe, Russia, the Ukraine, China, Southeast Asia and Egypt.
In March of this year, Viking did something remarkable. They launched 10 new ships in one incredible ceremony in Amsterdam. They were all newly designed boats, longer than any previous river boats. Viking’s Chairman named them “Longships”. That probably wasn’t coincidental. Longships were a breed of Viking vessel in ancient time specifically designed for exploration followed by warfare. The ancient longships had long and narrow hulls and shallow drafts which allowed the Vikings to get aground quickly.
The longships up the passenger capacity by as many as seventy guests on traditional river boats built to transit the Main, Rhine, and Danube Rivers. Those seventy or so additional guests can spell profit if the boats go out full. There are two large balcony suites with living rooms on each of the new boats, a really lovely two-deck atrium that fills the ships centrum with natural light, and an open-air café called Aquavit Terrace that will enable Viking to claim “alternative dining”.
But the real revolution was the design of an off-center corridor. This unique approach to river boat construction, allows one side of the corridor on each deck to accommodate 270 foot veranda suites, many with standing room balconies. Smaller, 205 square foot balconies take up the other side.
The new ships are green, using hybrid engines. The boats have a distinctive look including a signature snub-nosed bow that allows for additional seating in Aquavit.
Mr. Hagen was characteristically modest about the launch of ten new boats. He invited the folks at Guinness World Records to send a certification adjudicator to capture the fact that his christening event was “The Most Ships Inaugurated in One Day by One Company.” Of course, during the ceremony, he promised this was only the beginning. With worldwide media awaiting his pronouncements, the seventy-year-old, who has increased his share of the marketplace from 16% in 2007 to 41% currently, outlined his belief that Viking will be operating 100 river cruise vessels by 2020.
The Vikings are coming and Mr. Hagen shows no signs of slowing down. Moody’s Investors Service observes that it’s B1 Corporate Rating is based on “stable…….good forward looking trends including higher pricing.. It feels that Viking is positioned to achieve a solid return on its vessels unless demand or pricing seriously deteriorates.

legwalkway

FUN FOR THE KIDS

When you enter a life of travel, you accept that one of the shining beacons on the immediate Horizon is the Disney Empire. It is an aspect of our working life that you ignore at your peril. Disney is packaged American wholesomeness, strung together like a chain of goodie two-shoe pearls along the travel landscape. Now, more than ever, it is a collection of travel products that brings equal measure of feel-good satisfaction to those who book the products and the company’s loyal cult of end users.

There is some sense of comfort in the fact that Disney still favors hiring clean cut cast members from the Midwest. Disney has never lost its “Aw-Shucks” glow. Job interviewees are still put on Delta flights into Orlando. One Disney exec confided that “there is usually a long line waiting for the rest room during the last hour of the flight from Chicago. It’s a last chance for Disney job seekers to shave facial hair and to remove Goth jewelry accents.”  Mickey doesn’t favor tats or piercings.

Disney has been so successful that other countries are stepping up plans to build “amusement parks” on a somewhat lesser scale. There a few I thought I would mention just in case you are seeking an out-of-country Disney alternative. I do want to be certain that we have not overlooked the “Disney Alternatives.”

The big news, of course, reported by the BBC and Time, is that construction has already begun on The Hazara Heritage Park and Amusement City. The site of this new theme park, which will include a lake for water sports, a miniature golf course, restaurants, and a butterfly zoo, is just outside Abbottabad in Pakistan. Yes, that Abbottbad!

It seems that members of the Pakistani Parliament feel that the town has had its reputation unfairly diminished by its association with Osama bin Laden. They want to show the world that there is no terrorism in this part of the country and that the people are not extremists. The park is being built in Khyber Pakhunkwa province to provide more activities for families and young people. Officials are hopeful that a planned Ferris wheel will be part of the new amusement park. This will, of course, be the largest Ferris wheel in Pakistan and it could serve to confuse a drone headed for one of its occupants.

If a new amusement park in this area sounds odd, it is important to note that Abbottbad has long been a popular tourism destination locally and for a few intrepid travelers from England, Germany, and Switzerland, nations whose citizens will put some wear on their walking boots just about anywhere they can. The town is actually considered a gateway to the Karakoram Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. The weather and general peaceful countryside has made the area a place where wealthy Pakistanis strive to send their children for study and the area is home to several educational institutions with good reputations.

But that is not the first amusement park I am going to want to visit. First, I want to go to La Caminata Nocturna in Hidalgo, Mexico. Writing in “Foreign Policy” Benjamin Pauker describes the thrill of the organized “night hikes” being offered in the Parque EcoAlberto, which is about three hours north of Mexico City. This Amusement Park, run by the Hnahnu Indians for wealthy Mexicans and just a few tuned-in tourists, is a complete simulation of life on the run for the thousands of Mexicans who attempt to cross into the United States over the border each year.

Think of fake border agents pulling up out of the darkness in pick-up trucks firing real guns loaded with blanks. Those visiting the park and doing the simulation have to run for cover, hiding behind cactus and crawling under fences. If Goofy or Mickey showed up they would likely be arrested.

Travel bloggers, all 1 billion of them, discovered Love Land, long before I made its acquaintance. It is located on Cheju Island, just off the coast of South Korea and it I said to be an amusement park specifically designed to appeal to couples in love and newlyweds. I can’t describe many of the attractions in this park so let’s just say visitors get to view educational sex films, and walk among a rather amazing collection of stone phallic symbols and sculptures designed to show things you might have missed in your readings of the Kama Sutra.

Dicken’s World in Kent, England, is a wonderful stop on your way through England, particularly if you’ve been happy and feel that a little depression might be in order. The park presents a look back at at horrible poverty during the Victorian age. The tour of Marshalsea Prison is as unpleasant as you might imagine and throughout the village one sees hungry, tattered children, or at least, bad actors portraying them. But I’m not sure of this one. There might be value in taking some of our spoiled, iPhone carrying kiddies, and showing them what “austerity” really looked like.

Beijing’s Shijingshan Amusement Park is a world of its own. It is essentially a rip-off of every other popular park and the purpose of bringing your child here must be to demonstrate China’s total lack of interest in laws covering copyright infringement. You can have your picture taken with the “duck: or “Girl Cat”, each of whom bears a striking resemblance to Donald and Minnie. Wander this park and you will find a sleeping beauty, glass slippers, and a slew of Japanese cartoon character rip-offs. The “amusement” in this park is that it is obviously all fake and based on other people’s creativity. But the park officials acknowledge none of this.

I think I’ve saved the best for last. Universal is nice, and so is Dollywood. But nothing says amusement like Grutas Park in Druskininkai, Lithuania.

This is an amusement park that aims to take the visitor back to the good old days of Stalinism. It is a wistful glimpse into “Gulag Life” with Gulag food like starch jelly served in the on-site café.

The kiddies will love it as they enjoy the playground surrounded by vandalized statues of communist figureheads. It’s really a great collection, perhaps the largest in Eastern Europe. But the highlight of a visit to Grutas Park is a ride on the Gulag train, something the geniuses at Disney could never conceive. The train is meant to give visitors a feel for what it must have been like inside a cattle car headed for Siberia in the middle of winter.

hebrides

AN EPIC BATTLE IN THE OUTER HEBRIDES

This is a story, a fairy tale really, set in a magical landscape filled with castle’s, the remnants of Norman conquests, a sheriff or two, and a fellow who thinks he’s David taking on Goliath. The villain is a giant from the west, Massachusetts, to be precise.

Our story takes place in the tiny village of Uig, a sheltered bay with a village attached, created by the confluence of the rivers Rha and Conan in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands. Certainly, tiny Uig and its 363 residents would not expect that one of theirs might make news by attempting to take on a real life travel giant. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Tourists, who can actually locate Uig, find a community filled with folks who make their living from fishing and crofting. There is a twice daily ferry, the Cal-Mac that connects the village to the western islands. Then there is a wee bit of tourism.

If you drive the Staffin road right by the small police house there is a path the locals know that will take you into a deep glen with a beautiful double waterfall. It is a rewarding journey but it takes more than a little effort.

Visitors also like to see the Uig Tower down the Portree Road. It is Norman style but it is actually a rather modern ruin built by one Captain Fraser, a local legend, not in the best sense of the word, who built it chiefly as a collection station for the outrageous fees he charged local crofters who framed the hilly terrains discarded by the wealthy landlords.

Given the pristine setting where the rivers come together, a beautifully situated six-bedroom B&B commands the best view. Richard Gollin and the small Inn’s chef, his wife Joanna, bought the Basile na Citte guesthouse and have been making a go of it since the late 1970’s.

Things were going well until something unexpected happened to the Gollin’s long-held dream. Business suddenly started to started to slack off last year when TripAdvisor reviewers wrote online that their rooms were freezing, there was no hot water, and that the small dining room was filled with “depressing” war memorabilia. Worse, one reviewer, just one, wrote that the “owner was patronizing and pompous.”

Sitting in his living room, along a beach fronted by breathtaking views, Richard Gollin, at age 64, got rather perturbed. He contacted TripAdvisor and told them that inaccurate and false reviews of his tiny inn was destroying his business. One “reviewer”, he pointed out, even wrote that guests were “under-fed”, a rather rare occurrence in Scotland and, some might say, a cultural impossibility.

Richard Gollin demanded that TripAdvisor remove the comments he felt were unjustified. But then he went a step further. He demanded compensation for his lost business. “I believe TripAdvisor is in dereliction of duty in failing to have proper supervision of what goes on their web site” he told the local press. And then he added, “All across the country people should stand up to TripAdvisor.”

This was quickly becoming a crusade and Gollin clearly felt that he, as a wee fellow with a six-bedroom Inn, needed to stand up to the biggest hotel bully on the block. Even if that “block” was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

He waited for a response from the Expedia Corporation, which owns TripAdvisor. But no one in Massachusetts seemed interested in responding to his compensation request.

Despite the serenity of his life in rural Scotland, and the calming views of water out his windows, Richard Gollin was really getting miffed by his perceived treatment by a major US-based corporation.

Finally, in a decision that surprised many in Uig, he decided to take on TripAdvisor in a court of law. So he filed an action in the local Stornoway Sheriff Court for 3,000 Pounds, the maximum permitted. In court filings he pointed out that the online reviewer who claimed he was “under-fed” was not even on the property on the date in question.

TripAdvisor was not going to go through with this charade. A multi-billion corporation based in Massachusetts can’t, after all, be expected to show up in local courts, particularly a “Sheriff’s Court”, to defend its position of transparency and a lack of editing. The company said it is not subject to the law in Scotland, and a local attorney from Stornoway, Angus Macdonald, was hired to appear to bring this point home.

The townspeople were curious about the trial and Richard Gollin’s attempt to take on a huge corporation in a jurisdictional dispute.

Gollin tried to prosecute the claim himself and then brought in a local advocate to assist. The battle raged on for several months in the small courtroom when, suddenly, TripAdvisor told presiding Sheriff Colin Scott Mackenzie that it was dropping its claim of immunity. In effect, for the very first time, and in an important legal precedent, TripAdvisor did concede that it was indeed subject to the laws of Scotland, a concession with international jurisprudence implications.

This should have been a victory for Mr. Gollin and all of those hotel owners, big and small, around the world who have been victimized by fake or erroneous online reviews. But, I am afraid, victory was short lived.

Sheriff Mackenzie ruled that the issues of contract law on an international scale were too complicated for his small court. He looked over at Mr. Gollin as he made the decision to move the case to a higher court, and told him “I do have sympathy for you.” But he approved Trip Advisor’s request to move the trial to a larger, more important court. The folks at TripAdvisor knew this would spell victory as Richard Gollin would now have to wage battle in a new setting requiring large outlays of money for attorneys, postponements, consultants, and transportation. The small B&B operator on Uig simply did not have the financial resources to wage this case in another venue.

In one statement to the court, Mr. Macdonald, TripAdvisor’s attorney, explained to the court that “People who use the site do so at their own risk.”

That is to say, I suppose, that they, we, are victims. And so too are the hoteliers who must abide by inaccurate, deliberately false, and malicious claims made by self-designated “critics” on the major review sites.

 

A SECOND LOOK AT THE CONCORDIA TRAGEDY

“I’d like to say that several hundred people owed their life to the expertise that the commander of the Costa Concordia showed during the emergency.”
-      Captain Schettino’s lawyer, Bruno Leporatti

I have never much liked bullies. And I particularly don’t like bullies who enjoy kicking someone when they are down. Bullies who kick someone when they are down while wearing press passes really make my skin crawl.

In my initial column on the Concordia tragedy, written immediately after the event, I suggested that we might all be advised to take a deep breath and allow the official inquiries to proceed before reaching any final conclusions about the performance of the crew and the reaction of the vessels owners and operators. But the notion of a bunch of “rich folks on a luxury vacation at sea”, as I heard one breathless local anchor describe it, was just too delicious for the mainstream media to resist.

And so it has come to pass, we are told, that the Costa brand, may not survive.  First-time travelers will abandon the notion of cruising, Carnival’s stock will tumble, and the general public will be so filled with fear of the oceans that they will, instead, plop themselves down at an all-inclusive or visit the Caribbean by bus.

None of this has come to pass. There were some blips, but agents are largely reporting it is business as usual. But that is not to say that damage has not been done.

The proud Costa brand appeals to a significantly higher number of loyal repeat guests than media reports have indicated. Costa is a household name in Italy in the best sense of the word. In Italy you don’t do a cruise, you do a “Costa”.

Meanwhile, I have spent considerable time trying to find one shred of evidence that terminating the Costa brand is under serious discussion. There is none. It is a phony story without attribution.

When the non-travel media reports on an industry tragedy you have to expect exaggerations and inaccuracies. With just a few extremely rare exceptions, those who write on travel matters have never worked a day in the industry.

That is how ABC News Chief Investigative Reporter, Brian Ross, a man who usually does his homework, went on air in the days following the tragedy reporting that “a full hour after the tragedy occurred, the ship’s Captain was seated in the dining room asking for dessert and drinks for his female companion.”

The worldwide press has encouraged reporting that would make one believe that this “dashing Captain”, a known “womanizer”, and reckless “Italian-driver”, was more interested in making a first-night impression on his illicit “date.”  But no one asked who, given the fact that the ship was listing and in the middle of a mass evacuation, who remained on dining room duty to serve the Captain his dessert?

Industry insiders know that an Italian crew is highly valued. But the media should understand that insurance companies have strict regulations governing the coverage of a $500 million floating investment and the person who manages it. So, by the way do the bankers who finance the project. It is ludicrous to believe that a Captain is selected based on his charm.

But that is not what ABC News was reporting. They had an interview with a so-called “maritime attorney” who lectured the camera that the cruise industry needed to “clean out risk takers.”

Now that is interesting. The media would have us believe that there are known swashbucklers out there, Captains who are known to management as Jack Sparrow types who just won’t follow orders. It makes for breathless and wholly inaccurate reporting.

Then there’s Geraldo Rivera of Fox News explaining to his official blog readers what really happened:

“that bum of a Captain were recklessly showboating…….How dare they drive that gigantic ship around like it was a flashy sports car they wanted to parade for the cute girls on the shore.”

By way of establishing his credentials to comment on the Concordia disaster, Geraldo points out that, as a sailor,  he has “run aground literally scores of times in dozens of countries over the last half century.”

Of course, they are really taking this tragedy hard in Italy. Costa started sailing in 1854, carrying olives between Liguria and Sardinia. Many Italians feel a kind of visceral connection to the brand’s history and they will not soon abandon ship. But they needed a hero to emerge from this tragedy, just as every major event in Italian history must have a hero. In this case he is the handsome Coast Guard Captain Gregoria DeFalco, who “ordered” the despondent Captain Schettino in his lifeboat to “Get Back on Board for ______’s Sake.” It is a stronger phrase in Italian, complete with sexual connotation. Go to Italy and you will see Italians of all ages wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with the words “Vada a bordo, cazo.” Once again, Italy has managed to emerge with a hero capable of saving their dignity and sense of style.

But our sense of loss should not blind us to certain facts and possibilities.

Captain Schettino did, finally, steer sharply toward shore, getting the seriously wounded ship as close as possible to land. Many of the passengers were able to swim ashore. But the bigger picture is that on a ship that turned on its side and started sinking within twenty-six minutes of impact, crew managed to save and evacuate over four thousand passengers. Tragically, there was loss of life. There were some horrific errors of judgement. But it is true that an emergency evacuation that saved the lives of more than 99% of the passengers meant that a great many crew members did their jobs extremely well.

No one in the media, for instance, seemed to notice the Concordia’s Pilipino crew members, who were finally allowed to fly home to Manila where they were greeted as gentle heroes. By every account, they acted with discipline and with calm and Filipino cooks and cabin attendants roped themselves together to work as a team helping passengers escape. But that doesn’t fit in with the media’s contention that the crew did not know what it was doing.

Costa and the Carnival Corporation have not been able to properly respond. I can tell you that they certainly would not choose me to speak for them. But cruising is statistically safer than staying at home. We must, collectively. tell the truth to counter the falsehoods and exaggerations of the mainstream media bullies.

BLENDING IN WITH CHURCH STEEPLES AND SEARSUCKER

What was it, I wondered, that could cause a coastal town inSouth Carolina to come roaring into the hearts of readers of Travel + Leisure? Why had Charleston up ended San Francisco on the list of “Best Cities in America.”?

Charleston calls itself “The Holy City”, a phrase that has lots to do with the sheer number of church steeples that form a comforting layer of respectability across the city’s skyline.

From it’s earliest days,Charleston exhibited a degree of religious tolerance, providing religious freedom to the French Huguenots when it was a colony while also providing an environment where Jews could practice their faith. The Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim congregation, for instance, was founded in 1749.

Catholics and Blacks, among others, didn’t fare quite so well. But that was then.

Now, I am reminded, as I walk the sidewalks of this best preserved of all American beauties, of the words of the great South Carolina novelist Pat Conroy, who said that “walking the streets of Charleston in the late afternoon of August was like walking through gauze or inhaling damaged silk.”

The heat was oppressive but I took delight in that fact because against all odds, I was falling for this place during the single month when the odds were stacked against such feelings.

What is it about this place that makes it so intoxicating? Conroy had at least a partial answer.

“Charleston has a landscape that encourages intimacy and partisanship. I have heard it said that an inoculation to the sights and smells of the Carolina lowcountry is an almost irreversible antidote to the charms of other landscapes, other alien geographics. You can be moved profoundly by other vistas, by other oceans, by soaring mountain ranges, but you can never be seduced. You can even forsake the lowcountry, renounce it for other climates, but you can never completely escape the sensuous, semitropical pull of Charleston and her marshes.”

So it was all about seduction. It was rather hot and humid to feel much seduction, but there were moments when I felt it.

Friends who live here suggested that the only way to truly feel theCharleston’s vibe was to get about by horse-drawn carriage. So I figured out which stable ran the best operation and I lined up outside their barn for a noon departure in a wagon led by two horses who, the driver, informed me, seemed to be in love. Of course, horses is not entirely accurate as most of the animals pullingCharleston’s carriages are hinny’s, a strong, intelligent animal that results from the corporate merger of a male stallion and a female donkey.

But Fred and Myrna were not to take me out that day. Our departure was suddenly halted just as I was being seated because the temperature had just hit ninety-eight. The horses can’t go out in temps above ninety-seven. I got out of the carriage and started walking alongState Streetto Chalmers and Queen Streets.

Along the way I popped into stores and chatted up locals and store owners to try to get a handle on this place that was holding me in its emotional grip despite the humidity of an August afternoon. Fred and Myrna had stopped working but I was on a mission.

The newly arrived cruise ships were a big issue. There were those who said that the daytime visitors from the ships were not the big spenders as, it appears, they were led to believe. Several shopowners seemed genuinely concerned about the new “trinket seeking jean shorted” tourists “coming off the boats like an army of red ants in search of “the best deal on a slice of pizza”.

But one wizened old man in a striped shirt and tie, with wide red suspenders shook off this view and told me, as we shared a bench, that, “this place sells itself. The cruise ship visitors may not spend much but they’ll remember, and they’ll come back, and they’ll tell their friends about this place.”

My walk took me up State Street past men’s stores that have been serving “Southern Gentlemen” for years. One small place featured two salesmen sitting just behind the glass of the front door in the standardCharlestondress uniform, seersucker suits worn properly with bowties. They peered out at passersby, like two hoot owls smiling at some private joke.

As one popularCharlestonblog puts it, “we Charlestonians are collectively, dare I say it, the most fashionable and good-looking in all of the Southeast.” I would not question such modesty.

I stopped in at M. Dumas & Sons and scanned the seersucker but I couldn’t see it fitting in with a visit to Wrigley Field.

It was about this time, as I leftState Street, that I began to realize that I was becoming addicted to a purely southern vice for which there was no known cure.

I love Sweet Tea. I can’t describe the real thing to you, you just sort of know when you’ve got it. And Charleston is the epicenter of the Sweet Tea revolution. It has something to do with just the right amount of cane sugar but I can’t go further than that. I can tell you that when you realize you can’t walk more than two city blocks without a sip of the stuff, you are an addict.

I walked on to Chalmers Street and the Old Slave Mart. Charleston has been criticized for its lack of official recognition of the slave trade during the antebellum period. But for many tourists who can trace their heritage back to relatives who entered the country aboard the fetid ships that served the trade, a visit toCharlestonis fraught with meaning.

At one time, slaves were sold in batches on the steps of the old Customs House in the center of the city. But some of the local women thought it unfashionable to be walking past low tables where slaves, offered at public sale, were chained together. These low tables were set up in yard sales and marts along Queen and State streets.

In 1856, the city fathers passed an ordinance that outlawed the public sales of human beings.

In the early evening, as dusk was approaching, I went back to the horse stables. The temperature had dropped to 91 and Fred and Myrna were ready to show me their city.

It was a lovely night and I felt totally engaged with this place as the horses hoofs clomped effortlessly along the darkening streets. We stopped at an overlook facing out at the harbor and I missed the guide’s words as I peered out atFt.Sumter.

Our tour continued past the best real estate inCharleston, the homes “South of Broad”, a demarcation line separating the affluent from the wealthy with bragging rights. To live south of Broad streetwas to cement one’s authority toCharlestonupper crust citizenship, perhaps assisting with membership in one of the many private membership clubs in the city.

Such is the tenor of the lively Charleston“Social Season” that even after General Beauregard and his men fired on Union troops stationed at Ft.Sumter to start the Civil War, a number of local hostesses chose the Fort as the location for some of the season’s most elegant parties.

As the “War of Northern Aggression”, as they still call it down here,  began it’s second year, Charleston high society was still awash in champagne, fine party foods, and expensive clothing.

Still later that night I enjoyed one of four in a row spectacular and rather unplanned meals. I was a restaurant critic for years so I am not easily impressed by claims of great food. But just let me tell you that your clients can totally justify a visit toCharlestonbased entirely on the fact that Charleston,South Carolina has, in my view, the best food per capita in the entire United States.

I set out to challenge that assumption and I failed miserably. I was done in by the Maverick Shrimp and Grits at Slightly North of Broad (SNOBS) and the Lobster and Corn Chowder and Coconut Cake at the Peninsula Grill.

As I was leaving the magazine shop at the Charleston Airport, on my way home, a woman went to pay for a magazine but realized she was out of money and reduced to credit cards.

“Don’t worry darlin’, the cashier replied, just pay us the next time you see us. We know you’ll be back.”

Indeed.

THE BATTLE AT THE BELLAGIO

I recently returned from my annual bout of travel flagellation. The fact that it takes place in the bowels of the Bellagio in Las Vegas makes it easier to take, but sitting down and speaking with every travel executive alive on this earth is a harrowing experience.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to accept about this annual gathering is the fact that hoteliers age better than travel consultants. I know this to be true but I don’t need to be reminded of it in person each year. It must be because hoteliers do not have to spend their days tracking hotel commissions.

There were lots of five minute meetings, hundreds of them, spaced out over five days. The consortium to which we belong gathers top travel executives like bees to honey, and this year, it seemed as though there was not quite enough honey to go around.

Though it was physically difficult to sit and talk with folks from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm before showering and then proceeding on to cocktail parties featuring small talk (what do you think I’ve been doing all day, I’ve only got so much small talk in me), this year was an almost exhilarating experience.

The vast majority of the agents I spoke with and the hundreds of suppliers were all feeling, as Larry David might put it, “Pretty, pretty good”. Business in most sectors seems strong and the membership was eager to share their successes with one another both privately and in open training forums. To listen to the conversations, one would conclude that the biggest challenge facing these consultants is the difficulty they are encountering finding suitable help to process the current workload.

How odd, it seemed, after the entirely positive vibes on the convention floor, to go back up to one’s room to turn on CNN only to find that our sense of economic comfort was somehow misplaced.

The conversation and some of the gossip again centered around the truly extraordinary job done by the staff at Bellagio. You kept hearing folks from all over the world saying “I don’t know how they do it.”

There were, after all, 3,700 or so of us. We were the most critical group on earth. We eat bad hotels for breakfast. Not only that, a fair portion of the world’s very best hotel managers were in attendance along with hotel Concierge staff and the top agents on the planet when it comes to evaluating and booking hotels. These were not bloggers on TripAdvisor. These were hotel professionals who know when a marble bathroom is outdated.

One of my favorite agent friends, brings white “dust gloves” on every trip and runs them underneath the bed, in desk drawers etc. to “gauge and note” the state of the housekeeping.

Another agent advises me that she always orders “anchovies and raisins” in a hotel restaurant just to see how prepared they are to serve guest needs. “Richard, I’m telling you, you can learn a lot from anchovies and raisins.” Think about a proper Caesar salad and giving the kiddies what they want.”

I’m telling you, this was a rough crowd.

So it was, as you might imagine, sort of like feeding the Bellagio to the wolves. What would the Four Seasons, the Ritz Carlton, the Montage, the Dorchester, the Peninsula folks think about this Las Vegas Hotel and the manner in which it treated its guests? How does a Vegas hotel meet the expectations of management from properties like Raffles inSingaporeor the Ritz inParis?

In fact, we weren’t even guests. We were; let’s be honest, conventioneers. Thousands of us were arriving at about the same time. There were catering banquets and breakfasts and lunches for thousands. We would all be exhausted and we would have little time to wander out in the non-air-conditioned reality of the Desert.

Worse still, we had pretty much seen it all before. We had traveled the world, often on someone else’s dime, been upgraded and wined and dined as individuals who might bring new business to whatever property would be courting us.

So how could a hotel in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip win over our hardcore audience of the world’s best hoteliers and a collection of some of the best agents on earth? I mean this wasn’t an 11 year-old hotel reviewer from Slobvodkia on Twitter, this was Valerie Wilson and her equally impressive progeny. Live.

So the stage was set for failure. But this is how it went:

I arrived inLas Vegason Southwest Airlines. But enough name-dropping.

There was  gentleman in a tuxedo from the Bellagio waiting and he had a nice car he had brought with him.

When we arrived, the staff at the entrance was greeting guests by name. Check-in was handled effortlessly. The staff remembered where I had eaten the year before and asked if I would like similar dinner reservations.

For the next week, we were enveloped in the kind of service that one just doesn’t associate with any but upper tier properties catering to affluent individuals and costing perhaps four times what we were being charged per night.

Just a few examples:

There were three calls to make certain that everything was “perfect” in our room.

The maid introduced herself and inquired as to how and when we would like our room made up.

Breakfasts and lunch almost always exceeded expectations given the thousand being served in fast-moving buffet lines. There were creative frittata’s, fresh squeezed orange juice, and caring table service.

During one banquet meal, I passed on the lovely but decadent chocolate tower and was, immediately asked if the chef could prepare a fruit plate. It was customized to my request, looked beautiful, and arrived within moments.

Everyone on the huge staff seemed to be sincerely glad that we were visiting and they were eager to show why they are World Class, even when dealing with a group numbering in the thousands.

Bellagio staff was universally friendly and they would always nod and greet you despite the army of guests. Even security seemed carefully chosen for both their seriousness of purpose and their ability to make you feel welcomed.

Bathrooms were constantly being cleaned, coffee was constantly being poured. How, I wondered, do you get more than a thousand staff members to offer anticipatory service at this level?

The design of the garden atrium off the lobby had lovely, rather interactive giant cages with lovely birds, some visiting from as far away asAustralia. It tool 150 Bellagio employees, working for a week around the clock, to complete the display.

Our convention of critics experienced a property that not only “handles” 3700 people. It embraces them and accepts the challenge of offering one-on-one service to those who think it impossible.

At my early-morning check-out, sans lines,  the receptionist quickly presented my bill and asked me, with a slight smile, “Did we surprise you just a little bit”?

It was as if she had read our collective minds.

As we arrived at the airport, the driver signaled and Southwest’s curbside check-in staff walked over to the car to take our luggage. Even Southwest respects a car that has “Bellagio” written on its side.

SMELLING THE WORLD ON BEHALF OF OUR CLIENTS

When I entered this industry, humpteen years ago, my goals were fairly straightforward. I needed to get people safely from place to place. Generally, they told me where they wanted to go and I knew which buttons to push to get them there. But then, along the way, something happened to my rather clear job description.

Clients, I observed, were making a lot of wrong decisions, and I began to become uncomfortable with this whole “travel agent” thing. I didn’t like robotic reservations and I started to observe a whole new breed of travel agent. I would, I decided, get to really know my products well so I could do more than book travel. I would advise travelers.

So, like many of you dear readers, I made a decision to complicate my life. I took on a new responsibility. Unfortunately, the “products” I was selling were countries and cities and in-between places. So I made a decision to know the world. That is of course an impossible feat on any level. You will always fail..

But then I realized that it was no longer enough to know the geography of the world. To really serve my clients well, I would need to know the innkeepers on the world map by name. I would need to tell them my clients were coming. So I took on that challenge despite the fact I knew I could never really know the General Managers of the hundreds of hotels I might book in a year.

Soon after that, I realized that knowing the geography of the world and having a working relationship with every important GM on earth was not nearly enough. My clients started to depend on my to be a meteorologist. I had to know months of maximum rainfall and heat indexes from Alaska to Abu Dhabi. It was expected.

It soon became clear that arranging travel in foreign lands properly would require a deep knowledge of the best restaurants in cities around the world. But it wasn’t enough to know the names of the restaurants. I quickly realized that my clients would need to know what dishes to order to get the most out of the experience. This made me take on the compilation of a guide to every top restaurant, as well as more reasonably priced local discoveries, in destinations around the globe. I needed to become a walking Zagat,

Some of this started taking its toll. I had to read more and more, I was working nights and weekends just to keep up and it still wasn’t enough.

Ten years ago, I realized that my clients want to read books about the destinations they will be visiting. I still love books, I love touching them and cleaning the covers. I use my Kindle as a coaster for cheese plates. So I took on the job of knowing the best travel books for every major destination in the world.

That turned quickly into Apps, because my younger clients need to know I speak at least a few words of their strange language. So I started assigning myself the task of reading virtually every computer magazine published in America. I went Apple at home and PC in the Office because Mac users like to get their correspondence from other Mac users. If you respond to a Mac user on a PC you might as well include your AARP number in the e-mail.

I had become a geographer, a meteorologist, a tech nerd, a book reviewer, a restaurant critic, and a hotel maven. That was when I realized that my Mac and PC clients needed to have me provide a content rich web site experience of the kind that would be updated daily. I wanted to be a good adviser; I wanted to meet their needs, so I took on the challenge.

And you know what. Up until this past weekend, I was feeling overwhelmed and overworked but I felt that I was serving my clients well.

Then, I opened the December issue of Conde Nast Traveler and everything fell apart. I realized that I have overlooked one of the most important responsibilities a travel adviser has to his clients. I have not advised them how to smell when they travel.

The article featured commentary by Chandler Burr, who, it turns out, was the “Scent Critic” for the New York Times. I never knew such a journalistic position existed. I don’t believe we have a Scent Critic on staff at Travel Weekly. Perhaps we should.

The point made in the piece was that certain scents repel and attract in lands abroad. And I suddenly realized that this is a whole new subject I had to master to be a credible adviser.

When traveling in South America, for instance, our clients need to know that they should wear “whatever your Dad wore in the 1950’s.” This would include Old Spice for men and Shalimar for the ladies. Heavy on the fruits.

When in France, Men are advised to wear Kouros “which smells like body odor and French truckers.” For ladies something strong, earthy, and “dirty like Vetiver by Guerlain. The French, the former Times critic advises, like their women to smell “like Robert Dinero in Raging Bull.”

I started to think how many clients I’ve sent to France without sharing this important information. I have been a failure. I am an incomplete adviser.

It does, of course make perfect sense. I am kicking myself for never thinking of it. I apologize to you, dear reader, for never writing about it. Surely other cultures judge us by our smell, just as we judge them when they show up at a reception reeking of Le Motel Nights cologne or something similar.

The Chinese, it turns out, can handle florals, citrus, or fruits as long as they are light while the Japanese like scented minimalism with nothing heavy. They most dislike heavy florals and anything that smells of smoke.

In the Middle East travelers should bring something dark and heavy with elements of moss or the woods. This is particularly true for men doing business in the country. For ladies visiting Dubai, Burr recommends Annick Goutal Encerns Flamboyant. But be aware that in many Arab cultures women out in public or in the company of men do not wear scents least they resemble an “adultress.”

Sad to report, there is, apparently, no country on earth in which the wearer of Brittany Spears new fragrance has a tactical scent advantage.

How one should smell is a matter of tradition, preference, and national pride and I suppose the savvy travel advisor now has to add mastery of this rather complex subject to one’s repertoire.

Travelers to Brazil, for example, should be aware that fragrances for infants is big business. South America is the only place on earth where babies are properly scented before going out in public.

In much of Africa, the wearing of any type of cologne or perfume might call attention to the fact that you are from out of town. While on safari, I will be advising my clients that, in the bush, the only acceptable fragrance is one that smells like rain.

In Ethiopia, it is believed that the best scent on earth is that of cows, while the Dogon of Mali would be most impressed with any woman who shows up redolent of the smell of onion.

One of the more interesting scented travel experiences can be found in the more remote stretches of the Amazon region where more than 50,000 Avon ladies sell the product line literally hut by hut. They exist even in those villages so removed from civilization that they can be reached only by canoe.

Travel agents who just take orders, one could argue, are the industry’s high school graduates. But there is college for those who seek to be destination consultants and graduate school for those who wish to become trusted advisors. It all has to do with the years one is willing to devote to one’s craft.

 But it is a life filled with the frustration that we can never know even a small portion of what we really need to know. So we press forward, always reading, always adding “courses” to our “curriculum”. It just never ends and you never go to sleep thinking you have completed your work.

  I am still not sure how one should smell when visiting Canada, so I still have work to do tonight.

PAN AM FLIES AGAIN – AT LEAST FOR A LITTLE WHILE

The new “Pan Am” television series premiered on ABC in late September. It is stylish and even evocative, but it leaves “Mad Men” with little to worry about. I suspect that it may end its run beforeSingaporeAirlines flight 21, the world’s longest commercial flight, leavesNewarkand arrives inSingapore. So watch it while you can.

Pan Am is set in 1963. In the second episode, the crew gets to meet President Kennedy during his time inBerlin.  It is all rather fluffy and far-fetched but it does serve to remind us that Pan Am was a great cultural icon. It represented our country at a time when our other famous export was Elvis. Pam Am was landing all over the globe and, in a way, so was Elvis.

My favorite ever Pan-Am flight was aLondontoSan Franciscohop. I was in the process of falling in love with a woman I had met inLondonand we got to enjoy a lovely, even intimate, dinner on the 747’s upper deck.

I was once asked if I would like to see “Pan Am’s top-producing travel agency in theUnited States?” My friend, a sales manager for the airline, walked me to a not particularly attractive section ofSan Franciscoto show me a run-down agency staffed by a dozen Philippine agents. They were churning out airline tickets on what looked like the same assembly line used by Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz when they worked in the cake factory.

Of course, Pan Am, complete with square-jawed pilots, and blond stews lookin’ for love in just a few of the right places, represents an era that preempts the notion of women as equals.

Travel + Leisure reporter, Aimee Lee Ball, did an interesting profile on where we have come as a nation of fliers and what we have come to expect in this age of lowered service expectations. The piece had a great picture of Pacific Southwest Airline stews getting off their plane inMiamiafter it was, first, hijacked toCuba. Their miniskirts and “pettipants” must have caused the Cubans more than a little distress. It was all so shocking, that the National Organization for Women organized a protest directed at the uniform.

Airlines were, it is important to remember, overtly sexist in those days. Braniff asked its customers in ads “Does your wife know you’re flying with us.”?

Pacific Southwest actually promoted the benefits of an aisle seat to secure the very best views of their mini-skirted stewardesses. Eastern Airlines was so happy to promote the image of attractive and available women in the cabin that it actually provided little black books to passengers to be used for jotting down flight attendants phone numbers.

What is so fascinating about the imagery of this new TV series is that it took almost twenty years for a major turn around in attitudes.

A careful look at the history of flight attendants in our country will reveal that they have had to battle in the courts for virtually every right they now enjoy. It was never easy. Nothing was ever given to them.

Think about it. In the halcyon days of Pan Am, flight attendants were told exactly how much they could weigh. They had to be at least 5’ 2”, weigh less than 130 pounds, and, after meeting those criteria, they had to be ready to retire at the ripe old age of thirty-two.

Even the star of Pan Am, an actress named Christina Ricci, wouldn’t have made the cut. A check of her official biography reveals that she is only 5”1”, which is why you will always see her wearing heels in her scenes. Had she really been working for Pan Am in 1963, she would have to retire in a year. Ricci is thirty-one.

So after organized boycotts, legal actions, and a change in the times, twenty years after Pan Am in its heyday, flight attendants gained the right to put on a few pounds. The current reality is a bit different. The current industry standard on height is that the flight attendant must be able to reach the overhead safety equipment. That would cover individuals up to 6’1”. The weight restrictions have been generally lifted in lieu of a rule that says that flight attendants must be able to secure their seatbelt in a jump seat without using a seat extender.

Flight attendants have fought for and won the right to let their hair grow grey. They can now get pregnant. They can be men. And, if wool itches, they can wear polyester.

          And retirement is no longer mandatory, as it was in the 60’s, at age thirty-two. Today’s flight attendants can continue to do their jobs as long as they can meet the necessary health minimums required to operate an aircraft’s safety equipment         and procedures.

Of course, other countries are at different points on the flight attendant liberation scale. China Southern Airlines, for example, has designed a reality show approach to hiring. The job application process features an American Idol inspired judge’s panel and those seeking to fly for the airline must compete for their position by serving the judges various drinks and lifting heavy suitcases.

At the other end of the scale is the world’s most liberated airline. It is, I think, the airline in the world that best represents the attitude of its paying customers. After you finish this piece, I hope you will Google “AirNew ZealandNaked Safety Demonstration.”

And if you are lucky enough to be flying one of AZ’s domestic 737’s, you will likely look up from your iPad to actually watch the demonstration. Every crew member in the video is totally naked and wearing body paint to represent clothing. It’s the KIWI way to get your attention.

I don’t know what Pam Am’s last Chairman, Tom Plaskett, would have thought of AirNew Zealand’s Safety Briefing. But I do recall his words following the financial collapse of Pan Am.

“The state of our airline industry is a national embarrassment.”

That was 1991.

THE NEW CRUISE LINE FROM THE FOLKS WHO BROUGHT US THE HOTEL OF DOOM

 “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to
get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with
the chance of being drowned… a man in a jail has more room,better food, and commonly better company.

Samuel Johnson

More than a few eyes in the cruise industry industry are now focused on the development of new business in Asia and the Pacific Basin… Costa was the first line to recognize that potential, placing a ship in China in 2006.They’ve invested more than 50 million Euros in the Asia market
and they will exceed 100 calls in Chinese ports this year.

Royal Caribbean has seen huge growth in the China market since placing the Legend of the Seas there in 2008. Think about it, 75% of their passengers boarding in Tianjin and Shanghai are Chinese. What an extraordinary opportunity for Americans to go on a vacation where they can actually get up close and personal with Chinese citizens. I may require my clients to do a cruise like that before I agree to send them anywhere else.

Look at it from the cruise line’s perspective. The Asia Pacific Region has more than 3.5 billion potential cruisers. So cruise lines are in a mad rush to set up China-based sales offices and to find the best way to say “It’s different out Here” in Mandarin.

But you see, that is the problem. All of the most intelligent eyes in the cruise industry are focused on the potential of cruising in China. But no one is paying attention to the growth of a new cruise line in Asia that threatens to put them all out of business.

It turns out, you see, that North Korea is entering the cruise business. Now some might not take this seriously, since North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, is home to the Ryugyong Hotel, described by Esquire Magazine as “The Worst Building in the History of Mankind.” I took that remark to mean that the author didn’t care for the architecture. We’ll get to North Korea’s cruise ship in a moment but the good news is that it was not designed by the same team that built the one hundred and five story hotel, a property so hideous and unsafe that it has not had a single guest for two decades. You may be able to Google this 3,000 room hotel if you are lucky enough to find an unofficial photo of the Capital in which the hotel has not been airbrushed out. North Korea takes its investments in tourism
seriously and the government poured 2% of its entire gross domestic product into the so-called Hotel of Doom.

So with this background, what could we expect from a new North Korean cruise line?  In early November, 500 Chinese tourists, travel agents and North Korean tourism executives boarded the “cruise ship” Mangyongbong in the North Korean port of Rason for a leisurely cruise down the east coast of the country, disembarking in Kumgang.

It isn’t hard to board this new cruise line. You simply work with the proper travel agency in China, get yourself to the Chinese city of Yanji, and then do a three-hour drive to the port. But bring a cushion; the roads are filled with large holes and small craters.

The Mount Kumgany Region, the highlight of the itinerary, is actually quite beautiful and it was a resort area that was to be co-developed by South and North Korea, accepting tourists from both countries. Unfortunately, this tourism harmony sort of fell apart when North Korean guards started shooting South Korean tourists.

Now, North Korea has a new partner in the Chinese and they are working to build up a cruise industry while encouraging outside investment. The Vice Mayor of Rason mentioned in an interview that people from Jamaica don’t need a tourist visa. But they can’t bring their mobile phones. Why would North Korean officials believe that tourists from Jamaica would want to sail out of North Korea on a short cruise? It must be the ship.

The invited press, including a travel writer for the New York Times, observed that the Mangyongbong was a forty-nine year old refurbished cargo ship with rusty portholes and musty cabins.

The send-off was memorable as 500 locals dressed in workers clothing waved to people in officers clothing while carnival music blared form two minivans parked on the pot-hole filled pier Then fireworks went off, flags were raised, and collections of plastic flowers were tossed onto the open deck.

Cabin categories were rather straightforward. Many guests were asked to sleep on wooden bunk beds but those in lower cost categories were assigned mattresses on the floor. The normal arrangement was eight to a room. Meals were servedcafeteria style on metal trays. As the ship sailed, fresh coffee was served. The entertainment director arranged for Karaoke and decks of playing cards. A fair number of the bathrooms lacked water. The food, described by the NY Times as “resembling a mess hall at an American Army Base” was mostly uneaten. Leftovers were dumped overboard but because of capricious winds much of the food made it back to the ship.

Now I could stop here and we could all dismiss this new cruise product. But I’ve read some of the interviews with the Chinese travel agents on this inaugural. And several of them felt that, at about $440 USD for a five-night cruise, it would be a relatively easy sell. It would appeal to Chinese who do not live along the coast as well as the large ethnic Korean population along the Chinese border. Chinese tourism to North Korea is already a reality. And guess what? The Tourism ministry spokesman
alluded to a “much newer” 900 passenger ship to be added to the fleet. But theyare looking for a little “investment” money.

No announcement has yet been made about possible pre or post cruise hotel stays using the Ryugyong’s available rooms.

This important inaugural cruise ended with a bit of appropriate theatrics as the Mangyongbong crashed into the pier while docking, turning portions of the pier into rubble.

  BEIJING FOR REAL

 

I have not arrived in Beijing on the wings of an angel. I flew United.

The service upstairs on the 747 was great, unless, of course, you’ve flown one of those Asian carriers that actually understands the concept of customer service.

Then there’s this thing I have about the age of the aircraft. I like to fly planes that are younger then the flight attendants.

I am ensconced at the Peninsula, an oasis of tranquility near the Wangfujing district. It is an exciting part of town and the visitor can wander down ancient alleyways called “hutongs” where local workers hover over stands dispensing fried donuts, sautéed chicken feet, and herbed teas the color of the Ganges.  Every block or two was a barber wielding a swinging set of scissors.

Walking these streets I experienced the latest tourist scam. Americans are approached by “university students” eager to practice English and to share what “life is really like here in Beijing”. The visitor enjoys the conversation until it is revealed that the university student is a starving artist with a run-down apartment that doubles as an art studio. The artist lairs are filled with the Chinese equivalent of Elvis-on-velvet art, the kind sold in the parking lots of gas stations just off the interstate in the States.

I did manage to meet a fair number of authentic students but only because I politely asked to see ID. After a while, I noticed that they all seemed to talk with the same phrases. Several told me that Beijing is “very good, I think, because things are getting harmonious and we have good order.” I saw a lot of “good order” when I looked up at the CCTV cameras and the soldiers patrolling.

Even the young people in western dress felt the need for structure. One engineering student from Beijing University told me that “we like making money, yes, but never without good order. We do not want to be exactly like you.”

So I went looking for good order in the area around Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. As I walked along a path leading to the outer walls, I noticed a young woman on crutches who had talked back to a policeman. He seemed not to want to arrest her but as the path cleared to the wide boulevard just in front of the Square, three trucks pulled up. The woman was thrown to the ground and hurled into the back of one of the trucks, which quickly sped away..

The director of this was a soldier I called “hardcore’. I watched as he pulled people off of buses for searches by his associates. He also stopped walkers who looked, somehow, suspicious. It was the last day of the People’s Congress and security was high.

Finally, I tucked my notebook in my pocket and entered the Forbidden City’s South Gate.

Three hours later, I decided to walk back to my hotel. Just before turning onto Wangfujing, I bought an ice tea and sat on a park bench near the main bus stop. It was a sunny afternoon and a parade of bicycles, carts, and traffic streamed by. Perfect people watching. Suddenly I felt a presence, looked up, and saw “hardcore” approaching.

He came up to my bench, peered down at me, and asked “Where you from?”

“Not far from Wrigley Field”, I replied, “States.”

He stared at me. “You watch too much” he said as he threw me his best sneer and walked away. No doubt he would finish the sunny day by assuring that all was “in good order.”

WHAT FLYING STRESS?

Escaping from Siberia

On February 4th, a Monday, dense fog shrouded the Chicago area, making the city look something like Dresden after the bombing.

But I wasn’t worried. I was not scheduled to fly out until Wednesday. It was a trip that would take me to the least southern part of the south, the bottom of Florida.

It has been a rough winter. Thirty years earlier, I was brought to Chicago in a corporate move after years in Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge. It took a while to get accustomed to the weather, but I’ve always loved winter and the people who live in America’s best functioning major city got to me quickly. I became a Chicagoan through and through.

Of course ,I live nowhere near the city. In fact, I live nowhere near my office, which is located in Chicago’s largest suburb. No, I drive almost an hour from remote Kendall County. It is an area of some growth but farmland still dominates the landscape. We live on a dead end road in the woods. So when I heard that heavy snow was forecast for my departure on Wednesday, I began to wonder if the limo that would take me to the airport would be able to make it down our road. Would the flights operate?

On Tuesday, the forecast worsened, something major was coming, and Chicago’s big shoulders might, like mighty Atlas, shrug under the onslaught of eight to twelve inches of snow.

I called my airline of choice at 4:00 pm. There was no way I was going to be able to get out on Wednesday, could I possibly fly on Thursday?

Now, at this point, you might imagine that my airline of choice would be Cathay Pacific, Singapore, or Emirates, airlines I have, in other forums, rated as the very best in the world. Add Virgin Atlantic and Qatar to that list. Or, since I am based in Chicago, is my “airline of choice” American or United? They are fine airlines.

But, no, my “airline of choice” is Southwest. And, once again, they demonstrated why.

A peppy reservation agent answered the phone on the second ring. She listened to what I wanted to do and responded:

“Oh Mr. Turen we don’t want you to risk driving to the airport in this weather. I will be happy to change your flight to Thursday or any other day that you wish, and Southwest will honor your fare.” I was confirmed immediately on the same flight a day later.

On Thursday, the limo arrived. A local farmer, Mr. Hill, had plowed our driveway. The roads near my house were bad but Chicago’s road crews love challenges and they work all night. The tollways were clear with very little traffic.

O’Hare had cancelled just over 1,000 flights on Wednesday and the news had carried scenes of thousands of stranded passengers sleeping on cots in the terminals. You may have seen the pictures. The TV weather people were actually fondling their dopplers.

So what would I find at Chicago’s smaller Midway Airport, the local home of Southwest?

I found no waiting at check-in. The Southwest curbside check-in guys walked out to the limo to get my bags. Southwest had pressed dozens of extra staff into service and cleared the backlog from the previous day. The runways had been cleared.

In the main terminal, huge pizzas was just coming out of the ovens, the lamb and feta sandwiches were warming, and a few TSA’s and Chicago’s finest were lined up for some Chicago-style dogs piled high with healthy, salad kind of stuff.

It was 10:30 in the morning,  the time when lunch in Chicago officially begins. Our Mayor decided some years ago that fliers out of Midway ought to be offered some of the best of the ethnic and “Chicago-style” foods for which the city is famous. So each and every one of my Southwest flights involves a wonderful picnic put together from the myriad of options in the terminal.

At the gate, the agent was extremely apologetic. Our departure was going to be delayed by about nine minutes.

We boarded our 737-700, still showing signs of newness, and were promptly instructed that the flight would be full so “I would like everyone to formally introduce themselves to the losers in the middle seat.” The lead flight attendant also mentioned that “if you really depend on my demonstration to operate your seat belt, please don’t try driving when we arrive in Ft. Myers.”

The pilot twice apologized for the nine-minute delay and promised that he would try to find some tailwinds to make up for the delay.

Hours after one of the worst snowstorms in recent years, our plane took off. No hassles – no problems and genuinely nice people every step of the way, all of whom actually seemed to enjoy working for their airline. My airline. .

Quite frankly,  I don’t see what the big deal is about flying these days.

Pilot Ron found the tailwind and we arrived at the gate two minutes ahead of schedule.

A KISS IS JUST A KISS

The French are struggling with the results of a new study that says that only 54% of American visitors are satisfied with the welcome they received in France.

This is a perception problem that should be easy to fix. Clearly, the French need something symbolic, like a lei greeting, to demonstrate how happy they are to welcome visitors to their  little corner of the world.

So I have recommended that the French Tourism authorities patent the “French Kiss” and make certain that all visiting Americans receive one at the airport or the cruise pier. This would make arriving passengers feel really special.

Every once in a while a French movie star could be driven out to the airport to kiss arriving tourists. Perhaps a “French Kiss” photo could be given to every arriving guest.

The Junior Minister for Tourism, who is a fully-grown adult, Luc Chatel, is very concerned about the fact that Spain and Italy are both scoring higher on hospitality surveys.

The image of grumpy taxi drivers and arrogant waiters is hurting France and the future impact of a drop in both European and American visitors is taken quite seriously these days.

More people visit France on vacation then any other nation on earth. And the World Tourism Association is predicting a tourism boom that will have worldwide repercussions. They are predicting, according to a recent release from Agence France Presse, that the number of travelers worldwide will actually double in the next twelve years. That there will be winners and losers in this epic struggle to win the hearts and minds of prospective tourists has not escaped the French. They are looking to begin improving even the little things like the way the immigration officer welcomes you at the airport, to the bathing habits of those who drive the nation’s taxis. This is a war and there are untold billions at stake.

One study has particularly rankled the French. A study of attitudes toward tourists by the Maison de la France showed that Italy was significantly “friendlier and warmer” then France. The French and the Italians are more then soccer rivals. Some old scores are just never going to be settled by the European Union. The French detest loosing anything to the Italians. The notion that Italian pasta actually passes for cuisine in some quarters, is insult enough.

Still another study, a report by the Committee for the Modernization of the French Hotel Trade, finds cause for concern in the deterioration of the nation’s more then 18,000 hotels with official ratings. The report identifies declining profits and poorly paid staff as major impediments to improvement.

In the cities of France, one gets the impression that there is one hotel consultant and he or she is  rather overworked. AFP reports that one in four hotels are said to be in a state of “disrepair” and about one in four guests complains about rude service. Of course the positive side of that is that if two couples are traveling together, only one member of the group will actually be insulted by front desk staff.

It is hard to change perceptions. I am thrilled to see that Bill O and Rush to the contrary, Americans are returning to France. I can still see the villages, smell the fields of lavender, and recall the simple pleasures of a proper cassoulet and a glass of silky smooth Burgundy.  It is one of my two or three favorite countries on earth, and I despair when I hear about “troubles” in the internal tourism plumbing of a land so-blessed.

I keep remembering that France is the most visited place on earth. The 78 million annual visitors are not idiots. They have come to France for a reason. For many reasons. The French do not naturally smile. They are a dour lot. But they have given the world the greatest of gifts. They know how to live and they understand that “living” means anticipating the smallest of pleasures on a daily basis. Somewhere in France, millions are looking forward to this evening’s dinner with a sense of adventure and detail that we can only envy from afar.

But you know what? I think the French Kiss thing is really all they need to do.

 

SELLING SOAP – EXCUSE ME, I MEAN COUNTRIES

 

 

There are, the ad promises, “No Artificial ingredients” in this bar of soap.  But the bar next to it advises would-be purchasers to “Get Natural”.  My eyes scan further and I find a soap that claims to be “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret”. I like being in on a secret until I notice that next to it is a pink bar that claims it will make you “Beautiful by Nature.”. Now, I’m confused. I’m not at all sure which of these is going to meet my needs.

I keep looking and further down the aisle is a soap claiming to be 100% Pure. Oh, I think I like that, but then again, I may be far too cynical to believe that claim. I lost my childhood innocence when I discovered that the Disney characters were Teamsters.

Finally, I spot “Wild Beauty” and I go through a rather challenging thought process wondering if I want 100% Pure or Wild Beauty in my shower. There has to be something that’s a combination of the two.

If you think choosing a bar of soap is a challenge you may have some idea of the challenges faced by a vacationer trying to determine a place on this planet to unpack for a week or two.

“Where Should We Go?” the traveler asks.

In response, the countries of the world that want tourism are beginning to understand that they are brands. Their name stands for something. There is instant recognition – be it positive or negative.

Italy has done well with its branding. It is all Sophia Loren waving to American tourists as she speeds by on the Autostrada in her Ferrari. Croatia brings forth a different image. Croatia’s branding is a bit more of a challenge, despite the fact that portions of the coast of Croatia resemble the Italian Riviera before the advent of mass tourism.

In fact, I am not looking at bars of soap at all. Instead, I am looking at the catch-phrases used to extol the virtues of certain countries that wish to be identified as brands that appeal to lovers of nature.

The 2008 “Country Brand Index” issued by FutureBrand is a fascinating look at nation imagery.  FutureBrands “Country Brand Index” is an annual global assessment study that ranks countries as products with name recognition and value.

“Get Natural” is the Swiss brand slogan. It refers more, I suppose to the small villages where all of the cows have private trainers and matching cow bells. This is the Switzerland that is naturally perfect. I don’t suppose that the “Get Natural” theme extends to Zurich’s underground vaults.

Costa Rica is the brand that has “No Artificial ingredients.”  The country has an embarrassment of natural riches including tropical rain forests bordered by both Atlantic and Pacific coast beaches. But the government has found it necessary, to set up classes for hotel industry staff and taxi drivers to try to stem the growth of the sexual exploitation industry in sections of San Jose.

Belize is “Mother Nature’s Best Kept Secret”. True enough for those divers and green-oriented travelers seeking affordable authenticity. But the State Department cautions that “Visitors should exercise caution and good judgment when visiting Belize.  Crime can be a serious problem particularly in Belize City and remote areas.  Road accidents are common”. Some Belize residents just don’t realize that it isn’t nice to mess with Mother Nature.

The Turks & Caicos are “beautiful by nature.” But overbuilding is an issue with Grace Bay Beach now referred to, by some, as “Grace Miami Beach.” The islands and cays of T&C have been discovered. When Mandarin Oriental, Ritz Carlton, etc. al. start building and Carnival opens a new port, the laid back atmosphere of these islands, southeast of the Bahamas, may be in peril. Will the Turks & Caicos be “beautiful by nature” ten years from now or will the brand image have to be changed to “What happens in the Turks – stays in the Turks”.

Finally, we come to “100% Pure” New Zealand. This is the top-ranked nature-driven brand in the world. While cashing in on their island’s natural beauty, New Zealand adds branded sub-plots such as “Best supporting country in a motion picture.” True, England’s Guardian ran a piece a few years back heralding NZ as one of the world’s most boring locations, but the piece was dismissed as residue from a rash of rugby successes by the Kiwi’s against their arch-rivals.

New Zealand is, of course, a country brander’s dream. Do you tout the fantastic beaches, the lush interior, the outdoor fantasy lifestyle, or the fact that the country consistently wins the title of the nation on this earth with “the friendliest people”? It has been suggested that New Zealand could launch a successful branding campaign by simply stating “Australia Not”.

The idea of seeing countries as “brands” is relatively new and has a lot to do with the way in which nations want the rest of us to perceive them. What is still very new is the realization that the reputation of a country, its brand image, can have a drastic effect on trade, investment, and even the amount of foreign aid it can attract.

And so we might envision Donald Trump buying the rights in five years to The International Nation Image Awards, perhaps co-hosted by Angela Jolie and Ryan Seacrest. But, for now, we have the  rankings of the best country brands on earth, according to FutureBrands research: (Comments my own)

 # 1 – Australia

I feel badly for New Zealand but, as I recall, I’ve never met a boring Aussie.

# 2 -  Canada

Huh? Then why aren’t more of us going there? I suspect we don’t know exactly where it is. If truth be known, this is the most under-rated country on earth. Its natural beauty is astounding. But the food in  Quebec and Montreal ought to be reason enough to justify the trip.

# 3 – USA

OK great – but could we stop showing machine-gun toting thugs while promoting Chicago. Just show the penitentiary where we send our former governors.

# 4 – Italy

Oh no, not another tourism award. Where are they going to store it?

# 5 – Switzerland

Neutrality and bank secrecy. Now that’s boring. Anyway, the best kept secret in Switzerland is that Austria is just as beautiful.

# 6 – France

It ain’t bragging if you can do it. We need to go to learn from them – but they can’t say that.

# 7 – New Zealand

Their branding is so good I don’t want to visit but I woould definitely consider moving there.

# 8 – Great Britain

Travel writers claim that Ireland and Scotland are two of the most beautiful places on earth – in season. And you could toss in Wales.  It took me years to understand why. It is the consistency – charming, perfectly scaled, villages hour after hour. A wonderland of self-exploration.

# 9 – Japan

A tough branding challenge because of its very uniqueness and different starting points that make it so fascinating. A tougher sell then most because of its unfathomable urban image.

# 10 – Sweden

Sitting at an outdoor café along Stockholm’s waterfront makes you realize that nation branding does involve the byproduct of great DNA.

 

 

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