No more green waiver forms?

So America’s Department of Homeland Security (also know as ‘we scare you witless when we come on holiday’) has finally decided to scrap the need for visitors from Visa Waiver countries to fill in the green I94W form on arrival.

Frequent visitors to the US will know that a supposed paperless system, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization that last for two years,  was brought in last year to pre-approve entries. Despite the new system being operational for more than 18 months though, people still had to fill in the old paper forms, making entering the US a bigger headache than ever.

The DHS has now said the green forms are going, ‘to be phased out by the end of the summer’. For this, read ‘it will be more likely winter’…

On top of the Esta/green form/being treated like a criminal debacle on entry, we are soon to be charged a new $10 entry tax in the USA. The tax is being introduced to fund the country’s new marketing board – that’s right , we will pay to go on holiday so America can promote itself as a holiday destination!

Sometimes it makes me wonder why we bother visiting our ‘friends’ across the Atlantic – it’s really not like they welcome us with open arms at the border.

Spare us the pain of ash-gate

This week I did a piece for the travel section of The Sun on people’s rights if they have been stranded abroad by the fallout of ash from Iceland’s volcanic eruption (you can read it here if you want). One of the things that struck me while writing was the speed in which the travel industry, and particularly the large tour operators, have responded to the crisis.

Thomson, for instance were claiming yesterday that everyone would have been repatriated by last night and even Ryanair (though more on them later) have got all their passengers to their destinations.

There have of course been a couple of companies that have tried to take advantage of the situation. Michael O’Leary at Ryanair’s bluster earlier this week that he would take it to court if he was to pay for accommodation for those stranded was short lived (one hopes he made the decision himself but one suspects he was slapped down by the authorities) and travellers would be wise to boycott insurance companies that refuse to pay out. But other than that, as with the XL crisis, some pretty amazing things have happened.

While I have every sympathy for people who were about to go on holiday and ended up stuck in Blighty, I’m starting to loose patience some of those stuck abroad, though.

Clearly some people, such as those stranded in Bangkok airport as explosions take place a couple of miles away, are having a hard time, but there are others that need to get off the phone to BBC news and get back to the pool. Tour operators are spending thousands of pounds keeping them in hotels, food and drink while they are ‘stranded’ in some luxury resort plus they have the perfect excuse to phone into work and blag a couple of extra days holiday.

There was one woe-is-me chap this morning being interviewed on TV who has been on honeymoon in St Lucia for two weeks and has to now stay until May 6 until Virgin Holidays can get him home. ‘There’s so much misinformation,’ he whittered on, making me want to put my foot through the TV.

Mate, you’re on honeymoon, you’re in St Lucia, you’ve managed to get an extra two weeks holiday at someone else’s expense, you’re every whim and need is being catered for and you’re complaining you can’t come home? Put down the phone, pick up the pina colada and give me a break.

V.Hols in V.big travel writing cock up

Why on earth do people think that just anyone can be a travel writer? Because if you’re one of the dozens of scribes trying to scratch out a living at a time when newspapers are cutting commissioning budgets, the latest announcement from Virgin Holidays can only be seen as yet another  insult to the profession.

Get me Alex James. No, not the one who'sactually a travel writer...

Apparently, the company has done a survey of 2,000 holidaymakers and because less than a third of them say they would never use a guidebook, they have decided to ‘reinvigorate travel writing’ by appointing a ‘travel laureate’ to pen a series of ‘first-hand destination-themed novels’.

The lucky recipient of this fabulous new title? Alex James.

Sorry, that’s not Alex James the actual travel writer Alex James, the kind of person you might be expect to be commissioned to write travel copy… but Alex James, cheese-making, one-time bass player with Blur whose writing skills amount to the occasional newspaper column about what it’s like to have finally moved to a Country House and an autobiography that recalls the heyday of Blur through a haze of drink and heavy cocaine use.

Now don’t get me wrong, Blur were a fabulous band and I’m sure Alex James (not the travel writing one) is an affable chap but I’m not quite sure how he’s been elevated from the role of all-round half-decent celeb to travel writing genius – especially when there are dozens of brilliant travel writers out there who would have bitten Virgin Holidays hands off for the commission.

Of course, none of them have the ‘celebrity announcement’ factor that Alex James (not the travel writing one) has.

So there you are travel writers of the UK, once again, your expertise garnered travelling the world for a living has gone to waste and you’ve been dumped in favour of yet another celebrity, just because their name is more known than yours.

Guidebook publishers like Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Frommers, Bradt et al might also be slightly miffed at James’ new role. The press release that accompanies the announcement claims that in some spurious and unattributed research, 8.5m Uk adults found travel guides ‘boring and staid’.

I normally like V.Hols and find them one of our best package companies, but I can’t help but feel that this whole ‘travel laureate’ campaign insults both travel writers and travel publishers and can’t be seen as anything else than one V.Big cock up.

Statement from Seaworld

This has just come to my inbox from Seaworld – happy to publish it.

February 24, 2010

A Message from Jim Atchison
President and Chief Executive Officer, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

It is with great sadness that I report that one of our most experienced animal
trainers drowned in an incident with one of our killer whales this afternoon, February 24, 2010 at our SeaWorld Orlando park.

We have initiated an investigation to determine, to the extent possible, what
occurred. There are no other details to share at this point, but we will make
our findings known in due course.

I must emphasize that this is an extraordinarily difficult time for the SeaWorld
parks, and our team members.

Nothing is more important than the safety of our employees, guests and the
animals entrusted to our care. All of our standard operating procedures
will come under review as part of the investigation.

We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the trainer
and will do everything possible to assist them in this difficult time.
We appreciate everyone’s understanding and will share more information as it becomes known and available.

SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Diego are open today as scheduled (SeaWorld San Antonio is not yet open for the season) but Believe shows and Dine with Shamu experiences at all SeaWorld locations have been suspended for the time being.  We will update you on this as soon as we have more information.

The clue's in the name: killer whale

Dawn Brancheau at Seaworld

The death of killer whale trainer Dawn Brancheau at Orlando’s Seaworld yesterday is a tragic event and my thoughts go out to her family, friends and colleagues.

But some of the handwringing and bewilderment surrounding the incident leaves me perplexed.

Some years ago, I interviewed Penn Jillette  of Las Vegas magic duo Penn & Teller and we got around talking to how Roy of Siegfried & Roy got mauled by one of his own tigers in 2003.

Jilette said: “The magic of Siegfried and Roy is they made things seem so easy, so people sit around saying ‘how the hell did that happen?’. Well, I’ll tell you how it happened – 200lbs of tiger is how it happened. What do people expect? It’s a wild animal…”

The same goes for yesterday’s attack by the whale Tilikum at Seaworld. Dawn Brancheau had worked with killer whales at the park for more than 16 years, she must have been well aware of the inherent dangers of keeping wild animals in closely confined captivity.

Sadly until people people stop putting animals – and especially dangerous ones – on display for human amusement, deaths like that of Dawn’s should be viewed as the norm rather than a freak occurrence.