Tucked away up a lush green hillside on Jamaica’s north coast, Greenwood Great House is an Aladdin’s cave of antiques. The house was built in 1780 by the Barrett family of Wimpole Street in London, from which the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning is descended.
The Barretts were some of the richest plantation owners in the Caribbean, amassing 84,000 acres of land and 2,000 slaves in Jamaica. But, as I learned on my visit, they were among the more enlightened “plantocracy” of their time, and treated their slaves more humanely than many others. So, during the slave rebellion of 1831, when many great houses were burned down, Greenwood was left alone.
That’s lucky for Bob Betton, an antiques-enthusiast who bought the house in 1976, and also for visitors to Jamaica today, as Greenwood has become one of the Caribbean’s best antique museums, and an intriguing place to learn about colonial history.
I was shown around by Bob himself, who took pride in describing the furniture, paintings, maps and ceramics. These include an original Tiffany lampshade made of glass, the oldest intact library on the island, and a collection of Wedgewood china made for the Barretts with their family crest. There are also old musical instruments, such as a penny-in-the-slot polyphone from the 1800s, which still hammers out a tune.
Things took a supernatural turn in “duppy” corner (meaning “ghost” in Jamaican patois), where there is an oil painting that seems to depict the ghost of a deceased relative, and also a photograph that includes a servant who died several years earlier. “I did some research, to see if it could be simply a double-exposure, but there was no such thing on a camera from that period,” Bob confided.
Not a house to be alone at night in, then. I barely knew whether to believe Bob when he said he and his wife sleep in the grand old wooden beds at night. I was only convinced when he opened up an antique cupboard to reveal an enormous flatscreen TV.
Greenwood is a smaller great house than nearby Rose Hall, but has more to offer in terms of antiques, and is also much quieter. There’s also a pub onsite and beautiful gardens, making it a pretty wedding venue.
One of the highlights was spending a few minutes on the first-floor veranda, which Bob warned me has a tendency to “make you work less”. With an uninterrupted, 180-degree view out across the ocean, I could even see the curvature of the earth - and why the Barrett family might have chosen this spot. Greenwood Great House is open for tours every day between 9am and 6pm, priced at $20.
*Greenwood Great House website: www.greenwoodgreathouse.com
* Visit Jamaica website: www.visitjamaica.com/attractions/greenwood-great-house.aspx
Last week I learnt from a pub quiz that Lego was first conceived in a Danish town called Billund. That same week I discovered from Laurence Logan Lechumanan, deputy director of Tourism Malaysia for the UK and Ireland, that Legoland has opened its first theme park outside of Europe and the US in Malaysia.
The park recently opened in Iskandar, an area of Johor state in the southern part of Peninsula Malaysia, around 220 miles from Kuala Lumpur. The area has become a focus for development with other theme parks planned as well as shopping districts, restaurants and golf courses already in operation.
There is plenty other of the “new” in Malaysia too, such as the world’s tallest twin structure, the sky-scraping Petronas Towers, in Kuala Lumpur. But what makes the destination so special, according to Lechumanan, is the way in which the old and new are blended together, being home to one of the world’s oldest tropical rainforests, for example.
Despite the country offering such variety of product, Lechumanan reported that many agents tend to sell the same hotels and experiences every time. Tourism Malaysia has therefore identified four key themes on which it will focus in its trade marketing this year, to demonstrate the breadth of attractions: islands and beaches, culture and heritage, adventure and nature, and city and luxury.
“Educating the trade is our priority and we have started this by launching online training,” he said. “We are also heading out with TTG On Tour to meet agents face to face and in doing so we hope to understand more about the shortcomings of selling Malaysia.”
One challenge that Lechumanan is already well aware of is the misconception Malaysia is expensive. “In reality there is an array of affordable places to stay both in the cities and among the rainforests and beaches in areas such as Sabah and Sarawak,” he said.
That said, luxury remains a critical sector for the destination too.
“We have a few new properties of this nature brewing at the moment. The interesting thing for the UK market is that Malaysia provides affordable luxury, with visitors able to stay in five-star accommodation for a three-star price,” he claimed.
As TTG’s offices are based on the South Bank, I normally avoid the area like the plague at the weekend. There’s a hotspot around the London Eye, where you find the Sea Life London Aquarium and now the London Dungeons too, opposite the Houses of Parliament, which is always congested, whatever the weather.
Last weekend, however, I braved the crowds to take my nephews to the Aquarium. Aged four and seven, they are at the stage where every fish is a little personality and every shark a villain of cartoon-ish proportions, so they found it fascinating.
Sea Life London is home to more than 600 species, swimming around in two million litres of water. As well as stingrays, turtles, lobster, jelly fish and piranhas, it houses 15 sharks in the Shark Reef Encounter, who are currently breeding. The experience spans three floors, and has a glass walkway, where visitors can walk above species such as blacktip reef, sand tiger and guitar sharks, as they swim inches below.
There are also 10 Gentoo penguins, originally from Antarctica - the only colony of Gentoos in the UK. Their exhibit is specially designed to mimic Antarctic conditions, even down to sunrise and sunset. Through a big glass window, we watched them swimming underwater and waddling about on the “ice flow”. This was a popular attraction, with crowds glued to the window, but they still proved a hit with my nephews.
Sea Life London has an array of hands-on experiences, including the opportunity to snorkel with sharks in the shark tank and hand feed two giant green sea turtles.
We took advantage of one of SeaLife London’s bespoke experiences - a Behind the Scenes tour (adults £24 and children £17 with Attraction World, including entry fee). Introduced in January 2012, the tour visits working areas normally closed to the public, such as the feeding stations, and enables guests to discover how Sea Life cares for the marine and fresh-water species.
Deputy creator Jamie Oliver explains: “Conservation is at the heart of our business, which operates a strategy of breed, rescue and protect no matter what the location of the attraction.”
The Behind the Scenes tour was interesting for me, but my nephews were a little too young to grasp some of the detail. But they enjoyed touching shark teeth, and were amazed to find out that the largest clownfish is always a female and when the female dies, the largest male will change sex to take over the female’s role. Now that would be a shocking end to one of their favourite films, Finding Nemo!
Ahead of the Jersey Food Festival (May 18-26), this was a tasty and timely reminder of the fresh, abundant produce available in Jersey. Jersey Royals have just come into season - 1,500 tons will be exported daily in May. An amazing amount of effort goes into growing them, as they are planted, dug and sorted by hand.
These vegetables, along with dairy produce made from Jersey cows and shellfish, are the three mainstays of food production on the island.
Visitors to the island should look for products carrying the distinctive red “Genuine Jersey” stamp, which is a guarantee of local provenance. John Garter, chief executive of Genuine Jersey Products Association, told me how a ban on the importation of live animals to the island 200 years ago has ensured the purity of the Jersey cow breed.
The industry is also protected from cheap imported milk, so if you have a cuppa in Jersey with cow’s milk, it will have come from an island cow.
“The member marque also helps us identify the food heroes behind the products,” said Garter - people like Darren Stower from Le Mare Wine Estate, who adds chocolate, apple brandy cream liqueur and cider to
the 40,000 bottles of wine he produces annually.
Highlights of Jersey Food Festival week include farm and dairy tours, such as a turbot farm built in a former German bunker and an Ormer hatchery. “Ormer is a sea snail and the most expensive shellfish on the planet,” explained Garter.
Foodies will also be able to join Kazz Padidar, director of Wild Adventures, on a foraging tour. Padidar supplies a number of island chefs with edible plants, including Richard Allen. Throughout May, Allen is serving a special menu at Michelin-star Tassili restaurant, made entirely from Jersey ingredients, including stocks and seasoning, for £49. Dessert is black butter cheesecake - black butter is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s actually a cider-based apple preserve, and a local delicacy.
The recipe for black butter is not one to try at home - the ingredients simmer in a cauldron for 24 hours or more - but that’s just another reason to visit Jersey.
Abigail Challenor talks to Bosnia reps about its burgeoning tourism industry
Coffee. You might associate it with Colombia or Kenya but what about Bosnia? In fact coffee is at the heart of Bosnian culture, and tradition states that when friends come round you should always pour an extra cup in case an unexpected guest turns up.
Last week, Bosnian tourism representatives were in London demonstrating some of this signature hospitality to the UK travel trade over a three-day event.
Snejzana Derviskadic, of Bosnia tourist development agency Firma, told me their aim was to inform key players about Bosnia’s offering with a programme that began with a presentation to media followed by B2B meetings with niche operators.
The developed nature of the UK market means Bosnia can’t use a scattergun approach - instead it is focusing on carefully targeted operators and products. Several tour operators currently feature trips to Bosnia including Exodus with outdoor and activity trips and Regent Holidays, which targets the cultural sector.
But Derviskadic admitted that they haven’t felt ready to push it as a destination for the UK market due to fears of falling short of its high standards.
“Now the product has reached a level that we are confident promoting here,” she said, attributing private sector investment in hotels, development of rural accommodation and certifications for mountain guides and white water rafting guides.
UK market growth
Awareness appears to be on the up. Derviskadic claimed an 11.7% growth in UK visitors year-on-year for 2012 and said further growth could be on the way with investment in accessibility.
The lack of direct flights from the UK can be an obstacle, but the issue should be resolved imminently. “The Bosnian ambassador and the UK ambassador to Bosnia are in talks with a no-frills airline and are hoping to launch a direct route from London to Sarajevo,” Derviskadic said.
It’s not a destination short of attractions. Activities range from hiking, skiing and mountain biking to the more extreme white rapid diving. There’s also a focus on archaeology.
Derviskadic said 2014 was set to be significant with Sarajevo’s 100-year commemoration of the First World War. Events planned include the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra playing at the opening of the reconstructed City Hall, which was destroyed in the war.
Most people go to St Lucia wanting to do nothing more strenuous than sip cocktails and sit on the beach. But double Olympic gold medal winner Daley Thompson (left) is giving fitness fans the perfect excuse to visit the island in November this year, when he is organising the first ever triathlon on the Caribbean isle.
The triathlon will take place on November 23 and competitors can choose between three distances: The Dagger (200m swim, 5km bike, 2.5km run), The Pistol (750m swim, 10km bike, 5km run) and The Cutlass (1,500m swim, 20km bike, 10km run). The swim will take place in Pigeon Island Bay and the run and bike ride will tackle some of the island’s hilly topography.
It was originally Thompson’s idea to stage the triathlon on the island. “I’ve been to St Lucia several times in the past few years and it’s such a pretty place. Everyone is so friendly and it’s a great place to go for an active holiday.”
Source: Caribbean Tourism Organisation
He is organising the event with Human Race founder, and London 2012 Olympic triathlon competition manager, John Lunt and his team. It is also supported by the St Lucia Tourist Board, and Caribtours is offering flight and hotel packages to suit all budgets. Customers booking with the operator will be invited to a pre-race reception, a post-event barbecue and an island cruise. Free bike carriage on the flights is also part of the deal.
Thompson hopes to attract around 500 fitness enthusiasts for the inaugural event - both locals and visitors - and would like it to become an annual fixture. “These things start small and get bigger, and sports tourism is growing,” he said.
Although Thompson said his competitive days were behind him, and he will not race, he will be based in St Lucia before the triathlon and at the start line motivating the athletes. “Just don’t expect me to be leading the karaoke,” he joked.
“St Lucia is a long way to travel for a triathlon so we hope people will stay for at least a week and join us for the build-up. There’ll be ocean swims, sunset cruises and beach barbecues… it’s not the most
At precisely 8 o’clock each evening since 1928, the mournful Last Post bugle call has been played at Menin Gate in Ypres, Flanders, to commemorate those that fell in the Great War of 1914-1918.
July 9, 2015 will mark the 30,000th occasion upon which the Last Post has been sounded at the gate - a date which will form one of the highlights of the Great War Centenary, from 2014-2018.
I caught up with Andrew Daines, UK director of Tourism Flanders-Brussels, who outlined the various projects underway. British and German trenches are being reconstructed near the Memorial Museum of Passchendaele 1917, while a new visitor’s centre at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery will focus on the medical context of the war.
In Ypres, the In Flanders Fields Museum has already been expanded and new technology introduced, with visitors receiving a micro-chipped poppy-bracelet to discover “their fate” in the war.
Tourism Flanders is also a premier partner of World Travel Market for the next two years, and visitors to the London trade show in November will find a pathway of poppies leading them to the Visit Flanders stand, as well as seminars and presentations. “Our partnership with WTM indicates just how high profile the Great War Centenary is,” said Daines. “WTM seemed the perfect fit for us to communicate with the trade about working together,” he added.
Since there will be such massive media coverage in the run up to and during the centenary, agents can expect a surge in interest in the region. “Around 300,000 people come to the Flanders Fields each year, but we predict annual visitor numbers could reach a million during the centenary, so the opportunity for agents is huge,” Daines pointed out.
Agents should look out for online training and fams, and can email trade manager Lisa Thomas on email@example.com for updates.
Daines expects operators such as Leger, Newmarket Holidays, Cresta and Ramblers to ramp up their battle-fields products for the centenary, but military history is not the only reason to visit Flanders. The country also has sandy beaches, canals to cruise on, countryside to walk and cycle through, and Belgium’s famous beers to enjoy on brewery tours. “We also have more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than anywhere in the world, so your clients can be assured of eating well, at reasonable prices,” Daines claimed.
The last time the British and Irish Lions toured Australia, back in 2001, it all came down to the final test of the series, which ended in a narrow defeat for the tourists.
It’s this kind of drama that is helping Lions Rugby Travel sell packages for the forthcoming series, which only happens once every four years, alternating between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Justin Hopwood, head of sales and marketing, explained the enduring appeal of the Lions to me: “This is the last true touring team,” he said. “Other teams play at home - but you can only catch the Lions abroad. It’s a premium top-level sporting event.”
It is expected that 40,000 British and Irish supporters will travel to Australia to follow the nine-match tour there. With a range of packages available, three tests in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, and many choosing to extend their trip to visit friends and explore the country, these are lucrative bookings.
“We have people going for the whole tour, so 48 nights, and then extending another couple of weeks after that,” said Hopwood.
Lions Rugby Travel has three different approaches to selling the tour. There are escorted packages, with staff in attendance throughout; explorer flight and ticket packages, including flights, match tickets and the match day experience; and there are tailor-made options too.
Matches take place at the weekends and Lions Rugby Travel can arrange the mid-week downtime for your clients too. A popular option is Noosa - a beach destination in which to relax and recuperate between matches. It’s also generating interest because the Lions will be based there for a training and recovery week mid-tour.
Other side tours include Cairns and Port Douglas, Hunter Valley and Uluru, and Alice Springs and Uluru, with Hamilton Island also proving popular.
The late-booking trend means there is still availability, but Hopwood urges agents to sell packages now while there is a wider choice for their customers.
Commission applies on a tiered structure. He urges agents selling packages for the first time to contact sales manager Louise Lee for a sales toolkit and to use the website, lionstour.com/travel.
“It’s a great product to sell,” he says. “There’s a huge amount of emotion attached to sports travel. People like to say ‘I was there’.”
If you think of hot-dogs as a simple junk-food, you’ve clearly never had them Guatemalan-style. Served in a toasted bun, and piled high with pickled cabbage, avocado, spicy chilli-coriander sauce and mayonnaise, they are nothing like the limp, pale hot-dogs you might buy from a cart in the street.
I tried my hand at creating my own at a Guatemala Tourist Board (Inguat) event last week, where renowned chef Humberto Dominguez also showed us how to make fish ceviche, tamarind chicken, fillet steak in coffee sauce and cinnamon-infused rice pudding.
You can expect to see and hear more of Inguat in 2013, as the tourist board embarks upon what the Guatemalan embassy described as a “refocusing” on the UK market. “Three or four years ago we had a taxi campaign but have been quieter in the UK since then,” said Henning Droege of the embassy in the UK. “But with our Spanish market impacted by the economy, the UK is now our most important European market, and we now hope to really re-engage with the UK travel trade,” he added.
The number of British visitors to Guatemala grew by 50% in 2012, rising from 6,327 to 9,913, and the tourist board is hopeful of further growth this year. “Guatemala is at the heart of the Mayan world and since the new solar calendar marks such a special moment in our history, it’s an opportunity for us to show the world the richness of our culture and our natural world,” said Inguat subdirector, Maru Acevedo.
With the country being named from an indigenous Nahuatl word meaning “land of many trees”, it’s no surprise to learn that 30% of lush Guatemala is protected land, and that it’s home to 172 species of mammal and more than 700 bird species. As well as visiting ancient Mayan sites, exploring historic Antigua and enjoying the country’s wildlife, clients can also undertake more unusual activities like speleology (caving), ziplining, volcano-climbing and scuba-diving in both lakes and the ocean.
Acevedo confirmed the importance of UK travel agents in selling Guatemala: “Most UK visitors come on organised trips, and many use an agent, so it’s vital for us to engage with UK agents.” Inguat is planning fam trips and training missions for the UK trade, as well as more events like last week’s cooking demonstration. On March 25, Inguat will help launch a new Guatemalan coffee by Starbucks, at an event at The British Museum.
National Geographic magazine claimed earlier this year that Yasuni National Park in Ecuador may be the most biodiverse place on earth. But it’s not a crown Ecuador will wear for long, if a Peruvian conservation organisation has anything to do with it.
Crees is a charitable foundation based in the Manu region of Peru’s rainforest, where visitors can see conservation research and sustainable community development in action. In May, staff and volunteers at Crees plan to undertake their very own “BioBlitz” study to prove that Manu is even more abundant than Yasuni in plant and animal life.
I met with founder Quinn Meyer who is confident Manu will break the record. “I’ve seen 12 different jaguars in the past 16 months for example,” he reported. “That’s got to be the highest recording ever found.”
British-born Meyer established Crees (Conservation Research and Environmental Education Towards Sustainability) in 2002 after witnessing what he describes as the “circle of poverty”, with local communities extracting the forest’s resources through lack of alternative income. “Far too often, wildlife destinations focus on the nature and not the community, but our view of sustainable development is conservation with people in it,” he explained.
As well as educating on sustainable farming and helping local people launch social enterprises such as jewellery-making, Crees runs two lodges that are open to tourists. And as of last October, Crees also offers four tours of Manu, led by its own guides and biologists. All departing from Cuzco, these range from a short three-night overland trip ($660pp) to a 10-night “Complete Manu Wildlife Experience” ($3,000pp). UK operators selling the tours include Audley, Steppes, and Journey Latin America.
With support from Crees, there will once again be a 45-minute scheduled flight from Cuzco to Manu from March 28, saving two days of driving, which is key for Manu’s higher-end, time-short visitors. It’s this kind of visitor Crees is keen to attract, said Meyers, and not just for the revenue they generate. “Many of our visitors are people who have influence, and if they develop a relationship with this ecosystem, it can impact on decisions they make back in the UK,” he claimed. “Ambassadors for the rainforest - that’s what we hope to create.”
A couple of weeks’ back I had a laugh-out-loud night at London’s Comedy Store. I was hosted by Destination Quebec and the occasion was the Montreal Showcase – all the UK comics on the bill were hoping their funny business would impress scouts from the Just for Laughs festival, held in Montreal every July.
Josephine Lazarus, director of tourism, told me the annual event is one of the world’s biggest comedy festivals. She said: “Not only does it host some top comedians, it also gives the city such a great atmosphere. It all takes place in an area that is closed to traffic, with lots of bars and restaurants offering fun entertainment.”
Montreal and Quebec City are both exciting city breaks - Lazarus explained to me that Montreal is a city of neighbourhoods, and visitors should allow at least four days to explore it properly on foot, while Quebec City, a network of cobbled streets contained within original city walls, is more instantly pretty.
Canada is the only other country in the world, apart from England, where you can see the Changing of the Guard. It has been a tradition at Quebec City’s La Citadelle since 1928, carried out by troops in scarlet regimental tunic and bearskin hats: “It’s a peculiarity you wouldn’t expect in Quebec, which is supposed to be French!” said Lazarus.
It doesn’t take long to find adventure outside of Quebec City or Montreal. Just half an hour’s drive from either city, she said, you have already escaped the urban sprawl and within two hours you can be holed up in a comfortable resort, surrounded by 5,000 acres of lakes and mountains. She said: “Some resorts purposefully don’t put TVs in rooms - and after two days in such surroundings, people realise they can live without their smartphone.”
Lazarus said that wildlife, hiking, kayaking and camping experiences were in demand. “We can put agents in touch with Sepaq, a nature and outdoor network, which gives you the facility to book unusual places to stay.”
She was keen for the trade to use the tourist board as a resource. “Lots of agents and tour operators don’t realise they can pick up the phone and call us, if they need advice or help. Consumers need help because Canada is often a complicated itinerary, and the answers may not be at agents’ fingertips.”
Tonko Rilovic, the new UK director of the Croatia National Tourist Office, has come to the role at an exciting time. UK visitor numbers last year were up 30% compared with 2011 and Dubrovnik - the pearl of the Adriatic - is host city for the Abta Travel Convention later this year.
Last year there were nearly 333,000 UK visitors to Croatia, which provided the biggest increase of all European markets. This year, the bar has been raised higher, with 360,000 visitors the target.
An increase in flight capacity will help achieve this, Rilovic assured me. Both Thomson and Jet2.com have doubled their capacity to Croatia, Norwegian Air has introduced Split and Dubrovnik from Gatwick, British Airways relaunched its Zagreb route last December and easyJet is now flying from Edinburgh to Dubrovnik.
Previously executive vice-president at Croatia Airlines, Rilovic has plenty of experience of working with UK tour operators on the destination. Originally from Dubrovnik, he has lived in Zagreb and Amsterdam, and although now based in Hammersmith, London, he still maintains a seaside house on the Istria peninsula.
With more than 40 trails, Istria is the cycling province of Croatia, and the country has plenty more to offer if Abta delegates are looking for a thrilling climax to their Travel Convention trip. It has eight national parks, and Rilovic tells me that adventure tourism is a growing market. Just a few of the options include rafting in Plitvice Lakes National Park, bungee jumping from Maslenica Bridge, paragliding in Tribalj, rock climbing in Paklenica National Park and zip lining in Glavani Park.
Gastronomy is another theme for Croatia. Rilovic advises Abta delegates to try Istria’s rare white truffles, which can be paired with meat, pasta or even ice cream. Also recommended is Maraschino liqueur, made from Zadar’s Marasca cherries. For those looking to do some homework ahead of October’s convention, pop into Marks & Spencers, he advises, where you’ll find home-grown Pilato Malvasia Istarska wine from Croatia - exactly the type of fruity, floral wine he likes to indulge in when he makes it back to Istria.
Fifty years ago Australian Rodney Fox was spearfishing when he was attacked by a great white shark. He was lucky to survive - but the episode led him to design the original shark proof dive cage, and he is now one of the primary advocates for these legendary predators.
Last week I met representatives from Tourism Tasmania, the South Australian Tourist Commission, and Tourism Western Australia on their UK trade mission.
Jennifer Taylor from Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions explained how the company has introduced shorter liveaboard expeditions, from just two nights, designed to appeal to the international market. The trips depart from Port Lincoln on Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, and are run by Rodney’s marine biologist son, Andrew.
I also heard about new tours from the Exmouth Diving Centre, such as a humpback whale-watching sunset tour and land-based snorkelling tours. This company has a 100% sighting guarantee on its whale shark tours. If a customer doesn’t see a whale shark on the day of their tour, they can return for another tour, or they are given a voucher valid for three years.
Tasmania has a new tour, where walkers follow spectacular coastal paths, sleep in a king-size bed under canvas and tuck into fine food and wine. The Bruny Island Long Weekend is a luxury three-day guided tour, departing Hobart waterfront every Friday from January to April.
There is also the new Terrace Hotel just opened in Perth. This former bishop’s residence is a luxury property in the business district. General manager Michael Collins told me that the hotel’s “terrace is the place to be seen, glass of champagne in hand”.
One region that fired my imagination was Geographe Bay in the Margaret River area. Simon Taylor, chief executive of the Geographe Bay Tourism Association, told me about the area’s world-class wine-making. “We produce just 1.5% of Australian wine, but 13% of Australia’s boutique-quality stock,” he said.
A car is essential in this area, to tour the vineyards, artisan workshops and galleries, and to drive along the coast to view Australia’s “humpback highway”. Geographe Bay becomes a nursery from September to December as whale mothers and their young stop in to feed. “You can stand on land and see 100 whales,” Taylor promises.
I’ve never experienced silence like it in my life. There are six of us perched on the sand dune in the Al Qabil Valley in the middle of the Wahiba desert in Oman but no one speaks as the sun slopes lazily behind the sand dunes on the horizon. The sky has gone from brilliant sunshine to a dark spectrum of reds, greens, yellows and blues in less than 20 minutes.
I was staying at the Hud Hud Camp, a luxury pop-up camp that takes tourists dozens of miles into the Wahiba, which is about 150 miles from Oman’s capital Muscat. There lies a taste of true desert seclusion.
All you see for miles around is the occasional Bedouin, their camels, and tiny mouse-like “desert gerbils”, as camp manager Eric Walters of tour operator Hud Hud Travels likes to call them. There’s no light pollution besides the camp’s oil lamps and headlights provided in our five-by-five metre black goat-hair tents.
It’s not all peace and relaxation at the camp though. Earlier, I’d been taken “dune-bashing”, which is a euphemistic way of describing a death-defying 60mph drive during which your car skids wildly at 90-degree angles across the dunes. Guides had also taken us to Dibab Lake Park’s picturesque sinkhole and the ancient mountain tower tombs at Salmah Plateau, which are estimated to be 4,500 years old.
A night at the Hud Hud costs from £575, although there are cheaper, less exclusive camps available.
Oman has marketed itself as the progressive face of the Arabian Gulf - more liberal than neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and more cultural than the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, my desert tour guide Rachid tells me the country’s government has plans to create paved roads to every village and town in the country, which could open up further tourism opportunities. Currently, the state welcomes about 100,000 UK visitors a year.
However, Oman is not a cheap destination and most of the accommodation is stunning five-star hotels such as The Chedi, the Al Bustan Palace and Shangri-La in Muscat. Walters, a Brit who moved to the country nearly a decade ago, told me there was a gap in the market for “simple four-star hotels”.
If Carlsberg made ski resorts, I imagine they’d look rather like Val d’Isere. With picturesque stone and wooden chalets, twinkling Christmas lights, giant snow sculptures and open-fronted cafes serving hot chocolate and mulled wine, I felt like I’d walked into a postcard when I visited the resort in early January.
The first hotel opened in this French village in 1932, and its first ski lift in 1936, but it was after the Second World War that it grew to become one of the world’s best and most popular ski resorts.
It now attracts around 35,000 skiers each year, with a good 10% or more being Mark Warner guests, staying at one of its two hotels in the resort. As Mark Warner’s top-selling resort, the advice is to book early, since peak season sells out quickly.
I stayed at Mark Warner’s Chalet Hotel le Val d’Isere for a week of ski school, and chatted to hotel manager Emma Knights about the resort’s appeal. “Val really does have everything,” she told me. “In addition to great shops, great bars, and great restaurants, it has a huge range of runs for different level-skiers, and when you add in nearby Tigne as well, the ski area is gigantic.”
In fact, Espace Killy (the two resorts combined) likes to describe itself as “the most beautiful skiing area in the world”, and skiers often agree. Val d’Isere is particularly popular with families - a market to which Mark Warner caters well, with its extensive childcare provision.
“Val has lots of other things for families to do apart from skiing too such as husky sleigh rides and ice-skating, and every Thursday they close the street for music and ice-sculpting and stilt-walkers,” Knights pointed out. “So it’s extremely family-friendly.”
Brits make up about 40% of Val d’Isere’s visitors, with the French making up another 40%, though French skiers are turning away from the resort on account of its price-tag. It’s true that Val d’Isere does not come cheap, with only nearby Courchevel and Meribel resorts being more expensive in France.
“Dining out does cost more than you’d ever pay in the UK,” Knights admits. But when guests eat out on Thursday night (the night all hotel staff have off), her top tip is Le Bistrot, “which is good value but also has some of the best food”.
Happiness is the key theme in a rebrand for Fiji. The South Pacific nation, with 333 islands, has the new strapline: “Fiji - where happiness finds you.” UK market representative Jane West updated me on the rebrand last week and explained its rationale: “Fijians are said to be the happiest people on the planet. They are all about family values and they treat every visitor as if they were personally welcoming them into their own home.”
In future, when travellers present their passports at immigration in Fiji, they will be returned with a stamp bearing the words: “Welcome to the happiest place on earth.”
Fiji has certainly pulled in the big guns when it comes to the rebrand.
It has employed the services of photojournalist Steve McCurry to produce a new gallery of promotional images for all to download. And the design agency behind the brand, Colenso BBDO, put together New Zealand’s 10% Pure campaign.
Fiji will use the rebrand as an opportunity to re-educate the trade on Fiji’s location and the network that exists to fly clients there. “Our research showed that people know about Fiji but they don’t know where it is,” said West.
Fiji’s rebrand coincides with a rebrand for the national carrier, Air Pacific, which will be known as Fiji Airways from March. Through Air Pacific’s codeshare agreements with British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific and Air New Zealand among others, visitors bound for Fiji can fly via Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. Seoul is also an option, with Korean Air connections three times a week, while Etihad, via the Middle East and Australian gateways, is the most straightforward option out of Manchester.
West explained: “There are lots of different ways to get to Fiji, but you are looking at a 24-hour flight from the UK, whichever way you look at it.”
Last year it’s estimated that Fiji welcomed 24,500 UK arrivals - half were backpackers and independent travellers but romance and luxury markets were growing, said West.
Among last year’s arrivals were members of Status Quo, who spent April filming Bula Quo in Fiji.
West says: “The Quo play themselves in this movie - they go to Fiji for a gig, witness a crime and it turns into a chase around Fiji. It’s very tongue in cheek, but the cinematography is wonderful.” The film will be launched in August in London.
There aren’t many places left in the world where you can still buy a beer for just 70p. As a non-euro country, Bulgaria’s affordability is a certainly a major selling point, but it can mean travellers underestimate the quality of the product, according to specialist operator Balkan Holidays.
I recently caught up with sales and marketing director Rupert Diggins, who explained that the popularity of family-friendly and party-hard resorts like Sunny Beach and Golden Sands belies Bulgaria’s more refined attractions.
“Agents might not have heard of the country’s Unesco-protected towns, such as Nessebar and Sozopol, but these resorts are perfect for clients who want a smaller, quaint resort - but on a budget,” he claimed.
I was only nine when the Yugoslav wars began in 1992, so I don’t recall the boom-time in the Balkans, when Slovenia, Bulgaria and Croatia were some of the UK’s most popular tourism destinations.
Fighting was over by the end of the 90s, but tourism in the region has never fully recovered. Extra airlift and new tour operator programmes have helped Croatia forge ahead in the past couple of years, but Diggins said Bulgaria has just as much to offer.
“Croatia has become fashionable now, but the beaches, nightlife and cultural sites of Bulgaria are just as good, and cheaper,” he said.
Golf is also on the up in Bulgaria, with three top-class courses recently added on the north coast, and the International Association of Golf Tour Operators voting Bulgaria “undiscovered golf destination of the year” in 2012. Balkan Holidays has recently added golf packages to its website to cater to the interest.
Coming top for value for money in the Post Office’s recent Ski Resort Report has also thrown the ski resort of Bansko into the spotlight, and Balkan Holidays’ winter 2012-13 programme is currently selling 10% up on last season. “Hire of skis, ski passes and ski tuition might cost
£400 in Switzerland, but more like £110-£160 in Bulgaria,” Diggins pointed out. And at 70p a pint, you can bet the apres-ski is a damn sight more affordable, too.
If you asked UK tour operators working in Central Macedonia what’s on their Christmas lists this year, you’d find better ground handling, new marketing initiatives and financial security among their wishes.
Such topics were broached during a lively working lunch, held at the Greek Embassy in London, as part of a series of meetings Central Macedonia has launched to help better sell the destination and broaden perception beyond its best known export, the idyllic beaches of Halkidiki.
Dr Nikolas Hourvouliades, tourism special advisor to the governor of Central Macedonia and a Greek finance PhD, did an admirable job fielding articulate questioning from the likes of Travel a la Carte, Andante Travels and Ramblers Holidays.
Central Macedonia, which is among the less well known of Greece’s 13 administrative divisions, includes three peninsulas that splay off mainland Greece, which offer varied terrains and bags of tourism potential.
Hourvouliades called tourism “the number one priority for Greece” following the reputational damage of media reports of strikes, riots and infrastructure collapse over the past two years since the country’s financial crisis began.
Despite those negative perceptions, Hourvouliades said Central Macedonia received 200,000 UK arrivals in 2011, mainly due to “competitive pricing”.
Further growth could be achieved by promoting niche tourist attractions such as archaeological sites, agricultural tourism and the Eastern Orthodox Christian monasteries of Mount Athos. He added that Central Macedonia contains five ski resorts.
There was concern Greece was expensive compared with other Mediterranean destinations, but Hourvouliades countered by suggesting Central Macedonian prices were favourable compared with Athens and better-marketed island destinations such as Crete or Santorini.
And while marketing budgets are admittedly limited, Hourvouliades said there was a chance for focused campaigns and urged operators to pitch targeted ideas at Greek tourism authorities.
“Things are so critical at the moment that every step we take is very significant. We don’t have the luxury to waste our resources - not only money, but also time, which is so crucial to Greece right now,” he explained.
Did you know that the tiny island of St Barthelemy in the Caribbean was once a Swedish colony? Its capital Gustavia is named after Swedish King Gustav III, and they ruled it for a few years at the end of the Napoleonic wars. St Barth wasn’t much of a catch back then, by all accounts, since it had no natural water sources and the Swedes almost starved to death. Thankfully, the island is much more hospitable to visitors nowadays, and welcomes 300,000 tourists each year.
This was just some of the history I learned at a St Barth dinner last week, held to celebrate the launch of a new Antigua-St Barth service.
St Barth Commuter already operates charter flights into St Barth from nearby islands, but as of December 1, it now flies scheduled services on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, timed to connect with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic flights to Antigua.
At £485 return, even the scheduled flights have a hefty price-tag, but the typical St Barth clientele is unlikely to be deterred. With only around 2,000 hotel rooms and villas combined, it is one of the smallest and most exclusive islands in the Caribbean. Its two highest profile hotels, Eden Rock and Isle de France, are frequently voted some of the best hotels in the Americas, and the French-speaking island is a popular haunt for the likes of tycoon Roman Abramovich.
St Barth’s attractions are its beaches, boutique hotels, restaurants, yacht facilities and sailing regattas. James Daltrey, of local luxury concierge Premium IV, explained that this made the island different from other Caribbean destinations. “Our strapline is, ‘if you think you know the Caribbean, forget everything’. If you want reggae bars and ziplining and 4x4 adventure, you won’t find it here,” he said.
The new scheduled service from St Barth Commuter joins another scheduled Antigua-St Barth flight launched by Tradewind Aviation in October, meaning St Barth is now far more accessible for the UK market. “The St Barth Commuter flight is scheduled for three times a week, but there is an opportunity to increase the market,” said Ines Bouchant-Choisy, director of St Barth Tourism Committee. “We hope it might eventually become a flight per day.”
The now defunct Granita restaurant went down in history when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown struck a power-sharing deal there in 1994. Andrew Coney, the general manager of the new InterContinental London Westminster, has high hopes that similarly historic moments will take place in his hotel, given its close proximity to the political heartland. The design incorporates secret entrances and discrete meeting rooms, providing cover for political plotting.
Last week Coney gave me a tour of the hotel. It was just days away from its soft opening and dozens of workers in high-visibility jackets were cleaning and polishing the interior, ahead of the furniture being moved in.
Coney said the hotel was a “faceless government office building” in its previous incarnation. The building was gutted to give InterContinental a blank canvas and the new design is a nod to the area’s SW1 postcode. The artwork has a satirical, witty edge and the bar names are inspired by history. Blue Boar Bar, the hotel’s pub, is a throwback to a 14th-century Westminster inn, and the cocktail bar is called Emmeline’s, inspired by political activist Emmeline Pankhurst.
Blue Boar Bar has its own entrance on Tothill Street and will sell cask ales from London microbreweries, said Coney. InterContinental has secured permission to have a division bell (rung to summon members to vote in a division) here. He said: “We are training staff in the nuances of political behaviour so they won’t be surprised if the bar suddenly empties when everyone rushes back to parliament.”
Although the hotel is firmly tied to the political heartland, it is also well placed to benefit from regeneration in the Victoria area, with boutiques such as Burberry and Jimmy Choo moving in. Coney also hopes Blue Boar Smokehouse will make an impact on the culinary scene, having employed John Ingram (formerly of the Burj Al Arab) as executive chef.
Coney says the hotel will cater for a wide audience, offering a venue for power breakfasts, cocktail sessions and weekend breaks, with Buckingham Palace and Westminster within easy walking distance. “This is true London to its roots and core, where power sits and the pageant of London takes place. The area has been crying out for somewhere of this quality.”