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Monday, April 27, 2009

Grief tourism or simply the thing that you do? Are war memorials the new churches?

"I reckon grief tourism is a void filled by a lack of religion or interest in religion. It's the thing that you do when you can't be bothered going to a church on your travels. I think it's still all about entertainment. I don't think it's about actual grief," wrote a reader, Sandy, in response to my posts about Australia's Anzac Day last weekend, here and here. I've been reflecting upon Sandy's comments all week. Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance (as you travel around Australia you'll see the words "Lest we forget" on every war memorial) to honour the 11,000 Australians and New Zealanders who died at Gallipoli, Turkey, during World War 1. Over the years it became a day to commemorate those who fought in other wars serving our country. When I was young it was always a day that was for older people, those who'd fought in the first and/or second world wars and their children (my grandparents/parents), and the grandchildren (my parents/my generation) always seemed to be dragged along reluctantly to parades and dawn services. But for a young generation of Australians, the great-grandchildren of the Anzacs (and younger), participating in Anzac Day, and travelling as far as Gallipoli for 25 April, has become a cool thing to do in recent years. So much so that in 2005, 17,000 people, mostly young Australians, were at Anzac Cove at Gallipoli for the dawn service. What was once a solemn ceremony turned into a day of drunken debauchery with the music videos screened to entertain the crowds creating a party atmosphere fueled by alcohol (officially banned). Following negative media coverage, numbers declined with just 10,000 Aussies present in 2008. However, it was clear that Gallipoli had become a magnet for Aussie backpackers and their behavior had become so bad that in Lonely Planet's recent Turkey guidebook, author Virginia Maxwell urged Aussie travellers to consider their impact as tourists and stay away from Gallipoli on 25 April 2009, and instead visit at other times of the year. (See Gemma Pitcher's story on NineMSN's travel: Lonely Planet: Stay Away from Anzac Service.) Behavior was modified and last weekend's ceremony at Gallipoli was considerably more sober, despite numbers remaining high. But how do we explain the popularity of Gallipoli amongst backpackers who once upon a time would rather have been partying on a beach in Bali, or Goa, or Koh Samui... Has Gallipoli become 'the thing that you do'? Are the tours there a form of 'grief tourism', an opportunity to appreciate what it was really like for those who fought and died at Gallipoli - to feel how cold it could get, to understand how hard it was to climb up those hills - or is it just another key sight for travellers to tick off on a long list that includes everything from the Eiffel Tower to St Peter's Basilica? In the absence of religion, and the lack of knowledge about and disinterest in churches that a young generation must have, are those extravagant European cathedrals now passe? Are war memorials the new churches?

Update: if this topic interests you, you might also be interested in this story "'Drunk, drugged-up Kiwis' treat Gallipoli' as party", published 6 April 09, which was motivated by comments from NZ Herald readers, including one New Zealand traveller on their way to Gallipoli last week who was embarrassed to be part of a group who had no idea what Anzac Day was all about and were simply going to get "hammered".

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Anzac Day imagery and 'young Australia': national identity and the need for heroes

I recall when the defining image of Anzac Day was a shot of craggy faced old diggers in uniform, slouch hats on their heads, medals on chests, marching with pride, many pushing their comrades in wheelchairs. Now the media is saturated with images of young Australians, standing on the beach at Gallipoli, in over-sized sunnies, hoodies and beanies, 'tattoos' of Aussie flags painted on their cheeks, themselves swathed in the Australian flag, like this image here and here. While we've still seen images of veterans on parade, flags being lowered, hymns being sung, and soldiers playing two-up, pictures of young people participating in Anzac Day services, particularly at Gallipoli, have proliferated in the Australian media in recent days. Admittedly, none of the original Anzac diggers are left, and there are fewer veterans around from other campaigns. But I'm curious as to why we weren't seeing more images of the young Iraqi veterans at Anzac Day events? And why the media wasn't taking the opportunity to tell their stories. Perhaps because Iraq is a war Australia shouldn't have fought in and hence once they want to forget? But Anzac Day had come to symbolize so much more for Australia than just Gallipoli - it was always an opportunity to commemorate the fallen from other wars. So why, I'm wondering, when Australia has fought so many other battles, is there now a focus on Gallipoli and on young Australians making the pilgrimage there? When, how and why did Gallipoli begin to inspire young Aussies?

Some revealing comments come from Australia's politicians who joined the grief tourists in Turkey
- an act itself that's an indication of how important the event - and being seen to participate in the event - has become to Australians. Interviewed at Gallipoli, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said: "There was a very good crowd of young Australians there, I think reflecting that these days it's both a commemoration of those that lost their lives... but also a celebration of some of our national characteristics and values and virtues." Smith explained what those were: "The great Australian notion of a fair go, of looking out for one's mates, of a sense of humour in adversity, and the sure and certain knowledge that however bad circumstances might be, there was always someone else worse off who needs a helping hand." He said: "Short moments on the beach, and long months in the trenches, in conditions of the greatest adversity have taken on profound significance over time - they now say something about our characteristic as a people and our spirit as a nation." And: "The soil on which we stand today has extraordinary significance for our people and our nation," he said. "It is a place of terrible loss, solemn memory and now immense national pride."

As an Australian who has been away for a decade, I'm struggling to understand when and how
Gallipoli took on this "extraordinary" meaning for Australians. New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees, who was with a school group who travelled to Gallipoli on a Government scholarship, said: "Anzac days at school often had real diggers from the wars come and talk. With the last digger dying 10 years ago that option is not available for the new generation of students." So because the Anzac diggers have all gone, the kids go to Turkey instead? As a travel writer, I'm grappling to understand how a new generation of young grief tourists has formed, but perhaps this statement by Australia's ambassador to Turkey Peter Doyle is the most revealing: "The Anzacs … helped to tell us who we are, we created their legend, and made them our heroes," he said. Ah-huh...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Anzac Day, sacred moments, and the revival of Australian nationalism

It's the Anzac Day long weekend here in Australia, and as an Australian who has lived overseas since 1998, I'm finding the experience an odd one. While I appreciate the tragedy that was The Battle of Gallipoli and the pointless loss of lives, particularly those of the ANZACs (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp) who were sent to slaughter, I feel completely disconnected from the sentiment that an increasing number of Australians, especially young Aussies, are feeling. According to media reports this weekend, there was a Big turnout for Anzac Day marches (ABC) and Thousands of young Aussies pay homage at Gallipoli (Brisbane Times). In Aussies keep the faith on Anzac Day, Sydney Morning Herald reporter Doug Conway writes: "A navy chaplain called it "a sacred moment" - dawn on April 25, when a nation remembers the 1.8 million Australians who have gone off to war and the 102,000 who never came back. On the 94th such sacred moment, Australians showed that as the ranks of veterans dwindles, so the numbers of those honouring them swells. In cities and towns around Australia, at Gallipoli and on the western front, in NZ, PNG, Britain and the US, tens of thousands were urged to keep faith with the Anzac spirit." While I'm open to experiencing "sacred moments", this one passed me by. I spent the day at my desk writing, feeling little duty or desire to attend an Anzac service or parade. I'm not even sure what it means to "keep faith" with the Anzac spirit, nor what that 'spirit' is, because the 'national character' it was meant to capture has eluded us on our recent travels here. I'm not so sure that it exists anymore - if it ever existed at all. Perhaps it's because I've lived 'away' for so long and travelled so much that I feel (as pretentious as this might sound) more a citizen of the globe than of one particular nation. And I like it that way. I like being 'globalized', feeling 'international' in spirit. I know what that means. But I don't understand nor do I like the spirit of nationalism that seems to have swept Australia, the ugliest 'ism' of all. It's one that in Australia I associate with the Cronulla riots and many Australians' unquestioning support of John Howard, George Bush and the Iraq War. So while I appreciate the need in human beings for "sacred moments" and I understand how Anzac Day tourism has developed, in the way that any form of dark tourism or grief tourism develops - although to be honest I'm not even sure that's what's happening when Aussie backpackers visit Gallipoli - I am deeply uncomfortable with the revival in nationalism among young Australians.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Travel by postcards: A Little Beijing

I receive a lot of emails offering to send me products to review... travel books, CDs, language-learning tools, you name it. I'm halfway through several books which I dip into before I drift off to sleep each night, and I'm trying to learn Italian again. And I will get around to writing those reviews soon, I promise. But there's one special product I received from Singapore yesterday which I couldn't resist placing at the top of the reviewing pile that I'm itching to tell you about - something that appeals both to my fondness for postcards and my constant search (and desire to dabble in) new forms of travel guides...

The Accidental Traveler,
Linzy Q, who blogs at My Impromptu Travel Journal emailed: "I came across your blog about Postcard Stories and I really like what you wrote. I'm wondering if you would be interested in something that I've published. Entitled "A Little Beijing", it is a publication that stitches together photographs, maps and descriptions of quaint destinations throughout the city in the form of 60 postcards + 1 map of the itinerary. Each day, travellers follow pre-determined routes (outlined on a color coded map) and carry with them approximately 10 corresponding postcards. Upon visiting a place, travellers scribble down their thoughts and mail them back home. Once they get back, a complete documentation of their trip should be waiting for them in the post."

Not only is 'A Little Beijing' a novel concept, but it's every bit as enchanting as it sounds! I'm sure I squealed with delight as I opened the packaging. The postcards come in a handy box, the instructions are easy to understand, the off-the-beaten-track itineraries are well thought-out (intriguing neighbourhoods, quirky points of interest, well-paced) and easy to follow, and the postcards themselves are gorgeous - fabulous photography and beautifully designed (Linzy has won awards for the design). They are the kinds of interesting, arty postcards you only wish they sold in Beijing, the kinds of postcards you would buy if you could anyway, indeed, they're the kinds of images you'd happily gaze at on the wall of an art gallery and wish they also came in postcards.

And while I adore Linzy's idea of following the itineraries on the cards and jotting down your reflections of the places you visit and sending the cards home to yourself as a keepsake, I also love the idea of sending them back to your family members or to a close group of friends who can share what you're up to with eachother while you're away, piecing together the narrative of your journey like a jigsaw puzzle. I told you in Postcards to my Mum about my mother's accident a few years ago and how when she was in hospital in Perth and I was on the road researching a book in Greece I used to send her a postcard a day. I can see 'A Little Beijing' having similar uses... how wonderful to share your journey to Beijing with an invalid grandmother or another family member or friend who can't travel but who travels precariously through you... think of the possibilities.

You can buy A Little Beijing at Linzy's blog or bookstores in Hong Kong and Singapore, which she lists on her blog. Well, if anything, isn't it just a great excuse to go to Beijing?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Twitter, travel itineraries and travel junkets

I'm so busy writing (two books on Australia) that I have little time for blogging. I could easily spend all day every day doing nothing but writing, but I need to cram coffee breaks with things other than travel writing to keep me sane - like trip-planning (Dubai, Venice and Spain next) and reading:
* You know how I find itineraries fascinating (read
this post and this one)... well Heather on her Travels has undertaken an interesting experiment, posting a '36 hours in Berlin' itinerary with a difference. It includes the itinerary she planned before she went to Berlin and what she actually did when she got there. Worth a study for aspiring travel writers.
* In 'Sour Grapes' over at Wide angles, wine and wanderlust, Terry is blogging about a story in the Sydney Morning Herald, 'So fresh, so clean, so not buying', that has us both bewildered. We're not sure what's more objectionable - that the writer proudly discourages readers visiting one of Australia's greatest wine regions to not by the wines (!) at a time when the government and tourism bodies are trying to persuade Aussies to take their leave and do stay-cations to help save the economy. Or the fact that his trip was paid for by the South Australian Tourism Commission.
* At educational travel blog Following the Equator, Eric is enjoying Twitter and has posted a list of 50 Travel Tweepers on Twitter (including moi), while World Hum has posted Twitter Tips from 25 Tweeting Travellers. The latter is being seen by many, including Jessica Spiegel at BootsnAll as a tactic to lure back pro-Twitter travellers who were offended by columnist Rolf Potts' answer to a reader's question "Should I Twitter from the Road?" I'll let you read Potts' response and the heated debate that ensues in the comments, but essentially he likens Twitter users to a former college mate Doug, who he thinks was a "doofus" because he continually updated his answer machine message with mundane details about his comings and goings. Potts believes using Twitter on the road will distract you from amazing local experiences. What he doesn't seem to understand is that Twitter can do exactly the opposite and allow you to connect with (and meet and get advice from) like-minded locals (not only other travellers) in a way that you could never have been before. Jessica writes a fantastic post on the whole twittroversy (?!): To Use Twitter for Travel or Not to Use It: Is That Really the Question? while Vicky Baker at Going Local, also reflects on it. Vicky, who occasionally posts about Twitter, also asks 'Are you a social netsetter?'

Pictured? Camel-trainers exercising their camels in Dubai. That's Terry crouched in between them shooting pics. When we lived at Al Mankhool and before they moved the track, we'd regularly head over there on weekends to watch them train. The second bloke on the camel is on his mobile phone. Most of these guys would either be chatting or texting on their mobiles from the backs of their camels. I wouldn't be surprised if when I return next month I find they're using Twitter.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Dubai Melting Pot is in the Kitchen Too

Technicalities aside (see my previous post on Dubai as 'salad bowl' rather than 'melting pot') I was pleased to read The Dubai Melting Pot Is In the Kitchen Too in the New York Times. After an abundance of Dubai-bashing in the media recently, it was a relief to see a story by a writer who actually enjoyed himself in Dubai, and to read a well-researched piece of travel and food writing that gave such a scrumptious insight into the place. However, often it's the focused, one-subject stories that are more revealing than the all-encompassing pieces that try to do everything and don't end up covering anything particularly well at all. While cuisine, cooking and a culture's eating habits tell a lot about a place, in this case what's heartening is the fact that the story was centered, that it stayed on topic, that it rang true, and that it dug a little (although perhaps not as deep as it could have), rather than staggered all about the place, scratching here and there at the surface, and scraping together nothing but castles in the sand. During his three-day "odyssey across the culinary landscape of Dubai" writer Seth Sherwood samples an array of restaurants featuring cuisine from North Africa to the Sub-Continent, crediting Dubai’s cosmopolitan population for this culinary diversity, and writing "For devotees of food from the Arabian-Islamic world, Dubai may offer the grandest and most concentrated smorgasbord on the planet." Okay, so they're not really 'Arabian' (he probably means Arabic), but we'll forgive him because at least he was there. You see, I still can't get over Brisbane writer Elizabeth Farrelly's nonsensical piece in which she admitted that she had never been there but strangely for six months had "wanted to write about Dubai as a ruin". In stark contrast Sherwood's piece is grounded in reality: "Though the international economic crisis has raged like a sandstorm through Dubai’s office towers, financial markets and construction sites, a January visit found the sprawling restaurant scene remarkably intact." He concludes: "The upshot is a citywide food bazaar in which restaurants, high- and low-end, serve up tapaslike mezes, aubergine par excellence, fluffy couscous, tangy yogurts, endless kebabs, meats stewed with fruit, fiery arrak liqueur and honey-drenched desserts. All you need is taxi fare and a love of spices." I couldn't agree more. Although I don't always agree with his choices. Sherwood covers everything from the chic Moroccan restaurant Almaz by Momo (pictured) to the gritty Pakistani worker's eatery, Ravi, an expat favorite. The challenge of doing a story like this is that the writer only has three days to eat his way around the city and has to rely on his research abilities as much as his skills at discernment whereas we have had 11 years of dining in Dubai, with plenty of time for repeat visits. Another reason I love guidebook writer - 6 weeks in a city allows you plenty of time to return to places, to wander by on different nights, and to talk to locals. But once again - at least he was there.

Dubai - more of a 'salad bowl' than a 'melting pot'

Dubai is a big delicious bowl of salad. And a fusion salad at that. Don't you think? While the term 'melting pot' gets used a lot, it's not a 'melting pot' in the strict sense of the concept, in that there hasn't been an assimilation or intermarriage of ethnicities to the extent that the original cultures have been lost and the culture as a whole has become homogeneous. Far from it. Indeed, that's not really a desirable thing anymore anyway, is it? For me, Dubai is more of a 'salad bowl' of cultures, where individuals, families and ethnic groups are all enticingly mixed together but they each retain their own unique identities, and the rich traditions and wonderful customs that make them special. Indeed, Dubai, or rather, the United Arab Emirates, is one of the most multicultural places I know, where alongside the Emiratis, the Iranians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Russians, French, British, and so on are all able to maintain their own cultures, eat at their own restaurants, shop for the same groceries they might buy back home, worship in their mosques, temples and churches, shop for their own music etc - and those of us who relish the opportunity to consume other cultures are able to thrive by living in such a cosmopolitan society that is as rich as the best of them (Canada? Australia?) in terms of its cultural diversity.

Pictured? Foreign visitors (from the UK, Europe, Australia and North America) waiting to try home-cooked Emirati food at the Cultural Breakfast at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Bastakiya, Dubai. This is one the first things I recommend people do when they visit Dubai - it gives them a great insight into the local culture, religion and people, and goes a long way to breaking down stereotypes and misconceptions.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What's in my backpack?

A collection of SIM cards from around the world, several mobile phones, a Canon G10 (cracked screen and all!) and a swag of notebooks among other things, but you can find out more by visiting Matador. Although I have to admit, I don't really use a backpack unless I'm going on a bushwalk or trek, but I always keep one in my Samsonite. But I won't tell you more here. You can drop by Matador and check out the interview and the gear I haul around with me. Also take a look at their chats with other travel writers, photographers and podcasters as part of Matador's ongoing series: What's in your backpack? And do have a look at Terry's post on his back-up process on the road, which saved me last week when I had to replace my Mac. Back to work for me... busy week ahead.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Dark Side of Journalism

A debate over the Hari article and other Dubai-bashing stories, such as a recent piece in the Toronto Star titled 'Dubai how not to build a city' (this one in the whole "city of superlatives" sub-genre, and equally as bad as Hari's, laced with just as many cliches and factual and historical errors) is raging in the blogosphere, particularly on UAE blogs such as Grape Shisha, who posts about the Toronto story; Secret Dubai Diary (a blogger who surprisingly liked Hari's piece); and the UAE Community Blog, where SamuraiSam posts a hilarious piece titled Dark Side, in which he writes: "Dear international media, You need to write more articles that reference the 'dark side of Dubai', there are clearly not enough." Sam links to 12 articles, including stories by the BBC, The Guardian, ABC News, The Times, Time, and Bloomberg, which all use the 'Dark Side' in their melodramatic headlines. This is exactly why I thought Hari's piece was a parody. There's the 'Dark side of the Dubai dream', the 'Dark Side of Dubai's Boomtown', the Dark side of Dubai’s economic boom..., Carole Cadwalladr explores the dark side of Dubai, and - my favorite - 'The Dark Side of Splendor." What about 'The Dark Side of Journalism'?

Terry has written a particularly fine post on the subject (his last), 'This is my last Dubai goodbye', over at his blog Wide Angles Wine & Wanderlust. Do take a read.

Looking at the bright side of Dubai

The story 'The Dark Side of Dubai' apparently wasn't the parody I had hoped it to be, however, while I was disappointed to see The Independent (a paper I have written for before - on Dubai) print such an appalling piece, I'm pleased to see that in an effort to provide some balance they have printed Emirati columnist Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi's 'If you think Dubai is bad, just look at your own country' (although Dubai of course is not a country, it's a city-state or emirate). Also see the reprint of the story at The Huffington Post just to read the articulate comment from SAS. You might also want to read Al Qassemi's piece 'Looking at the bright side of Dubai' in Arabian Business. The British government's response to Hari's piece, the BBC's recent Panorama story on Dubai, and a slew of other stories, is also interesting - read 'UK Government distances itself from Dubai criticism', the result of a Foreign Office-organized press conference in Dubai, which has appeared in a number of publications. It will be fascinating to see if the debate continues in the media, especially the news media. We all know media organizations have agendas. Editors carefully weigh up whether and how to run with stories. Essays like Hari's don't slip in accidentally. So it will be interesting to see if and how this discourse impacts the travel media where advertising plays a powerful and pivotal role. Airlines like Emirates and Etihad spend huge dollars on advertising.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Dark Side of Dubai: a hilarious must-read parody of the Dubai-bashing genre

A brilliant parody of the Dubai-bashing genre of article of which we've seen a spate recently in the US, UK and Australian media, has been published by The Independent called The Dark Side of Dubai by Johann Hari. (To save me linking to all the stories, see this accurate analysis of the process 'reporters' visiting Dubai appear to go through to produce the trash they've been publishing, by a reader, The Consultant, in the comments at Arabian Business.) A lot of people are getting very upset about this story. Not only Emiratis but expats who have lived in the UAE for a long time who know the place intimately, understand its complexities, and love it for all its flaws. Nobody's dismissing the treatment and hardships experienced by foreign construction workers nor the challenges faced by those losing their jobs that are covered in the stories. They're upset at the ongoing media attacks on Dubai (it's truly baffling) and the lack of objectivity and balance in that media coverage, the publication of factual errors, exaggerations and even lies, and the racist tones running throughout much of the coverage. Dubai is not alone as a developing state and economy, nor is it the only state to experience recession.

Now don't get me wrong, as someone who moved to the UAE in 1998, I also share their frustration
but I don't understand why people can't see that 'The Dark Side of Dubai' is a parody. It's so obvious. Just look at the melodramatic title of the story and the piece is jam-packed with over-used Dubai travel writing cliches ("One Thousand and One Arabian Lights", "Dubai Disneyland", "the architecture of the pharaohs as reimagined by Zsa-Zsa Gabor", a "Neverland built on the Neverland"), gross exaggerations (every expat has maids and whole armies of staff, every expat is a CEO etc), and stereotypical characters (Western expat with a Range Rover, "Filipino girl behind the counter", he meets the Emirati at Starbucks, everyone is drunk and partying all the time, blonde Dutch girl in hotpants... p-lease). It's laden with so many historical and factual errors ("in the mid-18th century, a small village was built here." He should have added 'overnight'!), and racism (just read the thing), that it can't possibly be presented as serious news commentary, certainly not something a high quality paper like The Independent would print as truth.

And it's funny on so many levels. There's a whole parody of the simplistic 90s anti-globalization rhetoric first year uni students might have referenced in a "Modernisation and Globalisation" class: the 'East' being consumed by the 'West' and its junk-food mega-brand pop culture with the references to Starbucks, Pizza Hutt, Nando's... we should be shocked that the Emirati is wearing 'Western clothes' of blue jeans and a Ralph Lauren shirt - and that he drinks a Coke! C'mon, this is 2009! It has to be a joke. We all know globalization is far more complex than that and our understanding is far more nuanced now. I mean, he actually uses the term "third world".

Still not convinced it's a parody? If you were too gob-smacked to notice the dreadful writing the first time around, take another read. An example: "Thirty years ago, almost all of contemporary Dubai was desert, inhabited only by 'cactuses' and tumbleweed and scorpions." And where was John Wayne? The set of a Hollywood Western comes to mind, right? When was the last time anyone saw native cacti in the Dubai emirate? That very sentence is a clue that this is a piece of fiction. And then there's the surrealism: Hari taking notes in Harvey Nichols as he listens to a sales assistant telling him about a £20,000 taffeta dress! And the melodrama: "And I stop writing." This is too funny. Perhaps it was an April Fools joke-story (like the Dubai double-decker boutique hotel bus announcement from Mr and Mrs Smith) and Hari missed the deadline? But I, for one, am hoping it's a series.

Pictured? That's me... looking for tumbleweeds and cactus. I know where to find scorpions.

*** If you see this story and pic elsewhere, it's because the content has been STOLEN. It's appearing on a number of sites without permission, but, trust me, invoices are on the way!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

At last, a hotel offers a full 24 hour stay - hurray for The Address in Dubai!

I thought the day would never come so I was over the moon to learn that at last a hotel is offering a full 24 hour stay. You can check in anytime you want - yes, that's right - A-N-Y-T-I-M-E - and check out again a whole 24 hours later! At long last guests will actually get what they pay for, instead of the 20 hours they're typically allowed to stay if they check in at 2pm and check out by 10am, which seems to be the norm these days. So three cheers for The Address, and it's sister-property The Palace, in Dubai, two properties that are part of the new Emaar hotel group. You may recall that this was something Terry and I complained about in the 10 things that annoy us about hotels series, and it's something that has really irked us, especially as we spend around 300 days a year in hotels. So we're looking forward to testing out the service when we're back in Dubai, just to make sure there's no catch. We'll let you know how our 24 hour stay goes. Let's hope this innovation catches on. Pictured? That's the sublime spa suite at The Address.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Our Calabria book hits the shelves!

The first edition of our Calabria guidebook which we wrote for Thomas Cook Publishing is soon to be released. We spent just over a month there last May researching the book and Terry shot the gorgeous images, and we spent another month or so writing it. It wasn't an easy book to do for a number of reasons, which makes us extra proud. And I was glad to find that I still got a little excited today when I opened the package from London. We've worked on more than 40 guidebooks so it's nice to still get a bit of a kick out of the achievement. But first editions tend to do that for you because they're so completely your own - you do preliminary research, write the outline and shot lists, go on the road and do the real research, in our case Terry also shot the pics, you then write the thing up, do your mapping, answer editor's queries, advise on photos, check the proof, and so on. So it's hard not to feel as if it's your baby.

Which is why I always find it curious when writers don't update their own books. With publishers like Lonely Planet you don't always get the opportunity to - editors move around so much, so by the time an edition needs updating someone else is managing the book and they don't know you from a bar of soap and have writers they like to use. But most publishers invite the original authors to update their books. I've already twice updated the DK Top Ten to Dubai and Abu Dhabi which I co-authored. Yet, along with our Calabria books, copies of Crete, Cyprus, Milan and the Lakes, and Sicily also arrived today - all books I updated during our time in Italy last year; all second editions of books written by other authors. Perhaps the timing wasn't right, there were clashes with other projects, or the job just didn't pay enough. Perhaps the challenges we faced on Calabria provide some insight. We haven't taken a close look at our Calabria book yet but already we've noticed a photo we don't recognise of a seaside restaurant in Cosenza. Cosenza, of course, is inland. And that's the reason Terry refuses to look at our published books. Hopefully the person who updates the second edition will pick that one up.

Keen to read more about Calabria? Take a look at my posts from last year:
On the road again... in Calabria!
Is Calabria the new Puglia?
Calabria: Europe's best-value destination
10 Reasons to travel to Calabria: part 1 & part 2
One more reason to visit Calabria: Liquorice!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Top secrets of travel writers: how to create an itinerary that is inspirational and useful

So you're a travel writer about to create an itinerary? Above all, it needs to be inspiring. You want people to read it and get excited about going to this place. You want them to rip the thing out of the magazine/paper or print it off the web and book a holiday. If you've been commissioned to write the itinerary, it's for a reason. The destination might be hot or emerging, but most likely an airline, hotel or travel agency has bought ad space and they want bums on seats or bods in beds, eg. in the case study of my last post, the itinerary was the result of a junket hosted by the airline and tourism body. As a travel writer, your other main priorities are to ensure the itinerary is useful and that it's loads of fun. Because your ultimate goal is to show your readers the best time they're going to have. Here's how to do it:
1) Keep your readers firmly in mind: your editor will give you a brief, but also research the publication's audience. You'll find this info on the advertising section of their site. Build a mental picture of a typical reader or range of readers and every time you select something ask yourself whether that traveller would enjoy it. For a book we wrote last year a high priority for our readers (mature British travellers) was an evening beer at an alfresco cafe/bar with a view and compelling people-watching. Knowing that influenced the choices we made.
2) Refer to a model itinerary:
ask your editor for an example of an itinerary he/she think best represents their format. If you haven't been commissioned and are gathering content for future stories, use a model you like, one that inspired you.

3) Write about places you know intimately: writers on 5-day junkets should stick to writing reviews or features on specific experiences. Leave itineraries to writers who know places well. Otherwise, readers who are residents and writers like myself will easily pick up mistakes. That means a loss of credibility and a bad time on the part of the reader following your advice, not good for you or your editor.
4) Do thorough research: prep before you go by studying other itineraries, reading up on the destination, and highlighting things that intrigue you. When you're on the ground, visit those places. Talk to ordinary locals as well as those in the industry (ie, your guides/PR rep). Ask people what they like to do, where they like to eat, how they spend their time, and when the best time is to do what they're recommending.
5) Include a few surprises: in addition to the tried-and-tested and must-do's, make your itinerary stand out from the others by including latest openings, local favorites, hidden gems, and things off-the-beaten-track.
6) Test out your itinerary: develop a rough itinerary, then test it out. Follow the whole itinerary yourself. If you arrive some place and it's dead, ask people why and find out when it buzzes and has the most atmosphere. Plan to return at the time suggested to verify their advice.
7) Consider the pacing:
when you're testing out your itinerary, think about how long it's taking to do things. Sure, we're all different: one person might spend 3 hours in a museum another will rush through in an hour. Use averages. But if you're rushing around and not enjoying yourself then you need to spread activities out, no matter how much your editor wants nice neat brackets of time.
8) Avoid including day-specific activities: try not to include something only on a particular night of the week, unless it's really special and then mention it as an aside, rather than the main activity for a specific time.
9) Check practicalities and facts meticulously:
note down opening hours, address, contact details, prices, and map location for every place on your itinerary. Don't rely on distances and durations from Google Maps, but ask locals how long it takes to get between places at different times. For instance, a 25-minute 7am taxi ride from Abu Dhabi's Shangri-La to Emirates Palace might take over 45 minutes on a Thursday/Friday night. If a restaurant needs to be booked 6 weeks in advance, say so in the itinerary.

10) Create an evocative itinerary:
to inspire readers, include details that evoke the atmosphere of the place and intrigue and excite people enough to want to go there. When you visit the place, don't just make notes about your hotel room, meals and museums, but observe the rhythms and details of everyday life and include description about the sights, sounds and smells.

Pictured? The Lebanese night at an Abu Dhabi club; inclusions like these will set your itinerary apart from the rest.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Itineraries: a case study in how not to create them, OR how to have a bad time in 24 hours

There is an art to creating itineraries that are inspirational (the kind travellers want to rip out of magazines and print off the web to save for a trip) and useful (one travellers can follow and have a great time or pick and choose from and still have fun). It's not rocket science. So I'm always astonished when travel writers get them so wrong. Take this recently published 24 hours in Abu Dhabi itinerary:

"Kendall Hill rises early for a taste of coffee and figs, palaces and souks, all set in a desert of gold".
First off, few people rise early in Abu Dhabi. Barely anything opens before 10am. It's sweltering most of the year, so people stay in unless they've got a job or can hit a swimming pool. They head outdoors around sunset to enjoy the cooler temperatures and balmy breezes. Like most Middle Eastern cities, Abu Dhabi is a late night destination; the city is at its buzziest in the evenings. To see it at its best, take it easy during the day, see a sight or two, but you're best sleeping in, relaxing by the pool and conserving your energy for the long, lively, late nights.

7am The first activity is an expensive 'breakfast' of coffee "served on a silver tray with a plump date and a gold-flecked chocolate".
Is that really going to get you through the long day ahead Kendall's scheduled for you? And if you're not staying at Emirates Palace (only 39% of SMH readers probably are; the April rate is AED 2150/Aus$800 for a Coral room, excluding breakfast, and in this economic climate, even affluent travellers will probably opt for a more affordable option), are you really going to get out of bed at 6am to cab it to Emirates Palace for coffee, a date and a chocolate when you could be lingering over the free, lavish breakfast buffet that most Abu Dhabi hotels include with the room?
You're on holidays!

You're off to "the port area of Al Meena" (um, Al Meena means 'the port') to "lose yourself in the souks selling carpets, dates... the cleanest fish you'll ever see and fine fruit and vegetables from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Nearby is the Iranian souk, which houses traders who have crossed the Gulf by dhow to sell household goods and homewares, spices, rugs and fabrics. Prices are tax-free..."
Where do I start? This is full of factual mistakes and bad advice. In the UAE everything is tax-free, even in malls and supermarkets. While it's a good time for the fish and fruit&veg souq, the Iranian Souq and Carpet Souq are best from 5-6pm onwards. The Iranian Souq doesn't 'house' anyone; you'll be lucky to find a soul around before dusk. The atmosphere is best post-sunset when the locals go shopping. The writer is also setting you up for disappointment: he should be warning you these are very modest souqs (far from the sprawling bustling markets in Dubai and nothing like those in Damascus or Cairo), so you're most certainly not going to get lost and there's very little to buy. And you should
not be buying anything at the Carpet Souq, which only sells synthetic rugs of the kind you'd find in K-Mart. Authentic carpets are best bought from reputable carpet shops; expats and locals go to the Carpet Souq for the traditional Bedouin cushioned floor seating that's unique to the Gulf.

"For a falcon's-eye view of the city, take a lift to the top of the Le Royal Meridien hotel... Here, on the 25th floor, there's a rooftop revolving restaurant that non-diners are welcome to visit for a peek at the spectacular panorama."
A standard on my itineraries, this is where I take guests on their last night in Abu Dhabi - for pre-dinner cocktails around 6pm to enjoy the sunset! Why on earth you'd send people here at midday when it's empty for "a peek" when you could send them here later for drinks is beyond me!
... it's because at 1pm you're tucking into "a Levantine lunch at the Lebanese Flower restaurant in downtown Khalidia" at a simple, casual Lebanese eatery that is likely to be empty once again. Great eatery but it's busiest in the evenings, when you'll have the bonus of people-watching. And why you'd want to fill up on a multi-course Arabic meal in the middle of the day is baffling. Most of SMH's Aussie readers would also want a glass of wine or cold beer with their lunch when they're on holidays. I'd be sending readers to a seafood restaurant or alfresco cafe at a hotel by the beach, so they have that option (like all restaurants outside of hotels, the Lebanese Flower doesn't have a liquor license). Nothing beats a glass of crisp white and Omani lobster or oysters sitting in the sunshine overlooking the gorgeous aquamarine Arabian sea.

2pm "Drop by the Cultural Foundation for an insight into the character of the Abu Dhabi people... the foundation hosts regular exhibitions, events and lectures and houses the national library and a cinema screening Western and Arabic films."
Um, not at 2pm it doesn't. The Cultural Foundation shuts its doors to the public at 2pm, re-opening at 5pm. In the morning the place is dead except for school groups and staff; evenings are when it comes alive with nightly performances, screenings and festivals.

5pm For once, the writer has you doing something at the right time, going on a desert safari, although normally they leave town earlier to try to get you to the desert at this time for some dune bashing, sand-boarding,
sunset camel ride, BBQ and belly dancing.

9pm "Toast the day with a cleansing ale in the lush oasis of Le Meridien... home to a lively "culinary village" - Turkish, Thai, French, Tex-Mex and more - and has tap beers in the Captain's Arms pub."
The writer neglects to tell you your desert safari won't get you back to town until 9pm at the earliest, but generally 10pm, and you'll have to change before heading out. Rather than send you for a beer at a smoky British Pub where the bar's propped up by expats at the "culinary village" (restaurants set around gardens), I'd be sending you out for a local experience to one of the city's many sheesha cafes opposite The Corniche (waterside drive) to try aromatic sheesha (hubbly bubbly/narghile/water-pipe) with the Emiratis and Arab expats. Or if you don't inhale, to simply take in the atmosphere over tea. If you prefer something stronger, I'd be suggesting an alfresco lounge bar for a nightcap as you listen to Arabian chill-out music, and if you're up for more, a club to listen (like the one pictured) to live music or have a boogie. One of my favorites hosts a weekly Lebanese night, popular with Arab expats who dress up and dance to improvisational folk-jazz performed by a live band with a DJ spinning. It's a unique experience.
But instead...

11pm "Spend the night at the Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri, a striking canal-front complex of hotel, villas, spa, souk..." Lovely hotel. Although not on a 'canal'; Abu Dhabi is an island and the Shangri-La is on the mainland looking across to the island. But when did you check in here? Because you've been flat out since your 7am 'breakfast' at Emirates Palace (30 minute's drive from here), you didn't even have time to return to the hotel to change your clothes for the desert or change for drinks at the Captain's Arms, and there's no way they'd allow you in wearing casual gear. But now you're checking into a hotel at 11pm when you should be out enjoying a sheesha or drink? Nobody should be in their hotel room in Abu Dhabi at 11pm. The restaurants are still busy and the bars are just getting started. If you're not into drinking and dancing then you should simply be doing as the locals do and strolling the waterfront promenade savouring the balmy evening sea breezes. The last place you should be is tucked into bed!

Pictured? The dome at Emirates Palace, a must-visit if you're not staying here, but head here in the evening (not at 7am!) for a meal, cocktails or a coffee, when, like everywhere in Abu Dhabi, the place just buzzes with activity and the people-watching is unbeatable.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The beauty of a good itinerary: it's simply about showing you a good time

I asked you in my last post if you used itineraries and, if so, how you used them. I loved your responses - from Michael who creates his own itineraries but is happy to be spontaneous if an exciting opportunity presents itself (like tapas bar hopping with a friendly stranger in Spain!) to TravelMuse who has planned itineraries for trips with groups of friends with military precision. Zenaida and The Global Traveller both read itineraries for inspirational value then once on the ground discard them to chart their own journeys of discovery. Larry sees following an itinerary as one step up from following a tour guide with an umbrella, while David finds the '48 hours in...' itineraries a dull read, never covering anything particularly well, and Jamie notes that it wasn't always possible to get through everything a guidebook itinerary recommends. Itineraries can be dull to read, and they can be jammed with so much to see and do that following them is more hard work than it is fun. And when they try too hard to please everyone they can ultimately please no one. One itinerary recently published that I came across was in fact all of those things, which is actually what motivated my last post - and I'm going to come back to that tomorrow, because it's itineraries like those that give good itineraries a bad name. Seriously. I've literally written hundreds of the things, for scores of guidebooks, papers like The Independent (on Dubai, Muscat, Doha), in-flight magazines such as Hemispheres (3 Perfect Days in Dubai), which I think publishes some of the best itineraries around, and travel sites such as Viator (see our 3 day Dubai itinerary). Some editors take itineraries very seriously and they want their writers to do so too. They write detailed briefs and if writers diverge from these then they want to know why. I recall an exchange of emails with Simon Calder who had questioned how much eating and drinking I had readers doing on my Doha itinerary, going from a meal at the souq, on to aperitifs, then straight to dinner; he'd wanted them to do something more active in between. Hemispheres editor Randy Johnson was also a stickler for detail, raising concerns about whether I had people doing too much on a particular day in my Dubai itinerary. What I enjoyed about working with these editors on those itineraries is that they cared about their readers. And so do I. When I create an itinerary what is always utmost in my mind is: am I showing my readers a great time? That's where the 'art' of creating a good itinerary lies.