Friday, March 28, 2008

Weekly Roundup March 28

Another short week, but a good one. Here are my picks:

Can you live without electronics? Try MacKenzie Berg's the Joy of Traveling Unplugged on BNT. Perhaps it's the nature of my job, but I think it would be very difficult to be completely unplugged for a while. (And therefore worth doing!)

I wasn't sure how to react to this one at first: Angola to host landmine pageant. It's not what you think.

Want to take better pictures? Lola Akinmade's 5 Tips for Taking Better Photos of Landmarks on Matador's the Traveler's Notebook shows you how to infuse some originality into conventional travel photography.

Looking for inspiration? Olivia Giovetti's the 20 Most Memorable Travel Films (That Aren't Really About Travel). I admit I've seen a few "movies that inspire travel" type articles in the past year, but this one has a different spin, and you may come across some titles you might not have considered. I like to check out the "special features" on the DVD too. The feature on New Zealand as Middle Earth has some stunning views of the landscape.

How to go beyond "sight seeing": Try Amanda Kendle's How to Use All Five Senses When You Travel. Definitely worth a look if you're a writer.

There's a lot of good writing out there I haven't tapped into yet. Suggestions are welcome!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

What will it take to get travellers to listen to safety advice?

A pretty flight attendant with Angelina Jolie lips? An animated cartoon?

Airlines are getting more creative when it comes to getting people to pay attention to those pre-flight safety demonstrations. Thanks to YouTube, the latest safety videos have been making the rounds in the media and travel blogs.

What's all the fuss about? See for yourself. Here's Delta's new video featuring the widely-discussed "Deltalina" (flight attendant Katherine Lee):

Compare that with Virgin America's animated version:

Essentially, it's a question of presentation. My training in rhetoric and information design is prodding me to analyze the videos, but I won't venture such a tangent because the content and presentation have already been widely discussed. Whether or not these in-flight videos do their job effectively on the plane depends on the audience.

But off the plane... With all the media attention, I'd wager that millions of people who aren't currently travelling have watched the video because they read about it or heard about it somewhere. YouTube and blogs make the information easy to disseminate (in fact, it took me less than a minute to embed the videos into this entry). If airlines are looking to educate people, then this was an effective strategy. (Not to mention good advertising, but I digress).

It makes me wonder what other safety information might benefit from a more creative approach. Most of the travel safety advice I digest in a day is text on a web page. That being said, I've noticed that advice is slowly going multi-media. For example, the CDC now offers podcasts on various topics. Travel safety training courses are also becoming more common for business travellers and students, but I'm wondering when the traveling public will catch on, or if this training will eventually go online.

I'm curious... Could videos and podcasts about travel safety engage a wider audience? If "Deltalina" told people how to avoid common safety and security issues, would they be more likely to listen? Or do people still prefer a webpage or report that can be mined for information and printed and carried along?

Your thoughts?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Weekly Round-up March 20

It's been a short week but a good one for travel reading. Here are my picks for the week:

Should we be demanding more services and amenities for all those extra fees we're paying? Chris Elliott has the answer in What to expect during the Year of the Fee. I especially love the point about airlines tracking luggage.

Go Green Go Travel's Ultimate Guide to Thrift Store Shopping: 34 Tips and Tricks for Travelers offers great tips for thrift store shopping for your travel needs.

Traveling in the United States? Wisebread's David DeFranza gives travellers 7 Reasons to Take the Bus. (Although I vote with some of the commenters: Consider the train as well).

This one made me laugh: F. Daniel Harbecke's Budget Travelers Are Hippie Scum on Brave New Traveler (which has recently had a face lift -- nice!). The article is complete with photographs "courtesy of hippies".

This story won't affect your travel plans, but it might make you look at world events a little differently: German pilot who killed Little Prince author apologizes. "Enemy" is such a powerful label that it lets us overlook a lot. Imagine your career choice putting you in the position of unknowingly killing someone who inspired it.

Something to think about if you want to volunteer abroad: Check out travel blogger Anna Etmanska's DIY Voluntourism on National Geographic's Intelligent Travel blog.

Have a good long weekend!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Do you want to know now... or later? Travel warnings for Guatemala

Further proof that it doesn't hurt to compare government travel advice: Guatemala travel warnings.

The story:

On March 14, four Belgian tourists and two others were kidnapped in Livingstone in the Izabal Department. The attack is part of the ongoing dispute between local indigenous people and Guatemalan authorities. Previously, nearly 30 police officers were kidnapped.

How it plays out in the advice:

March 14 - Media reports pick up the story fairly quickly. Canadian Foreign Affairs and International Trade issues a travel warning that day advising its citizens against "non-essential travel to the Izabal Department, especially in the tourist town of Livingston and in the area of Rio Dulce." The warning also notes that authorities were planning to evacuate all tourists from the area.

March 19 - The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala issues a Warden Message stating that it is "
advising its employees to avoid travel to the Livingston area until further notice. American citizens who decide to travel to the area are encouraged to check with ASISTUR at 2421-2800 extensions 1301, 1305 and 1306, or the U.S. Embassy at 2326-4405, for the latest information before traveling." (**Note that embassy personnel are advised to avoid travel, but US citizens aren't explicitly banned).

March 19 - The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office issues the following warning: "We advise against all but essential travel to the tourist destinations of Rio Dulce and Livingstone in Izabal Department following the kidnapping, and subsequent release, of four foreign tourists on 14 March 2008... The situation is now under control but local tensions remain and there remains a possibility of further unpredictable acts. If you intend to visit this region you should remain vigilant, follow the advice of local authorities and monitor the local media for developments. "

As of the time I am writing this (March 19), the New Zealand and Australia governments have not issued new advice.

As you can see,
the advice is quite different depending on the source. Unlike the Tibet warnings, the timing is different as well. The Canadian government's advice was the quickest to be released, and identifies an immediate concern (the evacuation of tourists from the area). The US and UK perhaps waited until after the crisis had passed perhaps in order to review and assess the situation before issuing advice. Or maybe they directly contacted citizens who were there (at least those who had registered) and then posted advice for the public later.

Confusing? You bet. After all, there's more than four day's difference between the warnings.

Is this case part of a pattern? No. No single government can claim the title of always being first when it comes to releasing information, or having the "best" information, or making the most updates for any given situation. How each one responds and reacts depends on a myriad of factors we can really only guess at.

Bottom line: Compare, compare, compare. Once you know about a situation, your best bet is still to monitor local news and follow the advice of local authorities.

That, at least, is one thing all government travel advice seems to agree on!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The World in a Week

In a previous post I mentioned my reasons for abandoning a weekly round-up of news events in favour of interesting travel articles. One of the reasons for this switch is that I tend to see the same issues over and over again in the news. The people and places may change, but in any given week certain things are likely to occur.

While the inquest into Diana's death and the latest celebrity hi-jinks aren't likely to affect your travel plans, here are ten things I see in a typical week that might :
  1. Something blows up. Unfortunately, bombs are a daily occurrence rather than a weekly one, and they aren't always where you'd expect.
  2. There's usually one tropical cyclone (aka hurricane or typhoon) somewhere in the world, if not two or three in peak season. Not all of them strike land, but some will head for tourists areas.
  3. Severe weather kills people and destroys homes and businesses.
  4. A union or workers' group is on strike or threatening to go on strike. Not all strike threats are carried out, and some job actions are short and cause only minor delays. Others cause massive transportation disruptions for both commuters and tourists.
  5. Someone is protesting something. Sometimes these protests end in violence. Usually they don't, but they should be avoided anyway.
  6. People die due to an outbreak of some illness. Avian Flu is perhaps the most widely reported due its pandemic potential, but there are many other diseases that pose an immediate risk to travellers.
  7. There are earthquakes. Luckily, most earthquakes are minor ones.
  8. Elections (including the run-up and post-election periods) cause controversy at best, outbreaks of violence at worst.
  9. There is an air travel related incident, whether its an accident, near accident, severe delay or customer service issue.
  10. There is war and civil strife.
Okay, I admit that the last point is very broad. It's a truism to say there is always going to be war somewhere. However, I read enough about fighting in places like Iraq and Sri Lanka (not to mention the many others) that war should at least be included on the list. Many countries previously affected by war, such as parts of Eastern Europe, recover in a few years and become tourist hot-spots again.

So is the world really that scary? Bear in mind that these ten things cover more than 200 countries and regions (contrary to the Disney song, it really is a big world after all). Most of these issues might have travellers making adjustments to their plans or taking extra precautions rather than running for their lives... if they are affected at all. Sometimes the news seems worse the further away you are from it.

What you don't hear about in the mainstream news is the hundreds of thousands of travellers each week that don't have any problems at all. Should you read the "scary stuff"? It's all part of keeping informed. How seriously you take it is up to you.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Are crimes against tourists on the rise?

Is it getting more dangerous to travel?

Media coverage in the past few weeks would certainly have us believing it is. Just this past weekend:
Every day, it seems like we hear another story about a tourist becoming a victim. Is the media looking to cash in on tourist-related stories, or is there actually cause for concern?

I suspect I know the answer, but the question warrants further investigation before I attempt to define one. For the moment, I'd like to pose the following question: Is it getting more dangerous out there, or is the media hype unnecessarily scaring away tourists?

Your thoughts?

Friday, March 14, 2008

Think all advice is created equal? Here's how travel warnings compare

Do different governments offer different advice in response to a crisis? Yes, and here's a good example. In response to the protests in Tibet turning violent, the following governments have issued the following advice:

Australia says:

"Several days of protest activity by Tibetan monks in Lhasa turned violent on 14 March, with reports of rioting and property damage. The situation on the streets of Lhasa remains tense. In these circumstances, you should reconsider your need to travel to Lhasa. "

See the advice update here.

Canada says:

"OFFICIAL WARNING: Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises against non-essential travel to Tibet.

"Reports of rioting in Lhasa, Tibet, have been received from the region. Some Embassies in Beijing have received first-hand reports from foreign nationals in the city who report gunfire and other indications of violence.

"Canadian citizens in Tibet and especially in Lhasa are advised to avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place. Canadian citizens in Lhasa should seek safe havens in hotels and other buildings and remain indoors to the extent possible. All care should be taken to avoid unnecessary movement within the city until the situation is under control.

"Canadians who were planning on travel to Tibet are advised to defer non-essential travel at this time."

Read the full advice here.

The United Kingdom says:

"There are reports of widespread unrest in the city of Lhasa. There is no indication that foreigners are being targeted, but there is potential for anyone in the city to be caught up in the violence.

"British nationals are advised to avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place. You should seek safe havens in hotels and other buildings and remain indoors. All care should be taken to avoid unnecessary movement within the city until the situation is under control. British nationals should be aware that videoing or photographing protests could be regarded as provocative by the authorities in Tibet.

"We are investigating reports that flights into and out of Tibet have been suspended.

"British nationals due to travel to Tibet should contact their tour operator."

The United States says:

"This Warden Message is to advise Americans of reports of rioting in Lhasa, Tibet. Some U.S. news media are reporting violence associated with protests in the city of Lhasa. The Embassy has just received first-hand reports from American citizens in the city who report gunfire and other evidence of violence.

"American citizens in Tibet and especially in Lhasa are advised to avoid areas where demonstrations are taking place. U.S. citizens in Lhasa should seek safe havens in hotels and other buildings, and to remain indoors to the extent possible. All care should be taken to avoid unnecessary movement within the city until the situation is under control.

"Americans who were planning on travel to Tibet are advised to defer travel at this time."

See the full Warden Message here. Note that this warning was put out by the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), which is a U.S. government inter-agency website (which includes the Department of State). If you were relying on the DoS's Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts alone, you would miss this information entirely. (Urgent information is often distributed by OSAC rather than the DoS).

Essentially, all of the governments are telling travellers to avoid Tibet for now. As you can see, the rest of the information differs -- likely based on their respective resources. One has heard reports about flight disruption while another had heard reports of gunfire. The AU government doesn't provide as much detail (perhaps it doesn't have to, or contacts its citizens directly).

The distribution is also different. OSAC issues Warden Messages separate from country-specific travel advice, while the other three disseminate information by updating their country travel advice pages (subscribers are notified of changes through email or RSS). Of course, many other governments issue travel warnings as well. My intention here is to show a sample of how the content differs from place to place even though the message is often the same.

Anyone curious about the situation should also check out the latest news online. A post on GoGirlfriend Travel outlines some of what the latest reports are saying.

Who offers the best advice? My recommendation is to compare. As you can see in this post, one source alone might not cover everything.

UPDATE (March 16):
  • The U.S. State Department added a Travel Alert for China on March 15.
  • On March 16, New Zealand Foreign Affairs updated its advice for Tibet.
  • Australia and the UK have updated their advice over the weekend.

Weekly Round Up March 14

What a week it's been! All that snow that was so generously heaped upon us last weekend is now melting away. Doesn't seem right somehow.

Without further ado, I bring you this week's picks:

Who really benefits from new green policies? Chris Elliott's How to spot the travel industry’s eco-spin makes you wonder if the travel industry is making any progress at all.

Not related to travel, but worth a look: Go Green Travel Green's Organic Goes Corporate. The theme sort of ties into Elliott's point about how we want to feel good about our choices, but really we should be looking a little deeper.

Who do you trust for travel advice? Newsweek tells us why user-generated content is falling out of favour in "Revenge of the Experts". Am I surprised? Not really. Travel expert Arthur Frommer also weighs in on the issue on his blog as it applies to travel. (I might blog about this issue myself)

Something to help you pass the time: Knitting for travelers: And you thought the craft was just for old women on Gadling. I must admit, knitting socks has kept my stress levels low through many a travel delay!

Janice Stringer tells us
What Every Parent Should Know About Traveling With Their Kids on BraveNewTraveler. When I saw the title, I had expected to see the usual list of safety and security tips but was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite. Based on her own experience, Stringer discusses things such as providing structure and learning new things as a family.

Good for a laugh: The 5 Worst Travel Gadgets & Accessories on Matador's The Traveler's Notebook.

Practical advice: 6 Tips for Sleeping Well in a Foreign Place. Read the comments as well. There's a great tip about earplugs.

As always, send along any suggestions! I'm always on the hunt for new reading material.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

No liquids or gels, but dead bodies allowed?

I'm surprised luggage restrictions don't cover this: Airport stops women with human remains in suitcase.

Long story short: Two Italian women were caught on a stopover in Munich with the remains of one of the women's late brother in their suitcases. The man, who died eleven years ago of natural causes, wished to be buried in Italy. Naturally, airport security got a little suspicious when a skull and bones showed up on x-rays...

What's surprising about this story (other than a body in a suitcase, I mean) is that airport officials let them continue on to Naples. However, they were able to produce a valid death certificate proving there was no foul play, and no German laws had been broken. The article doesn't go into a lot of detail, but these women must have been very brave (and have a very strong constitution) to undertake this feat. I imagine that procuring services to repatriate the dead is a very time consuming and expensive process, and one they decided to bypass for whatever reason.

I'm sure at some point someone will issue a piece of advice warning travellers not to pack human remains in their luggage and instead contact their government about repatriation of the deceased.

And someone will read the warning and laugh and say "oh yeah, like that ever happened!"

Well, now you have proof.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Weekly Round-Up March 7

This week's round-up features a lot of tips and advice:

Why travel shouldn't scare you: Travel guru Chris Elliot's 5 tips for avoiding a near-miss offers some great advice. I particularly like the point about not letting near-misses stop you from traveling. (And yes, technically a "near-miss" means a collision, but that's not the point).

Eating right on the road: More budget travel advice from Nora Dunn: The Culinary Essentials Every Budget Traveler Should Know. Also good advice for starving students!

Your weekly dose of health advice: Veteran flight attendant James Wysong's Is there a doctor on board? offers advice for travellers about medical emergencies -- both what to do to prevent one and what to do if one is happening. (Imagine dying because you didn't want to make a scene...)

Something to think about: Lola Akinmade's The 50 Most Inspiring Travel Quotes of All Time. I think my personal favourite is from Aldous Huxley: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”

Tips for budding videographers: Stephanie Bryant's 4 Easy Tips for Shooting Better Travel Videos. Photographers can also benefit from this advice too.

Planning a trip around the world? Here's a good place to start: Amanda Kendle's How to Plan a Round-the-World Travel Route that Makes Sense.

That's all for this week. Read an interesting article that I missed? Post a comment!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"If it's dangerous, the government should be warning tourists..."

Who is responsible for the safety of tourists -- the government or the tourists themselves?

Many people are asking this question following the death of 15 year-old Scarlett Keeling at a tourist resort in Goa, India. For those of you not familiar with the case, here's a brief overview of what happened:
  • A British family is on vacation at a resort in Goa. The mother leaves daughter with a 25-year old male tour guide while she goes to tour another location.
  • Keeling is last seen leaving a beach bar early in the morning, allegedly drunk.
  • The unfortunate teen is found dead.
  • Authorities claim her death was an accidental drowning.
  • The teen's mother, Fiona MacKeown, claims her daughter was raped and murdered and is calling for further investigation.
A quick google search of "rape" and "India" revealed numerous stories throughout January and February of tourists who were sexually assaulted-- including stories published in local papers such as the Hindustan Times. Keeling became the latest victim in a growing trend of violence against women.

It's a horrific situation to be sure. However, as the investigation continues so too does the finger pointing, according to an article in the Times Online.

On one side is chief minister
of Goa, Digambar Kamat, claiming that foreign women need to take more responsibility for their safety -- such as not walking around alone after midnight when there is no police patrol on the beach or dressing inappropriately. “Foreign tourists have to be careful,” he says in the Time article. “They can’t just do these things and then blame the government for the consequences.

On the other side MacKeown is claiming that the government (of Goa) should be warning tourists about safety concerns. “If they are saying it’s dangerous for British people, then it’s the government’s responsibility to warn people,” she is quoted as saying. “There should be signs up, but there aren’t. Instead, it’s advertised as a hippy paradise, so you don’t feel it’s dangerous when you walk around.”

Also weighing in on the issue are numerous readers (from both Britain and India) on the Times Online site. Many posts criticize the mother for leaving her under-aged daughter behind in the care of a stranger, or allowing her daughter to be wandering around drunk if the first place. Others describe dangerous circumstances and male predators in Goa, as well as a lack of cultural awareness and modesty on the part of women travellers. One post even points to the carelessness (or arrogance) of travellers in taking their safety for granted when they are abroad.

Who is right? Perhaps everyone is, or no one is. The issue of "why wasn't I warned?" versus "the information is out there, why didn't you look?" seems to creep up every time a tourist is a victim of an accident, illness, crime, sexual assault or other incident. There's no easy answer, but the questions highlight the need for better safety and security awareness.

My condolences to Keeling's family. I hope her attackers are caught.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The World's Top Art Museums -- Quality or popularity?

Wondering where the most popular art museums are in the world? TripAdvisor has just compiled its top ten list:
  1. Musee du Louvre, Paris, France
  2. Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Rome, Italy
  3. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
  4. J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, California
  5. Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France
  6. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
  7. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
  8. Tate Modern, London, England
  9. Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain
  10. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
How were the competitors chosen? According to the press release, the list was prepared based on traffic to museum web pages on Michele Perry, director of communications for TripAdvisor, claims "This top 10 is a check list to see the very finest artwork in the world."

The list is a good starting point for people looking for a short-list of museums where they can find famous works of art, such as Van Gogh's Starry Night or Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. I confess I could happily spend days in any of these museums. They've become tourist destinations for a reason, after all.

But do they house the "very finest artwork in the world"? Not necessarily.

The nature of any top ten list is that there are always good contenders which don't make the cut. For example, I noticed that all of these museums are in a "Western" country (with four in the U.S. alone), so I wonder what other major galleries and museums from other parts of the world aren't on the list. I'm also curious about the smaller museums and local galleries that don't get the publicity and the popularity, but have the potential to teach me more about local culture and history. Do I want to go to a popular tourist attraction, or a "hidden gem"? (Or both?)

We can't define what is "good art" or any more than we can tell people where and how they should travel. It's a matter of personal preference on both counts. I hope more information and articles will become available on the "hidden gems" in the art world. Take them or leave them, it's nice to have choice.

In the meantime, the official websites of the aforementioned top ten are worth a look. Some even include a virtue tour.