Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Travel Trend Tuesday: War Tourism – Dangerous or Enlightening?

Every time the news comes on these days, there is another story about the horrors in war-torn areas of the world: Israel and the Gaza Strip, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq. These places are in the midst of violence, corruption, destruction and terror. People tuning in around the world – myself included – witness the abhorrence in these countries, and the idea of visiting them moves to the far reaches of our minds. At least for most of us. For some extreme souls, traveling to these countries, especially during war and terrorism, is worth the risk.

A tourist tank in Afghanistan. Credit: Todd Huffman/Flickr
According to Wikipedia, War Tourism is recreational travel to war zones for sightseeing and superficial voyeurism. This is a growing trend in the industry that brings travelers to countries and regions impacted by conflict. These danger zones may not be the soul focus of the trip, but they are part of the package of experiences people get in those countries. It's a new way to see the turmoil. You are no longer hiding behind a television screen, the battles are there in front of you. The area is interesting for people, they become a part of what is happening there, and then they take that experience home with them with unparalleled anecdotes and images to share.

Apparently, this kind of tourism isn't new. It dates back as far as the Civil War – possibly further –  when armies were trailed by spectators. But those incidents were most likely due to people living nearby coming out to watch the battles taking place on their doorsteps. Today, it's more commercialized, more formal. And the internet makes it much more accessible.

The trend is an extreme breed of adventure tourism, which is a type of travel that involves exploration and sometimes risk. For the most part, adventure travel may be any activity that includes two of these three components: a physical activity, a cultural exchange and engagement with nature. Adventure tourism has grown by an average of 65% annually since 2009, according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association, and it is estimated to be worth $263 billion. Now, that category has also grown to include more dangerous trips to war zones and areas of political asperity.

If you're interested in participating in this kind of travel, there are plenty of companies that cater to thrill-seekers, offering itineraries and guided tours to some very offbeat and macabre regions. This article in The Atlantic lists many willing to take travelers to high threat areas or offbeat destinations around the world.

The interesting thing about these kinds of trips is not just that they are considered dangerous, there's no doubt about that, but that they uncover what's going on for people interested in the world around them. This is the world we live in, and fear of that keeps us in the dark about what these countries are all about, their culture, their economies, their beliefs and their attractions. I know it's difficult to imagine walking around areas like these, but there is something to learn from the experiences, and those willing to take a risk can come away with much more than they ever expected.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Fitness Friday: The Rise of Wellness Travel

Vacation is becoming less about just taking a trip somewhere and more about the bettering of oneself through travel. It's not just about getting away for a week or two, relaxing on the beach and taking a break from the stress of every day life–though it is healthy to do that every once and a while. Now, people are taking active steps to wellness while simultaneously enjoying a different destination.

Fitness and wellbeing trips are on the rise, as more and more people take advantage of their time off to get in some much needed exercise. The fact is, most people want to work out, be active, relax, detox, but schedules are so packed with work, social events, family obligations, there's really no time in our everyday lives to get in that well deserved massage or five-mile run (unless you only want to get three hours of sleep).

Vacations provide a set amount of uninterrupted time that you can use to your hearts content, and many people want to maximize it so they can come back feeling rejuvenated. This trend will continue as increasing numbers of people adopt wellness lifestyles that they will want to incorporate into travel. No matter what your intentions–weight loss, stress management, getting in touch with nature, improved levels of fitness or just reconnecting with yourself or your family–there are places and tour packages out there, and many more will be popping up.

Many hotels already offer elements that cater to wellness travelers, such as fitness centers and spa treatments. But recently, major hotel brands have created themed hotels designed specifically for this kind of travel, such as InterContinental Hotel Group's EVEN Hotels, which just launched this year.

A number of start up tour companies have come onto the scene, ready to provide you with one-of-a-kind experiences that will not only get you moving, but will also introduce you to a variety of destinations. If you're looking for a heart-pumping adventure, you can try Discover Fitness and Travel, which takes travelers on bike tours through exotic locations. The tours make stops at local villages, where riders can enjoy city markets and discover the local culture.

As this kind of travel becomes more popular, people will begin to seek out new and exciting locales for their vacations. Yes, you can still have a wellness trip in California or Florida or along the shores of New England and in the deserts of Arizona. Those are all great places for those looking for a budget friendly option. But Gen Xers and aging baby boomers who have more disposable income are eager to go places that really get them away from it all. If you want a place where you can completely unwind, head to Oman, where you can relax and get in touch with nature in the mountains or along the sparkling beaches. Want to detox or enjoy some great yoga? Check out Thailand. Ever considered a trip to the Himalayas or Malaysia? Maybe you should, since these are great places known for their healing practices and connection to nature.

Wellness travel has become more than just a temporary fix, it's turning into a long-term solution to living sedimentary lives. They are no longer a quick weekend trip to the spa or a hiking adventure in the mountains. These trips are turning into annual, week-long excursions where travelers can truly better their bodies and minds, and come back with results that will last much longer than the tans they would have gotten lying on the beach.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Throwback Thursday: The Mountains of Switzerland

On a post-college trek through Europe, my friends and I visited the town of Interlaken, nestled in the heart of the Swiss Alps. This is the kind of place you think of when you think of traditional Swiss cities, with mountain dogs, swiss flags, elaborate wooden houses with colorful accents. Sadly no one dressed in traditional folk costumes, but the dolls in the windows were a decent substitute. But we didn't go to Interlaken just for the scenery–and it is stunning. We went there to test our courage. How you ask? Bungee jumping!

One of the scariest things I've ever done, I must say, but definitely memorable and something we'll all cherish forever. I think back to that trip, and I long for the day I can go back and try some of the many other extreme activities this city is known for. Until then, I'll reminisce with some of these photos.

Monday, July 28, 2014

News Update: TripAdvisor's Latest Purchase, Emirates Stops Flying over Iraq and Airline Profits Soar

TripAdvisor Acquires Online Tours Booking Provider Viator

Skift – July 24, 2014

TripAdvisor made a major acquisition, purchasing online tours and activities booking provider Viator for $200 million. Viator has over 20,000 bookable tours and attractions and more than 600,000 reviews, photos and videos from travelers. The acquisition is expected to close in the fourth quarter, making it the fourth one for TripAdvisor in 2014.

MyTake: TripAdvisor is one of the biggest online review sites, and it offers thousands of planning resources. This acquisition boosts TripAdvisor's offerings, and will make it easier for people to plan their trips and get the most out of their destinations.

Los Alamos Banks on TV Show to Boost Tourism

Skift – July 27, 2014

The new show Manhattan premiered last night, putting a small town in New Mexico in the spotlight. Los Alamos is the backdrop of the show about the Manhattan Project, when scientists and staff members built the first atomic bomb during World War II. Local businesses and residents of the town hope the series will boost tourism, just as the hit series Breaking Bad gave powerful exposure to New Mexico. The series is a combination of fact and fiction, which could draw many history buffs to the city, as well as fans of the show.

MyTake: Movies and television have had a major impact on destination marketing. In fact, sometimes a film or hit TV series convinces people to go somewhere more so than the actual destination's promotions. Breaking Bad was very successful during it's five year run, drawing visitors from places as far as Asia and Europe. When people love a show or movie, they want to connect with it, and going to the place it's filmed or where it supposedly takes place is a way to do that. Tours are designed around these shows, giving people a behind-the-scenes look at the production they love. Institutions and businesses will most likely benefit from Manhattan, as long as it's a successful show. We'll have to wait and see.

Emirates to Stop Flying Over Iraq

The Telegraph – July 28, 2014

Emirates announced that it will no longer allow its planes to fly over Iraq to avoid being targets of Islamic militants. Chief executive Tim Clark said planes would be re-routed along other flight paths so as not be hit by surface-to-air missiles from fighters in the troubled country. This comes in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 tragedy. Another issue that prompted the move was the announcement that the U.S. was looking into whether Isis troops in Iraq had acquired weapons from Syria which are capable of shooting down planes flying at 30,000 feet or more. Clark said he was not comfortable with the situation, especially since the airline makes up the largest number of flights which pass over Isis-held territory with more than 50 a day traveling in and out of British airports.

MyTake: Flight MH17 changed everything. Not only do government intelligence agencies need to better analyze high risk airspace and provide advice, but airlines also need to make changes in order to keep passengers and employees safe. These attacks are now a reality, and with more and more countries in political turmoil, there is a chance it could happen again. Any airline that takes extra measures to avoid flying over these areas will ease passenger fears, since people will continue to fly, especially for work. Travelers are also more likely to trust that airline and will keep flying with them.

TSA Offers Cash for Ideas to Speed Up Screening

LA Times – July 27, 2014

The Transportation Security Administration is seeking ideas on how to move people through security lines quicker, and are even offering rewards totaling up to $15,000 for the best idea. The system as it stands now is first-come, first-serve, but there are so many different travelers going through security, and they all still go through the same lines–for the most part. The TSA will award one prize of $5,000 and others of at least $2,500 for the best ideas. The deadline is August 15.

MyTake: Crowdsourcing has become a useful tool for businesses, and now the TSA is utilizing the ideas of everyday people in order to improve the security screening system. This is a smart move by the TSA, especially after the boost in fees last week cast it in a negative light. Now, people see that they want to make the security process easier for travelers, less time consuming and more efficient, and they want to hear from the people it will effect the most. If you have a good idea, you should definitely speak up and submit it. 

Airline Profits Soar

LA Times – July 27, 2014

American Airlines planes © Michael Ainsworth-Dallas News
Many of the nation's biggest airlines reported strong second-quarter profits last week, indicating that the industry may have finally recovered. American Airlines reported $1.46 billion in profit for the quarter, the largest ever for the world's biggest carrier. North American airlines reported an average profit margin of 4.3% so far in 2014, compared with 1.3% for European airlines and 2.6% for airlines from the Middle East according to the International Air Transportation Association. 

MyTake: It's certainly promising to see these kinds of numbers, particularly in an industry where businesses seem to always be in the red. Stable fuel prices and high travel demand certainly helped, and airlines also benefited from keeping seat supply down and prices up, and from continued a la carte-style fees on luggage, priority seating and in-flight amenities. While there is optimism for the rest of the summer, the recent events in the Middle East and Ukraine, could put a damper on travel. If these kinds of events continue, the third quarter may not yield great results.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Travel Trend Tuesday: Travelers Keep Turning to Mobile

© Mediapost
When you're on the road, traveling constantly, your mobile phone or iPad becomes a close friend, keeping you connected, informed and only a finger-swipe away from the answers you need. Travelers' use of personal electronic devices has increased sharply over the last year, as more and more people make smartphones, tablets and mobile apps their go-to travel tools.

In fact, people are so attached to their mobile devices, many are willing to take longer bus or train rides in order to keep using them throughout the trip, according to a study from DePaul's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. No matter what mode of transportation they take, people continue to boost their use of personal electronic devices. The study states that nearly 90% of passengers use electronic devices at some point during their trip.

The mobile shift has had a strong impact on the travel industry, and the latest part of this trend is what travel information company Skift terms the "silent traveler." This person replaces traditional customer service modes with digital options. According to the study:
“The silent traveler is a customer who is conversant and comfortable with online and mobile functionality, all manner of it, and in a first-screen capacity. While the silent traveler undoubtedly turns at times to a dot-com channel…chiefly they are among the individuals for whom tablets and smartphones solve in-destination quandaries much of the time,”
The standard silent traveler tends to skew younger. The survey found that consumers aged 25-34 were most likely (39.6%) to use mobile search and social media "to resolve a travel problem." Mobile's role is even bigger "in-destination," as people use their mobile devices to get local information or make hotel and rental car reservations. This is why HotelTonight has become such a popular app for travelers. It lets people book same-day reservations and view a seven-day window of rate estimates and availability.

So, what can hotels and airlines do to reach this new consumer. A few are already stepping up their mobile initiatives, according to Skift. Delta launched its mobile app over two years ago, and now some 20% of check-ins take place via mobile. Hilton has a mobile platform called Hilton Suggests that lets customers ask questions or send feedback. It also lets the hotel scan social media for any issues at its properties. For Marriott, its mobile check in app has freed up employees to provide a higher-level of in-person service.

The biggest thing brands can do to cater to this demographic is to pay close attention to social media outlets, because that is where most people are going to voice their concerns. Most hotels and airlines have a twitter account and Facebook page, with designated teams that monitor all news feeds and respond to mentions of their company. But it's important to really listen to what the consumer is saying, and guide them to the platforms or tools that will help them with their needs and concerns.

Monday, July 21, 2014

News Update: Crystal Cruises Launches 'Unprecedented' Route, TSA Fees Rise, and the State of Malaysia Airlines

Crystal Cruises Launches 'Unprecedented' Northwest Passage Cruise

Los Angeles Times - July 18, 2014

One of the experiences offered on the first Northwest Passage voyage from Alaska to New York City © Crystal Cruises. 
Crystal Cruises announced its first cruise along the Northwest Passage from Alaska to New York. The 900-mile trip passes through more than 20 waterways, stopping at locations like Canada's Arctic region and Greenland, among others. Crystal will sail the Serenity along the route in 32 days, starting in 2016, making it the first luxury line to follow the passage. The cruise includes hiking, climbing, fishing and even golfing, as well as some "surprise days" for passengers.

MyTake: This is yet another example of travel companies catering to the growing desire for adventure trips. People are eager to try something different and exciting, and Crystal knows that many are willing to pay for an epic adventure such as this. I expect we'll see more cruise companies expanding their offerings to include adventure tour options.

TSA Security Fee Rises

Chicago Tribune - July 21, 2014

The security fee meant to fund the TSA increased today. The fee went up from $2.50 per leg with a $5 cap, to a flat fee of $5.60 per one-way trip with no cap. Basically, a round-trip flight would cost $11.20, but if there are layovers of more than four hours, it will cost more. The question is, does the extra money actually going to the TSA and improved security? TSA officials said they agency isn't getting a revenue hike because Congress directed the money to help reduce the government deficit.

MyTake: If the money were actually going to TSA to streamline the security process and improve the system at airports, I don't think it would be such a big deal. But people are angered by the fact that the industry is already highly taxed, and consumers take the brunt of fees that claim to make flying better. The fact is, security lines at airports continue to be a problem, especially with numerous lanes remaining closed even with hundreds of people waiting. As a result, this fee hike is facing a lot of backlash. Unfortunately, all the complaints probably won't do anything, and the fee will stay the same.

Diagon Alley is the Place to Shop in Orlando

Orlando Sentinel - July 20, 2014

When Universal Studios opened Diagon alley, the new expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it took theme park shopping to the next level. The new area is based on a fictional shopping district from the books/films, and any part of the story fans love is there to purchase, according to industry blogger Jim Hill. The magical shopping complex features just one ride, along with nine shops, a restaurant, an ice cream parlor and a photography studio.

MyTake: Amusement parks are known for their rides, and retail is usually a second thought after food and games. But the idea behind Diagon Alley is to make retail the main attraction, especially since it was such a major part of the series. Harry Potter has such a strong following, it makes sense that people would want to take part of the experience home with them, and they are willing to pay copious amounts of money for these items. I don't deny the commercialization of it all, but people want to immerse themselves in this world, and Diagon Alley allows them to do just that.

What Flight MH17 Means for Malaysia Airlines

TravelPulse - July 18, 2014

After Flight MH17 was apparently shot down by a surface to air missile last week, questions began to arise as to who fired it and if it had something to do with the carrier, Malaysia Airlines. The airline has already experienced another tragic incident this year after Flight 370 disappeared into thin air back in March. The brand was already struggling to maintain its image, and this will certainly have some kind of negative effect on the company, as well as Malaysian tourism. 

MyTake: This was a horrible tragedy that should never have happened. While it was a Malaysia Airlines flight, it was not the airline's fault that this took place. This was completely out of their control, and I think most travelers will take note of that fact. What travelers will be concerned about it flight routes in that region. Many airlines have revamped their flight patterns to avoid flying over Ukraine, but people are still going to be concerned. We might not see people canceling Malaysia flights, but rather any flight that could potentially pass over the war zone. Airlines would be wise to strongly promote the fact that they are not flying over the region, and taking all precautions to avoid it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Throwback Thursday: A Family Reunion in Italy

This weekend, I will be heading back home to Denver for my Dad's birthday (the big 6-0). I'm very excited to see my family again, and be back in Colorado, even if it's just for a couple days. Living so far away makes you really cherish the moments you have with your family, especially since there are fewer and fewer every year.

With this idea of family in mind, I'm including some pictures from a reunion we had in Italy back in 2008. My friends and I were traveling through Europe on our post-college trip, and met up with my parents, grandparents, brother and his two friends, my aunt, uncle and cousins at a villa in Tuscany, where we spent a wonderful week touring the vineyards and small towns of the region. We took a cooking class in Siena, where we learned to make simple, traditional Italian fare; we hiked around the villa and relaxed by the pool; we enjoyed day trips to towns like Montepulciano and Pienza; and spent a full day in Florence touring the Uffizi Gallery, Il Duomo, Piazza de Signoria and Galleria dell' Accademia, home to the famous David sculpture.

It was an incredible trip and I love that I was able to spend it with my family. I hope we can have another reunion like this someday soon, but for now, I'll just reminisce with these pictures.