Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Airline Fuel Surcharges: Time to review ...

With the price of oil dropping like a stone, and airlines posting magnificent profits, is it not about time that we talked about “Fuel Surcharges”?

Airlines introduced these insidious fees in February 2004/5 at a time that the oil price increased from about $50 to $75 in a very shortperiod. The general idea, at least the one proposed to the US regulatory authorities, was that it would be too complex to refile the thousands of airfares so quickly, and that a surcharge could be introduced to combat the huge expenses that such fluctuations in fuel caused.

Fair enough, one might argue, but a surcharge is inherently a temporary measure.

Airlines, like other users of commodities, have means to hedge their exposure to oil cost fluctuations, and should use them to understand their costs accurately. Once the fuel prices had “stabilised”, or at least once the airlines had been given time to get their house in order, the cost of fuel should have been incorporated into the cost of flying, and the “surcharge” abolished. The price of jet fuel has, in fact, declined by 23.3% in North America in the past twelve months, and globally by 27% (source: IATA fuel price analysis/November 28, 2014), yet this farcical “surcharge” remains stubbornly in place.

For carriers, while the price of fuel appeared to be inexorably climbing, folks accepted the additional fee, even though one wondered what the actual airfare included if it did not incorporate the price of gas; now, however, the charge sticks out like a sore thumb, and has absolutely no place as a separate fee on top of the fare.

The fuel surcharge now has become an interesting way for the carriers to play games; corporate discounts, agency performance payments and other marketing strategies are all based on the “airfare”; low airfares allow carriers to place disgraceful advertisements that imply travel at rates that are often only half of the final price. They are, in short, a major player in the airline industry’s arsenal of deceptive sales tactics.

Now, however, with the price of oil reducing to rates that are even forcing gas stations to reduce their pump prices, the airlines should be forced to explain why the surcharge should remain in place, and what the precise financial levels that cause the surcharge are.

Surcharges are, or should be, temporary; they are imposed in response to a specific and rapidly changing economic environment over which they had no control. Now, however, they do have control of their pricing, and at least should let the public know the price that fuel should reach that will trigger its removal.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Travel Agents in an online world

Being a travel agent is a difficult task, at least, being a good travel agent is.

An agent is supposed to keep abreast of the latest trends, every hotel and air carrier on the planet, foreign exchange trends, weather forecasting, potential security issues around the globe, immigration requirements for each end every country and be up-to-date and cheery with the delivery of this knowledge; and always at the lowest price.

Years ago, well, fifteen or so anyway, travel agents, like practitioners of almost every art, needed to know more than their clients about any single transaction. This was not really too difficult, and their role as the gatekeepers between clients and the principals in the business was well established. And then a funny thing happened; more and more information became accessible to the individual and the role of the intermediary became almost obsolete in many fields.

It is true, of course, that unless value is added to a transaction, there is little or no point in paying for the professional services; an accountant who continuously said “That’s a good idea” to each of your suggestions would not last long in that role.

And a funny thing happened in the travel business; the good agents got better, and the poor ones disappeared. Simple, and good for everyone, one would think, but why do so many travellers cringe at the concept of an intermediary when planning their travel?

I shall give you an illustration. Years ago, the most common question that we received was “What is the cheapest ticket to London?” Our answer was always, “Where in London do you want to go?”, and the responses were interesting. Apart from being able to sort passengers onto Heathrow and Gatwick flights according to their answer, a remarkable proportion, nearly 50%, were in fact going to Hull, Cardiff or another variety of UK destinations. Aware that London was a hub for cheap flights, and unaware of the time-geography of the island, they assumed that getting to London inexpensively was sufficient.

As it happens, one can fly to a variety of UK regional airports including Humberside  (for Hull) and Cardiff for only a small additional cost, and many were delighted and flew to their destination happily and with considerably less expense and frustration. Now, however, the question is the same, and the answer from the Binary Net will always be the most economical fare (or quite often, but that is a different matter), and thus completely unaware that their journey could be fare easier they revel in the fact that they “beat the street” and found the lowest fare to a destination to which they really didn’t want to fly.

The web is, of course, a fine tool, but it is not more a tool than the phone system. It is also worth considering that when businesses spend millions developing their websites, it is to maximise their revenue, and not to minimise your expense; and those are completely different questions and requirements.

The web is where much information is housed; little knowledge is there and the key to successful web-use is knowing the correct questions ask. It is a pasteurising environment, with fewer companies, operating under a variety of disguises, selling fewer products.

It is an addictive environment, and a tantalising one where one knows’ that alternatives exist, but tracking them down and using them as building blocks for your vacation or business trip can be difficult.

And, of course, you won’t miss what you never knew existed.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Munich Airport; a stopover hotel with a difference.

Munich airport is a fine place, and as such, I try to use it as my primary connection point in Europe. For a variety of reasons, I have spent more nights in hotel rooms by airports in the past couple of years that I would normally choose, and the offers from airport to airport vary tremendously, and Munich is no exception.

There are often convenient, but hideously expensive on-airport properties, and then there is the option of travelling into town. This can vary in complexity and cost from Narita airport which lies some 90 kms from Tokyo to London’s Heathrow airport, only 15 minutes (and an eye-watering £20) from the center of the city.

A couple of days ago I needed to overnight in Munich, and unwilling to pay the €300 requested by the Kempinski or head into the city, I looked for a close-by option. It is a lovely hotel, and I have enjoyed staying there in the past, but €300 is a touch steep.

The small town of Neufarhn is only thirteen kms from the airport, and much of that seemed to be spent driving around the runways, and some seven minutes later, with the taxi hitting speeds of 150 km, and the meter whizzing around at a considerable speed, we screeched to a halt by the Gasthaus Gumberger; shaking from the experience and €27 poorer I checked into the property and absolutely loved it.

It was a fairly substantial hotel, and bed & breakfast (a single room) was €99. A comfortable room, an ample dinner at their convivial restaurant and friendly staff were exactly what I wanted. The following morning, however, with more time to spend returning to the airport, I decided to take the train, an option that had eluded me on the previous evening.

The station was a fifteen minute walk from the property, and from there the S1 runs every twenty minutes to the airport for a mere €1.30; I noticed that there was, in fact, another hotel, the Hotel Maisberger adjacent to the station, and at €65 - 85 per night, a fine option, and one that I shall try on my next overnight in Munich.

There are many options like this for spending the night at airports, and many comfortable properties that are completely unlike the soulless airport chain hotels. There are even chain-hotels that are so spectacularly well placed (The Premier Inn at Gatwick), that one can overlook their lack of charm.

It is, however, worth doing a little research before charging on-line to take booking.com’s  lowest priced airport option.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Scotland; all fun and games

Scotland is a truly peculiar destination, and touring in Scotland - its Highlands, its Lowlands, its cities or its islands offer visitors more variety than one can shake a proverbial stick at.

It is also, one of those countries that virtually every visitor believes that they know before they arrive; they know because, as the Scots themselves say “Everyone in the world is either Scottish or wishes that they were”; an exaggeration, perhaps, but there is certainly something in this remarkable place for everyone, and most of the jewels need a little fossicking. 

I have been fortunate to have been here many, many times. The first visit was back in about 1972 when, infatuated with a Scottish girl who I had met on a school cruise, I decided to hitch-hike to East Lothian to see her. I recall her bewildered parents when I arrived, and Anne herself (for that was her name) was equally bemused to see me turn up at the farm gate early one morning. In those days, of course, there was no internet, and communication was sparse. I did, however, spend an enjoyable few days, and in the timeless way of fathers was introduced to the joys of farming; having arranged my first driving licence (tractors only), and shown me a field to clear, I enjoyed the first few days and then left hitch back to London, some 350 miles to the south. I still have the licence.

In subsequent years, my visits have taken me in more comfort at times, and from the gorgeous rolling hills and ineffaceable sense of time in The Borders to the remote islands of Shetland, I have travelled the length and breadth of the country.

The islands of the north and west are communities unto themselves; the remote isles of Shetland slowly reviving an identity in the 21st century are most interesting. They are easily accessible either by air or through the splendid services of Northlink, a ferry company serving Orkney and Shetland from Aberdeen. And these islands, steeped in the history of the Vikings, and home to some of Europe’s finest archaeological sites are to be savoured.

In almost complete contrast the rigged islands of the Outer Hebrides are exercises in stoicism, visible in the architecture of everything from the small stone crofts to the concrete bus shelters designed to withstand some mighty gales; there are thriving communities and there are abandoned communities, and one, an island some fifty miles of the western shore was abandoned in the 1930s after hundreds of years of habitation.

A bus shelter on Lewis

The island, St. Kilda, has to be one of the most evocative places that I have visited; it has given its name to the suburb of Melbourne, founded by some of the first St. Kildans to emigrate away from their brutal life of bird catching, bird plucking and bird eating on an isolated, windy and craggy rock in the Atlantic ocean. However it was exactly those features that attracted me to the island, and a few years ago I headed out in a smallish boat to visit Hirta.

Approaching St. Kilda

The Bay on Hirta

Stac Lee and Bororay

The journey took about four hours,  one passenger actually turned a fetching shade of green and spent the whole time on land praying for an airport to be suddenly constructed. It wasn’t, but the weather picked up, and the day on the island was simply gorgeous. Some of the houses on Main Street have been restored by volunteers from the National Trust and somehow the atmosphere of the island still felt inhabited; perhaps by the spirits of the long forgotten islanders, or perhaps from the simple strength of character that has been woven into the island’s fabric during their hundreds of years of harsh tenancy. Whichever it was, I loved the day, and became completely mesmerised by the hundreds of thousands of birds living on the rugged stacks; it was a visit that I would like to repeat.

Main Street
Heading to the Bird Cliffs
 And far from these remote islands, there are hundreds of villages and towns that exude “Scotland”; Dornoch, Huntly, Melrose, Stornoway, Stromness, Brae,  Drymen and so many others are wonderful destinations, and all so easily accessible to visitors wanting to step, just a little, from the beaten path.

And finally, in this note about Scotland, I would be remiss to show my hand, and say that (friends notwithstanding), I prefer Glasgow to Edinburgh! Glasgow is wonderful; heavy, secure, beautiful and with some of the regions greatest museums (a couple of reasonable football teams), fine monuments and terrific restaurants and nightlife. On the other hand, Glaswegians do have a virtually impenetrable accent.

When you visit Scotland, however, be sure to explore; the brands are great, but the soul of the country lies in its depth and lies in the people who live in the remarkable communities that weave the unique fabric that is Scotland.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Scotland; The Northwest in November

Touring in the Scottish Highlands is always a joy, and travelling the far-north of this wonderful destination is always an exercise in surprises.

The scenery is breathtaking, the communities are charming, the food is memorable, accommodation delightful and the weather always a subject of conversation. This trip was no exception, and having decided to spend a few days in the South Of The North Of Scotland, with friends who dwell in Ardgay, I suggested a two-day drive to the north coast.

The A838 - the busy northwestern highway!

I had my reasons; in search of a series of Around Britain driving programs, I needed to find some suitable accommodation and ideas for this part of the country, and besides, I had taken the road from Ullapool around the northwest cape to Durness once before, and it was truly one of themost spectacular roads it has been my privilege to drive.

The Northwest Scottish coast
And so, with accommodation (dog-friendly) arranged at the Borgie Lodge, we set out along the shores of Lochs Shin and More heading to the coast. The sun shone, the copper colours of the fading autumn reflecting in the still waters of the lochs were extraordinary. We stopped to gasp and photograph frequently, and by the time that we reached the “Main Road” at Laxford Bridge, we had completely used up our supply of superlatives, and were almost silent as we headed to Kinlochbervie and the quite remarkable Oldshoremore Beach.
Oleshoremore Beach

Now I drop these names for a reason or two. Firstly, those of you heading to the northwest of Scotland should add them to your must-see list; it is all too easy to pick communities at random, after all, they all look the same on a map, but the cluster of communities at the Rubha na Leacaig (and no, I have no clue what it means) are absolutely delightful. The beaches are superb, if a tad chilly, the villages old and secure in the way that communities many hundreds of years can be, and the atmosphere of the coastline epitomises the region.

It is difficult to quite grasp the lifestyle of sea communities in the far north; obviously fishing and beachcombing are their traditions, but living in such distant and climatically challenging villages makes one perceive the world in a quite different way. I am a tad envious of this perspective, and realising that I am, growing up in the centre of London, as far from a Gaelic seafarer as one can be, look at their lives through rose-tinted glasses. One forgets the danger of the oceans as romantic ideals of the sea flood though one’s mind, and those gorgeous, white-painted cottages that huddle together in the small villages evoke such images that the thought of their heating bills, and drafty stonework rarely impede. In truth, the reality of village life in the distant northwest of Scotland is one of community, and while there are many leaving the region for the comforts and work of the cities, there are many migrating the other way in search of a less stressful existence; one can only hope that each find their own peace.

And so, after letting the dogs run and splash on the beach, we continued north along the now single-tracked road to Durness.

Oldmoreshore Beach
Access to Cape Wrath, the most northwesterly point of the UK is by ferry across the Kyle of Durness which operates somewhat eccentrically. In the off-season, which is now, it operates according to the weather, and only by going to the ferry point and reading the instructions can one get an idea of the possibility of sailing. Yesterday, it simply said “No Sailing Today”, so that was that. We returned to Durness for a sandwich and continued along the coast to Tongue.

Pocan Smoo
The road is truly extraordinary; one jumps hundreds of millions of years at the turn of Loch Eriboll where we are informed that the lands on either side of this waterway are from different millennia, and one can see a dramatic change in the agriculture and features of the land. As we continued from here, the land became flatter and intermittently there were more cattle grazing, and more frequently huge stags peering at us from their vantage points in the moorlands.

Sunset at Loch Hope
And so we continued until dark, which came at precisely 4.11pm, a touch early, and an impediment to full-on sightseeing, but for us it was ideal, and time to enjoy the hospitality of the Borgie Lodge, our destination for the night.

It was, and probably still is a slightly unusual place; rated with four stars by the Scottish Tourist Board, two stars by the AA, and by us as a mixture of the spectrum of stars that we could imagine. More about The Lodge in due course.

Sunset from the causeway at Tongue

Friday, October 31, 2014

Georgia in the Caucasus: Travelling with Journalists

As you probably know, Georgia, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, is one of my favourite countries in the world. Tbilisi, its capital enchants, Svaneti and Tusheti are two mountainous regions beyond description and the wine-growing region of Kakheti and its gorgeous community of Sighnaghi are utterly wonderful.

However, one sometimes gets to believe one’s own rhetoric, and faced with the critical eyes of an audience unseduced by its charms sometimes one’s loves shatter and fade.

And such was the worry when I agreed to arrange a group tour of Georgia for a dozen North American journalists last month.

We met at Tbilisi airport in the wee hours of the morning; most flights to/from Europe whizz in and out between 3.00 and 5.00am, and although the Georgians are quite used to this eccentricity, it comes as a bit of a shock to newcomers. However, whisked off to our hotel, and allowed a restorative six hours sleep, we were duly shaken from our reveries and taken for our morning (well, noon by now) wine-tasting.

Alaverdi Monastery

The wine is good too; with a history of making wine in clay qvevris for 8,000 years, they have learned a thing or two, and it was a joy to see the cheeks of my hard-nosed scribes start to shine with their new found friends in Georgian wines.
Wine is to Georgians so much more than an alcoholic drink. It is one of the very strands that combine with religion, language and history to create the fabric of this most interesting and hospitable country. The vine is a symbol of the nation; when Christianity was originally brought to Georgia in the fourth century by the remarkable woman, St. Nino, her cross was made from twisted vines. She must have been a remarkable personality, for the Queen of the time, Queen Nana requested a meeting, and converted to this new religion, and Georgians have never wavered in their belief.
Ikalto Academy

The next days were a most extraordinary journey; we visited ranches, cities, monasteries, convents, a 12th centurywine-making academy, a museum to Stalin, the ancient capital of Mtskheta, the mountains of Svaneti, the UNESCO heritage village of Ushguli in the high Caucasus mountains, a partly-restored Soviet Military Spa (where we slept for a night, and delighted in the ephemera of the bar/disco), souvenir shops, two national museums and a bath house. We rode with the best guide in the region, Tamara Natenadze on a tour organised with my colleagues from the best travel company in the region, Living Roots.

The incomparable Tamara

And we had fun. We had surprises, and above all, we had a dozen journalists who were quite astonished that Georgia had been able to remain under the radar for so long. I reminded that that they were, in fact, the radar, and that was why they were here. And so, after a few toasts, and promises of endless friendships and everlasting joy, they left to ponder a most remarkable week.

Georgia is a remarkable country; it has every asset that a destination could want from active winter skiing, both heli-skiing and the more conventional variety to a culture that is fascinating and accessible. It offers opportunities to travel on high mountain roads in 4WD vehicles, go white-water rafting on a number of great rivers and enjoy fine accommodation and a bewildering variety of incredible food and wines.

Georgia is truly a destination to be visited now; it is ready, and is the destination that we all want to visit on our worldly wanderings!

United Airlines; an excercise in indifference

I am a relatively lucky traveller; I usually fly in the pointy end of aircraft, enjoy a great deal of international wandering, and am generally one who floats through airports unscathed.

My baggage, however, is a completely different matter and the complete utter indifference of airline personnel when Bad Things Happen is eye-watering; add to that, the insouciance of the security staff, and a day at the airport can translate into blood-pressure medicine (or alcohol) in short order.

As you might guess, I am at an airport; Toronto, since you ask. At around 10.00pm last evening, Trip Case (God love ‘me) advised me that my 1445 flight to Chicago had been cancelled; the advice coming not from the perpetrator, you might note, but from a third-party.

I called United - never easy, as their voice-recognition-technology seems not to understand British accents saying tricky words like “Yes” or “Rebook my flight”, and managed to get the ticket reissued for a 7.30am departure to Chicago via Toronto. Irritating, but I am on my way.

So, perky as one might image, I arrived at the airport, lied about the weight of my carry-on luggage - well, if I gave it to them, I would likely never see it again - and headed to security. Today, they seemed to take delight in closing one of two lanes just as four of us approached, and thus added a good ten minutes to our line-up as they laughed in the manner of a Halloween Demon at our discomfort; shoes didn't need to be removed, but I did anyhow, and waited as a young screener stared at the image of my luggage for what seemed to be hours, but was in fact only about three minutes; she seemed fascinated, everything a potential threat, each item seemingly new to her experience.

Finally she let it through; I was reprimanded for something or other regarding a pile up of plastic trays that I am sure was not my fault, and dispatched on my way.

More security in Toronto; this time, two young screeners clearly infatuated with each other, and giggling sweetly ignored the pile up of bags until it was pointed out that they could delay their courtship until the coffee break; snarling, they went back to work, and we came to the planes.

I would not have thought that asking to be put on a stand-by list for an earlier flight was a trigger for venom; however, the United check-in agents were so completely dismissive of my request that I immediately left, my tail between my legs to ruminate on why travellers and those working to assist in our passage have become so adversarial.

There must be reasons, but I can’t think of them.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Travellers' Curse

This was not meant to be a miserable post, and I hope that it isn’t, but I was minded to ponder my wanderings after rereading an aphorism in a blog that I follow. It is wildly known as the Travellers' Curse, and appears in many variants, and this is but one.

“The more places you see, the more things you see that appeal to you, but no one place has them all. In fact, each place has a smaller and smaller percentage of the things you love; it drives you, even subconsciously, to keep looking, for a place not that’s perfect (we all know there’s no Shangri-La), but just for a place that’s “just right for you.” But the curse is that the more you experience, the odds of finding “just right” get smaller, not larger. So you keep looking even more, but the more that you see, the harder it gets”. 

This is Part A

I love to travel, and have noticed that as an addiction, travel follows the traditional paths of most compulsions, requiring ever more adventure, ever more frequency and ever more “interesting” places to be.

It is the yellow one 

The case in point is the rather tranquil, if not traditionally beautiful, village of Esperaza in the Languedoc region of the south of France. It is not the most glamorous place that I have visited, but it is a destination that captivates me.

Now, the dining room 

In 2007, I bought an old butcher’s shop in the main street of this unprepossessing town on a complete and utter whim. In fact, it was seen at 11.00am, purchased by 1.00pm and by 4.00pm that afternoon we were flying back to Canada; why we did this most reckless thing I have absolutely no idea, but I am delighted that we did.

For some reason, Esperaza ticks more of my boxes than most places; it is lovely, quiet (apart from the periodic concerts in the main square), and nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees ninety minutes from the sea. It is in an area steeped in mythology, Rennes le Chateau is visible from my “office” as I type this, and the belief system of the Cathars still holds many adherents, as do a multitude of unorthodox spiritual beliefs.

It is an area of spectacular walks, remote castles, a river that is ideal for rafting and kayaking, opportunities for horseback riding, medieval markets and beyond all, some quite delightful and fascinating people.

And, because people and relationships are the most important facet of any destination and any journey they form Part B of the Travellers' Curse.

The more you travel, the more numerous and profoundly varied the relationships you will have. However, the more people you meet, the more diffused your time is with any of them, and as you cannot travel with them all all of the time, it becomes harder to develop deep relationships. Yet as one keeps traveling and meeting amazing people, it feels fulfilling; eventually, of course, you miss them all, although many have all but forgotten who you are!
Then you make up for it by staying put somewhere long enough to develop roots and cultivate stronger relationships, but these people will never know what you know or see what you’ve seen, and you will always feel a tinge of separation, and you will want to tell your stories just a little bit more often than they will want to hear them.
Another road trip seems to be the only answer”

Now, I don’t want this to sound melancholy, and I am not sitting here wringing my hands, but it is an interesting phenomenon, and one that frequent travellers know well. It has to be said, however, that few get to the point of permanent vagabonding, and most of us have real roots to which to return.


 But I digress; the spectrum of people in Esperaza is astonishing, and offers a warm and varied posse to join. Part of the reason is the simple variety; as we make friends at home there is more often a common denominator of education, work or children. None of these criteria come to play as you meet other wanderers in later life, and the spectrum of friends can be quite delightful.

And, as one can see from the images of folks trying to seek solace in passing companionship, travelling can be a lonely affair.

Above all, this curious confluence of people, beauty, access (Barcelona is only three hours away, and the redoubtable Ryanair can whisk one to London from the airport forty-five minutes away on a daily basis), activity and the important fact that they make a very nice drop of wine in these parts, combine to have made us stop and buy a toe-hold without a second thought.

I do look forward to returning to Winnipeg, but am grateful for the friends that I have in Esperaza, London, Tbilisi and so many others scattered around this fascinating world of ours.

Xinalic, Azerbaijan - hospitality and friendship are everywhere

And certainly, without Facebook, keeping in touch would be very difficult indeed!

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Great British Coast

The Great British coastline is a most unusual and interesting place.

It is long; 11,073 miles, with a “wiggliness” factor, more properly known as the Hausdorff Dimension of 1.25. This is wiggly indeed, and by comparison, the Australian coast measures 1.17, and the South African coastline a baby-smooth 1.02.

I am not sure who spends their life calculating the relative wiggliness of coastlines, but some do, and we are grateful for their efforts.

It is a coast that offers power stations, towering cliffs, retirement homes, smuggler’s inns, jagged rocks, smooth sand and genteel hotels; it offer walkers a variety of paths for everyone from the fittest to those in self-propelled chairs, and above all, offers a glimpse into the very soul of British Life.

Islands are different, and although it is easy to forget that the United Kingdom is an island (or collection of islands), when stuck in London, or on the Motorway driving to The North, it is a fact that nowhere in the kingdom is more than 70 miles from the sea, and most places are considerably closer than that; sea air is in the lungs of the country, and a day-at-the-seaside an inalienable right.

The towns that dot the south coast, which is pretty well one conurbation from Dover to Southampton, are of  varying character and charm; one have no charm, but it does vary. Towns vary in prosperity, upkeep, beach quality, accommodation and access to London. They vary wildly in the amenities offered to passing travellers, and the crowds in the various cafes and bars along the coast well exemplify the very precise market from which they draw their admirers.

And it is a timeless land; one in which bathing huts (or Chalets) are rented for generations, and within their twenty square feet have seen hundreds of family gatherings, events and picnics; they are decorated, some spectacularly, some diligently; some have a split level door at the front in the manner of a stable, with often their two senior residents sitting, warmly dressed, gazing out over the sea for hours at a time.

British people really do play on the beach in fouls weather; their patch slightly protected by a wind -break, their heads protected by knotted handkerchiefs, and a determination to enjoy their day-at-the-seaside despite all that the elements can throw at them. In sunny weather crowds flock to the coastal towns and wander, swim, gaze, fall in love and eat Fresh Fish; they visit strange museums, collections of lifeboats, shops of the 1950s, fishermen, shipwrecks and flower makers abound along the length of the coast as each small town tries to find its defining key, and one that will unlock the wondrous wealth of the Tourist Trade.

Accommodation, ranging from small bed & breakfasts, (“Well young Julie left for university, so we bought a new wardrobe for her room, and you can get a lovely view of the sea if you hang out of the window, just at the right angle….. no, not like that, dear …”) to a myriad of Guesthouses, principally bed & breakfasts in much larger homes, and hotels of every star and stripe.

The fine hotels of Bournemouth, Brighton and other such upmarket towns jostle with the small one-star properties, those of wire coat-hangers, tea stains, and electrically charged nylon bed covers, for space in the accommodation guides, and while there is always an element of “Buyer Beware” at any level of the accommodation spectrum, there will be somewhere to suit every taste.

The British coast is quite lovely, and my recent glimpse of it at Gravesend and Hastings has made me want to explore more.

I will head to visit the starkly beautiful north-east with their hard fishing towns and deeply rooted communities who face the North Sea in all of its moods; I will visit the Cornish and Devon coastline, and find a lovely snug hotel for a base to take some walks along the unique westerly cliffs and beaches; I shall head to the west of Wales, and explore some of the remote villages of the remote LlynPeninsular, and of course, the wild and dramatic Scottish coastlines of the west north and east.

I can’t wait to get started!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Irregular Operations: UA 972 / September 17

We have all been on flights where things go wrong; in fact, given the complexity of aircraft and their scheduling issues and the millions of passengers that travel each day, it is a wonder that things go wrong on a more regular basis.

But last night they did, and boy did the Air Traveller Gods send their thunderbolts down upon us.

I was flying on a United Airlines run from Chicago to Brussels with an onward connection to Toulouse; I was flying in First Class on an Aeroplan reward ticket. I had one meeting in Toulouse, and was then booked to fly to London on the 18th at 0850 on a separate British Airways ticket
Two hours after departing Chicago, a child was taken ill on the plane, and we diverted to Bangor, Maine to get the poor little tyke to hospital; this was unscheduled, but happens from time to time. We then departed from Bangor to fly the remaining six hours to the Belgian capital, and all was well. I fell asleep and dreamed of constructing tourist accommodation units in Georgia, a project that seemed to take on the most peculiar for as dream-projects are apt to do.

However, waking up some hours later I saw that the flight map had become corrupted or we were heading back to Chicago, which we were. A fault with the rudder, sufficiently serious to prevent a trans-oceanic flight, but not serious enough to prevent us turning around, was blamed, and that was that until we landed at O’Hare airport exactly twelve hours after we had departed.

And this is where it all started to tumble.

United Customer Service was absolutely and utterly dreadful; they sent a team of unqualified people to handle the rerouting requirements of 280 feisty and not unanimously jolly passengers. I was fortunate and reached the front of the line immediately and was presented with new boarding passes and curiously, a hotel voucher for a cheap hotel that lies $50 by taxi away from the airport.
I told the service agent that because of the delay, I no longer needed to travel to Toulouse, and could they simply put me on one of their three non-stops to London that day.

They could not because:
  •   I had a ticket to Toulouse and not London
  •    It was “free”
  •    It was Air Canada and they couldn't touch it
  •    The agent hadn't done any ticketing for over a year
  •    She was actually a gate agent in charge of an 0630 departure, and would be “written up” if her   dawdling in the customer service centre caused her to delay that flight.

I reminded them that:

  •  Although I had a ticket to Toulouse, they had failed to deliver me there and some give and      take would be appropriate.
  •    It would cost them less to only send me to London
  •  The ticket was not “free”; it was paid for in a currency to which they subscribe, and earned    by doing a substantial amount of business with their “partners”
  •    Air Canada and they were all part of a happy family called Star Alliance and she could, by a  magical process called “fimming” reissue these coupons
  •    Not much had changed in the world of ticketing in the past year, and if she had to get a flight     out at 0630, why was she behind this counter at all?

She then left, giving the file to a delightful but terribly soft spoken agent, and as the volume audibly increased as the remaining passengers were beginning to get a bit peaky.
  • She now pointed out that:
  •  There was no First Class space, and
  •  Even if there was, I could not get it because award tickets had to be booked in a particular “bucket” of seats of which there were none.
  •  Would $7 worth of meal vouchers suffice, and she could get a closer hotel.
  •   And finally, how did I know what a FIM was?

I retorted that:
  • I could see on my handy United Airlines App that there was a seat in First Class at 1825 if she looked closely and that
  • I fully realised that award tickets were booked in a particular “bucket”, but so was everybody else’s, and these were not available either. So I would be most agreeable if she would simply rebook me in First and I would be on my way.
  • $7 would hardly quench my thirst, but if that was it, I would be prepared to overlook this slight.
  • and finally, FIMs are my trump card.
Her defence was now tumbling and she pointed out that
  •  It would be impossible to reroute my bags which were already tagged to London

I pointed out that
  • A month or so previously my bags had been tagged to London, but that they went to Hong Kong instead, so I really didn't have much faith in their systems anyhow; and in any case, I would go downstairs once that issued my new boarding pass and talk to the baggage folks myself.
  • I was still holding the seat to London that I had slyly booked as a precaution.

She now reissued my ticket, in First Class to London as requested, I went downstairs and arranged with a delightful baggage agent for mine to be “intercepted” and “redirected” to London. I am not holding my breath, but will report its whereabouts tomorrow.

However, I spent over half an hour at the counter, and getting what I had first requested after thirty wasted minutes of some corporate defence strategy. I have no idea how the remaining passengers got on, but I was told that the line-up was still in place five hours later.

Why oh why, United Airlines, do you send out such incompetent folks; they are all delightful, but only one that I could see, a gentleman reissuing tickets and dispatching passengers with a smile and click of his keyboard onto other carriers with no issue.

We are entitled to decent treatment from competent staff; we are not, after spending twelve hours encapsulated in a faulty Boeing 777 ready to be nickel and dimed to death on straight forward reroutes. Reissuing agents need to know the tools that that they have, and your corporate structure should not rely on the savings made by incorrectly applying guidelines (not rules) to already deeply inconvenienced passengers. 

What possible savings do you make sending passengers to a $66 room in Glenvale (wherever that is) by spending $100 on taxis?

Mechanical issues are inevitable; how you rise to the occasion is an entirely different matter, and on the morning of September 17th, you failed dismally. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

New Orleans, LA

Why on earth I was surprised to have liked New Orleans so much I really don't know. Perhaps it comes from becoming jaded by the homogenisation of North American cities, a phenomenon that is both rapid and sad, or the fact that I have travelled so much in the past year, nothing was ready to surprise me.

But surprise me it did, and I just loved it. It is the sort of place that I would like to rent an apartment for a couple of months one time and see how much of the goodwill, music, love and strength of the Crescent City that I can.

And strength is probably the most vital component. Behind every fa├žade of every local working with tourists, driving, cleaning, serving or simply being there is a story of rebirth, and a struggle with building new lives after the devastating hurricane Katrina. Hurricane damage is now a tourist attraction, at least in wards that have not politely told the government to advise gawking sightseers to "Go Away"; probably in some fruitier vernacular.

It is a tale of broken promises, profiteering banks and builders, of a nine-year struggle between those who had and those who needed; nearly a decade of living in difficult, hot and struggling neighbourhoods by day and looking perky by night for the conventioneers and tourists whose money has been so important in the commercial regeneration of New Orleans.

And I take my hat off to all of the people who make New Orleans the hospitable, imaginative, creative, delightful, loose, friendly, musical delight that the city is.

If you haven't been there yet, go, and double what you would normally tip!

New Orleans is far more French than I had thought; while I was aware of the history (I thought) of the region, I was completely overwhelmed by the Cabildo State Museum; it was worth several hours of exploration to come to a grip with the intricacies of Louisiana's history. Suffice it to say that this history involved a great deal of perseverance, eating, singing, fortune, deception and much pillage; it is a history of peoples working together to create some sort of life in the inhospitable south lands before either penicillin or air-conditioning. And what a culture they formed; one of celebration of many different ancestries, evident in the food, the art, the buildings and of course, the music.

Today the French influence is obvious in the look and feel of the city, the decor and the patois, and the feel of this distinct culture is New Orleans' trump card. To travel here is to feel that one has actually visited a new and exciting destination, and one that is worthy of exploration.

Music seeps through every paving stone in the city, and it is fine! Classical, traditional jazz, contemporary jazz and virtually every genre one might want is in the air, and everyone is welcomed with open arms (and a hint that tipping is not an alien habit).

The massive and delightful New Orleans City Park houses, among other terrific features the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden exhibiting a wonderful collection of contemporary pieces; adjacent to the Museum of Art, the collection is a must for any visitor to the city.

There are terrific local tours of every possible interest! From Plantation Tours to exploration of the local Voodoo scene, there is always somebody with a smile ready to explain yet another local eccentricity. And it is worth taking them all, I think, but to do so, I will need a couple of months, and that will be next year, I hope.

New Orleans is a city that lets you know in no uncertain terms that she is unique, fascinating and to be respected and enjoyed; not a city whose affections should be toyed with lightly.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Away from the blog!

I apologise to all who have written to me and asked why my page has been silent - I am, however, delighted that so many seem to want to read more!

The answer is simple. Since returning from St. Helena, I have been preoccupied with the sale of my company and the transition that these changes involve.

After thirty-five years, I have decided that it is time to have new blood take over the reins of The Great Canadian Travel Company, and let me devote my time to developing new programs, finding new destinations and creating more travel opportunities. So August has been filled with paperwork, briefings, strategic planning and other such cutting-edge pursuits.

And now the initial stage is over, I am coming up seeking air and will start to write again.

I have also started a new consultancy with two very good and quite brilliant friends, Ia Tabagari from Tbilisi, Georgia and Cameron Taylor who lives in Forres, Scotland. We have worked together in the past, and are now looking to develop and work on tourism development projects that will best use the skills that we offer. There are new destinations seeking to grow and develop their tourism profiles, and by working with these destinations and companies we are sure that we will be able to assist them to maintain long-term sustainability and the product integrity that is so vital to community-based tourism.

I will also be looking at the conversion potential of shipping containers to tourism accommodation, and will likely start on some property that I have in Sighnaghi, Eastern Georgia.

No time to be idle! There are many interesting programs out there to be developed and I will have a long association with The Great Canadian Travel Company, a business that has become an integral part of my life and my personality.

So thanks for the emails (max@ttjtourism.com is the new one) and watch this space!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

St. Helena - The Future

Here is where I engage is some crystal-ball gazing, allow myself to snatch snippets of conversation that float aimlessly through the air, reinterpret other conversations and simply draw conclusions from my long, dull and probably erroneous history. In all, my comments may be considered flippant, may prove to be well off the mark, but there again, what else can one expect from a subjective report from a brief visit to St. Helena?

It is clear that the island community of St. Helena is neither going to be abandoned nor allowed to relentlessly decline. It is, after all, home to some 4,000 souls whose lives are dedicated to the island, and in combination with the British citizenship that allows some period of work in the United Kingdom, fosters an economy of sorts and an identity that is strong.

It is, however, in need of significant realignment.

Potentially, there is a major problem from a housing imbalance driven by the economic growth; the local economy, and quite possibly the relative productivity that reinforces salaries of only £4,000 per annum, will not be able to stand up to an onslaught of incomers’ and expatriate’s salaries in the competition for housing.

Quite simply, and this pressure already starting, the likelihood is that two parallel economies will evolve, and it is the responsibility of the local council and DFID to put in place structures that will allow these two groups to co-exist. Without protection, relative prosperity will diverge fast and the delicate social and economic balance so vital for the success of an island community will break down.

There is, of course, a very obvious example, and that isfrom Guernsey; this island of global-bankers living side by side with local tradespeople works in significant part because they have a system of property ownership divided into “local” and “open”; This system allows property to be available in both the global market and for local residents. St. Helena must surely be looking at this issue, and the sooner that structures are put in place the easier the transition to an “airport economy” will be.

I really can’t believe that anybody really thinks that the UK government is spending hundreds of millions of pounds in order to foster visitor numbers. While it is abundantly clear that air service will allow the increase of tourism to a significant degree, the project has to be underpinned by knowledge of or and expectation of military involvement. Remote regions throughout the world have relied on military budgets, the only really massive streams of money that are spent on irrational infrastructure (see Adak), and I don’t see St. Helena being any different.

As Ascension appears to come further under the spell of the American’s, or one or two of their more esoteric departments, and head closer to the isolation now enjoyed by Diego Garcia, it is plausible that the UK government is looking to St. Helena to be a base for the GCHQ interests in the South Atlantic. They would at least bring a really zippy internet connection.

It would, in my opinion, be an interesting future. With a number of well-paying jobs focused on eavesdropping, an airbase from which Britain’s, and most likely Europe’s interests in the mineral and strategic virtues of the South Atlantic may be pursued, St. Helena may be reliably well-placed for the future.

With such a base in place, and air service assured, a tourist industry can well develop. Military operations are considerably more discreet than in the past, and it is likely that a small and highly technical group will create no blight on the landscape of this indescribably beautiful island.

Tourists will love St. Helena; my previous posts have indicated a few of the highlights that I see, but with air access, the number of visitors will increase substantially. The local industry will keep working to synchronise their operational and marketing plans, new opportunities will be identified and filled, the accommodation sector will be rationalised and expanded and other businesses that live symbiotically with tourism will emerge.

At the same time, an air route’s opportunity to export fresh produce will surely be the catalyst required to develop a series of “St. Helena Branded” speciality cheeses, soaps, fragrances, fruits, flowers and many other products that require speedy and reliable access to market.

These are frothy times, indeed.

Life will change, but with planning and local input life will evolve; the two groups involved in the island’s future will need to come to some agreements fast on protecting the dual-income nature of St. Helena, at least for a period of twenty-five to thirty years to allow local residents to catch up, and prevent the spoils of a five-hundred year cultural evolution being sold to the highest bidder.

The island is wonderful; I want to return and spend at least a month learning more about St. Helena, and perhaps filling some minor role in assisting the evolution of the tourism industry. One way or another, I hope to be a part of this magical island’s exciting future.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

St. Helena: the Deep Dark Interior

Creeping through the thick cloud-forest, wishing that I had brought a machete, wiping the rain from my eyes and the perspiration from my face, I was wondering how I had got into this mess. The flora was lush, the tree canopies high and with multiple shades of green; the birds noisy, and wind blowing through the myriad of leaves completing the overwhelming presence of the forest. We were deep into a jungle, periodic glimpses through the vegetation showed hills covered by flax, a thick and useless crop now that the ecologically-inclined planet has moved to plastic. It was getting dark, and only the cynical laughter of the mynah birds penetrated the encroaching darkness.

The St. Helenian Cloud Forest on its side

Of course, by simply turning round and walking a hundred yards back down the riverbank, we reached a bridge and our 4WD Toyota ready to drive us back along the road to town, a town that was on the coast, and about 2 kilometres as the crow (or a mynah bird) would fly. But this is the extraordinary contradiction of St. Helena.

It is an island with a diameter of approximately eight kilometres and the widest point. Cutting across the island, one moves from arid desert to lush pastoral land to heavier flora to cloud forest and back along this same spectrum until one reaches the arid coastline once more.

The Arid Coast and the Lake District
The Gentle Inland

I have absolutely no idea how this happens, but can only surmise that it is a function of the island’s  volcanic heritage, its consequential rugged (and unutterably gorgeous) topography and the mystical powers of wind/sun/rain on this isolated piece of land. Whatever the cause, St. Helena offers a wider variety of landscapes within a small region than one could dream possible.

A Malay Rubber Plant; try putting this next to the one 
in your house to encourage it a little.

One drives through Arizona, and turns a corner into the English Lake District, complete with period houses that would make Jane Austen sigh contentedly.  Continue around the next corner and pass quickly through the Rwandan highlands to Southern France, and finally, on the last kilometre drive down a Faroese Valley to the Arizona coastline. At least, it would be how an Arizonan coast might look if it were not landlocked.

The island is really a paradise for walkers, and there are about twenty different, well-mapped and adequately signed walking paths; from “difficult” challenges, walking along the spine of land linking two major peaks with one foot on each slope, to “easy” walks through the gentle, pastoral countryside there are outings to suit all.

A weird and wonderful grove of hardwood trees

It is a strange countryside in many ways because although there are animals, and the normal atmosphere of the “countryside”, there is little activity. Although there are cows, all milk is imported; there are goats, and have been since the Portuguese introduced them in the 1500s, but not an ounce of chevre; there are fields, but limited vegetables. This lack of agricultural activity is changing slowly, and new efforts are evident. The lack of production is variously explained by “EU regulations”, “UK Government disinterest”, “difficult land to work” and so on; there will be, as always, a grain of truth in each of these problems, but one would think that a remote, apparently fertile and hungry land would have come up with more activity; hopefully they will.

One would, at an amateur glance, feel that there is opportunity to rework some of the flax fields and find a suitable eco-market for the twine produced, and that some cottage industries producing local cheeses and fruit would be successful. The coffee from the island, a direct descendant of the Yemeni beans introduced in 1715, and utterly delicious, should command high prices from the world’s coffee aficionados. There must be more to the tale, but one would imagine that in addition to the tourists that the new airport will accommodate, there is room for exporting some high-value products from St. Helena, and the development of a strong brand to represent St. Helenian products.

An embryonic dairy industry

It is an exciting destination in many ways, and the potential for cottage industry evolution is wonderful to see. One can look to the Orkney Islands to see how a remote community can build a global identity for their locally produced jewelry to see a path from now to then; opportunities are there, and the great positive is that they are available to all without heavy investment requirements.

Building the brand of St. Helena for tourism development is important; by simultaneously developing the brand to accommodate the products that will now find a market from this unique and mysterious destination is even more important.