Colombia, Iceland and Canada are among the destinations that travel experts Arthur and Pauline Frommer are recommending for 2016, while extremely favorable currency make Japan a comparative bargain.
At the beginning of a new year, “all over the US, journalists are asked to drop lists – those lists too often consist of absolutely unknown locations with funny names you have never heard,” said Arthur Frommer at the New York Times Travel Show at the Javits Center. “I don’t like that approach. Sometimes I feel a destination that receives no tourism at all, often deserves the notoriety – places do not receive tourism because don’t deserve it. I would prefer to talk about destinations that are well known, familiar to you, but which have not in recent years received the tourism that they deserve.”
Two destinations that fit that bill are Colombia and Iceland.
By all standards, Colombia should be visited by millions of American tourists because the South American nation has all the ingredients for a successful travel destination – Colombia is located a reasonable distance away, has gorgeous climate, and has several major cities with well preserved colonial sections, with coffee plantations just outside.
“The people are referred to as the happiest people on earth. Colombia has a literary history (Gabriel García Márquez, author of ‘100 Years of Solitude,’ ‘Love in a Time of Cholera,’ ‘The General in his Labyrinth’). It has every ingredient – museums, colonial structures, superb restaurants. And yet, Colombia has never been visited in any numbers to any city other than port of Cartagena, visited by cruise ships and always regarded as an acceptable entry. Why was this? Why has Colombia been so much in shadows of tourism? Because until recently, it had an active military insurgency led by guerrilla group FARQ, and one city, Medellin, was known for drug-related violence, indeed, the capital of the drug trade.”
But, Frommer said relative new developments have turned that around and made Colombia a destination worth visiting. “The Colombian government entered into peace treaty with former insurgents, ending the insurgency. Military guerrillas returned to the cities and normal politics of a democratic nation. Drug cartels have been eliminated from Medellin and today, all observers will say Colombia is absolutely safe to make a visit, especially its three leading cities: Bogata, Medellin, Cartagena; it is safe to go to great coffee plantations outside the cities (reminiscent of Juan Valdez).” What is more, tourism to Colombia has gotten a boost from the sudden emergence of a budget airline, Viva Colombia, started by businessmen in Colombia to fly tourists at much lower fares than usual.
“Viva Colombia now flies several times a week from Miami to Bogata and Medellin for the astonishing price of $171 roundtrip. The carrier also flies between Bogata and Medellin, and offers to Americans this wonderful prospect of being able to visit a typical South American country which happens to have the highest economic progress of any South American country today. To the surprise of many, it is one of two hot destinations for 2016.”
The second destination to emerge into its own, he said, “is just as much a surprise: that seemingly frigid giant island in the middle of the Atlantic, Iceland.” Americans used to visit Iceland, but only in a limited manner – flying into the capital Reykjavík (often as a stopover while flying to or from Europe on Icelandic Air), to spend two days eating, taking in a rock n’ roll show, then a 40 minute-excursion outside capital city to the Blue Lagoon, mineral hot baths, where they would slather themselves with white mud. “For some reason, this year of all years, there is an explosion in interest in making a more extensive visit to Iceland. People want to rent a car and travel around Iceland – the terrain is reminiscent of Yellowstone National Park, with constant geysers, jets of steam rising from the earth. There are 30-40 blue lagoons – mineral hot baths.”
Iceland, which stood up to international bankers and rebuilt its economy after the 2008 financial collapse, also provides an example of a phenomenon Arthur Frommer has noted of travelers who don’t just explore the cultural, historical and natural attractions, but are also interested in probing other nations’ solutions to economic, political and social problems to come back with a larger perspective.
Indeed, he pointed to how documentary film maker Michael Moore devoted substantial portion of his latest film, ‘Where to Invade Next’ (which suggests that instead of the US invading countries that we have to rebuild, we should invade countries that are already successful), to Iceland where women not only participate but dominate government, and not just the office of president, but heads of most cabinets. Also, of the four major banks of Iceland, three went bankrupt in the 2008 economic crisis but the only survivor was the bank run by women. “They explained that if they were told of a financial transaction to invest that they didn’t understand, they refrained.” And so were spared the tragedy of succumbing to derivatives and credit swaps and such that felled so many other financial giants.
Cuba, “a formerly forbidden paradise” which emerged last year, is high on the list for 2016 as well. Arthur Frommer visited twice as an accredited journalist while Cuba was still technically closed, having had to obtain a license to visit from the US government. “I was angered because Americans should have the right to go anywhere, form their own opinion. When I went, via Air Jamaica from Kingston, the plane was filled with American backpackers.” The Cuban authorities didn’t stamp their passport. but now, with the opening of relations between the US and Cuba, anyone can go – there are 12 categories of “interest” in Cuba, and these are still organized as “people to people” programs.
Still, it is theoretically illegal to go just to lie on beach, which are lined with beautiful Spanish-built high rise resort hotels (there is even a Club Med Viaduro Beach) which are populated by Canadians and Europeans. This forces Americans to go with tour operators offering “people to people” programs.
Frommer discourages people from taking the organized tours that have mushroomed, even by operators that have been organizing such “people to people” programs for a decade. “Every one of these tours outrageously priced – $5500 pp for a seven-night program from ‘Cheap Caribbean’. Restrictions on group tour operators require canned visits. It’s unthinkable for thinking travelers.” (The best value priced group program is from Road Scholar.)
Instead, Frommer recommended just booking a ticket on any foreign airline, such as Air Jamaica through Kingston to Havana, or through Cancun or the Bahamas. (It is expected that there soon will be direct flights from US to Cuba, possibly before the end of the year.)
Hotel capacity in Havana is insufficient for Americans, so instead, Frommer recommended staying in a Casa Particular – basically a rented room in people’s homes, which is allowed by the Cuban government.
“There are a half-dozen Cuban companies (including Air BnB). You don’t have the amenities of hotel – these are modest – but then you have the experience of staying with a Cuban family right in the heart of Havana, and can walk about the city.”
He was less clear about how to get around the island – he said you can rent a car, or possibly hire a car and driver or take local buses. And he did not offer guidance about the fact that there is not sufficient space at restaurants, either, which can be booked up by tour operators weeks in advance.
As to the legality of just going on your own, Pauline Frommer says, “Nobody has been prosecuted since two years before the end of the Bush Administration.”
Canada. The Canadian dollar now is now 1.40 to $1 which means it is 40% cheaper to go. “Most people have gone to Montreal, a few to Toronto, fewer to Vancouver, Banff National Park, Lake Louise, Maritimes.”
Japan, always a place of intrigue, is now in reach because of a weak yen against the dollar. “The culture, history, literature, politics are fascinating, but Americans have not been going because of the cost. The yen was 70 to $1 which means that a standard hotel could cost $600 a night. But within the last couple of years – because of a conscious policy – the dollar is getting 117 yen. “What used to be ultra expensive destination is now moderate.”
Pauline Frommer has France on her list for 2016, particularly because of the fact that the Euro is at near parity with the US dollar. The region to visit, she says, Champagne, is a name associated with joie de vive, but, because it’s on the border with Germany and has been invaded just about every 25 years for the past 1000 years, also has a most blood-soaked history. It’s just an hour away from Paris on high-speed rail to Champagne – on border with Germany, so invaded over and over- 1000 years, every 25 years or so. “It has an interesting history – Clovis, the first king who united France; the Cathedral of Reims which has relics from all the coronations including Charlemagne and has a statue of Joan of Arc, was attacked during WWI and was where WWII ended. It served as Allied Forces HQ for 2 years and in May 1945, peace was signed in a room of what is now a museum. It’s got a marvelous art museum, art works of Greece and Rome, there are organ grinders on the street, and you drink a lot of champagne and can visit wineries.
Asked about traveling to France after the terror attacks, Arthur Frommer said, “Absolutely. We can’t let terrorists rule our lives. By continuing to travel, we do our own part in putting them down and getting rid of Al Qaeda and ISIS. We beseech you and ourselves to continue traveling.”
Pauline added that “recently on TV in Australia, their travel expert warned against travel to US because of all our gun violence. Statistically, France is safer than US.”
Asked if Russia was a destination to visit in 2016, Arthur Frommer said it had been on the list – especially because of the fall of the ruble, to 71 to the $1, cutting by 2/3 the cost of what used to be one of the most expensive destinations “but there are disquieting reports of bad treatment of Americans, who Russians blame for their country’s economic malaise.
He also is discouraging travel to Egypt, “which is definitely unsafe – such a pity. Police presence has been so weakened by the military takeover, it is not safe.” Just recently, there was an exchange of gunfire outside a prominent hotel in Cairo and German tourists were fired on from a helicopter.
On the other hand, the Frommers say that Argentina, Brazil and Chile are safe.
Considering Arthur Frommer’s long-standing enthusiasm for visiting Cuba because Americans should be able to make up their own minds, he was downright antagonistic to the prospect of visiting Iran – where Road Scholar and New York Times Journeys are offering new programs this year. “The upsurge in interest, especially by young people – singing Iran’s praises maddened me. Amnesty International says Iran has the worst human rights record. I feel my friend who visited was duped, taken around by people who translate. It is beautiful, historic, there is Persepolis, but it should be visited by people who know people are not free to speak. I always feel ill at ease in totalitarian countries – Franco’s Spain, Cuba. Travelers need to be aware that people are not living in a democracy. The election of reform president Rouhani was hoped to open Iran, but hopes have been dashed. And yet, people say they have never felt more warmly welcomed.
On my own list of recommended destinations to visit in 2016: Greece (bike/boat trip through the islands through biketours.com, exploring the mountain regions by 4×4 through Tripology; Portugal which offers such stunning landscapes and cultural attractions; Taiwan, which is compact, easy to get around and offers such a rich and diverse smorgasbord of cultural and natural attractions, and New York State’s Erie Canalway, preferably by bike, “400 miles and 400 years of history.”
Pauline Frommer, in her recommendations for 2016 destinations, chooses to focus on methods of travel.
Volunteer Vacations (also referred to as voluntours), for example, provide a unique experience, but, she advises, you need to be careful to choose a company that is doing volunteer work that the people in the community actually want.
Pauline Frommer and her family traveled with Global Volunteers, which organizes projects for children, to Chini, in the south of India where India’s Dravidian people live. This is the area of Tami Nadu, where the people speak Tamil, but the language that is most common to all is English.
Pauline’s husband, a physical therapist, and 12 year old daughter spent a week helping in a hospital, while Pauline taught middle school with her 16 year old in an orphanage. “That was the hardest work ever.”
The volunteer program is year round, and volunteers typically come for 2-3 weeks at a time. And even though there is a steady stream of volunteers floating and and out, they find that the children who work with the volunteers do 20% better on standardized tests.
At the end of the week, though, the 12-year old did not want to leave the hospital and when she returned to the US, declared she wanted to become a surgeon. That’s the sort of impact travel, and volunteer vacations particularly, can have, Arthur Frommer said.
After the week volunteering, the family still had time to explore this interesting region of India.
“South India is a kinder, gentler India. In the north, you see crippling poverty, crumbling buildings. In the south, you don’t see that.”
Here, a major city is Madurai, 2000 years old. “The ancient Greeks called it the ‘Athens of the East’. It was the center of the Dravidian empire, a center of culture, learning, silk-making, the spice trade. The palace survives.
You visit the Sri Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, which looks a lot like Ankara Wat because this kingdom invaded that area. It’s a massive temple, a working temple. Here, a major attraction is the elephant that walks around the temple and blesses people – putting its trunk on their head.
“They believe you are reincarnated with the hair of the last person – so at age 1, they shave the child’s hair in order for it to be its own person, so you hear all these screaming babies.”
A local company started Vaduem Madurai (“Welcome to Madurai”), offering a 6 am tour where you see how the day starts: women take sand and create elaborate designs on the street. There are posters all over city. “We thought they were for Bollywood movies, but are couples getting married, inviting the neighborhood. These are the everyday things that make India so wonderful.”
Madurai also has a Gandhi Memorial Museum “one of many in the country, but this one is perhaps the angriest – the English slaughtered thousands. Here you can see the blood- stained dhoti Gandhi wore when he was killed.
She also visited a tea plantation, but recommends skipping the really popular attraction in the area, a Kavala waterways trip (“most boring, but it is what the region is famous for; you feel like raja. They converted rice barges to luxury floating hotels”).
You also visit Cochin, a city that dates from the 1300s, where you see the same Chinese fishing nets as were used at the time of Kublai Khan.
Here you also see the oldest dance/opera form in the world, where they convey stories through facial structures.
Other worthy voluntourism organizations include:
Earthwatch enables you to work alongside scientists doing significant research, so you get adventures you never could have – tagging sharks in Atlantic, working in a lion preserve or on archeological dig.
Give the Kids the World Village: 90% of Make a Wish children want to go to DisneyWorld, but they find they don’t have the strength to go to the parks, they need rooms that are wheelchair accessible, where they can take dialysis, and other special services, Pauline said. “It’s absolutely wonderful. They have characters come from the themeparks so kids who aren’t strong enough can have the experience – and even have wheelchair accessible playground. It’s totally run by volunteers. It doesn’t have to be your whole vacation – it can be just a day or an afternoon. I worked in the ice cream parlor for the day. It was extraordinary to be giving treats to these families (who stay for free), living with this hard situation. Meeting the siblings was just as moving – they were so excited to be there.
Vaughn Systems operates a program in Spain to have English speakers (Americans, Australians, New Zealanders) come and teach English to business people. “These are just regular folks, not teachers, and you have to pay to get there, but once you are there, everything is free. You just have to talk, but they give you wine at every meal, you are in beautiful parts of Spain, and having a vacation.”
British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (email@example.com), which has 100 offices throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland which organize a wide range of conservation volunteering opportunities such as conservation working holidays, weekend and day projects.
American Hiking Society organizes projects in US national parks, such as rebuilding trails. “It is the 100th anniversary of the National Park system this year – there’s never been a better time to go. Ken Burns will be all over the parks, giving speeches. They are opening new trails, redoing visitor centers.”
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