Weekly Roundup, Friday 13 January, 2012

Although increasingly common in Pyongyang, elsewhere many North Koreans have never seen a digital camera. These children react with amazement at seeing their pictures instantly appear on the screen.

Good morning

A special hello this week to the Department of Homeland Security’s Social Networking/Media Monitoring Capability and the undoubtedly fine people who staff it.

Being as how you monitor blogs that cover bird flu, news and activity to do with our borders, drug trafficking and cyber crime, I guess that means you look forward to your Friday morning read of The Travel Insider, the same as the rest of us.

But, you know guys, there’s something slightly creepy at the thought that in this free country with its first amendment, government employees are being paid good money to read, store, and who knows what else the material that I write, along with material from other known ‘subversive’ sites that you admit to also monitoring, ranging from The Drudge Report to The Huffington Post, to say nothing of – oh my gosh – all of Twitter and Facebook.

No wonder you also monitor YouTube.  Anything for a bit of light relief after wading through the dreck that fills Twitter and Facebook, eh?  If you’d like suggestions for some fun YouTube videos, reach out and let me know.

But – do me a favor in return.  When I hold this year’s annual fundraising drive, perhaps you could give a little back?  Or, at the very least, click on the occasional advertisement on the site.  Maybe even come on one of our tours – you might find some valuable learning opportunities if you come on the North Korean tour, for sure.

More details about the DHS monitoring can be seen here (and lots of other places too).  I guess that while you’re great at searching out other people’s secrets, you’re not too good at keeping your own?

We’ve plenty more stuff for everyone, not just the DHS, in both this roundup and the three short feature items that follow it.

  • North Korean Tour Nearly Full
  • Sneak Preview of Black Sea Cruise
  • Airlines Get Smart in Upselling
  • A Bizarre Airline Experience
  • A New Surcharge that makes Fuel Surcharges Look Fair
  • Boeing vs Airbus in 2011
  • Tourism Executive Fired for Telling the Truth
  • More Tourism Truth Telling
  • This Week’s Security Horror Story
  • MLK Day, NPS Celebration
One of the renowned Pyongyang traffic ladies, assiduously directing largely non-existent traffic. Is it just me, or does the poster in the background look amazingly similar to a Lenin/Stalin era Russian poster?

North Korean Tour Nearly Full

I introduced our September North Korean tour last Friday morning, and couldn’t guess if it would prove wildly popular, or if it would be shunned and a total failure.

It is proving to be wildly popular.

As of Thursday this week, we have already received 18 deposits from people eager to visit this very different part of the world, and I know there are at least three more deposit checks in the mail.  I’ve managed to secure a few more spaces to allow a few more of you to participate in this tour – it is very unlikely I’ll operate it again in the future, so if you’re thinking of maybe giving yourself a travel experience quite unlike any other, please do let me know as soon as possible.

Based on comments from the people already coming, I’ve also added a new pre-tour option.  There’s now an option to first go to South Korea for three nights.  We’ll do some Seoul city touring, and then we’ll go up to the DMZ and learn about the history and the still current conflicts between the two Koreas, and will get to understand the South Korean perspective of itself and how it sees North Korea.

We’ll repeat the tour to the DMZ as part of our North Korean travels, and not only will we have a chance to hear the other side of the story, and to get some first hand experience of what N Korea is like, but we’ll also have an amazing ‘bookend’ experience – we’ll get to stand on both sides of the DMZ, hopefully within a few feet each time of where we were the other time, albeit having gone ‘the long way around’ rather than just jumping over the line and back again (an act which is strictly verboten by both sides).

Who else do you know who can say they’ve done that?

Some people have been worried about safety issues in North Korea.  Here’s a note earlier this week from Adam Johnson, a Stanford professor and author of a recent book on North Korea :

Much has changed in the DPRK since I went there in 2007, but something that’s still the same is their immense need for hard currency.

Tourism is very important to them, so I can’t imagine them jeopardizing that cash flow by allowing something bad to happen to a visa-holding visitor.  Koreans also have a strong tradition of hospitality to invited guests.

In terms of risk, you should know it’s the safest country in the world when it comes to crime–there is virtually none, since there is only one punishment for infractions.

The only thing you’d have to worry about is a sudden regime change, which I suppose is a risk.  But it’s been a stable (if deeply despotic) government for 60 years.

Realistically, this would not be a good tour for you to join if it is your first time traveling out of the US.  But if you’re an experienced and mature traveler, and are interested in seeing the other side of the Korean story, this promises to be compellingly fascinating.  Here are the details – http://thetravelinsider.info/travel/northkoreatour.htm – please let me know soonest if you wish to join our nearly full group.

I have sent out some 7,000 words of additional information, answered questions and general preparatory background to the tour participants already, and if you’d like to read through this too, let me know and I’ll be pleased to send you a copy.

Sneak Preview of Black Sea Cruise

Final details aren’t yet concluded, but I can tell you to please hold space on your calendars from mid October through the end of October.

Our cruise will go right around the Black Sea, starting in Istanbul, then going to another Turkish port, two stops in Russia, three in Ukraine, one in Bulgaria, and back to Istanbul.

Our ports of call as we cruise around the Black Sea

The cruise itself is 11 nights, from 19th October through to the 30th, and you’ll probably want to allow a bit of traveling time before/after the cruise.

More details next week.

Airlines Get Smart in Upselling

That’s a surprising heading.  Generally airlines have been content to use ‘brute force’ to get you into the highest fare they can hit you with, but here’s an interesting article about how the airlines are drawing on retail psychology and ‘price contextualization’ to encourage you to voluntarily spend a bit more money.

What is price contextualization?  Do read the article so you can better understand how the airlines are evolving in their presentation of fare options to us.  While it might seem like some sort of clever ‘trick’, I’m delighted to see the airlines starting to ado[t some basic marketing and retailing concepts.  If they keep heading down that path, who knows?  Maybe the concept of customer satisfaction might appear on their radar as well.

Here’s another interesting article about a new way for airlines to handle the matter of upgrading passengers on flights.  Air New Zealand (and some other airlines too, I believe) now have a loose type of auction arrangement allowing passengers to name their own price for upgrading.

This is another great idea.  Let the market set the price.  No-one can complain about the price of travel when it is set by auction (except, perhaps, the airline).

Talking about Air New Zealand, it has been named 2011 Airline of the Year in the annual Air Transport World awards.

The slightly strange list of winners also includes Russian airline TransAero for ‘Airline Market Leadership’ and Etihad for best Passenger Service.

Details here.

A Bizarre Airline Experience

Talking about airlines and customer service, there’s a strange story out there at present about a man’s interactions with United checkin staff at San Francisco Airport.  Apparently there was a dispute as to if he’d paid an unaccompanied minor fee, followed by increasing unpleasantness and culminating in a (female) United employee saying ‘I get off work at 9.30 – why don’t you meet me outside’.

It is unclear if this was an invitation for a romantic tryst or a punch up.

The man started recording things much of the way through, so you can hear some of it yourself.  He says that United subsequently offered him $1000 if he took his recording off the internet; thus far, he has refused.

More details here.

A New Surcharge that makes Fuel Surcharges Look Fair

Although the airlines claim to hate high fuel costs, one has to believe they secretly like them.  Sure, they moan and groan about the increased size of their fuel bill when jet fuel goes up in price, but do you ever hear them talk about all the extra revenue they then turn around and take from us in the form of fuel surcharges.

As I regularly calculate, fuel surcharges are massively much greater than the actual extra cost of the fuel the airlines burn to take us places.  Yes, the airlines can actually profit from increased fuel prices they complain about so much.

The EU has just introduced a crazy system of charging airlines for their carbon emissions.  This applies not only to European airlines, but also to airlines flying in and out of Europe.

Some airlines have protested ineffectually.  China’s airlines, on the other hand, have flatly said they refuse to pay the fees (who wants to bet if the EU will now ban all Chinese airlines from flying to Europe or not – my money says no they won’t).

Some airlines have said they will consider reducing or eliminating flights to Europe, and one airline – AirAsia X – has now announced the complete cancellation of all its flights between Kuala Lumpur and Gatwick.

But American carriers have a different idea.  They’ll happily pay the fee, and then charge us, their passengers, for a greater amount than they pass on to the EU.

The whole carbon trading scheme is somewhere between venally corrupt and simply crazy, and I don’t pretend to understand any part of the nonsense underpinning it, or why it is that some countries now opt in to it, while other countries laugh at them for doing so.  So simply suffice it to say that some airlines (United, US Airways, and Delta; American is still ‘studying’ the issue) are planning on charging passengers the full notional cost of these carbon fees which they have deemed to be $3 each way, but for reasons I can’t start to understand, it seems they’ll be able to get as much as 65% – 85% of the carbon permits they need completely for free.

Bottom line?  A study by MIT and part funded by the US government dated December 31 found that if airlines are able to pass to passengers all of the costs of the emission certificates they hand in to EU authorities they will pocket $2.6 billion in extra profit over the next eight years because most of the permits they need will be given to them for free.

Remember that when you start seeing a $6 fee for the EU carbon emissions on your next ticket to Europe.

Boeing vs Airbus in 2011

Boeing has now announced the final figures for its 2011 airplane sales and deliveries.  Airbus is expected to announce its numbers next week.  But preliminary indications are suggesting that Airbus booked gross orders for over 1600 planes, compared to Boeing with a total of  921 gross orders.

A more telling number is usually airplane deliveries.  Order numbers can be fudged any which way, but deliveries are physical matters of fact that have little inherent ambiguity.  By that measure, it seems that Airbus won, with probably 534 planes delivered compared to 477 for Boeing.  This makes it the ninth year in a row that Airbus has delivered more planes than Boeing.

Tourism Executive Fired for Telling the Truth

A Dubrovnik (Croatia) tourism official, the city’s ‘Destination Manager’, was quoted in a local newspaper as complaining that Australian and New Zealand tourists are ‘drunk and crazy’, something that she further asserted was not appropriate for Dubrovnik.

The mayor apparently disagrees – at least with the second part of her statement.  He said that Dubrovnik is an open and free city where all guests are welcome.  He described the lady’s comments as unacceptable, and said he won’t renew her contract.

More Tourism Truth Telling

One of the biggest lies that invariably gets trotted out, somewhere different in the world, every four years, is the claim that hosting the Olympics will give the host nation a massive huge boost to its international tourism business.

Almost without exception, at least for the last twenty years or more, this has generally proven not to be the case.  The biggest part of the lie relates to the always uttered expectation that people traveling to attend the Olympics will then extend their visit and go to all sorts of never-before visited far away uninteresting places in other parts of the host country.

The reality is that most normal ordinary travelers stay well away from any country that is hosting the Olympics, and for much more than the brief two or three week period the Olympics are being staged.  They know the Olympics can be massively disruptive to normal tourism activities, and that all prices for everything zoom up sky high, so the steer well clear of the Olympics and the periods reasonably before and after the actual event as well.  The drop in normal tourism generally more than offsets any boost in Olympic visitors.

As for those people who do travel to see the Olympics, they almost never go anywhere else.  They are there for one reason only – to experience the Olympic Games, and when they’ve spent all the time and money they can afford attending Games events, they then simply go straight back home again.

These optimistic falsehoods are always offered up to justify the truly Olympian cost of hosting the Games.  Oh – there’s another promise that is usually slightly less than fully observed, too – the promise that the special structures built for the Olympics will then provide long term extra facilities for the city in which they’re built – but that’s another story entirely.

In Beijing, hotel occupancy levels were at the lowest level for twelve months during their August 2008 Olympic Games.

The usual impossible promises have of course been excitedly put forward over the last several years since London was awarded the 2012 Olympic Games.  But there is one big difference this time around.  Already – more than half a year before the Opening Ceremony – tourism officials are already admitting that tourism numbers for the year will be no more than the same as last year – a double disappointment because 2012 will also mark the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II, the venerable and venerated head of state of countless British Commonwealth countries.

This article reports on the early burst of realism, but sadly, tourism executives are now falling back on the next big lie/justification :  “Oh yes, so the actual tourist numbers for the Olympics themselves were a disappointment, but not to worry – the longer term benefits of the increased awareness of our city/country as a tourism destination will bring benefits for many years to come’.

This too is a nonsense.  Is London or Britain currently an unknown and under-appreciated destination?  Does the fact they are the 2012 host of the Olympic Games increase your interest in visiting in 2013, 2014, and beyond?

Or for that matter, think backwards.  How many of you learned of Beijing for the first time upon discovering it was hosting the 2008 games?  How many of you have visited China as a result of their hosting the games?

Here’s another question – do you even remember where the 2004 games were held?  If you do, did that event cause you to visit the location in the more than seven years subsequently?

I don’t for the life of me understand how it is that the Olympic Games has become so exorbitantly expensive.  They cost billions of dollars to the host city/country.  Sponsorships add up billions of dollars more in income.  Ticket prices, maybe another billion dollars.  Television broadcasting rights – probably more billions.

So where do all the billions of dollars actually go?  Who benefits?  And why does it have to cost as much as it does?

This Week’s Security Horror Story

Our government refuses to require that we produce ID in order to vote.  But it selectively pounces on us in other places and demands we show ID while refusing to explain the reason for the request.

Is it just me, or is this ever so slightly inconsistent?

The most recent example of this occurred in Leesburg, FL (about 60 miles NW from Orlando – hardly a terrorist hot spot in the country), when officers armed with assault rifles from the Orwellian named ‘Department of Homeland Security’ (hi, guys, that’s you) conducted a stop and search mission at the local Social Security office.

This is part of their ‘Operation Shield’ – another horrifically Orwellian name that adopts a term completely the opposite of what the operation seems to involve.  These operatives didn’t advise the local Social Security staff of their incipient arrival, and refused to explain why they were there, before leaving again, as suddenly as they arrived, at midday.  More details here.

Is the DHS out of control?  Does it view itself as unanswerable to the people/citizens of the United States?  Are such highly armed paramilitary types doing anything other than subjecting us to interference that is probably not constitutionally supported?  You decide.

In other security news, perhaps we should be encouraged and reassured that not all of the tens of billions of dollars being directed at homeland ‘security’ matters actually impacts much on our lives at all.  Here’s a story about how Cook County, IL managed to waste $45 million in a project that has more allegations of fraud than you’d find in a third world country project, and with a final outcome that saw the complete project abandoned.

Our money.  Well spent.  Not.

MLK Day, NPS Celebration

As you may know, this Monday is variously known as Martin Luther King (or by some people, Robert E Lee) Day, to celebrate the birthday of the person so cited.  A small celebration is being offered by the National Parks Service, which is allowing free access to all 387 national parks across the country for the period 14 – 16 January.

If the weather doesn’t make you want to head to a national park this weekend, don’t worry.  There are other free openings later in the year, too.  These are National Park Week April 21-29, Get Outdoors Day June 9, National Public Lands Day September 29, and the weekend of Veterans Day November 10-12.

I’m out of town all of next week, so the newsletter will be short rather than lengthy on Friday next week.

Until then, please enjoy safe travels, and should you be as lucky as to have Monday off, have a great long weekend too.







1 thought on “Weekly Roundup, Friday 13 January, 2012”

  1. Why am I not surprised that a whiff of scandal and corruption is associated with a government project in Cook County?? Its been that way for 100 years.

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