Saturday, January 23, 2010

Travel Insurance: A Cautionary Word About Protection

The world is awash with airlines offering extraordinary deals to a shrinking number of passengers, and it is the time that folks the world over are looking to book their summer vacations. Buyers rarely beware, but they should give thought making a large purchase in one of the world's largest, unregulated markets.

It seems that there is a new security blanket coddling travellers, and this is the belief that credit card companies will automatically reimburse ticket-holders who have yet to travel on bankrupt airlines. I am not altogether sure where this idea comes from and to whose benefit its promulgation lies. I am, however, fairly sure that the truth is extremely complex, and that an automatic refund is out of the question.

Some credit cards carry a variety of insurance benefits, and it may be that coverage is included in this package; it may be that credit card companies like the idea of such a masterful position and in the absence of a huge collapse have paid off customers, writing these ex-gratia payments off to goodwill.

There is a thought that reimbursement is due to the "non-provision" of service for which an intermediary company (viz: the credit card) has taken payment. Perhaps; but perhaps not.

Imagine, if you will, the potential bankruptcy of United Airlines or British Airways. Unlike Globespan and XL, each of these august carriers will have hundreds of millions of dollars of such prepaid tickets. It is unthinkable that the credit card companies will have the money to back-stop a failure of that proportion.

Part of the answer lies in the relationship between the merchant and the credit card companies; each merchant for a credit card company is obliged to post a bond, if required, that reflects the potential of default. It is from these monies that reimbursement flows. While a small tour operator (or airline) may be required to post a bond of say $1 million, it is inconceivable that giant carriers would be able to post such a bond to cover all of their unflown customers. As a case in point, however, it is said that Air Canada has approximately $1.3 billion tied up in these kinds of guarantees. Working capital that surely could be better deployed elsewhere.

It becomes ever more expensive to accept credit cards; someone has to pay for all of the points, kettles, dining vouchers and other inducements offered to cardholders, and it certainly is not the credit card companies themselves. Some years ago the airline industry, through IATA, offered their own credit card, the Universal Air Travel Plan. If the expense of credit card acceptance continues to rise, it seems logical that airlines look more closely at building the use of this card, and charging a premium to accept the other brands.

After all, the fees that airlines pay to credit card companies, excluding the enormous guarantees that are in place, are a crippling expense, and one that is at least partly avoidable. Ryanair do so, and for once, it is a fee model with which I concur.

There are insurance companies who offer "default" coverage; this protection, if it still applies to airlines, has significant limits, usually to a maximum of $2 or 3 million per occurrence. Not much on a per person basis if 15,000 passengers are caught, and absolutely no help in reimbursement of expenses other than a proportion of airline costs. Such as a lost tour program, or onward flight connection.

The whole question of consumer protection continually raises its head, and it is an subject that deserves thorough investigation. It is not a solution to simply establish a fund that will allow weak companies to sail close to the wind secure in the knowledge that strong companies will effectively bail them out. In the end, protection is the responsibility of the purchaser; they should , however, have some assurance that multi-million dollar industries like travel have some vestige of financial oversight.

Iin many jurisdictions the industry does not. It is time that it did.

In the meantime, however, it is buyer beware!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ceaseless Travel

Well, I am back in Chicago with my Canadian product manager, for a couple of days in preparation for the launch of our 2010 tour program. The brochures are readying for the printers, and it is certainly a nerve-wracking time of year! All of the choices, settling on about thirty tours out of the hundreds that are available across Canada, have been made, the images for the brochure picked, the website sharpened and the mailing lists are ready to go.

This is the high-risk end of the travel business. We invest heavily in product development, production and distribution of our programs and the only source of income comes from our clients around the world buying our tours. If we picked right, and the itineraries we chose hit the spot, we will sell between 800 and 1000 passengers on our Canadian tours. If we chose wrong, then our investment may turn against us.

I have been doing this for over thirty years now, and so far have been reasonably successful. The world is changing fast now, however, and trying to keep ahead of the curve can be difficult.

At the same time as we launch our Canadian program, we are readying a new Iceland tour series to offer in conjunction with the new Iceland Express flight between Winnipeg and Reykjavík. Once again, pick right, and the children have new shoes; pick wrong, and it is a year before we have another shot at it.

And so to Chicago to meet with the Canadian Tourism Commission office and a few travel companies that have sold our tours in the past; I don’t actually need much urging to come here, it really is one of my favourite cities in the world, but I have been on the road a lot recently, and would like to spend a little time at home.

However, all work and no play would make Max extremely dull, and so we have taken advantage of being here to eat wonderfully (really, the overly generous Texas de Brazil is a fabulous restaurant), and listen to the blues again. Last night to Blue Chicago, and although it was a Monday night, and there were only about fifteen or so in the audience, we were treated to a really good evening’s music.

And then this afternoon, I had a chance to visit the Driehaus Museum. Observant readers will recall that I tried to visit this museum ten days ago, and was questioning the value of the $25 entry fee. Well, among those seeing the blog was Jeanine Riedl, the museum’s visitor services coordinator, and she, most generously encouraged me to visit on my next trip to the Windy City.
And so I did today; the house is possibly the most sumptuous dwelling I have ever seen, although one has to say that the word “cosy” hardly springs to mind. It is an eye-popping extravaganza of marble, rich hardwoods, fabulous fabrics and a collection of statuary that ranged from classic to, shall we say, thought-provoking. I loved it! And the answer to the question of value is a resounding “yes”; the museum is quirky, fascinating and a brilliant diversion for anyone lucky enough to be a tourist in Chicago.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Frequent Flyer Points; Love or Hate?

Airline points have become the crack cocaine of the travel world. Fly, buy dinner, fill up with gas and you get rewarded with scrip called rather optimistically "Frequent Flyer Miles". They come in a variety of guises, and like every other currency have extremely variable exchange rates.

Oddly, it seems that the most valuable part of many airlines today is the division that gives stuff away for nothing, and therein lies the rub.

"Points" are a currency; nothing less and nothing more. Airlines sell them to a variety of partners for (say) 4 cents each, and then sell seats back to flyers for these points. Profitable and a fine system.

Until the money supply gets out of hand, and inflation strikes. While the various schemes have yet to reach Zimbabwean levels, there are some distinctly nasty clouds on the horizon. Airlines often churn points out by the million; a recent financing deal between United and their primary bankers involved the exchange of hundreds of millions of United's Mileage Plus. These points are dangled in front the banks' clients as lures to some commercial activity, and hey presto, there are thousands more consumers dreaming of palm trees.

Think, however, of the problems caused by increasing the money supply (points) while simultaneously reducing the overall number of seats available on the airlines' systems - a 20 million drop in available seats throughout the North American system compared to last year.

How will the carriers respond? Gently, I think, but in the traditional way; prices will rise. Delta announced a major increase last year, by offering three levels of reward seats; by increasing the number of points that you use, they will open up more seats. Fair enough in a way, but a price increase by any other name.

My advice? Book early, and remember that there is only a small fee (currently $90 or so) to cancel and put your points back; book next summer's trip to Europe now, and think of the $90 as an option. Use them up as fast as you can, because their value will shrink away in front of your very eyes.

Unless you want a kettle, of course. Exchanging airline points for kitchen equipment or haberdashery seems odd to me, but there will be increasing pressure to do so.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

London Dining: A cautionary tale of restaurant service charges!

Last evening a colleague and I had an absolutely marvellous meal at a restaurant called Bumbles, close to Victoria station.

It is a restaurant with which I have had a glancing aquaintance for some thirty years, and although it has undergone several incarnations, has always been a reliable and innovative place to eat.

The menus is terrific. They offer a set meal option for £19 per person; this gives two courses, and very imaginative they are too; wine adds somewhat more to the tab, as do coffee and a couple of supplements (the beef medley costs a bit extra), but all in all, I think that the bill of £75 was very reasonable in these parts.

And that is where the fun started, for on the menu I had spotted, in extremely fine and slight writing, a note that stated "a discretionary gratuity of 12.5% will be added to the bill". When the credit card machine was offered, and an option to add a further gratuity appeard, I declined, and the waitress took polite umbrage.

She then advised that the owners got all of the optional service charge, and pointed out the line item on the bill, offering to remove it. I didn't leave any further tip (12.5% seems reasonable), and left the retaurant on a decidedly sour note.

It is worth wondering, however, how many folks would not have noticed that the restaurant had just added $20 to the bill under the guise of "Opt SC - £9.40", yet still wanted a tip.

Including a service charge and then asking for a tip is a disgraceful and deceptive habit, and one that travellers should watch out for! It was a pity to leave such a lovely restaurant on such a low note.

London in the Snow

Judging from the newspaper headlines this morning, the UK is blanketed in both literal and metaphoric snow. There is a lot of the white stuff; the western county of Devon is apparently stuggling under many centimetres of the stuff, a lot even for a seasoned Canadian, but more interesting is the snow job that is going on in the House of Commons.

Alistair Campbell, formerly Tony Blair’s press supremo is answering questions concerning the British invasion of Iraq. The ability to evade the truth so absolutely ism, of course, a skill that is extensively honed in political life, but the level to which Mr. Campbell has elevated this art is eye-watering.

It is all good fun now, I suppose, unless you happen to be one of the families who lost loved ones in the war, but the re-writing of such recent history is extraordinary; fortunately, nobody seems to believe him.

At least not those who I overheard on the bus this morning and with the blanket of snow that London received overnight, the ten-minute bus ride stretched to forty, and I had plenty of time to earwig on a number of interestingly dull conversations. The gist of many was that they loved the snow three weeks ago, but the novelty has worn off; as it is only January 13th, the winter hasn’t, and I would suspect that there is more to come.

There are a lot of articles of the “Kids today don’t know cold! I remember in the 1950s” and even the one I liked the best, the “the world has entered a period of protracted cooling”. Really, the speed at which we leap from problem to problem, ignited by the kindling of daily journalism is peculiar.

But I digress; it is good to be in London again, albeit only a week since I left. It is a great city, and one that is blessed with a superb transportation system, whatever its detractors might say. It is efficient, reasonably priced and heavily used. It makes living in any part of the city possible, and whisks visitors around with speed and ease.

I have two favourite London sightseeing days, neither of which I have time to do this afternoon, but worth mentioning nonetheless.

The first is to the East; take the tube from wherever you happen to be to Tower Hill and wander up to the street level (a side trip into the Tower of London if you feel so inclined, or simply a picture) and cross to the adjacent Tower Gateway station. There you will take a train to Island Gardens. This driverless train of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is great, and meanders through the fabulous development of Canary Wharf and the new reclaimed Docklands.

At Island Gardens you cross the road to the bank of the Thames, and enjoy a view of this great river from the rather peaceful garden on the bank. There is a foot tunnel, originally built in 1902, that will take you under the river to Greenwich on the south bank, and as you walk through it, notice the repair work at the Docklands end; it was struck by a German bomb in the war, and although I can’t possibly imagine how they could repair a flooded tunnel, they did, and you will remain perfectly dry as you walk under the Thames.

Greenwich is a marvel, a Georgian town, only slightly sullied by the detritus of contemporary signage, and home to the National Maritime Museum, which in turn houses the Prime Meridian. The museum is really interesting, and the meridian itself fun to play at! Britain's maritime history is long and not entirely glorious. The museum has enough exhibits, stories and trivia to keep anyone busy, and its grounds, in the right weather, are terrific, and a perfect place to enjoy a picnic for those minded to outdoor eating.

Alternatively, finding lunch in Greenwich is easy, and there are restaurants of every stripe and to fit every budget.

Later on, return to London using the river service to Westminster, about a ninety-minute trip, offering a great view of the city and its remarkable river life. From Westminster, of course, you are in the heart of the action, and only a short walk from virtually everything.
for the rest of the year. There are different companies that offer the journey, both Thames River Service and Crown River Cruises offer good sailings, but be sure to check their timing and book your return when you arrive in Greenwich, if not before.

You can, of course, do this circuit in reverse! Just remember that the river boat services operate a full schdule between April and November, and a more limited one in and in the other months you would head back to London by train or on a very dull bus ride.

Tomorrow, the Borough Market, and a brilliant walk.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Reykjavik: A January day

I like Reykjavík, even in January when it doesn’t get light until 10.00, and is dark by 4.30.

I have to say, that wandering around the streets, and driving around town, there is no obvious sign of economic doom; that, is all hidden, reflected in the massive number of crushing loans that so many Icelanders have. It is also apparant inflation rate; self-sufficiency and Iceland are words rarely heard in the same sentence, and one of the major issues facing everyone is the hike in retail prices of everything that has to be imported; which in the case of Iceland is pretty well everything other than fish, lamb, energy and a curious local delicacy, chocolate-covered liquorice..

It is a great place; alive, stylish, oddly confident given the past year, full of delicious food and now, not too expensive. Certainly not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but the days of the $15 beer are a distant memory now. I am esconced in the Hotel Fron, a cosy little property on the main shopping drag of Lagavegur, a lovely place and perfectly located for wandering around Reykjavik's charming centre.

I am here for a day to meet with Iceland Experess who are offering a twice-weekly flight from Iceland to Winnipeg next summer, and are looking for partners to sell seats on the service. I am always hesitant to work too closely with charter flights and ad-hoc scheduled service so thought it prudent to come to Iceland for a day and meet the folks behind the operation. And I am delighted that I did so. I am feeling very confident about the flight, and really enjoyed meeting with both the airline folks and another two from their travel agency division. I am looking forward to fitting our packages to suit their summer flight schedule from Winnipeg, and for Canadians to travel to Iceland and for Icelanders to visit Manitoba, which they seem to want to do.

It was a bit of a tortuous journey to get here. In the winter Icelandair do not offer direct flights from Canada, and are only offering their Boston and New York gateways. So from Chicago I flew to JFK and to Iceland from there.

JFK is a great airport! Straight from the glory-days of flying in the 1950s, it is Jetson Stylish, and I love it. It really reflects the glory days of flying, and for a moment takes one's mind of the contemporary hasseles of airports.

Airport security really is getting to be ridiculous; the Christmas Day Incident did not highlight any laxity in security systems, only a complete breakdown in their application. The resulting clamp down, particularly by the Canadian government, is a knee-jerk reaction to the issue. Better trained staff and not more onerous and diabolically silly procedures is the key. I am all for secure flying, but do resent the childlike tests and processes that the various security origanisations dream up.

However, off I went; fortunate to be travelling in Icelandair’s Saga Business Class, I could use the lounge that they offer in New York. I like airport lounges, and this facility, the British Airways business class lounge is utterly superb. Large, roomy and very well stocked, it made the waiting time whizz by.

The flight was short, only five and a half hours, and very comfortable, putting me into the airport by 7.00am, in my car by 7.45 adn at my first meeting at 9.00 on the dot!

Tonight I head off to my friend Sigfus’ house for dinner, and I am sure a clearer insight into the curious juxtaposition of Iceland’s economic meltdown and life as I see it on the street, In any case, I am sure of some wonderful fish.

And tomorrow morning, off to London for a day or so.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Fabulous Day in Chicago

Chicago has to be one of the world’s best sightseeing cities, and yesterday we saw it all.

Well, we didn’t see it all, of course, and in fact only scratched the surface, but probably did as much as one could possibly do in a single day. It was chilly; even for those of us who dwell in the frozen north, the wind off Lake Michigan brought distinct nip to the air.

We wandered north from the Loop into the Magnificent Mile aiming at the Driehaus Museum; this fascinating display (well, I will assume it if fascinating, because as it turned out we didn’t actually see it), is a perfectly restored mansion, originally built in about 1880. Originally costing an eye-watering $450,000 the building, a testament to the rivers of money that have flown through Chicago, has had a number if incarnations over the years and is now, thanks to the philanthropic efforts of Richard Driehaus as a museum. The $25 entry fee may appear steep, and in fact is, but for this outlay one is transported back to the luxuriant life of an industrial baron of the nineteenth century.

However, as one buys a slot on a timed tour, and the timing on offer clashed with our other activities, we set it aside for next time, and headed instead to the absolutely riveting Chicago History Museum. This is an absolute must see; a vast collection of utterly absorbing material that brings the city’s timeline to life, and gives visitors a sharp view of Chicago until today; leaving no doubt that the next one hundred years will be as interesting as the past.

Also interesting were the tours offered through the museum; mostly for the spring and offered as walking tours (Gold Coast, Old Town), “L” Tours (The Brown Line and many others), conventional bus tours (Ethnic Chicago and the Prohibition Era among others) and the tempting Pub Crawl genre. More than enough good things to tempt a tourist back, and in fact I have already pencilled the weekend of April 10/11 to take in a couple of these offerings.

We headed up to Belmont afterward in search of Vintage Shops, and having been assured by Google that three or four lay within a smallish area off we went; the shops seemed to have moved, and one transmogrified into a bank. It was a pretty lively area though, and interesting enough to absorb us for a while before we jumped the Brown Line train (in the direction of Kimball) to go and have a look.

The El offers a great way to see neighbourhoods, amazing engineering, old industrial areas and new developments, and although we did not have the benefit of a guide from the History Museum (this time) we rode out and back, peering into apartments, spotting the most unusual fence ornamentation, admiring idiosyncratic buildings isolated among newer developments and generally nosing around.

Then to Macy’s and the dreaded Shopping; having done our bit for the Chicago economy we could see the lights on Michigan Avenue shining just a little bit brighter, and so illuminated crossed over to the RL bar for a well-deserved refresher.

And so the day went; after a forgettable dinner in a small Thai place way up Halsted we settled in to Enjoy the music at B.L.U.E.S., another really fine venue. Cosy, welcoming and with spectacular music, we just had a ball.

I love this place, and can’t really understand why it isn’t filled to the gunwales with tourists from Winnipeg every weekend. Return airfares start at about $300 (all in), and a good time is guaranteed.

This afternoon I head to Iceland for a day’s meetings tomorrow with Iceland Express who have announced a charter flight to Winnipeg through the summer months. I would love to see this happen, as we have a great expertise in travel to the region, but I can’t help feeling a touch sceptical. The airline industry is facing hardship on a daily basis, and the over-capacity on the Atlantic is driving prices down to unsustainable levels and competition is at its fiercest for years.

To bring a new route, and let’s face it, Reykjavik to Winnipeg is not the most obvious choice to make money on in this environment needs deep pockets and a dedicated team of partners to make it happen. I hope it does, and by tomorrow night will have the assurance that I need to start to aggressively market a tour program to the North Atlantic.

It is truly a gorgeous region, and not only Iceland, but also the Faroe Islands and Greenland offer travellers unique destinations that will not fail to enchant.

So to New York and on to Reykjavik this afternoon, and tomorrow I will enjoy Iceland, as I always do, and in addition to the business at hand, take the opportunity to spend a little time with a couple of old friends. Iceland is, of course, the centre of a new economic tsunami as they face a referendum on the repayment of billions of dollars of savings lost when their banking system melted down.

It is an interesting dilemma; the savers, principally British, only used Icelandic banks to gain a considerably enhanced interest rate. With greater reward comes greater risk, and whether or not that should be indemnified is a good debate.

It is interesting to note that a number of British local governments had also invested their constituents’ money in Iceland in order to gain superior interest rates. Could these be the same local authorities that so unwisely lost millions in the collapse of BCCI (Bank of Credit and Commerce International) in 1990? Surely not, lessons would have been learned.

In banking as in travel as in the rest of life; if a deal appears too good to be true, it probably is.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Flat Tire and the Blues

I don’t really consider myself to be an unlucky traveller, but sometimes fate intervenes. After a week in Winnipeg, it is time to hit the road again, and this time the plan was to spend a weekend in Chicago, listening to the blues, with my mucisian-daughter Katherine; her twenty-first birthday present.

So after a couple of false starts, and adjusted dates this was the weekend. There was, predictably, snow forecast in Chicago, and those of you familiar with O’Hare will know that it only takes a few flakes of snow to send the airport into mayhem.

Partly, I have to inject, one of the results of the contemporary and long-running tragedy called “Airlines in Trouble”, a saga without apparent end, and one that is becoming tiring. One of the tactics employed by the Muscle Carriers is to sub-contract their small feeder and regional flights to other carriers under a sort of franchise agreement; these smaller airlines in turn, are required to operate schedules with so little wiggle-room, that the first sign of delay has a long-lasting konck-on effect. Snow and the biblical summer rain in Chicago do this.

But I digress. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 1235, and despite bad weather in the Windy City, actually arrived in Winnipeg in time to operate; however, they blew a tire on landing, and this takes time to fix. The following flight was actually cancelled, and we finally got away four hours late, and into Chicago at 7.00pm instead of 3.00.

Now if you are heading to Chicago to hear the blues, I can’t recommend Rosa’s Lounge highly enough. It is a fantastic venue, albeit a touch awkward to get to. Wither a twenty-minute ride on the Blue Line to Logan Square or a $20 cab ride from down town will do the trick, but I assure you that it is worth the ride.

We needed to eat first, United Airlines not actually serving a meal on the flight from Winnipeg, and I have to say that pickings were slim. We trudged up the street through the snow, finding little of any interest, other than a very large and jolly woman standing a t a bus stop howling with laughter, and then trudged back, and another block in the other direction.

You will never have to make that mistake, because I can let you know that only a block from Rosa’s is a fabulous restaurant called Tumbao; really fabulous. It is a Puerto Rican joint, and clearly set up for a late night’s dancing. We arrived early, about 9.00 by now, and simply had dinner, and just loved it all; interesting food, great prices and warm hospitality. The odd thing is that although it serves great food, it isn't "really" a restaurant, it is a salsa bar, but perfect for us last night. What more can be said? I will go back.

And so to Rosa’s; a great Blues Bar, seating about 120 at most, in a cosy and comfortable environment; the band was Lil Ed and the Blues Imperals , the music brilliant, and the crowd loving and understanding every minute. Now I don’t haive anything against the House of Blues or the two Blue Chicago joints, but this was the Real Meal Deal. Fun, economical and tightly managed and orchestrated by the Italian owner Tony, whose voice really reminded me of Paolo Conte!
We want to get to Buddy Guy’s tonight, mostly because he himself is playing, but the show is apparently sold out. There are great options though, and trekking up to Kingston Mines is one that we will likely take by about 2.30 am when it starts getting lively. Saturday night in Chicago is great!

So today we have shopping, Unos' pizza, the Field Museum, the Art Institute, wandering the Magnificent Mile, a cocktail at the sumptuous RL bar and dinner to arrange before the music starts. I love this city! It is my favourite American city bar none, and although I know that I will get called on this, if for no other reason than I have not been to them all, but I don’t care! I love getting your emails (Johnson_max@hotmail.com) and will defend Chicago to the hilt.

Time to get away now, and enjoy another day in paradise.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Security and over-reaction

Christmas Day's curious security incident has had some major and important ramifications; security organisations worldwide have introduced some puerile and bizarrely reactive restrictions; (no blankets over one's knees for the last hour of a flight?), and once again a fragile world is tossed into chaos and distrust.

Today it is airline terrorism, but it could so easily have been the economic terrorism that our stock-markets and financial security have inflicted on us so violently in recent times.

I have spent the past couple of weeks in London, and among the pleasures of this wonderful city is the privilege of riding its underground system; the transportation is terrific, but its advertisements are truly works of art and fiction. Knowing that their audience will have a couple of minutes at least to digest the contents of the posters, writers have a glorious canvas with which to work. My favourite this trip was one in a series of contemplative pieces quoting Mahatma Ghandi; "There must be more to life than increasing its speed", he said (or so my memory recalls), and it is a lesson that resonates.

"Speed Kills". An aphorism that we all have heard is as applicable to information and ideas as motor cars.

Terrorism changes the world; be it Islamic, economic, biologic or simply the playground meanness of children, terrorists hurt. Much of the world has changed through terror; hundreds of thousands of lives have been irreparably damaged, families’ plans and hopes thrown into chaos and relationships between governments, business and the populations at large fractured by a deep distrust.

Of the many people I am privileged to know, I think of Ia, Sigfus and Caetano. All bright, capable, hard-working and successful, and now, they suddenly find themselves in a new and undefined world.

Ia is the general manager of a fine travel company in Georgia. I had dinner with her one lovely evening in July overlooking the gorgeous old-town of Tbilisi. Life was good; the travel business building, the country’s infrastructure emerging strongly and the democratic institutions that we take for granted taking root. Three weeks later, the Russians invaded and her life altered overnight. In an email yesterday she told of the school next to her office being home to hundreds of refugees, and life in this fascinating Caucasian country on pins and needles. We dined again a couple of weeks ago, and only now, eighteen months after the invasion, life was slowly coming back to a semblance of normalcy.

Sigfus lives in Reykjavik and along with as many as one third of Icelanders lost some or all of their savings and pensions overnight. They see their proud island nation now coming under the austere hand of the International Monetary Fund, and the death of their proud currency, the Icelandic Kronur, imminent. People who work in Iceland in conventional jobs, bank tellers, bus drivers, hotel staff find the value of their wages declining by the day; inflation will take its inevitable toll, and with an economy as small as Iceland’s it will be a very hard process for everyone. No cash, banks frozen, savings gone and prices of all imported goods (which means everything but fish and geothermal energy) rising faster than one can imagine form a very distressing future. On Monday next week, we will meet in Iceland, and I am sure that his indomitable Viking spirit will shine through issues that none of us who live cushy lives in North America can possibly understand.

I have known Caetano for over forty years; he lives in a small town in Portugal and has sunk his savings, time and life into his restaurant, the Restaurant Mare in Sesimbra, some thirty miles from Lisbon. The Portuguese economy was fuelled by the intoxicating mixture of the Euro and reconstruction funds from their European Union membership, and for years cash and the inevitable credit coursed through the country’s economic veins. And then it stopped; almost overnight credit ran out some two years ago. The local market for evening diners waned, and only the foreigners remained; now this market is fading fast, and Caetano’s hopes and dreams lie dimming.

While we look at the world’s economic woes and think of the opportunities now for “cheap” travel, we must remember that the drop in prices that so attract us are being paid for by many others whose lives have been so rudely interrupted by these global events. For every privilege in life there is a counter-balancing responsibility; there is a yin for every yang. In this case, it appears, our privilege is being paid for by a lot of innocent victims of this economic and territorial tsunami.