Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Gaddafi and Pan Am Flight 103

Lest old acquainances be forgot, it may be remembered that Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi's government was responsible for the bombing of a U.S. civilian passenger jet in 1988 that killed 270 people en route from London Heathrow International Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

It is only one of Gaddafi's crimes, of course, the chief current one being the use of armed force against Libyan civilians who are rebelling against his rule. Media reports put the death toll at 300. In the midst of the chaos in the oil-rich North African nation, runway damage has reportedly closed the Bengzahi airport to passenger planes. Simultaneously, U.S. officials are still being kept waiting for permission from the Gaddafi regime to transport Americans out of the country on charter flights.

The Dec. 21, 1988, bombing of the Pan American World Airways Boeing 747-100 killed 270 people: all 243 passengers and 16 crew members and 11 people on the ground in Lockabie, Scotland. One-hundred ninety of the dead were Americans. Forty-three Britons also perished, as did people from 19 other countries. Thirty-five of the Americans were students at Syracuse University, where I went to school in an earlier era. The victims could have been people I knew. That they weren't, doesn't make the continuing threats to civil aviation - one of the legacies of the Lockerbie bombing - easier to take or the 1988 crime any easier to forget.

Just to rub salt in the wounds of the victims' families, Libya successfully negotiated with the government of Scotland to get the only person convicted of the aircraft bombing - a former head of Libyan intelligence - released early, in August 2009, from prison on the grounds that he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer and had just three months to live. The "compassionate release'' was carried out, amidst much self-adoring posturing by Scottish authorities, over the objections of U.S. officials. He returned to a hero's welcome in Gaddafi's capitol, Tripoli, where military helicopters now attack civilian protesters. At this writing, 18 months after his release, the convicted bomber is living quietly in Libya.

Today's global travel travails are at least in part due to the actions of the odious Gaddafi back in 1988. If Gaddafi is overthrown, as people of good will must fervently hope he is, the dictator - shorn of immunity as head of state - should be prosecuted in an international court of law. This would be a fitting, if belated, tribute to the travelers who lost their lives on Pan Am flight 103.

Auld lang syne, indeed.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Fairmont's 'Lifestyle Cuisine Plus'

A server in a smart uniform offered me a little glass of orange liquid with a slender green sprig in the middle at the Fairmont Hotel San Francisco's resplendent penthouse the other night. I took one. It was delicious - fresh, flavorful, with just the right amount of zing. The drink, it turns out, was a chilled Thai carrot and ginger shooter, and it is on the menu at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts' upgraded Lifestyle Cuisine Plus menus.

Fairmont San Francisco General Manager Thomas Klein says that Toronto-based Fairmont surveyed its premier-class customers - called President's Club - and found that what a sizeable number most wanted was more-healthful food while on the road. This was particularly true, Klein said, of vegans, diabetics, people with gluten intolerance and other allergies.

"We are catering to our guests, and what their needs are,'' Klein says. "When we surveyed our customers they said what they really wanted was food that is fresh, light and tastes good.''

Hence, this upgraded version of a more modest menu of healthful offerings, called Lifestyle Cuisine, that the Fairmont chain started in 2005. The new version is greatly expanded and available at all 64 of of Fairmont's hotels and resorts around the world, as of last month.

Sad to say, I wasn't able to stay for the sit-down dinner and kitchen demonstration put on for invited food, nutrition and travel writers by Fairmont San Francisco's executive chef, J.W. Foster, and the Sonoma Mission Inn's executive chef, Bruno Tison. But the earlier samples I had tasted good; they were zesty and often accented with Asian flavors and and spices. The macrobiotic-friendly ahi tuna with myoga, ginger salad and crispy wonton is one example. The diabetic-friendly Agricola Farms grass-fed beef slider, rosemary potato roll and tear-drop tomato salad is another. The rosemary and a number of other herbs come from the San Francisco hotel's rooftop garden. The multiple menu items - not just a take-it-or-leave-it vegetarian plate du jour - come from recipes created at Fairmont properties around the world, accounting for their diversity.

Will the new cuisine be outrageously expensive, pricier than other menu items? And can you get it from room service?

Yes, and no. Yes, you can order it from room service. No, it won't cost more, according to Mariano Stellner, Fairmont's corporate director of food and beverages for the Americas, who told MSNBC "Price will be driven by the prices of ingredients and the complexity of preparation.''

Fairmont is not the only hotel group responding to travelers' needs and desires for healthful food. As MSNBC noted:

"Westin Hotels' SuperFoods breakfast menu features dishes that are health-enhancing and rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients. Sheraton Hotels' healthy dining options were created by Core Performance nutritionists. Marriott Hotels and Resorts' Fit for You dishes are specially
indicated on menus and geared for those who are carbohydrate, cholesterol and fat-conscious. Hyatt Hotels offers StayFit Cuisine, healthy dishes that the company does not identify on menus, though this is slated to change shortly. And Peninsula Hotels' Naturally Peninsula dishes are nutritionally balanced options that are highlighted on menus.''

Cost, complexity and the need for staff retraining are among the drawbacks of doing special diet menus for hotels. But the trend toward more nutritious fare is clear. Some hotels, like some free-standing restaurants, serve up trendy items that are too precious for words. But hospitality- industry guru Bjorn Hanson, of New York University, says that Fairmont "seems to be more serious and dedicated in its efforts than anyone else at the national level.''

There's a long way to go get widely available healthful food on the road, but this seems like a good step in the right direction.

Travel Warnings, Travel Strategies

In a time of turmoil - and when isn't there turmoil somewhere? - it's advisable to be tuned-into travel advisories and warnings. Most governments issue such advice, along with safe-travel tips, for their citizens. Travelers don't necesarily need to heed warnings and somewhat milder advisories to the letter, but they are worth taking seriously.

United States citizens should check out "Current Travel Warnings'' posted on the U.S. State Department's Web site: http://travel.state.gov/travel. Frequently updated with useful information, the site highlights places where threats to travelers as well as broad public safety issues need to be considered. As of this writing, 19 February, 2011, there are 31 nations on the list. Some are obvious choices, for obvious reasons: Mexico (drug war), Iran (violently repressive, militantly Islamic regime), North Korea (xenophobic and totalitarian communist regime), Iraq and Afghanistan (long, grinding wars).

Perhaps surprisingly, considering the civil unrest sweeping the Arab world following the successful regime-changing public protests in Tunisia and Egypt, only Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen and Algeria join Iraq as Arab nations on the list. Saudi has been there since 23 December of last year, Algeria since last April. Yemen was listed last October, as was Lebanon. Travelers should watch to see if other restive Arab nations such as Jordan go seriously wobbly.

About Saudi Arabia, the State Department warns: "There is an on-going security threat due to the continued presence of terrorist groups, some affiliated with Al Qaida, who may target Western interests, housing compounds, hotels, shopping areas, and other facilities where Westerners congregate.''

About Egypt, the department notes: "Due to continuing uncertainties regarding the restructuring of Egyptian government institutions, the security situation remains unresolved. Until the redeployment of Egyptian civilian police is fully restored, police response to emergency situations or reports of crime may be delayed. The Embassy's ability to respond to emergencies to assist U.S. citizens is also significantly diminished. The Embassy's current (reduced) staff level reduces the ability to travel to areas outside of Cairo, where the level of security remains unclear.''

Such nationwide travel warnings - note that they are not bans - have been criticized by some in international governments and the image-conscious travel industry as blunt instruments. When I interviewed then-Philipines tourism minister Richard Gordon last decade, he noted unsafe conditions apply to only a handful of his island country's thousands of islands.

Bottom line: Travelers don't have to totally avoid countries on travel-warning lists, but reading the lists and taking down contact information for your country's embassies and consulates is definitely a good idea - as is checking the lists often for updates.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Hotels So Hip It Hurts

USA Today's Jayne Clark recently wrote a timely - and oh-so-true - piece about way-trendy design hotels. Clark relates the case of a 57-year-old shopping mall developer who thought he wandered into the wrong movie when he checked-in to the cutting-edge Andaz West Hollywood and was met by a "host'' kitted out with electronic gear who took his personal information while standing in the middle of the lobby, sans check-in desk.

I know the feeling. As it happens, my wife and I stayed in the first-ever Andaz, in London, shortly after it opened. Operated by Hyatt, Andaz is the latest chic, cool, urban brand of the chain, one that, by the way, doesn't emphasize its corporate parentage. We, too, were initially confused by electronic device-wielding young "hosts'' who checked us in as we sat on very low-slung furniture and sipped house wine. The complimentary wine was a nice touch, as is Andaz's free in-room minibars (though they don't dispense free alcohol). Overall, though, the experience was akin to walking into - and bunking in - a club rather than a hotel.

This is, of course, the idea. It doesn't work for everyone, and it's not supposed to. It skews toward a young, tech-happy demographic. It isn't your father's hotel. And if you're old enough to be a father - especially a middle-aged father, or mother - it's just not your world. At Andaz London, and at some other places I have subsequently stayed, I found myself wondering: Am I young enough? Slim enough? Ironic enough? Have I remembered to shave my head? Am I wearing enough black? No? Pity.

There are common elements in the global wave of style hotels: low lighting is one of them. At a hotel in Edinburgh whose name I have mercifully forgotten, the hallways were so dark, I found myself wishing I had purchased a candle, ala the coaching-inn guests in "The Pickwick Papers'' who did just that in the days before electric lights. Another shared element: sculptural furniture; comfort is beside the point, appearance is all. Another element is a loud, crowded lobby bar serenaded with dance-music tracks. I was at a reception at the W Hotel San Francisco last night, and the first thing I noticed when I walked in was what seemed to be a party just inside the front door. It wasn't an organized party; it was just the hotel's ample bar trade. Then there are the obligatory electronic devices for check-in; the present device of choice is the Apple iPad.

In addition to W Hotels, which are operated internationally by Starwood, and Hyatt's Andaz, there are a number of other ambitious design hotels in the mix. Among them: Boutique-hotel pioneer Ian Schrager's forthcoming Edition brand, Marriott's Schrager-aided, revamped Renaissance; InterContinental's Indigo brand.

I am not altogether thrilled with this trend, but when it works it can breath new life into the hotel "space'' and offer greater choice for travelers. One key to making it work is to avoid hiring so-hip-it-hurts staff and making sure that staffers are well-trained: warm, proficient, informed, engaging. Some cool hotels that work - in large part due to the staff - are London's One Aldwych, Hong Kong's the Upper House, Kimpton Group's Miami outpost Epic, Vancouver's Hotel Loden and most Park Hyatts regardless of location. These places are sleek and cool, to be sure, but not uncomfortable or off-putting.

It's the hospitality industry, remember?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Samuel Johnson, Travel and HuffPo

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.''

These pointed words - by the celebrated British author and wit Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) - have been words to live by for professional writers for generations. The key word is professional; there have always been many more people who want to become paid, published - i.e., professional - writers than those who have the talent, persistence, connections, education, good luck and good timing to pull it off.

Today, there are what Johnson, in his skepticism, would have considered blockheads by the millions, posting and tweeting their hearts out - and ranting and venting and sharing home videos, expressing themselves without pay. Some are interesting and have something to say; alas, some demonstrate vividly why no one is willing to pay them.

Johnson, a worldly, erudite Londoner, was among other things, a travel writer before the term was widely known or the trade widely practiced. I've been thinking about Johnson lately, especially in regard to the sale of the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/) to America Online for $315 million USD in cash and stock. The Huffington Post - aka HuffPo - pays its 200 employees, commissions paid articles from well-known bylines and buys copy from professional news sources such as the Associated Press. But the company doesn't pay the hundreds of bloggers - including travel bloggers - who lust to have their stuff appear on a site that claims 15.6 million page-views per weekday, as HuffPo does. At least some - not most - of the site's amazing popularity and prosperity has been built with unpaid labor.

(For the record, this travel journalist and travel blogger has never written for HuffPo, or tried to. I'm not paid to write this blog, but I make my living by being paid to write articles and books.)

The Huffington Post - named for its once-conservative, now-liberal founder, Arianna Huffington - was started in 2005 with a relatively modest $1 million stake. When it sold for 315 times that amount to AOL only six years later, Bloomberg Business Week topped its story with this withering headline (or "hed' as we say in the rapidly diminishing world of print newspapers): "$315M for Us. You? A Sense of Job Well Done.''

HuffPo hasn't said it's going to start paying bloggers now - and in this it is far from alone.

There is a Web site affiliated with an ink-on-paper newspaper in my area in California; it, too, pays staff but not blogger contributors. Nor does the site edit the outside blogs it posts or even read them before posting. In other words, this site created by media professionals doesn't subject a significant portion of its content to the same rigors of analysis, accuracy and fairness that it uses to develop its own content. This has the inevitable effect of diluting the quality and credibility of its content. This is explained as creating 'community.'

That's part of the story; media proprietors do indeed want to engage a community of readers, viewers, listeners and consumers. The other part of the story is that media companies don't want to pay anything to do this. If they can get a significant amount of content - on travel or any other topic - without paying a thing for it, why shell-out to have professional writers who have spent years learning their craft, cover it? They'll take it off anyone. Isn't that a good thing? Well, it's certainly more small-d democratic than the old structures in a society that doesn't trust elites. It can be good. But not always.

Speaking personally, this situation makes it much harder for we writers to make a living just by writing. So, consider this special pleading if you must. More broadly, and more importantly, we are creating a society in which many people are knowing without necessarily being knowledgeable. We are cynical, wised-up, wired, seen-it-all. We know all about what a starlet wore last night on the red carpet - saw it on YouTube - but a third of us can't find Russia on a map.

Samuel Johnson lived a long time ago; he wouldn't be able to tell a PDA from a laptop, and the writer, who bounced around Scotland in a horse-drawn coach, wouldn't know what to make of an Airbus A380. But he understood a good deal about media and how they work.

He understood a lot about travel, too. Here are some parting words from the old boy - gone these two centuries and more - about travel and travel writing:

"The greater part of travelers tell nothing, because their method of traveling supplies them with nothing to be told. He that enters a town at night and surveys it in the morning, and then hastens away to another place, and guesses at the manners of the inhabitants by the entertainment which his inn afforded him, may please himself for a time with a hasty change of scenes, and a confused remembrance of palaces and churches; he may gratify his eye with a variety of landscapes, and regale his palate with a succession of vintages ...''

Then the kicker:

"...but let him be contented to please himself without endeavoring to disturb others. Why should he record his excursions by which nothing could be learned, or wish to make a show of knowledge, which, without some power of intuition unknown to other mortals, he could never attain?''

Friday, February 11, 2011

'All Systems Go' at Taj Hotels

Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces is the 110-year-old lodging arm of Tata Group, the Indian conglomerate that is big in industries as diverse as cars, chemicals and steel, operates in 80-some countries and has nearly 400,000 employees. Big it is, old it is, with the parent company dating back to 1868, the hotels operation is looking forward, not backward.

This much was clear when I talked recently with Raymond Bickson, the chief executive officer of the Taj hotel group, at the opening of the Taj Cape Town, in South Africa. Hawaii-born and a long-time hotelier in San Francisco before joining Mumbai-based Taj, Bickson is outgoing, a good talker, and clearly enthusiastic about going global with the Taj brand, which is identified in India with luxury and sophistication.

What follows is an edited version of our conversation, with my questions omitted, to smooth out the narrative flow. Bickson started out with some thoughts about the Hotel Pierre, the company's U.S. flagship in midtown Manhattan, then expanded on a number of topics:

''The Pierre is the Pierre, and it's not a bad location. It's a great opportunity for us to be in the toughest marketplace in the world. We embraced the challenge of working with the people who live there, the owners of 77 co-ops in the building, and we spent $120 million USD renovating the property in 2009.

"We're a 110-year-old company, founded in 1901, and the longest-standing company in the Tata Group. We're part of a $71 billion industry today. We're opening one hotel every seven weeks.'' (At this writing, Taj has 66 hotels in India, 16 outside India, for a total of 82.)

"The Asian market today is really up, with 47 brands coming into India. Right now, there are 96,000 hotel rooms in India, compared to 110,000 in Manhattan. We're expanding to make sure we maintain our market share. We operate a 5-star brand with Taj, Taj Exotica resorts and Taj Safaris, 4-stars with Vivanta (stylish city boutique hotels), 3-stars with Gateway and 2-star economy hotels in India with Ginger.

''There are 25 key source markets in the world that we need to be in. South Africa is one of them. Tata Motors has been here 25, 35 years, and Tata Steel and Tata Chemicals operate here. Twenty-two million tourists a year come to South Africa. Johannesburg is the hub. Eighty to 85 percent of leisure travelers come here to Cape Town. If you're in Cape Town, you have to also be in Jo-berg - it sends you off to the game lodges and to Cape Town.

"This is the 'old town' of Cape Town. It's all within 10 minutes from here. It's becoming the new "old' district. November through Easter is the high season here. So far, we're doing 70 percent leisure travelers at the Taj Cape Town, 30 percent corporate. All in all, you want to see it balance out 50/50.''

Of course, Taj competes with other major hotel companies around the globe. In India, Oberoi is its chief rival. Internationally, Taj takes-on Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula and a handful of others. All are expanding aggressively, along with Taj.


"We have two projects in Egypt, two in Abu Dhabi, a project in Beijing - a 60-suite property in the central business district. Also, we're going into Sydney, China Beach in Vietnam and Thailand - for us, it's the new Maldives. We have two properties in Maldives and we're in Sri Lanka.

"We're an Asian company. We're in Asia. With the low labor cost, we can have a higher ratio of employees to guests than you have elsewhere. The service aspect of Asia is really embedded in the DNA of this company.''

Being There

Oh, to be in Egypt now that you are here.

That's one thought running through my head at today's exhilarating if undeniably daunting news that the 18-day popular uprising in Egypt - epitomized by the massive demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square - has ended 29 years of rule by strongman Hosni Mubarak. After losing the confidence of the Army and resigning at last, Mubarak vacated the Presidental Palace near Cairo International Airport in Heliopolis and reportedly went to a Red Sea resort. It's not likely he'll enjoy his vacation, if vacation it is.

Another thought that's running through my head is how much of myself is invested in the news from Egypt, and how deeply I desire a long-term happy outcome there. I have visited Egypt twice in the past two years. After alighting in that history-rich country, I know a little more and care a lot more about Egypt than I did before. Now, I find myself wondering how my tri-lingual tour guide - a hard-working, university-educated guy who was denied a tourist visa to visit the United States in the wake of Sept. 11, with all its security fears - is faring. I wonder how the bright, personable public-relations woman who showed me around and talked to me over dinner in Cairo is doing.

Toppling Mubarak, as unlikely as it may seem, was the easy part. Now, comes the uncertainty and the power struggle and all the conflicting agendas and twists and turns on the political road toward democracy. I hope Egypt arrives safely.

There's nothing like Being There to put a face and a name on international developments that can otherwise seem abstract. This is true no matter what place you are thinking of. I cared more about the Velvet Revolution in what is now the Czech Republic, too, because I visited Prague in the years when the Iron Curtain was still firmly in place and Czechoslovakia was cordoned off behind it. I shared some fine Czech pilsener with a young worker I'll call Jan. He was hungry for information about music, culture and politics in the West in that pre-Internet age. When I returned home, I sent him a copy of Rolling Stone magazine, while cautioning him not to believe everything he read about the West, even if it was published in the West. When the old order crumbled in Czechoslovakia in 1989, it wasn't just a news story to me. I thought about Jan, who I had lost touch with, and hoped for the best for him.

That feeling of connectedness is the most wonderful, and meaningful, thing about travel. Beyond the travelogue videos and the tourist snapshots and the funny keepsakes and the stamps in your passport, there's something deeper going on. Every once in a while, that something is dramatized, brought to the fore. That is what's going on right now for me with Egypt.

There's nothing in the world like Being There.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

At Risk: The Egyptian Museum

If you look at the photos and videos of the mass protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, you might catch sight of a vintage pink building at the edge of the frame. That is the Egyptian Museum, the antiquated, too-small, not very modern but nevertheless precious and indispensible repository for many Egyptian antiquites, from King Tut's mask to ancient jewelry and carvings to mummies. After the Giza pyramids and the Great Sphinx, the museum is perhaps the leading tourist attraction in the Cairo area.

Civil unrest in Egypt pitting pro-democracy demonstrators versus defenders of the status quo and embattled President Hosni Mubarak has put this unique world heritage site at risk - risk of looting, risk of damage to the building. There has already been some destruction, according to media reports, though pro-democracy demonstrators have at times taken steps to secure the building by forming a human chain.

This last fact comes courtesy of Renee Dreyfus, curator at San Francisco's Fine Arts Museums, who was interviewed in the Feb. 8 San Francisco Chronicle by contributor Jesse Hamlin. You can read the interview online at the Chronicle-affiliated Web site SFGate.com. What follows here are some salient points by Dreyfus, who has organized several popular exhibits of Egyptian antiquities in San Francisco over the past several decades:

Hamlin reports that a gilt statue of the boy monarch King Tut standing on a jaguar was smashed when the Tahrir Square protests spilled over into the museum two weeks ago. "They damaged 70 irreplaceable antiquities, ripping the heads off two mummies and throwing objects to the floor,'' Hamlin writes.

The Chronicle piece goes on to quote Dreyfus: "I was horrified to hear the museum had been broken into and objects destroyed ... It's tragic to see these great treasures destroyed and looted. They are not just national treasures, they belong to the entire world.''

Elaborating on attacks on antiquities, Hamlin writes that "some of the looters were poorly paid museum guards. (Dreyfus) also reported that major looting had occured at the Memphis Museum, south of Cairo.''

The celebrity Egyptian archeologist Zahi Hawass asserts that smashed antiquites in the Egyptian Museum can be repaired. This opinion is not necessarily shared, especially when it comes to the ancient mummies. "You can't repair a mummy,'' Dreyfus says. "If you have a body that's no longer intact, how are you going to perform any kind of examination of it? It's now contaminated.''

Dreyfus is surely right about one thing: The treasures of ancient Egypt belong to Egypt, yes, but more than that, they belong to the whole world. They are part of the human story. Whoever comes out on top in the agonizing struggle between Mubarak and his circle and the passionate, mostly young protestors who want him to go, preserving the Egyptian Museum and making sure it survives intact will be a prime responsibility of the next Egyptian government.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Help Wanted: Infrastructure Investment

This is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on traveling in China back in 2007, when he took the 250-miles-per-hour magnetic levitation (Maglev) train from Shanghai Pudong International Airport into the city:

"I had a full cup of coffee and I watched the coffee,'' the mayor said, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. "It didn't vibrate once. It was really quite amazing. And other countries are trying to do the same thing, create other modes of transportation that are much more effcient, much more rapid and answer the needs in a global world.''

Every American who has traveled the world in the last decade or so has had a similar experience - often many of them. I, too, have marveled at the Maglev train on my visits to Shanghai, and been deeply impressed by new roads I've used in Malaysia, fast trains in Japan and France, new airport terminals in Barcelona, Beijing, Singapore, Madrid, Tokyo and Cairo, and new airports -not new terminals, new airports - in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and beyond. My home country, the United States - the nation that built the Panama Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, a continent-spanning interstate highway system and more - has fallen well off the pace in creating and even just maintaining travel infrastructure.

To their credit, U.S. political leaders like Bloomberg and President Barack Obama recognize this and are trying to do something about it. Three hundred million Americans and millions of international visitors will benefit in tangible ways if their vision is realized. Just how soon - or even if - that happens remains to be seen, thanks to intransient and in some cases narrow-minded political opponents who are using federal and state deficits as reasons for doing nothing.

In last month's State of the Union speech, Obama made a case for building and upgrading travel infrastructure as an investment in the future:

"Our infrastructure used to be the best,'' Obama observed, "but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports. Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation's infrastructure, they gave us a D.

"Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I'm proposing that we redouble those efforts.

"We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment and pick projects based on what's best for the economy, not politicians.

"Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail, which would allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying ... As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.''

Or are they? Politicians can't stop being politicians. Republican Party deficit hawks - notably silent when fellow Republicans George W. Bush and the unaccountably sainted Ronald Reagan were running up record-high deficits themselves - say the country can't afford it. Some travel-industry analysts and political pundits point out that Republican congressional districts - which tend to be rural and lightly populated - average just one-11th the population density of urban Democratic Party-held districts, thus accounting for hostility to mass transit.

Some of this hostility verges on the irrational, such as statements by Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, that he would return $2.4 billion in promised federal subsidies for high-speed rail to his state since he considers high-speed rail a boondoggle. Other conservative leaders, notably Rep. John L. Mica, also a Florida Republican, has said he isn't against high-speed rail but would prefer that the private sector develop it, as he thinks that would be more cost-effective than having government do it. He could be right, who knows? Simply dismissing the idea of building high-speed rail won't answer the question.

Oh, and did I mention Amtrak, the U.S.'s perennially beseiged federally subsidized passenger rail system, will be stripped of public funds if political opponents have their way? The notion that efficient public transport more than pays for itself in reducing transport times, pollution from motor vehicles and improving shipping times for cargo has simply been discounted.

It shouldn't be. Obama and Bloomberg are to be commended for thinking big and thinking smart. Travelers the world over, not just in the U.S., have got to hope that the roadblocks in their way are pushed aside by clear-thinking people of all political colorations.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Egyptian Tourism's Long Road Back

There are many considerations besides travel and tourism in the present civil unrest in Egypt, but travel will loom large under any new government, regardless of what form it eventually takes or who runs it. The reason: Money. Egypt depends to a considerable extent on spending by international visitors to combat its national budget deficit and help raise living standards in what is still largely a poor country.

Government officials are well aware of this. On Feb. 3, the British national newspaper The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/) ran a story under the headline "Egypt's Vice-President Complains Rioting is Bad for Business.'' That would be Omar Suleiman, the recently appointed no. 2 in Hosni Mubarak's embattled regime, who has also served as Egypt's intelligence chief. According to the story, Suleiman claimed Egypt lost at least $1 billion USD through the first nine days of what is now an 11-day-old, pro-democracy uprising.

The Guardian also reported that "Tui Travel, Europe's biggest travel company ... has cancelled all holiday bookings for Egypt from Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, but is still running holidays booked in the UK for Red Sea resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh 'in line with government advice.' This means that, at present, UK customers will not get a refund if they cancel their trip.''

The battle over the country's future naturally, if temporarily, overshadows other topics. But the disruption to businesses such as hotels, restaurants, tour operators, taxi companies and others is profound. According to The Guardian, "a lack of trade and tourism, which accounts for 11 percent of GDP, would send tax revenues into a downward spiral, making the budget deficit worse.'' About 12 percent of Egypt's workforce is employed in the tourism sector. In a bizarre twist, government officials blamed now-idle tour guides from the Giza Pyramids for riding charging camels into the masses of protestors camping out in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Hotels are under great stress. They host many of the estimated 1 million tourists who reportedly fled Egypt or are trying to flee in the face of flight cancellations and chaos at Cairo International Airport and elsewhere. High-end international hotels such as the Ramses Hilton, walking distance from Tahrir Square and major tourist attractions such as the Egyptian Museum, have gained unwanted attention in news reports that say foreign reporters have been rousted from their rooms or confined to their rooms, their equipment confiscated by pro-Mubarak forces who demonstrators say are sent or at least tolerated by the government. Other hotels with foreign reporters or tourists have also reportedly been targeted.

There are 91 hotels with a cumulative 21,923 rooms in Cairo, according to STR Global Data. These hotels generate badly needed revenue and provide local jobs as well as serve, in normal times, as oases of relative calm in the hustle and bustle of Egypt's capital and largest city. The United Nations World Tourism Organization, citing Egypt's tourism ministry, reports that travelers spent $11.6 billion USD in 2009. That's even more than the $10.2 billion USD in taxes generated by the Suez Canal.

Even in normal times, Cairo hotels typicially have X-ray machines outside the main lobby, similar to the screening devices at major airports, plus other highly visible security. Some of this may be more theater than anything. In 2008, while attending an international aviation conference and staying at the Hilton Pyramids Golf Resort in the western Cairo suburb 6th of October City, I saw a lone uniformed security guard fast asleep at his station.

For now, the useful Web site hotelnewsnow.com reports that Hilton Worldwide has issued a statement saying:

"The well-being, safety and security of our guests and team members are of paramount importance and our hotels across Egypt are making every effort to ensure we deliver the highest level of security. We have implemented additional security procedures at all our hotels across Egypt, particularly Cairo, and our teams are working around the clock to take care of our guests, including those who have had to extend their stay due to flight disruptions ... We are receiving a number of cancellation requests for hotels, primarily those in Cairo, and we are waiving cancellation fees for upcoming reservations. We are reviewing and updating our cancellation policy as the situation progresses.''

The site cites Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, and Marriott International as also saying they are implementing policies to deal with the crisis.

However all this plays out, it will be a long road back for Egyptian tourism. Human lives, core prinicples and billions of dollars are at stake for this country - which endured a 1997 terrorist attack on tourists in Luxor that took 58 lives - to re-establish order so that travelers can enjoy the awe-inspiring antiquites and lively contemporary attractions of modern Egypt. No one knows how soon that hard-earned reputation for safety and hospitality will return.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Net-centric Nonsense II

A few days back, I wrote a post arguing that it didn't much matter that the Egyptian government cut off Internet and most mobile phone service in Egypt, because passionate protestors intent on bringing down the government will find a way to organize anyway. The government apparently agrees with that, as it has restored service when, as predicted, the many thousands of demonstrators didn't go away. Although several U.S. new-media companies hailed with some fanfare the workarounds they came up with to allow Egyptians to resume Tweeting, blogging, etc., the protestors did quite fine on their own while offline, thank you.

The more serious government media policy - I guess I should say alleged government policy - is allowing armed thugs to attack international reporters at the scene, even as these same thugs wade into crowds of protestors while on horseback or astride camels. The potential for ever-more serious violence is ever-present, with the Army apparently holding the balance of power. As the first groups of international travelers - many flown out of Cairo on charter flights arranged by their own national governments - are making clear, there has been plenty of violence in Egypt already. Many erstwhile tourists describe scary scenes of having to clear numerous checkpoints - some manned by government sympathizers, some by anti-government protesters, some by neighborhood vigilantes - on their way to the airport in Heliopolis.

Some of these trips took hours - only to be followed by many more hours spent trying to catch a commercial or chartered flight out of the country. News reports say as many as 18,000 people have been massed in Cairo International Airport. I have been in that airport. It's a nice airport -big, with the 2009 addition of a gorgeous new international terminal - but not big enough to comfortably hold that many would-be passengers. With the situation on the ground changing by the hour, travelers who haven't left are at times keeping to their hotels. Fairmont Hotels and Ressorts, with two properties in Cairo, is a leading hotelier there. Having stayed in the downtown Cairo property and the Heliopolis property, I hope to never see scenes of chaos there.

No one - traveler or local - knows how any of this will play out. One big unknown is when tourism will return to a semblance of normality in this antiquities-rich country. One thing's for sure, though: If hardline Islamicists win the day, the young anti-Mubarak demonstrators - many of them women, most of them passionately pro-democracy - will find precious little democracy in Egypt's future. They will be among the first people to be supressed.