On The Road: Field Notes From The Wreckage Of Tourism

Oops. Meant to post this last week. It’s column #25 of the On the Road series published monthly at 3 Quarks Daily. This column was published there last Monday. Here is a link to all 25 columns.

 

News from the leisure travel world is worse than grim. More than half of the 16 million travel industry jobs in the United States have been lost. On 14 April last year the TSA processed 2,208,688 air travelers. This year that number was 87,534. 

It’s the same everywhere. Da Nang saw a 98.5 percent year on year drop in visitors over Vietnam’s four day Reunification Day holiday. Ninety nine point nine percent fewer foreign visitors entered Japan in April than a year earlier. Planes are parked and ships are docked.

They outfit the American cruise ship industry in a low key shipbuilding town on the Bay of Bothnia in Finland. Turku shipyards built the world’s biggest floating petri dishes, the 360 meter long ships Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seasfor Royal Caribbean International.

Seventy seven thousand employees, Royal Caribbean had, until a virus as unfriendly to people as plastic to the sea torpedoed its heart, soul and balance sheet in three months flat. Maybe Turku can save its shipyard jobs by building hospital ships; Royal Caribbean may tread choppy water forevermore.

If not by sea, what if by air? Qatar Airways, purveyors of dreamy Qsuites, offers a ticket changeable for anywhere they fly within 5000 miles – at the price of the original booking. You could in theory book a business class flight from Philadelphia to Kyiv for $1600 and change it to Hong Kong. They seem to mean it.

Lest your enthusiasm take flight, Forbes stands ready with a harsh de-icing, predicting “no cabin bags, no lounges, no automatic upgrades, face masks, surgical gloves, self-check-in, self-bag-drop-off, immunity passports, on-the-spot blood tests and sanitation disinfection tunnels” and a four hour check-in process.

I don’t buy it. That’s just too grim, if only because airlines and governments alike are committed to maintaining a viable airline industry. Plus, airlines need you way more than you need them for a change. How about that.

Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Phuket, Thailand’s biggest tourist island, reported no new cases on Monday and Tuesday 11 & 12 May, so on Wednesday 13 May the tourist board petitioned national authorities to reopen right then and there.

Not so fast, the government replied, as they work on a plan for “high-spending visitors from Asian countries to select areas … to avoid 14-day quarantines.” They will “have to provide a health certificate, buy health insurance, and undergo a rapid coronavirus test on arrival.” Nothing like a carefree week at the beach.

Schemes for survival in the travel industry have veered into wishful thinking. AirNorth, Yukon’s airline, with service (in normal times) to Old Crow, Mayo, Watson Lake and beyond, found itself with a largely idle catering facility. For those fortunate to live near Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, it began offering pick up and delivery of airplane food from its Flight Kitchen.

JetBlue thought nostalgia for airplane food might be a thing, too, and in early May began offering delivery of cheese and snack trays, $2.99 for three ounces of mixed cheeses, dried cherries and crackers through Imperfect Foods. Pardon the … delicious irony.

Everything about the road (and flight paths and shipping lanes) ahead is uncertain. The airline trade association IATA, which offers a comprehensive country-by-country map of travel restrictions, argues against countries imposing quarantines, and forecasts, with wistful tear and jutted jaw, that international travel will return to 2019 levels by 2023. Continue reading

Weekend Reading

Just a couple of timely articles for you this weekend, one a pocket history of Irish Catholicism on the occasion of the pope’s visit, called It’s too late. Not even Pope Francis can resurrect Catholic Ireland by Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times, the other Peter Beinart’s explanation of Why Trump Supporters Believe He Is Not Corrupt in The Atlantic. Beinart:

In a forthcoming book titled How Fascism Works, the Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley makes an intriguing claim. “Corruption, to the fascist politician,” he suggests, “is really about the corruption of purity rather than of the law. Officially, the fascist politician’s denunciations of corruption sound like a denunciation of political corruption. But such talk is intended to evoke corruption in the sense of the usurpation of the traditional order.”

Beinart’s thesis is that

for Trump and many of his supporters, corruption means less the violation of law than the violation of established hierarchies….

and he points to Fox News’s prominent coverage of the Mollie Tibbets story on the morning after the Cohen and Manfort court proceedings:

The Iowa murder … signifies the inversion—the corruption—of that “traditional order.” Throughout American history, few notions have been as sacrosanct as the belief that white women must be protected from nonwhite men.

and to Trump supporters’ revulsion at Hillary Clinton:

Clinton’s candidacy threatened traditional gender roles. For many Americans, female ambition—especially in service of a feminist agenda—in and of itself represents a form of corruption.

•••••

It promises to be a lovely pre-fall weekend in southern Appalachia, low humidity, nighttime lows below 60 (15C). Wherever you are I wish you well and I’ll leave you for the week with one more problem to chew on.

Damrak, Amsterdam.

Too much tourism:

Amsterdam edition.
Venice edition.
Prague edition.
Iceland edition. (I write about the scourge of “Puffin Shops” in Out in the Cold, too.)

And it’s not just Europe. There’s the

Thailand edition.
Philippines edition,
USA edition, even an
Adelaide edition.

See you next week.

The Price to Be Paid for Vile Customer Service

When a constituency has been beaten down for long enough a crystallizing moment can prove fatal. Beware tonight, United Airlines. Beaten Down: Airline passengers. Average seat pitch formerly 35 inches, 31 now. Fees, fees and more fees. United Airlines, already last in customer satisfaction, richly deserves the pain coming from it’s just really ugly, unforgivable police action today.

The frowning, sometimes dimly-qualified, testosterone-pumped enforcement cowboys whose gauntlet you must run these days to all the airlines’ friendly skies may wish to think otherwise, but the interior of an airplane is not a war zone. Although you wouldn’t know it on this day.

Honest now, most likely United Airlines chairman Oscar Munoz, like a thousand other captains of industry, kissed his wife and kids and obeyed traffic rules this morning on the way to the office. There is no reason to believe he did anything besides look after his shareholders’ interests right up until, entirely outside his control, an incident occurred on board one of his planes waiting to leave O’Hare airport.

Mr. Munoz’s company needed four of its employees to be somewhere other than Chicago and all of the passengers declined to volunteer their bought and paid for seats for the airline’s benefit.

The airline tried to bargain with its customers. The first offer? $400. No takers. The second? $800. Again, no takers. People gotta go where they gotta go. Interesting to note: rules are, passengers are eligible for up to $1,350 for such a disruption but United Airlines apparently decided not to offer more than $800. They preferred to enlist strong men to haul a paying passenger from his seat instead.

It would appear that in the wake of the incident, after a wavering moment of incipient decency in which Chairman Munoz called the incident “an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” the chairman tilted awry by calling the bumped passenger “disruptive and belligerent.” Said he, the airline agents “were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight.”

Oh, Lordy, whether the passenger was belligerent or not (and none of the emergent videos, see here, here, and here, demonstrate such), this was exactly, precisely, even perversely the wrong response.

The passenger declined to be forcibly bumped from a flight he had paid for with money or airline miles, because the airline thought a better use of his seat was to transport its own employees. (And answer me this, why should police abet the airline in the airline’s wrongdoing?)

A single event won’t usually overtake a career. On this one, Mr. Munoz, who was under fire just last week for denying passage to teenage girls for wearing leggings, just might get caught up in the deluge. Sometimes, a constituency beaten down for long enough will rise up. Sometimes a big enough misstep from the loftiest heights can lead you over the corporate cliff.

Even while I have written just now, I see 2310 new Tweets with the hashtag #United. Since Mr. Munoz kissed his wife and kids this morning, I wonder if he may have kissed his job goodbye.

 

 

The Fire at Chernobyl Is a Real Danger Right Now

chernobyl

Articles with titles like Ukraine Fire Near Chernobyl Disaster Site Brought Under Control create an incorrect impression. They probably mean to reassure by suggesting that the sarcophagus that contains the ruined reactor four is not under threat.

But as I’ve been tweeting this afternoon, it’s not that simple. The forests around the Chernobyl nuclear facility have been irradiated since the event itself in April of 1986, and the forests are still toxic. A study has shown that radioactive cesium 137, for example, with a half life of 30 years, “isn’t disappearing from the environment as quickly as predicted.”

Ukrainian authorities established the exclusion zone in the first place to keep people away from dangerous materials like cesium 137, strontium 90 and others. Visitors to the exclusion zone are made to sign an agreement not to wander into the woods and disturb the ground. We were instructed not even to rest a camera bag on the ground while changing batteries.

Fire needn’t reach the reactor proper to cause the dispersal of cancer causing material. It can be lifted from the forest floor into the air in clouds of smoke from the fire. People in Kyiv, Minsk and rural areas of Ukraine and Belarus must be careful not to breathe smoke from this fire.

New Tibet Travel Troubles. Same Old Story.

You've been thinking about it for years, and of course you've been planning for months. You HAVE to. After painstaking research and dogged persistence through the bureaucracy, you've finally got your Tibet Travel Permit in hand. And now you can't go.

Jokhang

Numerous news sources report that, like they did in 2008 – 2009, Chinese authorities have banned foreign travelers from Tibet.

The move comes after two Tibetans self-immolated on 27 May outside the Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa, pictured above.

Unsettling Weekend Reading

Prison

We've all done trips that were … less fabulous … than others. (Funny: Search "worst travel" on Amazon and the Lonely Planet guide to Ukraine comes in at number twelve.) Let's just say these are trips that involve more trials than, oh, losing your luggage. I can nominate my friend who had to have an emergency appendectomy in the Soviet Union in the mid-80's, for example. No, no, he didn't speak Russian.

Farther along on the scale, maybe, here's the Amazon description of the book The Worst Journey in the World: "hoping that the study of penguin eggs would provide an evolutionary link between birds and reptiles – a group of explorers left Cardiff by boat on an expedition to Antarctica. Not all of them would return. Written by one of its survivors, (this book) tells the moving and dramatic story of the disastrous expedition."

But the really worst worst trip might have been this one. Enjoy reading about it in front of your cozy, warm fireplace this weekend.

•••••

And then there's Cruise Passengers Overboard. Somebody out there has it in for mega-ships even more than me. They describe their site as "a comprehensive list of known cases of persons falling or jumping overboard since 1995. " This thing must take a lot of work. It's up to date as recently as seven days ago.

 

Defeat!

Sumo

How much is just too much for a Japanese budget wonk? 10,000 free airline tickets, apparently.

In an effort to relight the fire under travel to Japan after the Fukushima disaster, the Japan Tourism Agency submitted a budget request for money enough to give away 10,000 tickets. The budget was to have been aproved and applications were to be received by about April this year. To apply, you'd send an essay describing why you'd like to visit and where you'd go.

Just found this on the Tourism Agency web site. It was posted while we were away for the holidays:

"The project titled Fly to Japan! (to offer flight tickets to 10,000 foreigners with high potential to communicate Japan’s attractions), which had been covered in a number of media in autumn this year, was not approved as a governmental draft budget of FY 2012."

And I already had my essay written in my head.

 

Maximizing Your International Travel Dollar

This post bears repeating, because it's a couple of years old so new readers of CS&W probably haven't seen it, it's still as true as ever, and because travel dollars are dearer than ever.

As we wrote in Don't Let "Experts" Tell You Where to Go This Summer,

There are 192 U.N. member states. Kosovo, Taiwan and Vatican City aren’t U.N. members, so add them. Add South Sudan, to be born as the world’s newest country on 9 July. That’s 196 countries, and there are dozens and dozens of territories (Greenland is Danish, Tahiti is French, Aruba is Dutch and so on) and odd bits and specks of land all over the globe. There are plenty of places to choose from….

Keep an open mind. Do your online research. Pick a spot and just go. Buy a ticket, get on the plane, and go see what it’s like. Our world is a great big, sprawling pageant of color and chaos and diversity, and you should go out there and see it."

But use your travel dollars wisely. Now, a reprise from 2009:

•••••

2009Cover Our mailbox is laden with expensive glossy catalogs from high end travel providers. Mountain Travel Sobek, “Celebrating 40 Years of Adventure Travel,” sends a very nicely done 204 page 2009 catalog offering, for a couple of examples:

12 days in Namibia for $7795 per person, starting and ending in Windhoek, including internal airfare and the company of others (price offered is for four or five people). Including Clara and Herb from Cleveland, your close proximity partners for nearly two weeks of Land Rover trips and box lunches, whom you’ll meet on arrival, this epic journey departs from Windhoek twice each year, on Mountain Travel Sobek’s schedule.

Or how about 13 nights in the Republic of Georgia from $3695 (again, not just you, but from 4 – 12 people)? This one starts in Tibilisi, twice a year, again on Mountain Travel Sobek’s schedule.

Not to fault Mountain Travel Sobek. This is what they do. You’ve seen the Perillo Tours ads for travel to Italy? Same thing. You’re buying it? They’re selling it.

So don’t buy it. Do your research and hire local people. They not only have local knowledge, but they’re also often quoting in local money, and the money you spend with them stays local.

My wife Mirja and I flew into Windhoek, for example, by ourselves, and spent a bare fraction of that group price. And it was simple:

Continue reading