Tourists head back to Kenya in record numbers

August 29, 2011

By Yara Bayoumy

NAIROBI (Reuters) – A record number tourists visited Kenya in the first six months of 2011, continuing a solid recovery after the country was hit by post-election violence in 2008 and the lingering effects of the global financial crisis.

Tourism Minister Najib Balala said he aimed to aggressively market Kenya as a prime tourist destination to high-spending BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China, to wean the East African country away from traditional source markets.

Arrivals to east Africa’s biggest economy rose to 549,083, up 13.6 percent from the same period last year. Tourism earned a record 74 billion shillings ($802 million) in the whole of 2010, making it one of the country’s leading sources of foreign exchange.

Balala told a news conference on Wednesday that estimated revenues for the first six months stood at 40.5 billion shillings, up 32 percent from 30.7 billion in the same period last year.

He said the ministry was expecting 20 percent growth in arrivals for the year as a whole, given that arrivals peak in July through to October.

In 2010, a record 1.1 million tourists visited the country, which is famed for its game parks and white Indian Ocean beaches, beating the previous high hit in 2007.

The Ministry of Tourism said visitors from Britain led the way accounting for 14.3 percent of arrivals, followed by the United States on 9.3 percent and then Italy, Germany and India, with the Asian country knocking France out of the top five.

Kenya has been trying to diversify from its traditional American and European source markets, expand its airports and increase bed capacity to boost hard currency earnings from the sector.

TARGETING BRIC, AFRICA

Balala said building started on a new unit at the international airport in Nairobi and construction of a new airport was expected to start in early 2012, which will be able to handle 20 million arrivals per year.

“Egypt alone received 1.8 million Russians last year before the crisis. If we get a small percentage to come to Kenya, particularly Russians who want beach destinations, it will uplift our beach destinations in Kenya,” Balala said.

“It’s a high-spending market, those are the people we want in our country,” he said, adding he was optimistic targeting those markets would “salvage our dream of 3 million (arrivals) by 2015 and 2 million by 2013.”

Uganda led arrivals from the African region, growing nearly 51 percent compared to the same period last year, putting Africa’s share in terms of source markets for Kenya at 26 percent – and that’s without investing in marketing campaigns.

“I passionately feel that we cannot ignore Africa. Africa is where the future of tourism is and arrivals, because the middle class is growing, the wealth of the world is going to be in Africa. We need to prepare to market these areas.”

Balala said he was encouraging airlines to start direct routes to the port city of Mombasa, where he hopes a convention center will be ready by the end of 2012 after Bamburi Cement,, a unit of France’s Lafarge donated a 15-acre plot of land by the coast.

Business arrivals amounted to 14 percent of arrivals through Kenya’s airport in the first half of 2011 and is seen as growing with more business conferences choosing Mombasa as their venues.

Balala said Delta Airlines were serious about starting a direct U.S.-Nairobi flight and was in talks with government officials to try over security concerns with Washington’s Department of Homeland Security.

(Editing by Duncan Miriri and Toby Chopra)


Floating tour bus launches in Amsterdam

August 20, 2011
By Harriet Baskas, msnbc.com contributor

If you’ve got a long layover between flights, your choices at most airports are to eat, drink, shop or attempt to nap while sitting up − and without drooling.

But passengers with at least five hours to wait at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport now have a new, entertaining and amphibious option.

On Wednesday, after a month-long delay, the Floating Dutchman welcomed aboard its first paying customers. The service is a cross between a bus and a boat and drives tourists from the airport to the city, enters the water at a specially-built ‘Splash Zone’ to give passengers a floating canal tour and then returns, via the highway, to the airport.

Speaking to Overhead Bin during the canal tour portion of the tour on Thursday, Annette Fatael of Toronto, Canada, said: “We have a nine-hour layover on our way from Toronto to Tel Aviv and chose this from several tours offered at the airport. It’s a huge tour bus and it was hard to believe that it was going to go into the water.”

The amphibious bus carries 48 passengers, cruises the canals on battery power and is a partnership between the airport, the city of Amsterdam and a local cruise company.

The swimming boat concept is much like the Duck Tours offered in many U.S. cities. “But our floating is different because it is a luxury touring car and a fully equipped boat,” said Freek Vermeulen, managing director of Great Amsterdam Excursions. “We have a license plate and a marine certificate, so we can go everywhere. Duck Tours often use old army vehicles, are very noisy and only have permission to operate on a certain route.”

Tours last two hours and 45 minutes and are offered three times a day. Tickets cost about $56 (39 Euros) for adults and about $28 (19.50 Euros) for children. Booking online offers a 10 percent discount.

“It may prove to be one of the best ways to explore Amsterdam during a connection,” Cristian Petre of Romania wrote in the Flying Dutchman guestbook after the first day of tours on Wednesday. “We’ve now got an idea what the city is about and would return for more exploring,” noted the Kireta family of Australia.

It’s not as if Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is such a terrible place to spend a long layover. To serve the 40 percent of passengers making connections through Schiphol, the airport offers amenities that include a casino, in-terminal hotels, a library, more than 100 shops and restaurants and an outdoor observation deck. There’s also a park (with trees) inside the terminal and a branch of the Rijksmuseum.

A few other airports, including Incheon in Seoul, South Korea, and Hong Kong International Airport also offer transit passengers organized city tours. Singapore’s Changi Airport offers complimentary tours of the city. Turkish Airlines passengers stopping over at Istanbul Airport also receive free tours.


New rules to open more legal U.S. Travel to Cuba

August 20, 2011

(AP) HAVANA — The forbidden fruit of American travel is once again within reach. New rules issued by the Obama administration will allow Americans wide access to communist-led Cuba, already a mecca for tourists from other nations.

Within months or even weeks, thousands of people from Seattle to Sarasota could be shaking their hips in tropical nightclubs and sampling the famous stogies, without having to sneak in through a third country and risk the Treasury Department’s wrath.

“This is travel to Cuba for literally any American,” said Tom Popper, director of Insight Cuba, which took thousands of Americans to Cuba before such programs were put into a deep freeze seven years ago.

But it won’t all be a day at the beach or a night at the bar. U.S. visitors may find themselves tramping through sweltering farms or attending history lectures to justify the trips, which are meant, under U.S. policy, to bring regular Cubans and Americans together.

So-called people-to-people contacts were approved in 1999 under the Clinton administration, but disappeared in 2004 as the Bush administration clamped down what many saw as thinly veiled attempts to evade a ban on tourism that is part of the 49-year-old U.S. embargo.

Some familiar voices on Capitol Hill are already sounding the alarm about the new policy.

“President Obama and the administration continuously say they don’t want more tourism and that’s not what they’re trying to do. But that’s exactly what’s happening,” said Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who was born in Ft. Lauderdale to a prominent Cuban-exile family. He argued that more travel does nothing to promote democracy on the island.

“The only thing it does is provide hard currency for a totalitarian regime,” he said.

Insight Cuba is one of at least a dozen travel groups that have applied for a license to operate on the island since details of the change were issued in April. If permission comes from Washington, it could begin trips in as little as six weeks, Popper said. Based on previous numbers, he believes he could take 5,000 to 7,000 Americans each year.

In the past, people-to-people travel has included jazz tours, where participants meet with musicians during the day and take in jam sessions at night. Art connoisseurs could visit studios, galleries and museums. Architecture aficionados could explore Havana’s stately, but crumbling cityscape.

“Soon Americans can go salsa dancing in Cuba — legally!” trumpeted a recent press release for one would-be tour operator.

“You can go on forever,” said Robert Muse, a Washington lawyer who represents several groups that have applied for licenses to operate the trips. “The subject matter is virtually limitless.”

Many approved tours will likely be run by museums, university alumni associations and other institutions. They will target wealthy, educated Americans who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a 10-day tour.

Tens of thousands went each year under people-to-people licenses from 2000 to 2003. Anyone is eligible if they go with an authorized group.

Cuban officials say privately they expect as many as 500,000 visitors from the United States annually, though most are expected to be Cuban-Americans visiting relatives under rules relaxed in 2009. That makes travelers from the United States the second biggest group visiting Cuba after Canadians, with Italians and Germans next on the list.

Academic and religious travel from the U.S. is also increasing.

The guidelines published by the U.S. Treasury Department say people-to-people tours must guarantee a “full-time schedule of educational activities that will result in meaningful interaction” with Cubans.

But a previous requirement to file itineraries ahead of time is gone, possibly making it difficult to police whether tours will follow the spirit of the law.

“It’s more liberal than in 2000-2003 in a lot of senses,” Popper said.

Still, it’s a far cry from the pre-revolution days when Havana’s mob-controlled nightclubs and casinos were a playground for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Greta Garbo. Back then, cheap ferries and flights from Florida meant tourists could party through the night and leave in the morning without bothering to rent a room.

Academic visits already under way give an idea of what may be allowed.

A recent group of Iowa State University students who came to study sustainable food and development had an itinerary packed with activities like visits to farms, a coffee plantation and an environmental reserve. They also managed to stroll Old Havana on a guided tour, visit an art museum and take in a performance of “Swan Lake” by Cuba’s acclaimed National Ballet.

Agronomy professor Mary Wiedenhoeft said the cultural experiences were key for students to understand Cubans and therefore an integral part of their study.

“We didn’t come here to be on a Caribbean beach; we came to be on farms,” Wiedenhoeft said. “I didn’t even pack a bathing suit.”

When the Bush administration shut down people-to-people visits in 2004, it cited allegations the rules were being abused.

“You had these groups going down and they would miraculously end up in Varadero (a popular beach resort) or at Hemingway’s home, or they’d end up at cigar factories,” said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser to the nonpartisan U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “It wasn’t something that was easy to defend when the State Department made inquiries.”

The Obama administration would almost certainly come under pressure from anti-Castro members of Congress if a rash of Americans start posting Facebook photos of themselves smoking Cohibas and sipping Havana Club on the beach, Kavulich said.

So college kids looking for a bacchanalian spring break should probably stick to standbys like Cancun and Daytona Beach.

U.S. officials vow to weed out frivolous trips.

“If it is simply salsa dancing and mojitos, no. That doesn’t pass the purposeful-travel criteria,” a State Department official involved with the policy said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

If the new travel rules are politically sustainable, they have the potential to be “a big business opportunity,” said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, which offers licensed flights between Miami and Cuba and is expanding in anticipation of a surge of travelers.

“Hopefully (the U.S. government) will be issuing the licenses in a timely way and processing them quickly, and people will be able to begin going down. And we hope we can help them,” Guild said. “It’s a significant change.”


The Sicily Trips Mystery

August 18, 2011

Should you love archaeology, then after you are in Sicily, you must go see the Valley of the Temples, the biggest and most noteworthy collection of ancient Greek ruins identified anyplace. You’ll also find necropolis, residences, avenues and all the other artifacts you would anticipate to see in an ancient metropolis. You might definitely need to see the modest amphitheatre, the a number of auditoria, along with the world-class archaeological museum. Do not leave out the Concord Temple; it has 13 tall columns that show the effects of the wind. Located outside the city of Agrigento, situated on the southern coast of Sicily, the temples appear dramatic in the evening when floodlights outline their shape and size.

December four, Saint Barbara Day, is celebrated within the Sicilian town of Paterno on the slopes of Mount Etna volcano. Immediately after the parade citizens set up a nativity scene. Santa Lucia Day, December 13, is celebrated in numerous Italian localities such as the city of Siracusa whose massive parade consists of a golden coffin carrying the saint to the Church of Santa Lucia. There’s a week of festivities culminating with a massive fireworks display over the harbor and one more parade that brings the coffin back to the crypt. Among the many nativity scenes ensure that to see 1 in Custonaci, which is re-enacted inside a cave. The exhibition includes a conventional nativity scene and an ancient village complete with shops. The town of Acireale is also recognized for its nativity scene. Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Palermo with fireworks and an outdoor music show.

Nearly every region on the island has a museum dedicated to the history of it. This 1 is dedicated towards the ancient city of Agrigento plus the surrounding area. Like several other Sicily museums, this 1 displays antiquities identified throughout excavations that occurred within the 20th century. The highlights of this museum contain finds from the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and nearby cities.

Examples of other tours the tourist could delight in consist of: In Trapani, the “Myth, History and Ancient Cookies: Erice and Segesta” tour, which is usually a full day private tour to learn about the history of Sicily, view a Greek temple and theatre, and sample the almond cookies and marzipan from ancient recipes; the “Alcantara Gorge and Fancavilla” tour, which is usually a private tour along the gorge to witness how the lava flows affected the river making the impressive gorges and ravines and where the tourist can rent hip-waders to get the full river experience; there’s also the “Messina Taormina Jewish Tour” where visitors can see the Jewish quarter in the city of Messina.

Should you desire to get additional info about the Sicily island, I’d like to show you these further resources:

– If you want to get more travel info to tour Sicily, I’d suggest you have a look at these traveler’s F.A.Q. Sicily-tour.net offers a nice article which lists of the most common activities to do while in Sicily <a href=”here  herehttp://www.sicily-tour.net/activities-sicily-tours.htm”>here</a>

– The resources listed below are blogs managed by real Sicilians which share their experiences to help tourists obtain out of the box facts. <a href=”the”>the”>  http://www.etnaexcursions.org  “>the mount Etna excursions blog</a> is often a cost-free blog that shares info for those who what to visit the Volcano Etna and see its summit craters.

– The info posted below will help self guided travelers to find more info about the Sicily’s hidden gems. Sicilytourguides.net offers a good list of shore excursions for boat lovers <a href=”below  below   belowhttp://www.sicilytourguides.net/Taormina_day_tours.htm”>below</a>.


Nature-watching in South Sudan

August 11, 2011

By J.L.

AT NIGHT in a slum room by the Nile I am woken by mosquitoes, then by thunder. When I wake again, before dawn, there is the sound of rain on the tin roof. The phone rings; the driver is waiting. The rain turns to drizzle. I drive down to the airstrip in a Toyota Land Cruiser that belongs to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The heavy car pitches like a ship on the dirt roads of Juba, the capital of the soon-to-be-independent country of South Sudan.

I have two goals this morning: to be one of the few people ever to see the second-largest animal migration in the world and not to puke up the “prosciutto” pizza I had for dinner last night. On the airstrip I meet up with Paul Elkan, an intrepid, dogged, and all-round all-star conservationist who heads up WCS’s activities in South Sudan. The charity is advising the government of South Sudan on the establishment of national parks and has taken a lead in properly documenting the animal migrations in South Sudan. The plane is a Cessna 182. It stands squeezed in between a couple of helicopters, a Twin Otter from the World Food Programme and another plane of the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service. Paul shows how the Cessna has been kitted out for aerial surveys of the animals—extra fuel tanks, more glass in the cockpit, more electronics, different landing gear and so on. It was gifted to the WCS by an American family and named for their daughter Annie, who died of cancer. The plane is expertly prepped by two South Sudanese employees of WCS. The wings have been chained to concrete bollards to prevent the plane being blown away in windstorms; there are no hangars in Juba.

Annie has flown 1675 hours so far, many of them with Paul at the controls. I am nervous. Despite the amount of flying I do in sticky and remote bits of Africa, I do not enjoy being in the air. Flying in Africa, even commercially, often means being buffeted by thermals rising up off broken pieces of land like bonfires. The sea feels more my element, but the sea is far away. Moreover, the last time I went animal-spotting in a small plane, in Kenya, I lost a heavy lunch into a thin plastic bag.

This morning is overcast however and less than 30º Celsius—cool by Juba standards. I clamber into the co-pilot’s seat. We take off and push through the blue mists hanging over the Nile and get out into the wild country to the east of Juba. A storm monitor shows activity to the north. Paul uploads the co-ordinates of the animals he has collared from Google Earth. He flies the Annie very low, with the windows open. The vultures in the tops of the dispersed savannah trees are distinct. For an hour we continue into a wild land the size of Denmark, which South Sudan hopes will be the Bandingalo National Park. There is a track cut from the black cotton soil. It turns to mud in the rains and is impassable for much of the year. But there is nothing else human in Bandingalo; no paths, no cattle, no fires, nothing humanly planted, no habitation of any kind. For this day I am a Gulliver, passing into a magical place which has never been touched.  Raed More about this story: http://www.economist.com/blogs/gulliver/2011/06/nature-watching-south-sudan


Lower Valley of the Awash-Ethiopia

August 6, 2011

Awash valley contains one of the most important groupings of palaeontological sites on the African continent. The remains found at the site, the oldest of which date back at least 4 million years, provide evidence of human evolution which has modified our conception of the history of humankind. The most spectacular discovery came in 1974, when 52 fragments of a  skeleton enabled the famous Lucy to be reconstructed The development that took place in the Lower Valley of the Awash changed the history of mankind. The hominid remains excavated there are characteristic of a unique type.

Most of the Miocene and Plio-Pleistocene palaeo-anthropological localities that have provided information about the ancestors of mankind are concentrated in the East African Rift  ystem. This is due to the fact that volcanic and tectonic activities were responsible for creating dynamic environments for the proliferation of life and the preservation of faunal and floral remains within the confines of the rift. Volcanic and tectonic activities related to rift evolution created plateaus and mountains; most of the sediments in the basins were derived from these topographic highs located within and outside the rift valleys. Lavas, volcaniclastic sediments, and tephra were responsible for the quick burial and preservation of fossils. However, there
are numerous gaps in the fossil record representing an important period (10-5 million years BP) pertinent to the understanding of the pongid/hominid split and the extinction and appearance of numerous taxa. The Middle Awash valley contains late Miocene fossiliferous sedimentary sequences that can fill this gap. Detailed geological, palaeontological,  alaeoenvironmental, and palaeoecological studies in the Middle Awash fluvial and lacustrine fossiliferous sedimentary rocks are addressing the environment-related evolutionary issues.

From 1973 to 1976, a team of international specialists working in the Lower Valley of the Awash excavated a large entire of extremely well-preserved human and animal fossils. These remains, the oldest of which are at least 4 million years old, constitute evidence of human evolution which has modified the history of mankind. The most complete fossil found at this site is the remains of the skeleton of a humanoid, certain traits of which link it with the australopithecine species whereas certain others place it with Homo sapiens. The most spectacular
discovery came in 1974 at the site of Hadar, when 52 fragments of a skeleton enabled the famous hominid known as Lucy to be reconstructed. The term ‘hominid’ refers to a member of the zoological family Hominidae; hominids share a suite of characteristics which define them as a group. The most conspicuous of these traits is bipedal locomotion, or walking upright. As in a modern human’s skeleton, Lucy’s bones are full of evidence clearly pointing to bipedality. At Hadar the size difference between males and female is very clear, with larger males and smaller females being fairly easy to distinguish: Lucy clearly fits into the smaller group.

The hominid-bearing sediments in the Hadar formation are divided into three members. Lucy was found in the highest of these, the Kada Hadar member. Although fossils cannot be dated directly, the deposits in which they are found sometimes contain volcanic flows and ashes, which can be dated. According to these dates Lucy is dated to just less than 3.18 million BP. Although several hundred fragments of hominid bone were found at the Lucy site, there was no duplication of bones. The bones all come from an individual of a single species, a single size, and a single developmental age. In life, she would have stood about 1 m tall and weighed 27-30 kg. There are several indicators which give an idea of her age: her third molars; all the ends of her bones and her cranial sutures indicate a completed skeletal development; her vertebrae show signs of degenerative disease. All these indicators, when taken together, suggest that she was a young, but fully mature, adult when she died. No cause has been determined for Lucy’s death. The remains are stored in a specially constructed safe in the Paleoanthropology Laboratories of the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa.

Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC


City of London

August 6, 2011

The royal city of London is a personal favorite of mine and with the recent marriage of Kate Middleton and Prince William, it has captured a lot of buzz. Londonhas a lot of interesting historical sites and since I am a history buff I certainly enjoyed it. Also, just like many Englishmen, I am a huge tea addict. Did you know most Englishmen drink over twenty times more tea than Americans?

London is a large city with many attractions and is filled with fashion, royalty, and history. The “Tube” is London’s underground railway system and was the first one built in the world! If you’ve visited London, you probably have been on the tube. Some must-see attractions are the Westminster Abbey, The Tower of London and its crown jewels, and the royal palaces of Kensington and Buckingham to name a few. Also, for those that love art, the National Gallery of London and the Tate Modern are must-sees. For those fashionistas out there, you can enjoy the famous Harrod’s Department Store as well as the boutiques along Oxford Street.

The London Eye is another attraction that shouldn’t be missed. It’s the tallest observation wheel in the world and each rotation takes about thirty minutes! At the very top of the wheel, you can see a beautiful view of the entire city! A colleague of mine recently visited London and had a great time. Read more to find out about her royal adventure.  Read more: http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/homepage.htm


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