Go west! That was the distinct message coming from a trade event I attended last week, ahead of new Thomson flights to Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta International airport, beginning May 3.
The energetic event was held by two regions on the country’s Pacific west coast, which share the airport - Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit.
The tourist boards, combining forces with the Mexican tourist board for a renewed marketing push, were justly enthusiastic about the new direct weekly flights from Gatwick and Manchester.
“We’ve had a long relationship with the UK; it’s been on and off, and we’ve had challenges. But now we have new airlift, and we think it’s a great time to renew that relationship,” said Rolando Miravete, Puerto Vallarta Tourism Board director.
With eastern Mexico’s Riviera Maya stealing the limelight, it is hoped the flights will boost awareness of the regions, with authenticity, heritage and nature key themes.
Puerto Vallarta is situated in Banderas Bay, and comprises four zones: Marina Vallarta, Hotel Zone, Downtown, and the South Shore. Miravete said Downtown, with its boutique hotels and cobbled streets, was popular with the LGBT market year-round.
The state of Jalisco, in which Puerto Vallarta sits, is the birthplace of tequila, the Mariachi (Mexican cowboys, pictured) - and was the filming location for Predator. Miravete proudly told me that memorabilia remains dotted around the jungle, including alien costumes.
Neighbouring Riviera Nayarit offers tourists 23 coastal towns, with bird-watching in San Blas a strong draw. There are also hotels such as a Four Seasons, Dreams, St Regis and Iberostar offering plenty of golf and spas.
Marine life is abundant. Banderas Bay spans both regions, and is home to spinner dolphins, humpback whales, and Olive Ridley marine turtles.
Wixarika Indians also live in the Sierra Madre Occidental, again covering both states, and they continue to live according to ancient pre-Columbian traditions. Their colourful art can be found in markets.
While Puerto Vallarta draws many Americans and Canadians, last year 62% of visitors to Nayarit were Mexican and just 1% came from Europe. However, with Tui backing this joint venture, we’ll almost certainly see a rise in the number of Brits seeking an alternative to the bright lights of Cancun over the next 12 months.
If I was ever going to learn to sail a 68ft clipper, I always pictured it would be in the Med, with a gin and tonic in hand. Not in the Solent, under heavy grey skies, dressed in over-sized waterproof clothing, getting rope burn as I tugged on heavy ropes. And that was before my fingers went numb from cold.
It sounds like hard work, but it was actually a massive buzz.
As part of Ben Fogle’s Exclusive Excursion, an agent incentive provided by Celebrity Cruises, I joined eight agents, for a small taster of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race experience. We were split between two veteran yachts - the Finland and the Singapore - which have each circumnavigated the globe four times, and are now used for corporate events.
This was no sunset cruise. We took it in turns to haul ropes, steer the ship and work the grinder. That last one wasn’t our coffee break - the grinder is a machine you cycle with your arms, which moves the sails.
It was hard work, but exhilarating. Under the patient instruction of our skipper and two crew, we crisscrossed back and forth in the Solent, and with each tack we grew in confidence. By the time we tucked into sandwiches on deck for lunch, we were into the swing of it, and the persistent rain could not dampen our spirits.
After that we relocated somewhere warm and dry - to Spitbank Fort, one of three 19th-century sea forts off the coast of Portsmouth. You could view this from the coast, or sail past it, and have no idea what treasures were hidden behind its plain exterior.
It has been imaginatively restored, with the backing of English Heritage, into an exclusive venue, with nine bedroom suites, a rooftop Jacuzzi and fire pit, a wine cellar, sauna and games rooms, while staying true to its military and maritime roots. For example, the champagne and oyster bar is on the site of an original washroom, the eight sinks once used by 200 soldiers still visible beneath their glass covering.
Also with us was yachtswoman Emma Pontin, the godmother of Celebrity Eclipse, who told me: “Everyone should sail an ocean at some point in their lives.” I would now add to that list: “Spend the night in an island fort.” Both Clipper Events and Spitbank Fort were one-off experiences I’m not likely to forget.
Last week I practised my chopstick skills with the help of InsideJapan Tours.
The Japan specialist hosted a trade event at London restaurant Tsuru, where staff shared their knowledge while we tucked into sushi.
The product offering ranges from small group tours and self-guided adventures to fully tailored experiences. “We can organise pretty much anything in Japan, from early morning sumo training to Tate-do sword fighting with the teacher who coordinated the Kill Bill fights,” said InsideJapan’s agency sales manager Matt Spiller.
Although Japan’s mainland consists of four primary islands, there are 6,852 islands in the entire archipelago. Big cities such as Tokyo, home to 30 million people, Osaka and Kyoto come to mind when I think about Japan, so it surprised me to learn the country is 70% mountainous.
Spiller had some booking tips for agents - he explained that spring was the most popular time, owing to the flowering of cherry blossom trees, and many of InsideJapan’s 2015 spring tours had already sold out. But he said his own favourite time was autumn. Nature still puts on a show, of colourful autumn leaves, but there tend to be fewer crowds.
He encouraged agents to think about Japan for ski trips: “Japan offers night-time skiing, which is rare,” he said. “And two-dimensional ski and cultural centre trips work well.”
Japan was closed to foreign influence for 100 years, “which fermented the culture, and Japan does an amazing job of keeping it
alive,” he said.
He also made the point that eating out is very affordable - a plate of sushi will set you back less than £1, and a three-course lunch just £6. “Public transport is also cheap. Your money stretches much further in Japan than you might imagine,” he said.
Matthew Wilkinson, travel consultant with InsideJapan, talked agents through a nine-night Golden Route itinerary covering Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, with highlights including Tsukiji Fish Market; Miyajima, one of the most beautiful views in Japan (pictured); and watching sumo wrestling in Osaka.
He said agents shouldn’t discourage clients from visiting Hiroshima. “Some are wary and think it will be depressing. What happened there was awful, and the peace park is well done, but Hiroshima has a positive atmosphere.”
InsideJapan will be organising more regional events this year, so Japan enthusiasts should dig out their chopsticks in preparation.
Last week the Mantis Collection invited me to dinner at the Draycott Hotel in London. While I enjoyed the homely hospitality of the Draycott, I learned about another Mantis project, Finch Hattons in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park.
Mantis claims to be the only hotel group to have a presence on six continents - including Antarctica, where it features White Desert. Member properties share core values - privately owned, five-star and committed to conservation. Finch Hattons fits neatly into this bracket. The owners are the Gehlot family, Sir Richard Branson’s partners in his Kenya lodge, Mahali Mzuri.
What’s more, it’s already a World Travel Awards winner for Africa’s Leading Safari Lodge - and that’s before a renovation project, which is currently taking place. Since the lodge closed last April, the old accommodation has been dismantled and is being replaced with 17 luxury tented suites (pictured).
These are set around a water hole, which is fed by a natural spring from Mount Kilimanjaro, so mosquitoes are not an issue. The tiered design ensures that guests have a view of the water, whether they are in their bathroom, in bed or sat out on the deck, and hippos and crocodiles are just a couple of the watering hole’s star attractions.
Owner Leena Gehlot explained: “This hippo pool is what makes Finch Hattons so special. The hippos and the crocs are absolutely mesmerising for my five-year-old daughter - it’s the only time she will stand still!”
She explained that stripping the property down to basics was much needed: “There was a lot of patchwork holding it together.”
The responsible tourism message is clear - the sewage system is being upgraded to leave as little a footprint on Tsavo as possible. Only the massage pavilions and the gym will have air-conditioning, and the spa will be stocked with natural skincare products by Africology. No staff have been laid off during construction - chef Isaac Muhika has been using the time to share skills with other Mantis properties.
As if all that wasn’t enough reason to visit, Finch Hattons also has a touch of Hollywood glamour. It takes its name from Denys Finch Hatton, who was immortalised by Robert Redford in Out of Africa. Hatton was renowned for his refusal to abandon creature comforts when on safari, and by the sounds of it, once Finch Hattons reopens later this summer, guests will have nothing to worry about on that score either.
Source: Hong Kong Tourism Board
A jaunt on the Star Ferry, drinks at the top of a skyscraper, Michelin-starred dim sum or an afternoon rifling through the city’s numerous malls and markets. Hong Kong has a hefty catalogue of iconic experiences for visitors to choose from. However, the tourism board is eager to trumpet a host of lesser-known activities and sights.
Anthony Lau, executive director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, told me how the city is encouraging travellers to branch out into the region’s archipelago of 260 islands and to rural areas, such as Sai Kung District (pictured), which make up 70% of the region.
“In the past we’ve marketed Hong Kong as an exciting destination with nightlife and shopping, but there is a lot more to it,” he said.
“We are moving into the promotion of Hong Kong as a culinary hub, and telling people more about our festivals and sports and how to explore our outer islands. We’re working hard to put together itineraries for our visitors that feature places they’ve never been before, not just Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui.”
Speaking at the tourism board’s annual Contact and Contract event, held in London earlier this month, Lau gave further incentive for British travellers to spend longer in the region, referencing a little-known visa available to those who wish to edge into Guandong Province.
“One thing we have to tell people is if you decide to go to the Pearl River Delta there is no need to get a visa in advance,” he said. “When you go to a designated travel agency in Hong Kong and join a tour, you can get the 144-hour ‘Convenient Visa’.”
Aside from the relaunch of Hong Kong’s trade portal, PartnerNet, and the destination specialist programme, a fam trip is also on the cards. According to Peter Hoslin, regional director, Europe and new markets, at the tourism board, working with the trade is a priority.
“We’re going to spend a lot of time with agents, making sure they understand the fresh product,” he said. “A lot of the trade would typically think they know Hong Kong well, but there’s so much that’s been going on we have to keep them up-to-date with new activities.”
Every year, the Canadian Tourism Commission hosts a Canada Shared event in London, bringing together Canadian Signature Experiences members and the UK travel trade. There were 52 members at last month’s event in the London Film Museum and I met with a few to hear their news.
Great Bear Nature Tours in British Columbia will have a new floating lodge when the season begins in May. The eight-bedroom lodge will have bigger rooms and en-suite facilities - guests previously shared shower facilities.
Owner Tom Rivest told me the Great Bear Rainforest river valley was an outstanding wildlife viewing location, and the lodge’s sole focus was on bears.
“People who want to see bears know you can’t see too many of them. You can always get a better picture.”
Tours are conducted by boat and on foot. He said it wasn’t customary in Canada for guides to carry weapons. Instead they use their voices and body language to command the bear. “We don’t need walls on our viewing platforms any more,” he said. “The bears are used to us. They just walk by and ignore us. Our guides have pepper spray but I have only ever sprayed a bear once. It’s very unusual.”
As well as its bears, Canada is also famous for its Northern Lights. Torsten Eder, from Northern Tales, a Whitehorse-based adventure operator, told me that sightings had been more frequent in the Yukon this winter than other years. “Not necessarily stronger,” he said. “But they are happening more often.”
His company operates Aurora Borealis tours from August to April, and he advises clients to stay in the area for at least three to four nights to have a realistic chance of seeing them.
Northern Tales features a range of accommodation, from luxury lodges to more basic electricity-free lakeside cabins. His guides can also collect clients from Whitehorse hotels after dinner, and drive them away from the city to view the lights. He said that reactions to the lights were varied: “The Japanese tend to squeak like guinea pigs, northern Europeans are a bit quieter, and the Brazilians get excited and jump around.”
He had some advice for capturing the moment on film: “Point and shoots don’t work. You need an SLR and you have to set the exposure time manually. Depending on the moonlight, you need between eight and 30 seconds of exposure time… Or you can simply enjoy the moment.”
As far as picturesque cities go, the likes of Vancouver and Cape Town have a European rival in Naples. Italy’s third-largest city is situated on a gently curved bay, where all eyes are drawn to Vesuvius towering over it.
These money-shot views made it a popular spot for the holiday homes of the Roman upper classes. Not many people know that before Vesuvius erupted so dramatically in AD79, it was a third taller than it is today.
At a recent dinner hosted by the Naples Chamber of Commerce, Gareth Davies, former Travel Channel presenter, explained that spring and autumn are ideal times to visit, not least because temperatures sit in the more comfortable 20-25C range.
“April and October are among the best times to visit the region,” he said. “The city is at its liveliest, not denuded of locals searching for a beach, and similarly, the islands aren’t busy with Italian holidaymakers.”
As well as agreeable temperatures, Easter provides plenty of local colour, with Holy Week bringing parades and passion plays throughout the city. One of the most impressive processions takes place in pastel-coloured Sorrento on Holy Thursday, when hundreds of families take to the streets dressed in white gowns.
The other side of Easter, the festivals continue with Maggio dei Monumenti in May, which allows access to many monuments usually closed to the public; and Pizzafest also in May, celebrating Italy’s favourite export.
Naples also has plenty of potential for a shopping break. The origins of this date back to the Middle Ages when Neapolitan tailors were summoned to the court of Milan, such was their skill.
“They were the first to launch ready-to-wear menswear - and that was back in the 16th century,” said Davies. Today the city is full of chic boutiques, hidden markets and sprawling malls - more than enough to keep a shopper busy for a weekend.
To encourage low and mid-season bookings and extend the tourist season, the Naples Chamber of Commerce plans to allocate funds to tour operators, in the region of €40 per tourist, to cover the cost of organising package holidays.
It’s an offer that is piquing the interest of UK tour operators. Lizzie Howard, operations supervisor at Martin Randall Travel, told me the grant would be beneficial as it would help her company subsidise more departures for its sell-out Pompeii tours.
Source: Steffen Oliver Riese
Sausages. They may not be the first thing to dictate where a person spends their holidays, but then again there are not many sausages held in as high esteem as the Nurnberger Rostbratwurst.
The Bavarian city of Nuremberg is celebrating the 700-year reign of the sausage as “queen of bratwurst” with an exhibition in its honour at the City Museum Fembohaus.
The retrospective, which takes place from September 19, 2014 to March 29, 2015, explains the history of the city from a “bratwurst perspective”.
This month at the Germany Travel Show, Martina Weber, sales director of the Nuremberg and Fuerth Tourist Offices, told me that while the local food and drink scene may not yet be renowned internationally, the gastronomy of Nuremberg is certainly celebrated domestically.
The city is well-known in Germany for its Nurnberger Lebkuchen, a local gingerbread speciality typically eaten around Christmas, but it is the Nurnberger Rostbratwurst that is the jewel in the crown of the city’s cuisine.
“That’s our fast food,” said Weber in reference to the diminutive sausages, which are typically served three to a roll. “You smell it everywhere in the city. McDonald’s once had the Nurnberger bratwurst [on the menu in Germany].”
Despite a thriving year-round dining scene, Weber said the city was largely overlooked in spring and summer. “Most people come for the Christmas markets, for the mulled wine and gingerbread,” she said. “That’s absolutely our busiest time of year.”
But there are numerous reasons to visit outside of peak season. Aside from the lack of crowds, visitors can also pay homage to the city’s beer brewing heritage. “The city has wonderful small beer gardens, and in summer people sit outside, enjoying beer and wine,” she said.
And it’s not only food and drink that the city has to offer. Nuremberg plays host to a classical open-air concert twice a year, while the old quarter hosts an annual festival with free entertainment, and its own “Blue Night” - a cultural “all-nighter” - where museums stay open into the small hours and art and light installations abound.
The city is easily accessible - Nuremberg is under two hours from London, with daily flights from Stansted with Ryanair, and Munich can be reached from Nuremberg in an hour on the Intercity-Express.
Once clients get a taste for Nuremberg’s sights, smells and sausages they might find other German cities just don’t cut the mustard.
It’s 25 years since Kiwi Experience first started operating its hop-on hop-off bus tours around New Zealand. Last week I chatted with Nathan Williams, account manager Northern Europe at parent company Tourism Holdings Limited, about the concept. “It’s been tried in other destinations, but it only really works in New Zealand, where we have the volume of places to stay, buses and drivers,” he said.
It’s a flexible product - travellers have 12 months to start using their pass after purchase, and it’s valid for 12 months of travel. There are 30 different routes, with options to “start anywhere”, “start Auckland” and “start Christchurch”.
Accommodation is not included in the pass, but the first night in each stop has guaranteed availability. Williams explained: “When you board the bus in the morning, you choose your programme for the day by ticking options on a clipboard. You select your hostel, activities such as rafting and sky-diving, and opt in or out of dinner.”
The UK market is 60-70% of the business, and while it’s not branded as 18-35, that is the target market. However, Williams said the product was open to all ages: “We don’t advise anyone not to travel - we’ve had 85-year-old passengers before… who’ve been sky diving.”
Dominant sellers for the brand in the UK are STA Travel, Flight Centre and Trailfinders, but Williams insisted there is an opportunity for all agents: “If you book parents with grown-up kids, ask if they know about the product.”
Williams and colleague Keith Marsh are the key contacts for agents in the UK. They visit stores for training, and to deliver incentives - top-selling agents have been earning a case of New Zealand wine and a leg of New Zealand lamb.
The focus for the 25th anniversary is on uncovering stories associated with the brand: “Kiwi Experience has brought many a couple together,” he said.
Driver-guides are all from New Zealand, and go through a month-long induction. “There’s huge emphasis on safety,” said Williams. “No one is allowed to drink or walk up and down the aisles while the bus is moving.”
But drivers also join in the fun - how could they resist a photo opportunity when Hot Water Beach (above) is on the itinerary, for example.
Williams himself is a former driver: “I was only going to do it for three months after university; three years later I handed in the keys.”And his most memorable passengers? “Well, I was lucky enough to have the Minnesota State Cheerleading Squad on my bus once.”
Last week I met with Steve Reynolds, general manager of Back Roads Touring Co. This is a small group and tailor-made specialist, offering tours in the UK and Europe, which pitches itself in the space between big bus tour groups and independent travellers.
He explained the DNA behind the brand to me: “We have a maximum group size of 18 people but most tours have just 15. We stay in charming accommodation, we use only small vehicles, because we spend more time on back roads than main roads, and there are no early starts.”
The emphasis is on interacting with locals and seeking out authentic local experiences, he added, drawing on the Vintage France tour of Champagne (left), Burgundy and the Rhone Valley to highlight this tour style.
In the Champagne region, the tour group stays in Hotel Castel Jeanson, a former residence of champagne families, and the itinerary bypasses Moet & Chandon in favour of Veuve J Lanaud, a smaller producer. Reynolds said: “We walk around the vines and the winemaker explains how the chalky soil acts like a giant sponge, helping the vines to thrive.”
“The original meaning of the French word La Veuve is ‘widow’, and while we enjoy a glass of his finest, the winemaker describes what happened after the First World War, when so many owners were killed, and their widows took over the running of the estates.”
Back Roads is a small business with potential to grow - last summer the company booked 4,000 clients. It started 20 years ago as a UK specialist, enticing North American and Antipodean clients out of London to experience regional Britain. But with the head office in Chiswick, there’s a clear opportunity to grow the UK client base. Reynolds, who used to work for Cox & Kings in Australia, joined the business last June with exactly that remit.
“It’s early days and we’re relatively new to proactive marketing,” he said. “Our goal is to raise awareness of our tour style and look for partners who share our synergies. We are agent-friendly and will pay commission for referrals.”
He said Back Roads was a good fit for independent agents: “Our product has a high level of satisfaction, it’s great for repeat business and it can’t be easily replicated - it would be hard to construct a similar tour on the web.”
This year’s Tour de France will have a very un-French start. In December 2012 it was revealed that Yorkshire had beaten off competition from Florence to stage the opening days of the world’s largest free sporting event. Two to three million people are expected to line the routes of Yorkshire’s stages while tens of millions of people around the world watch the Tour de France on television.
This week Peter Dodd, marketing director, told me it would be “a game-changing moment for Yorkshire”. He said: “We have two fantastic, scenic stages (July 5 and 6) showcasing the best of Yorkshire’s iconic landscapes, cities, towns and villages. The race will put Yorkshire on the map.”
The county is already reaping the benefits, with hotels, B&Bs and campsites reporting huge spikes in demand around the two stages, but Dodd said capacity was not a problem: “Ninety-eight per cent of Yorkshire is under an hour from one of the routes so coping with demand for beds is not a problem. Some international visitors have booked to stay in East Yorkshire, for access to the ferry and are planning to ride in to see the race.”
It’s not just about two days of racing: “One of our long-term legacy goals is to convert television viewers into visitors, and then repeat customers,” said Dodd.
The Grand Depart team is already building momentum ahead of the riders’ arrival - a Yorkshire Festival 2014 will start on March 27 and run for 100 days before the race, involving hundreds of activities and events spread across Yorkshire. The routes are being permanently waymarked so amateur riders can conquer the route.
To finalise viewing plans, check out letour.yorkshire.com, the official site for the three days the Tour de France is in the UK (there is a third stage from Cambridge to London on July 7).
Dodd said: “The starts (Leeds and York) and finishes (Harrogate and Sheffield) will be popular places to be, and scenic locations such as the Yorkshire Dales or Peak District National Parks will also be popular.”
With huge crowds expected, Dodd’s advice is to arrive early: “Come a day or two early and stay a week to minimise travel disruption and have time to experience Yorkshire.”
Imogen Beecroft finds out how the Normandy Regional Tourist Board is planning to mark the 70th anniversary of the D Day landings
Seventy years ago this summer, thousands of Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy in a major offensive against the German army. The D-Day Landings marked the beginning of the Allies’ campaign to liberate Western Europe, which had been German-occupied for the previous four years.
Last week I had a chat with Jean-Louis Lavill, director of the Normandy Regional Tourist Board, about how Normandy plans to remember the landings.
From March to September, Normandy will host a plethora of special events including historical re-enactments, fireworks displays, military processions, concerts and exhibitions. The 70th anniversary is particularly significant as “it may be one of the last times that so many veterans gather here to attend the official ceremonies and commemorative events,” said Lavill.
He recommends a visit to one of the war cemeteries: “The American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach can sometimes be overwhelming because of its sheer size but paying your respects at one of the Commonwealth cemeteries, like the main one at Bayeux, can be equally poignant.”
A highlight will be the June 5 firework display visible from all of the 24 towns on the D-day Landing beaches, which promises to be “absolutely spectacular”.
The commemorations also include a wealth of activities for younger members of the family. There is a picnic on Omaha Beach on June 7 and a football match on June 8. The Juno Beach Centre has an exhibition for children asking the question, “Grandma, what was it like during the war?”
Lavill expects to see a surge in tourism over the period: “Figures drawn up from hotel occupancy and visits to sites and museums on previous key anniversaries have shown a significant increase of around 70%.”
Fuelling this increase are the companies putting on special commemorative trips; Fred Olsen Cruise Line is running a commemorative D-Day cruise, departing on June 1.
Lol Nichols, general sales manager at Fred Olsen, said it decided to run the trip following the success of previous D-Day anniversary cruises. The cruise will offer “an extensive programme of tours to give people the opportunity to remember and pay their respects to the soldiers of the Second World War.”
Onboard, there will be lectures from captain Anthony Harris, founding member of Race2Recovery, and history lecturer lieutenant colonel Anthony Coutts-Britton, as well as performances from a big band orchestra, The New Squadronaires.
Nichols said the cruise would also incorporate the events, parades and celebrations put on by the tourist board.
If someone asked you which country is the most bombed in the world, what would you say? Afghanistan? Iraq? Libya?
I would have hedged my bets on one of those, until my recent holiday to Indochina revealed it is in fact Laos. The consequences of America’s Secret War, a sideshow to the Vietnam War, are still felt by the Lao people to this day.
Between 1964 and 1973, US forces dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos, during 580,000 bombing missions, equal to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.
Eighty million bombs failed to detonate - many of these unexploded ordnance (UXO) devices remain hidden in the countryside, a deadly trap for unsuspecting farmers, and children who are oblivious to the dangers and lured by the money-making opportunities of selling scrap metal.
At least 20,000 Lao people have been killed or injured by these bombs since the end of the war, and there are an estimated 300 new casualties every year, many of them children.
Bomb clearance is slow, dangerous work, and US contributions have been modest. But my visit to the COPE Centre in Laos’ capital Vientiane shed a ray of light on a harrowing problem.
COPE provides UXO survivors with orthotic and prosthetic devices and rehabilitative care. The centre was formed in 1997 by the Ministry of Health of Lao PDR and non-Government organisations including POWER, World Vision and Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics.
On my arrival I saw a group of resident amputees playing football in the central courtyard, their crutches no barrier to enjoyment.
The centre has a free exhibit, which explains the scale of the problem and the measures being taken to clear the mines. It also highlights victims’ stories and talks about patient care.
It has a small cinema showing documentaries about UXOs and Cope, and I settled down to watch feature film, Bomb Harvest, which follows an Australian bomb disposal specialist, Laith Stevens, as he trains locals in the skill of detonating bombs.
It’s an engaging film mainly due to the character of Stevens, whose humour and modest, can-do attitude masks the bravery of everyone involved.
There’s also a gift shop and a cafe, which help fund Cope services. It’s a thought-provoking place - a testament to the tragic consequences of war for innocent civilians.
This month marks 30 years of independence from Britain for Brunei. At present only around 13,000 British nationals visit the Asian nation every year, which is one of the smallest on earth and comprises two unconnected slivers of land. It is one of three countries on the island of Borneo.
I caught up with Aiden Walsh, Royal Brunei Airlines (RBA) country manager for the UK, to hear what the carrier has in store for 2014 and why holidaymakers should visit this former British protectorate.
Most recently the airline launched its Betterfly campaign in conjunction with the take-off of its new 787 Dreamliners, and as of March 10 this year it will be the first airline to have 100% Dreamliner service on all long-haul routes.
Despite these changes, the self-proclaimed “boutique” airline said its focus remains the same. “Our focal point is to highlight Brunei as a value carrier,” said Walsh. “We focus on service and individualise what we do.”
RBA operates a fleet of 10 aircraft to 14 destinations in south-east Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Australia, and the carrier is using long-haul to feed into regional services to cities such as Manila, Hong Kong and Singapore. While it may be becoming an Asian hub, Walsh added that the carrier’s wide network means a trip to Brunei could easily tie into a bigger journey.
“For me it works really well as [part of] a twin-centre trip with Dubai, Melbourne or Kota Kinabalu,” he said.
According to Walsh, one of the prime advantages of visiting this compact country is the minimal distances between attractions.
“You can really see a lot in a few days,” he said. “Tourists can reach almost untouched rainforest within an hour of touching down.”
Walsh recommended Ulu Temburong National Park, where visitors can stay overnight in lodges, while getting up close to all manner of wildlife. “The noise of the place at night is surreal,” he said.
Other draws include water village, Kampong Ayer, the world’s largest, and “small but beautiful” capital city Bandar Seri Begawan.
In 2014 RBA is looking to domore with the trade. Walsh said: “We have planned a lot of activity, [such as] educationals, trade shows and an online travel training programme which will be up and running by the end of this week.”
This week, I paid a visit to Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. With its Christmas markets, giant wheel, ice rink and Magical Ice Kingdom, it’s the sort of place Elton John had in mind when he tells us to “step into Christmas”.
This year, the Magical Ice Kingdom, an immersive walk-though experience, has doubled in size. More than 2,000 tons of ice and snow have been used to create sculptures especially for Winter Wonderland, ranging from a giants’ forest to an ice castle.
For the first time this year, the Magical Ice Kingdom is sponsored by the Free State of Saxony, which prompted me to ask Frank Wend from the Chancellery of Saxony about the German state’s own Christmas traditions. He told me that many of our traditions originated in Saxony, which is promoting itself as the true home of Christmas.
The Magical Ice Kingdom has an impressive Saxon Schwibbogen Ice Sculpture, a giant replica of the traditional candleholders from the region of Saxony. The very first was made in 1740 and homes in the Erzegebirge mountains display locally carved wooden versions in their windows every Christmas.
Wend also told me that visitors to Saxony can enjoy listening to carol services in churches and public places, and browsing in Christmas markets filling festively illuminated market places. “Saxony is the place to invest in wooden art and toys from the Ore Mountains and advent stars from Herrnhut star manufacturer, which have been handmade for 160 years,” he said.
Christmas spirit transforms Saxony’s castles and palaces, like Dresden Castle, Scharfenstein Castle and Moritzburg Castle.
It wouldn’t be Christmas without treating the tastebuds. Pulsnitz is also known as a gingerbread town, and Dresden is famed for its Christstollen, a cake packed with sultanas, almonds, candied lemon and orange peel. And of course there is gluwhein, the perfect winter warmer.
Dresden is just two hours from London with flights from London City airport on CityJet. You can also get to Leipzig from Stansted with Ryanair.
Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland does a great job of recreating Christmas, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. Next year, I’m headed to Saxony.
April Hutchinson hears the latest from the Tourism Authority of Thailand…
I recently caught up with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to talk about its new focus on local hospitality, highlighted by a new addition to its “Amazing Thailand” tagline: “It Begins With The People.”
Amazing Thailand will stay as the tourist office’s main strapline, but will be complemented by the new addition for a major campaign launch from January 2014.
“Thailand is not only beach, food and culture - community tourism, voluntourism and homestays are a big part of what we want to project,” said Juthaporn Rerngronasa, TAT’s deputy governor for international marketing (Europe, Africa, Middle East and Americas). “Sixty per cent of our visitors are repeaters and they are looking for the next level of experience.”
A focus on getting honeymooners to return for anniversary trips is also high on the agenda - the theme of the Thailand stand at WTM this year was romance. A fully wrapped London bus appeared last month to raise awareness of “Romance Month” in February. For the second year in a row, couples who travel to Thailand in February will receive a free gift from TAT and be given fast-track immigration privileges. The TAT website will carry details of special offers for romantic holidays from a range of operators including Inspired by Asia, which has just launched its first dedicated Thailand honeymoon brochure.
Rerngronasa added that Thailand intended to grow its status as the gateway to the Greater Mekong Subregion, which includes the neighbouring countries of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Southern China. This will be a key theme at the next Thailand Travel Mart (TTM), taking place June 4-6, 2014, when improvements in roads and infrastructure will be highlighted.
The venue for TTM is the Impact Exhibition & Convention Center in Bangkok, with 1,000 delegates set to attend. There are also opportunities for pre and post-show fams. And for the UK trade who aren’t able to attend, there’s another way to keep in touch, when they become a fan of TAT’s new Facebook page for the UK & Irish trade. The Sawasdee Club is a one-stop shop for photo-sharing, competitions and monthly destination focuses.
The other weekend I joined 190 other delegates at the annual River Cruise Convention in Cologne (pictured).
There were only 15 repeat agents from the two previous years in Amsterdam so it’s a useful event for agents who might not have sold that much river cruise, but are keen to capitalise on the growth market. Day one was devoted to networking and conference sessions, and day two we toured six ships, all moored in the centre of the city.
It’s easy to assume one river cruise vessel is not much different from another - which is why it is important to check out the hardware, as they do vary on price and style.
Affordability is a key sales attribute for Shearings’ charter MPS Rotterdam, where full-board five-day Christmas market cruises lead in at £519 including coach travel. With one million passengers in 2013, Shearings is a popular escorted tours operator. However, their snug twin-bed cabins will not suit clients with expensive tastes.
It’s a similar picture with Serenity, a River Cruise Line charter. On both ships, the space-saving solution is for stewards to fold up the beds in the daytime, and turn them into seats.
And while river cruising appeals to the 50-plus demographic, not all ships are suitable for clients with mobility problems, owing to their narrow, steep staircases. Serenity has lift access for all decks, except the sun deck. There is a small bar at the rear of the ship, however, with outside space. Many of the CroisiEurope ships have a cabin equipped for guests with disabilities.
There is an increasing emphasis on onboard dining on river cruises, though the French set menu of foie gras and blue cheese I sampled onboard Croisi’s Gerard Schmitter would not be to everyone’s tastes.
Designers have transformed the interiors of modern ships - Gerard Schmitter sports a pink and purple theme, while ARosa’s Brava is a vibrant red. Uniworld’s River Duchess is more like a boutique hotel with its textured wallpaper and arty prints. The beds (pictured) are inviting, with white covers and plumped up pillows. But they take up most of the space.
Whether your clients would feel more at home with Shearings or Uniworld, the fact is their time in their cabin would be limited. When the weather allows, it’s a safe bet they would be on the roof deck soaking up the 360-degree views or out exploring. And that’s the best selling point of all.
Last week at WTM, I heard how the party island of Ibiza is aiming to attract more mature holidaymakers by producing a brochure for the over-55s.
Tourism minister Carmen Ferrer claimed older holidaymakers had more time and money to spend than their younger counterparts.
“They tend to visit our island in the spring and autumn, in April-June and September-November,” she said.
The tourist board’s new brochure, available to download at Ibiza.travel, covers the activities on offer.
“This market is interested in our gastronomy, culture and activities. They don’t just want to lie in the sun - they want to enjoy the good weather while being active. They want nightlife, but don’t want clubbing.”
A new walking guide is due for publication early next year, targeted at the more mature demographic. Secret Walks: Ibiza by Rob Smith will be a pocket-sized guide detailing 30 routes across the island, from walks taking less than an hour to full-day rambles for experienced trekkers.
While Ibiza may be relying on the older market to lengthen its season, when it comes to the high season, it’s still a party island.
Next June, the first Hard Rock Hotel in Europe is due to open on Ibiza, with 489 rooms and regular concerts.
Juan Jose Calvo Quiroga, vice-president for sales and marketing, Palladium Hotel Group, said: “The Ibiza hotel will open when all the parties start for the summer. We own the land next door to the hotel and every week we will have a band playing in that space, which can accommodate up to 40,000 people.”
For the opening party, Quiroga says a “world-famous rock band” has already been booked, and the line-up will be revealed next March.
With this new rock and pop venue alongside sister property the Ushuaia Beach Hotel, Quiroga said the Palladium Hotel Group will dominate the island’s music scene: “Hard Rock Hotel will have the best rock and pop, and Ushuaia has the best electro pop.”
He said this summer’s opening of The Tower at Ushuaia Beach Hotel had been a success, attracting a number of VIPs to it roof top parties. “The Tower has run at 75-80% occupancy since opening in May, with guests paying €800pn on average.”
Until a week ago, I have to confess I knew just two things about Zimbabwe: it has one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls on its border with Zambia and a controversial president in Robert Mugabe.
So a chat with Felicia Munjaidi, head of tourism for Zimbabwe in the UK, proved illuminating. Turns out Victoria Falls is just one of seven wonders for the southern African country, along with its welcoming people; its heritage; its wildlife; Great Zimbabwe ruined city; Eastern Highlands; and Kariba, the largest man-made lake in Zimbabwe. These attractions are summed up by the new strapline: “Zimbabwe - a world of wonders”.
Big five enthusiasts will not be disappointed by Zimbabwe, Munjaidi assured me. The south-eastern corner of the country lies within in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, the world’s largest peace park, where borders between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique are deliberately left open so animals can roam freely. There are plans to work collaboratively with Angola, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia on further peace parks, and to adapt the concept for humans too, with the introduction of a “uni-visa”. It’s still early days, but should a pilot scheme involving Zambia and Zimbabwe prove successful, the initiative could be rolled out, meaning travellers would only have to make one embassy or consulate visit to obtain a visa to enter multiple southern African countries. “If we want more tourists, we have to address these issues and make it easier for them to come,” Munjaidi said.
This week Zimbabwe has been exhibiting at WTM, with the minister of tourism in attendance. At other times of the year, there are training opportunities for the UK trade and an annual Tourism Exchange, held over three days in June at the embassy in London. Munjaidi has also been working in partnership in VisitScotland: “There is a lot we can learn from them, especially on the service side, about how to meet client expectations.”
She assured me safety was not an issue: “Zimbabwe is safe to travel, day and night. In case of emergency, the British Embassy is there - and it would not operate in Zimbabwe if it was not a safe destination.”
But travellers’ concerns may be more ethically than safety-driven, thanks to the Mugabe regime. Munjaidi wants to separate tourism from politics: “Let’s be positive and enjoy what we have. Come on holiday to Zimbabwe… you will not meet any politicians!”
Last week Bernard de Villele, general manager of The St Regis Mauritius Resort, was in London to spread the word about next month’s opening of The St Regis Residence, billed as the largest and most exclusive private villa on the island of Mauritius.
The hotel invited key trade partners to a cooking masterclass with twice Michelin-starred chef, Atul Kochhar, at his Berkeley Square restaurant, Benares. Kochhar also runs a restaurant, Simply India, in the exclusive Indian Ocean resort. While Kochhar showed off his modern Indian cuisine with a contemporary British twist, I chatted with de Villele and Ramon von Schukkmann, Starwood Hotels and Resorts area director of sales and marketing for Mauritius.
They told me about the palatial Residence, which can accommodate up to eight adults and four children, plus an entourage of four, who have their own quarters on the basement level. “It’s likely the guests would bring their own staff, such as nannies and bodyguards, in addition to the staff we provide,” said de Villele. These include a villa manager, and a team of butlers, valets and chefs. “The word ‘no’ does not exist for our guests”, he said, explaining that all menus and activities are arranged according to guests’ wishes.
Von Schukkmann told me about the typical client for the Residence: “We have five bookings from wealthy businessmen, two are from the UK. They all have their own Wikipedia pages!”
Guests do not have to leave the confines of the Residence, but the main resort’s amenities are on tap, should they want to make use of them. The resort’s location adjacent to One Eye, a renowned kite-surfing spot, draws in kitesurfers, looking to indulge their hobby. It’s also popular with families “wanting to reconnect”, said de Villele. The attention to detail is just as important for younger guests, through the sourcing of their favourite treats and a personalised amenity kit for their teddy.
For inspiration on how to deliver service with “zero defects”, de Villele told me he has been watching a certain hit television show: “When guests arrive, it’ll be like Downton Abbey, when the car pulls up and all the staff are waiting. I have watched every episode.”