Route News Stop Press

• AeroMexico is cancelling its Mexico City–Rio de Janeiro service on 21st June.

• Air China launches a thrice-weekly Beijing–Montreal service on 29th September.

• Austrian is coming back to Manchester with the launch of a daily service from Vienna on 10th September.

• Brussels Airlines is cancelling its service to Nairobi from 25th October.

• Copa Airlines is launching a daily Panama City–San Francisco service on 27th September.

• Emirates will introduce a daily Dubai–Bologna service on 3rd November.

• South African Airways will be replacing Dakar with Accra as intermediate stop on four of its seven weekly flights between Johannesburg and Washington Dulles from 1st August.

• TACV Cabo Verde Airlines will launch weekly services to Natal and Joao Pessoa this autumn.


India really, really does not want British tourists

Not content with deliberately snubbing British visitors by denying us the new electronic tourist visa which they have made available to citizens from some European countries and the US, the Indian government has now added a further barrier.

With almost no notice, they have announced that from 14th March any new applications for tourist visas will have to be made in person at one of the various regional centres. Appointments must be made in advance.

So, if you want to go to India, you have to pay around £100 in fees, make an appointment to go to one of the centres and then wait. The whole process could easily take a month and, of course, that depends on an appointment at one of the centres being available at a time that is convenient.

The Indian government really does not need to rub it in. We get the message – British visitors are not welcome in India.

Oman taking big risk

Oman has never enjoyed the oil riches of its Gulf neighbours but the recent drop in price will not help its weak economy. The country identified tourism as a way of balancing the economy and decided – very wisely – not to copy the garish style of Dubai but to play to the country’s scenic and cultural strengths. Costs in Oman are rather higher than in the UAE so, perhaps inevitably, the country’s tourism business has always had to aim at the upper-end of the market. The master-plan to increase tourism involves the opening of a much-needed new airport and several new hotels in the next couple of years including new hotels from Shangri-la, Ritz-Carlton and the Jumeirah group. Inevitably, such an influx of new, expensive hotels will pose a major challenge for existing hotels such as The Chedi. The growth will need careful support and management from the government if it is to succeed.

Sadly, that support might be sadly lacking. The country’s parliament has just voted for a ban on the sale of alcohol in the country.

I was amazed to read that, according to some “experts”, an alcohol ban might not have much impact on Oman. Apparently, this is because of the country’s deliberate marketing as a cultural destination and the fact that visitors from certain countries prefer to stay in dry hotels. That rather sounds like “experts” telling local big-wigs what they want to hear.

Even though Oman carefully markets itself as a rather superior destination, a ban is bound to put off some potential visitors. Some people who come to enjoy the high standard of local cuisine might well like a glass of wine with dinner or a cold beer after a swim. There are plenty of other luxury destinations that will welcome them. If only a small percentage of people stay away at a time they are opening so many new hotels, the impact will be felt badly.

It will also seriously damage the income of hotels. Even if they manage to get away with charging the current room rates with the lower demand brought about by an alcohol ban, hotels will lose all the income that alcohol brings in. That would mean having to increase room rates. The Chedi is regarded as one of the Middle East’s leading luxury resort hotels, but its current rates are at the top end of what the market will accept for rather small, basic rooms so any increase would be seriously bad news.

The country’s airline has been struggling with losses for years. A ban on alcohol will make the airline a second-choice for many. “Dry” airlines all have to discount heavily to fill their aircraft – and Oman Air simply cannot afford that.

I can fully understand why Oman does not want to fall into the Dubai trap of becoming “party central” for the Middle East. It is unpleasant to watch drunk European tourists falling down on the beach after an “all-you-can-drink Champagne buffet lunch” in Dubai has reached its logical conclusion. Nor is it nice to watch Arabs drinking whisky to excess and then jumping into their customised Range Rovers for a Friday night burn-out or entertaining barely dressed Russian blonds chosen from the hotel bar. Oman has so far largely avoided this type of business anyway and, if they feel it is a problem, there are ways of controlling it without an outright ban.

Oman has huge potential for tourism and the careful way the government was going about this could have paid serious dividends. Sadly, it looks as if one ill-considered new law could wreck their work overnight.

India does not want British visitors

You might think India was a friend of Britain and anxious to increase the number of visitors from this country. Clearly that is wrong.

After months of promises, the Indian government has finally unveiled its new electronic visa process. This is open to citizens of 43 countries – but not Britain.

This looks to be a simple tit-for-tat move against British visa controls on Indian citizens. Yet the scheme is open to US visitors and no one has ever accused the USA of being easy to enter. The Indian government probably thinks it gets a decent number of British visitors anyway so need not make much effort. On the other hand, it would like more US and German visitors so it is prepared to make an effort for them.

Actually, the new system is still pretty poor. You must apply at least four days ahead of your visit, pay $60, and attach a photograph and scan a page of the passport. This is is the most expensive and cumbersome system of any major country that offers electronic tourist visas. Still, it is an improvement on paying around £100 for the postal application and being without your passport for up to four weeks. That is unacceptable.

The message is simple. India does not want British visitors.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other countries that do…

The real danger in Egypt

Since the Arab Spring, European tour operators have been kept on tenterhooks by their governments about whether they would be allowed to continue sending tourists to Egypt. Some countries banned all travel, some to certain areas whilst bans were lifted and re-imposed without co-ordination between governments. Now, Egypt is slowly coming back on to the “all clear” list throughout Europe and yet, the most serious risk to the lives of foreign tourists is just as great as it has ever been.

Yesterday, at least 33 people were killed outside Sharm el Sheikh when a bus carrying tourists collided with another bus. There have been at least five deadly coach crashes in the tourist areas of Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada in the last few years. Egyptian roads are bad and the local standard of driving is worse. It would take any government a long time to improve Egypt’s shocking level of road fatalities – but the current Egyptian government could solve the specific problem of accidents in these two tourist areas quite easily.

Both Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada are newly-created towns. The roads are in relatively good condition and, since the towns only exist for tourism, there is much less traffic than in the crowded cities of Cairo and Alexandria. Most tourists arrive at the airport, get transferred the short distance to their hotels by taxi and then, if they leave the hotels at all, do so for short trips by taxi or, maybe, a slightly longer coach excursion. There are only a handful of roads used. It would be very easy to install almost blanket-policing of these routes and stop drivers speeding or over-taking on blind corners (the apparent cause of most accidents). Once a few coachdrivers had lost their licenses or operators been fined heavily, the message would get home.

Egypt’s tourist industry has had a lot to contend with, much of which has been outside its control, but the government can solve this problem quite easily. 

There must be no more coach crashes in Sharm el Sheikh or Hurghada.

What is Qatar up to?

Ideally, one should not mix writing about travel with politics but, as anyone who has considered travelling beyond Europe this year will be only too aware, travelling without at least half any eye on the political situation, is unwise.

It seems almost every week that Qatar makes another trophy investment in the West. This week, they bought the Intercontinental Grand in Paris (which will remain managed by Intercontinental) which follows on from another purchase of a block of 5 Star hotels in Germany and Central Europe a few weeks earlier. Harrods, a share in Heathrow, major office blocks and shopping malls, they have a voracious appetite for investment. 

Then there is the small matter of the football World Cup and the transformation of Doha into a world class tourist destination. Not to forget, the airline, Qatar Airways, that likes to think of itself as the world’s best.

Qatar certainly likes the West and clearly wants to establish itself as a major World Citizen.

Or at least part of Qatar does. The other part of Qatar seems to be going in exactly the opposite direction. In every conflict in or near the Middle East, Qatar has been in the shadows with a giant wooden spoon, handing help and (presumably) money to one side. This policy is not at all popular with Qatar’s neighbours. They have already fallen out with Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia and relations with parts of Libya and the Lebanon are seriously strained. The current tiffs have caused some restrictions for Qatar Airways on local flights. On a political level, Qatar looks rather friendless – and that was before the current hostilities in Gaza.

It is hard to see what the aim of their political meddling is but if it continues, there might come a time when the West starts to regard Qatar in a less friendly light. If sanctions and the threat of freezing sovereign funds causes problems for Russia, can you imagine what even minor sanctions could do for Qatar?

Maybe they have some very clever longterm plan and their investment strategy, growth plans for the country and geo-political aims are all linked. If not, it is easy to see how it could all go horribly wrong.

Kenya and how to mishandle a travel advisory

A few months ago, the FCO issued a warning against all but essential travel to parts of the Kenyan coast including the city of Mombasa due to concern about an increase in the risk of terrorism. They have now followed this up with an additional warning against travel to Lamu.

The Kenyan government reacted with fury to the first warning, accusing Britain of over-reacting. In the weeks since the first warning at least eighty Kenyans have been killed in attacks near to the regions highlighted by the travel bans. The US, France and Australia, amongst others, have also imposed warnings or restrictions on travel to parts of Kenya.

Unfortunately, terrorism is not new and governments in many popular tourist destinations have to work hard at both containing the threat and convincing foreign governments that their countries are safe to visit.

Egypt is a hugely popular tourist destination which has faced travel bans in the last few years. The original bans were due to unrest following the Arab Spring revolution and whilst most countries have lifted those bans, concern has remained over Sharm el Sheikh which is in an isolated area and potentially open to terrorist attack. Russia and Germany recently banned travel to the region but Britain did not take immediate action. Instead, FCO security specialists were invited by the Egyptian government to survey the region for themselves and assess the risks and the measures that were being taken to counter the danger. The experts returned to London satisfied and no travel ban was imposed. The Germans and Russians have now rescinded their bans.

That seems to be a text-book way of handling the problem. Sadly, it is not a method copied by the Kenyans. Their response to the outbreak of terrorism near Lamu and the British advisory has been to launch a laughable tit-for-tat warning for Kenyans not to travel via Heathrow Airport because of terrorist threats.

The intelligent, measured response versus the clueless.

The Kenyan people and their valuable tourist industry deserve better.


Club Mediterranee Shock

The big shock for many is that this company is still going. An even bigger shock is that two sets of shareholders actually want to take it over.

The original Club Med was almost the founder of “casual chic” but the company has lost its way badly in the last twenty years. Too many different owners, regular stalemate in the boardroom, a sinking reputation and bad financial results The original basic beach hut accommodation went years ago but the company has never really decided where to pitch the brand. Is it a luxury company, mid-market for young professionals or do they want to battle it out at the bottom of the all-inclusive family market? They actually have resorts at all these levels but few of them score particularly well as a look at Tripadvisor will show. The company lacks common standards and a consistent image. Whilst it is still reasonably well-known in France, in most other countries it is just a relic of a dim and slightly naughty past. 

This is strange because the all-inclusive concept is actually now more popular than ever. Companies like SuperClubs in the Caribbean and Mark Warner in the UK show there is a large market for hotels that combine food and wine with sporting and social activities.

One of the two groups of shareholders that wants to take over the company has the idea of targeting the group to affluent Chinese and other Asians. Would they really fall for being sold a tired 1960′s concept as if it were the newest fashion? The other group wants to continue as things are but improve standards and yield.

Whoever wins the battle, it is clear Club Med needs one owner with a lot of time and money and no boardroom squabbles to deflect the company from whichever path has been chosen. 

Maybe the glory days could return.


The real danger in Egypt

It is good news for the people of Egypt that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is now allowing tourists to visit several more destinations in Egypt as well as Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada. The ban is still in place for Cairo which might seem a little strange since there would appear to be many capital cities in the world that pose greater risks to tourists.

To the best of our knowledge, the number of foreign tourists killed or injured during the period since the fall of Mubarak is zero.

That is not to say Egypt is an entirely safe place to visit though. Just take a look at the following:

- In 2011, eleven Hungarian tourists were killed and 27 injured when a bus travelling at high speed went out of control on a ringroad in Hurghada.

- In 2010, eight US tourists were killed in a bus accident in Aswan

- In 2012 five Germans were killed in bus accidents in Sharm el Sheikh and two Russians killed in Hurghada

And the list goes on. These are not cases of tourists driving badly, or of accidents on poor roads in the desert – most of them happened simply on coach transfers from the airport to the hotel in resorts which are newly-built and have fairly good roads.

The crash of a bus into a train at a level-crossing last weekend has again highlighted the serious problems with Egypt’s railways. The government needs to address this issue urgently. They also need to look carefully at the standard of driving. Taming the Cairo traffic would be a Herculean task but surely it is not beyond the skills of a competent government to ensure that foreigners arriving at Sharm el Sheikh or Hurghada airports can be transferred just a few miles to their hotels without undue risk.

Accidents to foreign tourists happen in any country – but there are rather too many happening in Egypt. Unfortunately, at the moment, most tourists run a far greater risk of being injured through the bad driving of their coach driver than they do in any political disturbance.

Goodbye Intourist

What do you do when you have a long-established, instantly recognisable name which, maybe, does not sound quite as modern as you would like?

Well, Intourist’s UK company has decided that the best thing to do is to ditch the name and now they want to be known as IntoRussia.

Personally, I have very mixed feelings about this. I made my first trip to the old Soviet Union when I was 18 with Intourist. That was many years ago and, of course, the image of grim hotels and unmoveable bureaucracy has stayed in my mind but if I can accept that the Aeroflot of today is a very different company from the old Soviet version, surely people could accept that today’s Intourist is very different to the old one?

The company has major advantages over its competitors and these are all linked to its long history. They have the most connections, the most experienced staff and – crucially – are able to handle the tortuous Visa application process for their clients. We would not normally suggest using a travel agency for a three-day city break, either on business or holiday, but the advantage of using Intourist, and its extensive back-up, makes it almost a no-brainer. Whether the company likes it or not, the Intourist name is synonymous with travel to Russia. Indeed, the rest of the group’s extensive worldwide operation (including the Russian offices) look as if they will continue to use the old name.

I can see why the change of name might be appealing to the managers of the UK operation but the prime reason for using Intourist ahead of all its competitors, is the history of the company. Ditching the name looks rather a backward step.