Wednesday, May 20, 2015

How travel agents should be paid.

The remuneration of travel agents has always been an issue of debate, form the halcyon days of unending airline commissions to today’s “nett fare” environment.

“You pay me a fee for me to tell you, independently, that the best way for you to travel is by utilising the carrier/hotel/operator that pays me the most commission,” is not really a solid business model.

It is not a defensible position were it ever to be legally challenged, but it is a position that every single travel agent finds themselves in on a daily basis.

And frankly, from the time that the profession was crawling out from under United Airline’s 2.00pm fax (does anyone else remember that watershed moment?), we have been setting our remuneration on the fly, and based on “what we can get”.

This is, of course, an exaggeration, but not a large one. The simple fact is that clients have no clue what we do and by and large, nor do the agents themselves.

Travel agents are important. They act as interpreters of movement within an impossibly complex world, they are supposed to understand and counsel  the High Theology of international politics, climate variation, currency controls, transportation schedules and a myriad of other arcane pieces of knowledge that are dealt with on a daily basis.

The remuneration, however, is even murkier. A price is quoted by an agent for a specific product at which they can make some money; be this a cruise or a small hotel in Corsica, the principle remains,  each and every product in the world has a price on The Web, and it doesn’t take their clients long to find it. And it is frequently more than the agent has quoted.

And here is the problem; until travel agents distinguish between the architecture and the construction of their product (clients’ trips), there will never be peace, and deception will reign.

Vast amounts of expensively-acquired knowledge are being compensated by a mark-up on a remote (but possibly wonderful) bed & breakfast. Agents are being forced to deceive their clients by transferring their remuneration from their knowledge to the product.

They are not being paid to know that Corsica will fit their professional interpretation of their client’s needs, but are being compensated by adding €20 to the base price of any product in Corsica that can be prepaid; and it is a base price that is known by all who choose to look at the property’s website.

Agents who counsel a couple prior to booking a vacation at a resort on the Mayan Riviera, and whose knowledge is being sought to assure that the choice of resort fits the clients’ needs are not being compensated for that insight.

And here’s the thing; clients, inundated with fabulous photography and endless images of drinks with umbrellas are none the wiser! Often they don’t have a clue, and book based on what their neighbours like, or what day the flight leaves. Travellers want knowledge and are willing to pay for it.

It is time that the architecture and the construction are separated; professional agents with a suitably robust knowledge base should be able to commend up to $300/hour to counsel clients on a complex and expensive trip. After all, if one is going to spend several thousand dollars on a vacation, spending a few hundred with a competent professional is a quite logical and reasonable expectation.

The key, however, is the individual agent’s capacity and competency for counselling; and if there is none, then perhaps that counsellor should seek employment in an alternative field. Given the prospect of billing at $150 - 300 / hour, there is an incentive for travel professionals to invest in their own careers; becoming an expert in a region, a genre of travel or any other sub-speciality will pay off; agencies will grow to resemble professional offices, and this is as it should be.

We need to remember history, and how we came to this position. In Days of Yore, travel agents knew where the brochures were; clients wanting foreign travel had little alternative than purchasing through these specialists; airlines did not appoint agencies unless they wrote a paper explaining why their appointment would be of benefit to the appointed carrier. The profession was meant to be of incremental value.

Today, of course, everybody has access to the information, but not everybody has access to the interpretive skills necessary to maximise the benefit of this flood of facts.

This is the role of the travel agent; the interpreter and intermediary.

By offering clients the opportunity to take counselling and have a plan drawn up that they can purchase on a “cost plus” basis, many will take this option, and once again the agency will shine and be remunerated.

If there is a future in the profession, it is because we take the responsibility of representing our clients’ interests first. Our nominal principals, for whom we were agents in the past, and perhaps to whom we are still tithed, do not compensate us well enough for the servility that is demanded, and in fact, they compete with us for the very same passenger.

The future is in representing our knowledge to our clients, being remunerated for guiding them through the thicket of information and finally, if requested, to finalise these arrangements in the most cost-effective manner with all prices being fully revealed.

I for one am simply tired of the deception.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Buying Travel on The Web

Here’s the thing.

When companies of whatever stripe and purpose spend millions of dollars on developing a website, it is done for one reason, and one reason alone: to maximise their profits.
When any one of us go on-line to search for an item of whatever purpose, it is for one reason: to minimise our expense, and the rather touching belief in the neutrality of the net leads to many unfortunate decisions

These two positions are, of course, mutually exclusive; while they may appear to combine, particularly in the rather naïve belief that some hold, from time to time, the truth is that for most people they do not. The on-line, world is inherently binary: you ask a question and you get an answer, and the entire promise that most companies base their product line-up on is that you don’t know the correct question to ask.

I love the internet, and I, and my many colleagues spend our lives using the deep resource base it offers to hone our skills and develop our professional knowledge. It is the same in every industry, and the extraordinary growth in our access to information is one of the marvels of the 21st century. It is, however, only information, and not knowledge.

For years, one of the most common questions asked of my agency was “What is the cheapest ticket to London?” Our answer was always “Where in London do you want to get to?” This gave us the opportunity to direct them to Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted if appropriate, and offer a sound service.

The answers however were rather interesting; at least 50% said that they were not, in fact going to London, but to Hull or Birmingham or Cardiff or some other UK point. By telling us this, we were able to advise them to spend an additional $50 or so, and fly straight to a local airport, the existence of which had, to that point, been unknown.

Now, in our binary world, the same question will be asked and the correct answer given. However, it is the correct answer to the wrong question in so many cases. Happily unaware of the options that might have been better, our traveller trots off to London in ignorant bliss.

It is curious how many times that travellers have come to our agency to book travel within Australia having already found “a great deal on-line” for a ticket from Canada to Sydney. When the first thing they want to buy is a connecting ticket from Sydney to Cairns, and are advised that a “Canada to Cairns” ticket would have been the same price as the ticket to Sydney that they had just purchased, disappointment often set in.

It is not that the information is unavailable, and had they asked The Web for a ticket to Cairns they would have found out that it was the same price, it is that sadly, most people don’t know what to ask for.

The biggest problem, I believe, is that traditionally there have been a lot of very, very bad travel agents. It has not been a respected profession, and by and large, with virtually no entry requirements, it became a default career for friendly people who liked beaches and drinks with umbrellas in them.

This, fortunately, is a professional model that has, for a large part, passed on. Travel professionals are now considerably fewer in number, and those that remain do so because they offer expertise and a very valuable input into a vacation decision. More are also offering a pure consultancy, paid for on an hourly rate; this option, to pay $500 - 750 for four or five hours consultation on a trip that will cost some $15-20,000 is well worth the money; insight, expertise and the ability to synthesise the information that can be gleaned on-line is well worth the investment.

It also makes sense.

In virtually every facet of the travel world, be it airlines, accommodation, tours or whatever other service you can imagine, the cost of sale is between 25 and 30 per cent. This figure is a macro-number, and applicable to the overall cost of distribution, not the cost of any single unit. It make no difference if the money is invested in commissions paid to the network of brokers, wholesalers and retailers who make up the chain between a fishing guide in Nunavut and the client in Hannover or if the money is invested in sophisticated web presence and the associated costs of servicing enquiries and reservations. The number firmly remains stuck at 25-30%

So from the sellers’ perspective, better to build a web with which to lure then unsophisticated with promises of a better and cheaper life, last-minute deals or whatever gimmick they dream up then risk losing a client to the comparative consultation that the (good) flesh-and-blood travel professionals offer.

From the purchasers’ position, I would think that more thought should be given to the benefits of shopping at a store that discourages questions, and only offers comparisons based on its own sales algorithm.

After all, a major European airline did not pay a major on-line retailer £1 million per month for advantageous placement on their availability displays for nothing.

Neutrality on line? Think again!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Travel and the Internet

I have been extremely remiss in failing to add to my blog for the past month.

Consider it a month’s vacation, or even a month’s block, but here I am again. It has been a very interesting period; I have been based at our rather peculiar house in Esperaza in the South of France,  first warding off the excesses of the local wine festival, then brief trips to London for family and philatelic reasons and then to Georgia to finalise our new company “Are Mare” .

It is the Yellow shop with the blue shutters!

 I have been working here, compiling a substantial proposal for a consultancy to work on tourism product development in the three northern Territories, designing some new tour programs for The Great Canadian Travel Company, (curiously) putting together a “supply chain” to deliver 5,000 metric tons of chicken-feed every month to Azerbaijan (some really odd opportunities come my way), and simply enjoying the burst of spring in the Pyrenean foothills.

The view from the office 

However, I have had time to get riled, and it is for you, my dear readers, that I am annoyed.

I have written much about the double-edged nature of the internet; it is an environment that has made so many completely suspend credulity and hurl themselves into this unregulated market with the most surprising gusto. It is a fine place; “things” of all manner are available, and because the common credo of “cut out the middle man and save money” is so simple, folks buy stuff by the ton.

It is also interesting to note how many folks hit the “buy” button at nine o’ clock in the evening, quite conceivably with a bottle of wine inside them, and at a time when their protective middlemen are presumably hitting their own “buy” buttons.

And now we find that the principals who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars/lari/euros or whatever designing their websites have done so for self-serving reasons. Shock! Horror! Their sole interests in designing their sites, and it is likened to a web for a very good reason, is to maximise their revenues, and lure you in.

It is not designed to minimise your expenditures.

Have you noticed how, during the purchasing process, the price or “availability” of the items, seats, beds or cabins that you are trying to buy changes? Sometimes discreetly with “Only two left at this price” appearing from nowhere, subtly telling you that you are on the right track, and should finalise, or more forcefully with a $10 increase in price?

Yesterday, a hotel I was looking at that initially offered four options only showed two (highest/lowest) ten minutes later; by resubmitting on a different search engine, I got the middle two quotes back and booked.

Well, "they" follow you; each key-stroke is measured, and with the new generation of phones, "they" listen to your calls, and will translate your level of excitement for an upcoming trip into another few dollars onto the room. It is quite extraordinary how much privacy we all give up by ticking the “I accept” boxes; a paradox considering how those self-same companies will give up no informations at all, citing “privacy issues”.

There is a weapon.

Each browser offers an “incognito” or “private browsing” option. These covers, usually used by folks trying to cover the tracks of their various fetishes that are so diligently pursued at work, are your friends. By going “underground” as you search the web for prices, these windows will (to a great extent) muddy your tracks and make you less likely to be followed.

And remember too that Google reads all G Mail, and then promptly sells the information thus gleaned of your upcoming trips, ideas or whatever else you may unwisely communicate in this electronic fashion to a wide range of suppliers who are eager to pay for such “qualified” customers.

And finally, should you wonder why it makes a difference to an airline or hotel where you live before you get a quote, it is simple. Certain markets are perceived to be more lucrative and North Americans seem to be the cherries on the cake.

If I were you, I would fib; tell them you live in Cameroon, and see what happens then.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Car Rallies for Everyone

Who among you hasn't had the phrase "Paris to Dakar Rally" stir a little envy in your soul, or wondered just how these drivers could be so lucky, even though this race is now confusingly held in South America? Well, fret no longer, the days of the populist car rallies are upon us.

There has been a quiet revolution in the world of travel during the past ten years, and one that has opened up a number of new opportunities and options that lie far outside any normal concept of touring. Perhaps the corny, catch-all phrase “Adventure Travel” might do, but this moniker is so completely overused it has almost become obsolete.

We live in a “sharing economy”, we are told, and it is one that carries a very finely sharpened double-edged sword. Ecologically and intellectually, sharing our own unused capacities, as hosts, drivers, guides and other activities makes sense. “Waste not, want not”; the advent of the computer has allowed a rapid growth in services like Air BnB, Uber, Couch Surfing and many others. It is a brutal world; folks who have previously paid large licence fees to drive taxis and now being challenged by part-time students with a GPS; cities are realising the loss to their tax base as vast numbers of tourists stay in effectively tax-free accommodation.

And it will, of course continue to grow.

And there are other opportunities in this world of citizen-professionals; my personal favourite is the new breed of car rallies. Previously the domain of wealthy corporate teams, the idea of slogging across inhospitable terrain for days on end, camping in deserts and running out of petrol in  some dangerous and dusty backwater has gained followers, myself among them.

I am currently looking to put together a team of a dozen or so like-minded idiots who want to drive a school bus over the Sahara desert from Budapest (yes, I know Budapest is not even close to the desert, but that is where this expedition starts) to Bamako in Mali. Once safely (sic) in Mali, the school bus is donated to a local charity and we fly home, or off to the next adventure.

The Budapest/Bamako is just one such route. One I have been toying with as well is the London/Tashkent odyssey, restricted to cars that cost no more than £500, although the Murmansk Challenge also seems to have its merits. The UK-based company Dakar Challenge, is a fine outfit, coordinating a series of “crap car challenges”, for those willing to pick up some cases of vodka and pot noodles and head out in an old car (a "banger" in the vernacular of the British Isles) with a number of like-minded individuals to an almost certain series of misadventures.

Breakdowns, border controls, harsh weather, wilderness camping, deeply peculiar food, insects previously unkown to any of us and the general feeling of reclessness that will permeate every fibre of our beings just add to the fun. I can't wait.

So what drives this passion? Is it the pendulum swinging back to balance the ever more anodyne “six-star, all-inclusive” experience? Is it a reaction to our increasingly regulated working lives? Who knows! What I do know, however, is that the experience is going to be priceless.

So the planning starts; anyone wanting to talk to me about joining the gang, please contact me at  ; anyone wanting to assist by sponsoring this school bus, and donating to the cause (it will cost about $12,000 to buy the vehicle and take it down), I would love to hear from you as well …  and it all happens in January 2016!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Germanwings; airlines, technology and people

From West Africa to Canada’s Arctic, the conclusion of a two-month wander, a week in the office and now in France for a further two months while GermanWings planes hurtle into mountain sides and disruption on a major scale is caused to Amsterdam airport by a “technical fault in a transformer”.

Yes, a great deal has happened in the two weeks since I last put fingers to typewriter, and while sometimes it gets to a point that I simply block and don’t write a single thought. Not, however, this time.

Let us start with the tragic crash of the GermanWings plane; on March 24th, I suggested in a Facebook posting that we were looking at pilot suicide simply because there appeared to be no other possible explanation for the event short of the most improbable series of independent failures. Now I appear to have been correct, and this is not the first such incident, and sadly, nor will it be the last.

How an airline pilot can be so deeply disturbed that he feels driven to fly his aircraft into a mountain taking 149 innocent lives with him is completely beyond my capacity to contemplate; how a company as technically astute as Lufthansa can have such a person work up within their ranks with no inkling of this ambition is also astonishing, but perhaps indicates more strongly than ever that mental illness is indeed and illness, and its recognition and treatment are extremely difficult.

From the few such suicides reported, and the victims of the Malaysia crash are not included, although they perhaps should be, some 500 people have been slaughtered in this manner. How many could have been prevented had cockpit doors not been made impregnable we will never know, but II fear that more had died because of this security requirement than have been saved.

Flying is, of course, an extremely safe way to travel, and none of these aberrations will change that fact; rogue elements within any industry will cause headlines be they corrupt Japanese nuclear-plant officials or self-centered developers condemning our national institutions to decades of financial struggle.

Accidents happen, and we see today that Schiphol airport, Amsterdam’s global hub, has been affected by  a “technical fault” at a substation. While not yet causing direct danger, this mishap will lead to tens of thousands of passengers being stranded, business meetings being delayed, weddings interrupted, concerts cancelled and days of putting life back together again.

It is very easy, particularly in the glow of spending weeks in Sao Tome and Cabo Verde to wonder about technology, its speed and application, our control of its development and whether or not, if we project forward to the period that Artificial Intelligence rules the world and its airwaves, we will be safe.

Or will some malignant hacker inject a malevolent sequence into our daily lives and start to create havoc on a level that we have yet to contemplate.

On a happier note, after three days, I did get my baggage back from The System’s evil maw.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Cabo Verde / São Tomé e Príncipe; The Unusual Islands

There are an awful lot of places in the world to explore, and I am sure that these Portuguese islands dropped apparently randomly into the Atlantic Ocean are not high on many travellers’ bucket lists. But they should be; São Tomé e Príncipe and Cabo Verde offer travellers and tourists alike a remarkable experience, and one that would be difficult to duplicate.

The Portuguese were amazing explorers; talk about itchy feet, they headed out into the ocean in the fifteenth century, and possibly long before, in search of “something”. I still reel at the audacity of a small boat with about twenty overdressed folks wearing pretty funny hats rocking up to a jungly shore and declaring the “Whole Land” for a distant crown. They usually didn’t even know how big it was, or if a bunch of Spaniards or Vikings had landed ten miles away with the same idiotic proclamation.

Singularly Overdressed Explorers

However, as improbable as it was, this sort of approach to nation-building seemed to work, for a while at least. And so it was that before the fifteenth century turned to the sixteenth, the islands of Cabo Verde and São Tomé became part of the Portuguese kingdom. That was a long, long time ago, and possession of these islands seemed to be good business, and a powerful determinant in the Iberian nation’s conquest of all sorts of places, and dominance of many exotic trades.

Let's go and catch some fish
And so we fast forward through centuries of power, economic fortunes, appalling human rights, dictatorships, wars, dreadful weather and the economic pillaging of the European power to today. The legacies of all of these misfortunes are apparent; dilapidated Portuguese architecture (which I have to confess I find extremely attractive), imbalanced economies, poor education and medical facilities and economies that are spluttering to life.

We also find, however, lands of powerful beauty, people with extraordinary personality, destinations that offer visitors an authentic and comfortable experience and people with a passion for their country’s future and smiles the size of a planet. In short, Cabo Verde and São Tomé offer visitors an experience unlike any other that it has been my privilege to experience.

Sao Antao, Cabo Verde
Accommodations ranges from the world-class facilities operated by the Portuguese Pestana Group to small guesthouses; food covers the same compass and local guides are equally variable. Beaches are fewer than one might imagine, with the exception of Sal and Boa Vista in Cabo Verde, and some pleasant but mainly isolated beaches in São Tomé but it is for the culture and life of these islands that visitors should come.

Access is pretty straightforward; Cabo Verde has direct flights from Europe, the USA and Brazil, and São Tomé from Lisbon and a number of African gateways. Flights between the islands (a five-hour hop) are offered by the Angolan airline TAAG twice weekly, and I can personally endorse their offering. While reliability can be a problem (see my TACV rant), they are the only way to really make a visit here work; the answer is, of course, to build sufficient time into an itinerary to compensate for delays; and purchase suitable travel insurance to cover any additional costs.

Travel in the islands is certainly bound by different time scales. I do not think that there is a word in the local vernaculars that conveys the sense of urgency that is implied by “manhana”.  Time is one’s friend and one’s nemesis, but all will be revealed by both lands with sufficient patience and care. They are islands after all, and islands are by nature and definition insular; change comes slowly and with reservations; the lands are old and bruised, the future unfolds carefully.

A nice Fixer-Upper

Portugal has left a remarkable legacy and these remote islands (“Small, but perfectly proportioned”, as my cousin Jude remarks) offer visitors a remarkable experience. Balancing the powerful beauty of São Antão, the haunting musical heritage of São Vicente, the raw power of the island of Santiago in Cabo Verde with time in the tropical beauty of São Tomé will reward those who try.  The balance of nature, culture and sheer interest is overwhelming; accommodation is available to suit all tastes, with the obvious exception of those who seek the solace of sneeze-shield-protected-buffets in Caribbean all-inclusive (and good for them if that’s what they like), and itineraries can be designed to suit folks of any inclination or interest.

Those seeking hiking, music, beaches, language, history, art and even those who are interested in economic development and remote social systems will be delighted with the opportunities offered by these unheralded islands. Visitors will be rewarded in so many ways; from the bright smiles and giggles of the school children headed off to class to the wonderful fresh seafood, from verdant hills to the stunning seascapes the islands offer a great deal to their visitors.

And did I mention finding a remarkable restaurant located in an eighteenth-century Portuguese manor house? The chef is an internationally trained wonder, and serves a two-hour, eight-course lunch for the princely sum of €25 per person.

Roca S Joao do Angolares

Or Macumbli, the resort on the west coast as close to perfection as I can imagine?

Tiggers like Cabo Verde and São Tomé

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

São Tomé e Príncipe: Mucumbli - a perfect resort

"The setting sun extinguished itself in the sparkilg ocean ....."

One can read this sort of drivel in endless pieces about endless resorts, and completely lose sight of where a particular property lies, or how it can possibly be distinguished from another. In general, I like some resorts and dislike others, and even after forty years of wandering find it difficult to explain where the border line lies.

Mucumbli, however, not only lies firmly in the “like” column, I would go so far as to say that it is the most perfect resort that it has been my good fortune to visit.

It is, improbably, in Sao Tome, a small and rarely pondered nation in the Atlantic Ocean, some 300 miles from the coast of Africa. The resort lies on the western coast, nestled one hundred metres above the sea in a rich and verdant forest. A mile, perhaps two, from shore a dozen fishermen are out in their boats, behind us lie acres of trees; flowers are beginning to show, and the cacao fruit hangs in a multiplicity of colours. The sun shines.

The resort is both simple and luxurious; not the effervescent luxury of a Global Brand Resort, but the complete feeling of well-being that engulfs one when each detail has been addressed. There are five bungalows, with a total capacity of fourteen guests; interestingly, there are thirty-seven chairs on the terrace where one takes meals, and simply gazes at the horizon.

And what marvellous meals they are too; once again, not the finest haute cuisine of a five-star restaurant, but fresh and imaginatively prepared food made from the freshest of local produce; fine soups, wonderful fish, fresh salads, and an ample wine list.

Breakfast, included in the daily rate, is of fresh fruit, homemade yogurt, breads and cold meat with the finest Sao Tomean coffee.

Above all, the property exudes peace; the staff are friendly and efficient,

The daily rate of approximately €65 for a double room with breakfast is most eminently affordable.

Sao Tome is not terribly easy to get to but neither is it overly difficult. From North America one would fly to Lisbon, and then south on one of Air Portugal’s three weekly flights; from Europe there are straightforward connections through the Portuguese capital, and combined with some day tours or a car rental, a week or ten days spent in this magical place will recharge the most depleted of batteries.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

São Tomé e Príncipe: the distant islands

Sao Tome, and its sister island Principe for one of the world’s smallest, poorest and most ignored nations. Few have heard of Sao Tome, fewer still have thought about the country and very, very few have visited. Which is a pity because tourists or travellers visiting São Tomé e Príncipe

Let me set the scene. The country lives in the Gulf of Guinea some three hundred miles from the coast of Gabon. It lies some 240 miles from the intellectually interesting but practically pointless location of 0°0’0”N and 0°0’0”E. Historically it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1470, and appear to all who have studied the matter to have previously been unoccupied and colonised pretty well consistently until independence was granted in 1975.

Central Sao Tome 

The intervening 405 years tell a tale rich in exploitation, hardship, transported peoples and the assorted horrors that accompanied this genre of history. It has to be said, however, that the land left behind is richer in culture and identity than many, probably a legacy of its isolation and lack of a desirable and sustainable export.

It has lived, economically on the export of cocoa; up to 35,000 tons of the stuff, and by all accounts some of the world’s finest, was grown and shipped away at its zenith, a crop that has now diminished to some 3,000 tons; coffee too, originally imported from Brazil in 1840 has fallen into small but first-class production and is a shadow of its former self. As one drives through this improbably beautiful island, covered in thick forest, one sees palms, coconut trees, some wild cocoa and fruit trees of every imaginable type just waiting to be nurtured and picked.

Heavy afternoon traffic
The capital, eponymously named Sao Tome, is a sleepy port town spread along several kilometres of sleepy beaches, empty roads and fine colonial buildings that are rather comfortably going to seed. It is of pastel colours and slow of temperament; the little traffic there is moves slowly and predictably, with the exception of the roads around the central market. Here cars jostle quickly, their engines heady with the fumes of fruit, salt fish and the hundreds of people buying and selling.

The Central Market rush
The market lives at a different pace; here trestles are piled high with t-shirts from “Western Australia” and shorts with German sports logos; well used dresses and the odd discarded cardigan from a mid-western closet. Here the thousands of tons of clothes, cheerfully donated to schools, churches and food-banks wash up on shore adding complete confusion to the local clothing cycles. Gone are the days of repairing clothes, carefully using shredded garments in the construction of new, now for a few pennies, discarded western-wear is available to all.

Where your t-shirts end up!

Move back from the market and the pace slows; the streets are cleaned consistently if a touch ineffectively, women walk purposefully around with baskets of goods piled high on their heads, and men lounge at street corners playing backgammon; school children, sharp in their cream and blue uniforms mill together and jostle for their peer’s attention as they head to or from their next

classes. The city has its rhythm, and its laughter.

Central Sao Tome City !

The long-haul boats, with a day-dreaming son
Two miles along the shore lies the timeless fishing village of Pantufo. Wooden boats, some with outriggers that will sail some 200 miles away in search of the right catch, lie on the shore waiting for their call to action; women sell a few fish; kids play and lie on the boats, the waves lap the shoreline and the sun beats down on small knots of villagers chatting about fish, football and the government.

Pantufo - the village fleet
It too, is a village in slow motion, but here in São Tomé e Príncipe, it is right on time.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

TACV: An airline of spectacular indifference

I should first admit that airlines are a passion of mine, and their operations in remote and tricky locations of particular interest.  I should also point out, in the interest of fairness, that my own international flight (Fortaleza to Praia) with onward connections to Mindelo via Praia worked like a charm; my second attempt at inter-island travel, however, did not, and a one-hour journey became a twelve-hour slog.

Sadly, however, for reliability, TACV (Transportes Aereos de Cabo Verde) is, however, in a league of its own.

When it comes to scheduling, adherence to these timetables, indifference to their passengers, and let’s be honest, sheer thoughtless incompetence, TACV are the gold standard. In comparison, carriers that service Canada’s Arctic, the Scottish or Greek islands, the remote South Pacific are paragons of virtue, but let me expound.

The Cape Verdean islands are a group of ten islands, eight of which have airports; of these, three are serviceable by large jet aircraft, and the others by ATR turbo-prop equipment. The three major points are Sal (the holiday island), Mindelo (the cultural capital) and Praia (the country’s capital city). Traffic between these three islands is heavy due to the lack of alternative ferry options, and flights are regularly full; flights to the smaller islands are heavily used as well, but not to the same degree as the main line points.

The inter-island flights are used, of course, for a multitude of reasons. Straightforward inter-island travel, of course, but also the thorny issue of connections, and it is this latter usage that is the most concerning.

When an airline publishes a schedule that indicates that a flight will operate between Point A and Point B at (say) noon, given the vagaries of the weather and destination, wiggle room of an hour or so is reasonable, and connections or other arrangements can be made accordingly. What is entirely unreasonable is to then confirm 72 passengers on a 42-seat aircraft, with no further flights that day. Further, when the previous day’s overbooking is taken into consideration, there could well be a further 40 passengers on a “waitlist”, also hoping to travel.

Logic would determine that in instances like these, the cream of the TACV fleet, one of their Boeing 737 aircraft with 160+ seats, be pulled in to operate an extra section and clear the backlog; bearing in mind that the stage-lengths are only about 150 miles, and a complete rotation from Praia to Praia could be achieved in about 90 minutes (if, one must add, there was a degree of order in the boarding process) and passengers would be generally happy.

Alternatively, their ageing ATR42 aircraft should be traded in for a more suitable ATR72 plane, offering thirty more seats.

But no; neither their leased, Slovakian aircraft, complete with friendly, competent staff, slightly bewildered by the African Way, or their Cabo Verdean-crewed Boeing 737-800, complete with flashy winglets that seem altogether too advanced for these islands, would be brought to service.

Passengers are simply left to rot. Their onward connective issues are met with industrially-sympathetic smiles, and in the most egregious case some Significant Tutting, but to no avail. Even trying to get a letter from TACV indicating that the passengers were stranded through no fault of their own, a document that insurance companies require and TACV should be printing by the tens of thousands is impossible.

Surely it should not be too difficult to anticipate traffic loads and schedule the appropriate aircraft; surely it should not be too difficult, given the indifference displayed, to prioritise those passengers with connections to services that only operate on a weekly basis; surely TACV should by now, with decades of experience, be able to streamline the process of denied boarding and compensation.

There is no competition. TACV is government-owned, and vastly over-staffed, spreading through the “benefits” accruing to their staff and their extended families a patriarchal comfort. Revenue passengers’ needs take second place, it seems, to the needs of the staff, their families, and (should one be so cynical?), their votes. Competitors come and go, but competing with a government agency with deep pockets has, for years, been a problem with the global aviation industry.

There are extremely valid reasons for governments to have a significant role to play in the provision of aviation in regions and countries that are completely dependent on such service. There are, however, even better reasons for excercising this control through regulation rather than ownership.

These reasons, however valid, in no way obviate the requirement to operate in a professional and reliable manner.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Cabo Verde; When Travel Goes Bad!

“The best laid plans”, it has been said, are not immune to change, and nowhere is the more true than on the remarkable islands of CaboVerde. Tourists and travellers to this island nation really fit into one of two groups, those who stay put and those who wander. I am of the latter.

One curiosity of Cabo Verde is the paucity of inter-island transportation; the national airline, TACV, flies between the islands with an imaginative schedule, an almost complete disregard for punctuality and a flair for the dramatic. Competition is non-existent, and those who have tried are driven from the market rather unceremoniously. The islands are, one imagines, rather too widely scattered for an adequate boat service, and the waters in this part of the Atlantic a touch choppy for sensitive stomachs.

There is also the wind. And here one needs to be frank; the winds of Cabo Verde are relentless, sometimes a mere “heavy breeze” that cools the African sun, and sometimes a sandblasting wall that brings dust from the Sahara and liberally scatters it over the islands making flights rather precarious. In fact, on one day of this past two weeks, all flights in the islands were cancelled because of the strong winds, and yesterday, the Harmattan wind from the mainland scoured the islands with desert sands once more interrupting the best laid plans of mice, men and visitors.

So it was a week ago that the decision was made not to travel to the remote island of Brava and its neighbour, Fogo, the volcanic island. The weather was reasonable, but with the Praia/Boston flight operating only weekly, and the possibility of being stranded was not insignificant, the decision was made to remain on the main island of Santiago instead, and explore without the risk of becoming marooned in the shadow of an erupting volcano.

The important thing here is the ability to change plans at the last moment, and travelling to Cabo Verde, an endeavour that I would heartily endorse, really requires some delicate planning, and the assistance of a very understanding and competent local agent.

Firstly, the order of events needs to be established, with the riskiest being placed at the front end of the itinerary; secondly, the ability to change without recourse to an insurance company needs to be assured. If one cannot travel to Fogo because of some climatic or technical surprise, the credit from the unused hotel in Fogo should be transferrable to another property elsewhere. Finally, of course, tourists to Cabo Verde need to believe that there is someone watching over them, ready to alter course when necessary.

Fortunately, in our case, we were able to change plans without difficulty; I feel for the small guesthouse operator in Brava who lost out on three nights’ revenue, but one supposes that over a season as many people get stuck in situ as fail to arrive. As tourism is an important part of the economy of the country as a whole, and the small islands in particular, their long-term success will only be assured if visitors can be secure in the thought that itinerary changes will not be punished.

It is, of course, the same everywhere. As many of you know, I am heavily involved with tourism in Canada’s Arctic, and this too is a region beset with climatic peculiarities that can shatter the plans, laid as best as one can, into tiny pieces. An understanding of this, and attention to this issue by regional government and trade associations is a very important factor in developing higher visitor numbers to peripheral regions.

I digress, however; remaining on the island of Santiago has been fun and interesting. The village of Tarrafal in the north of Santiago has the most beautiful beach setting in the country and a couple of pretty nice, if architecturally eccentric hotels. 

Tarrafal, Santiago

There is an interesting prison camp, a stark reminder of the brutality of the Portuguese dictatorships and the savagery of its colonial wars, there are wonderful roads driving through valleys carved by eons of caustic winds, and seascapes that will take one’s breath away.

Solitary Confinement
A reminder of the recent past

Finally, there is the remarkable community of Cidade Velha, the first European settlement in the tropics founded in 1463, and still offering visitors a mosaic of glimpses into the fascinating 500 year history of these captivating islands.

"Banana Street", the first European housing

I head away tomorrow to São Tomé, another formerly Portuguese island some five hours flight to the southeast; my Lusophilia is far from satisfied, and the two weeks spent in Cabo Verde have simply whetted my appetite to return to this complex and fascinating island nation.