Travel

Good news for Sri Lanka – but with some caution…

Hear no, speak no, see no... Sri Lankan children pass judgement on a better future
Hear no, speak no, see no... Sri Lankan children pass judgement on a better future

This week saw two welcome pieces of news about Sri Lanka: the government has announced that it is to pour 700 million rupees (about £4m) into a new push on tourism, while here in the UK, the Foreign Office has relaxed its travel advice to the country.

Combined with the end of the bloody 30 year civil war between government forces and the Tamil tigers earlier this year, you’d think the time has finally come for the country to fulfill it’s potential as a prime destination for tourists. Yet history shows that any such thoughts have to be treated with caution.

As some of you will know, I spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami; sent there to report on the disaster, I was horrified by just how catastrophic it was. It’s only when you can walk 2 or 3km inland and still find flattened houses and rotting corpses that you realise the hopelessness of trying to find the words to describe the absolute devastation to people back home.

Yet, I was touched by the warmth of a people who could shed their cloak of grief long enough to throw out a welcome fit for kings for anyone who offered to help. I lost count of the times we were invited for dinner in the ruins of a flattened house, shaded only by tarpaulin, and our hosts would insist on not eating a mouthful until we were sated.

I was also mesmerised by a country so beautiful, you could exhaust every travel cliché you wished: gorgeous beaches, lush jungles, high tipped mountains, ancient civilisations…

In those ancient times, Sri Lanka was known as Serendip and it’s where the word serendipity comes from. Finding myself there was certainly a dictionary definition case of  ‘the discovery of something fortunate when looking for something unrelated’. I went looking for news stories and found unimaginable compassion, great wisdom (in others, not so much myself, I hasten to add) and a spiritual home.

One of the frustrating things about Sri Lanka though is that it always seems to be a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ when it comes to getting tourism back on track. Whether the endless to and fro of the civil war, the tsunami, the current recession or the incessant government red tape (it’s little wonder the tourist board PR account is passed around like a poisoned chalice among London’s best agencies), there is always something that seems to stymie the country’s progess.

Whatsmore, many people I know in the country are not convinced the Tamil threat has come to an end. The government may now have finally regained control over the whole island but it was attained at great loss to Tamil civilians. It would be of little surprise if a new generation of martyrs was not created in the government ‘victory’. The death of minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, a good friend of the independent volunteer movement I worked with through 2005, and 14 others in a suicide bombing at the start of a marathon race last year is enough to prove that it only takes one person to create mayhem.

And yet others are convinced the war is over. My friend and colleague Juliet Coombe who now lives in Sri Lanka says: ‘This time I really believe it’s a done deal and people will be able to earn a decent wage, and not just $50 a month and finally have some choices.’

I can only hope that she is right and this is not another case of the calm before yet  another storm. Because Sri Lanka and her people finally deserve something better.

Have you recently come back from Sri Lanka? Would you consider going? What are your thoughts on the country? Let me know by commenting below

A sneak peek at CNN's new travel site

beta.cnngo.comThe Lovers Rock temple and marriage guidance center, the Japanese Invasion tour, Museum of Medical Sciences, the boundary with China at Chung Ying Street in Sha Tau Kok and the the Stonecutters Island Sewage Treatment Works…

Before you think I’ve gone crazy, these all come as suggestions for alternative sights in Hong Kong in a piece called ‘Shove over Star Ferry’ by Ed Peters on CNNgo (cnngo.com)– a new travel website from Ted Turner’s mob.

The site launches in two days and features six Asian cities: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo with more promised soon. What it claims to do is offer an in depth insight into every city thanks to both CNN’s army of local contributors and editors but also through user based content. They also claim they pay their own way for everything.

At first glance, it’s an interesting and comprehensive site with tonnes of details that can only get better when it goes live.

Access to the beta site for the next two days is restricted to invite only but if you want an early snoop around:

  • the beta site is on the picture above
  • username: name of the site (from paragraph two above) without the .com
  • password: username2009 (where username is as above)

World's most expensive hotel wi-fi?

It’s been a tough time searching – and Lord knows I’ve done enough of it – but I think I have actually found the world’s most expensive hotel wi-fi.

Anyone who knows me will be aware of the fact that paying for wi-fi access when you are already receiving a service from someone is one of my pet bug bears, whether that be a coffee shop (yes, I’m talking you, Starbucks with your ridiculously steep BT Openzone prices) or a hotel.

It’s almost 2010 and most of us are permanently attached to some electronic gizmo or other and need to have easy, fast and, preferably, free access to the internet when we are out and about.

I know some hotels are finally waking up to the fact and absorbing internet charges into their room rates, but there are still hundreds out there that think charging more for 24 hours of snail’s pace internet than I pay a month for super speedy broadband at home is acceptable.

Well it’s not, it’s rubbish and my discovery last night is a whole skip’s worth.

Anyone who read yesterday’s post knows it was my intention to blog, phlog and Tweet from the TTG Awards. (For those who are not in the travel industry, TTG is a trade magazine and their awards are kind of like an Oscars for tour operators and travel agents)

And, given I’d been very kindly invited to the bash by BMI (up for a gong for best airline), I thought it would have been nice to break the winners on Twitter and fill you in on some of the goss like the fact co-host Austin Healey took great joy in teasing the normally immaculate TTG editor Lucy Huxley for having her outfits sponsored by Bicester Village Outlets.

I might also have told you that the former rugby and Strictly star was close to dying on stage before slagging off Ryanair to huge cheers or posted some phone blog interviews with the winners.

But I couldn’t get online to do so.

The awards were held in the subterranean depths of the Grosvenor House’s not-so-Great Room and phone signals tend to not be very good when you are two floors underground. Doing the leg work was an option, although it felt rather rude to leave my hosts every couple of minutes for the sake of a Tweet. And so my last option was the dreaded hotel wi-fi, which on enquiry at the front desk would have cost me £50. That’s right £50 – and no, young man on reception, the fact it’s for ’24 hour access’ does not make it any better.

So step forward Grosvenor House and pick up your very own award from last night: the most expensive hotel net access I’ve ever come across.

Does paying for wi-fi in hotels bug you or do you know of hotels that provide it free? Leave a comment.

Guest author: Crap things seen while travelling. No2

Tonight I’ll be trying to post from the TTG awards and am also hoping to try and phlog with a couple of travel bods while there, so for today’s morning post I’d like to welcome the grumpily lovely David Whitley (www.grumpytraveller.com, www.twitter.com/mrdavidwhitley) as WoJ’s first guest author with his contribution to the ‘Crap things seen while travelling’ section. Thanks David

The Bronte Beach train of shame

The walley trolley at Bronte
The walley trolley at Bronte

If there’s one thing the world is not short of, it is rubbish tourist trains. These brightly coloured, pathetic contraptions can be found chugging around just about any destination which attracts more than three visitors per year.
They generally offer staggeringly pointless misery tours, mowing down the odd pedestrian on the way and covering an area that could be walked just as easily.
Therefore, being the most feeble tourist train in the world is quite an achievement. It’s an accolade on a par with being the shortest midget or most incomprehensible tramp..
Step forward, then, the tourist train at Sydney’s Bronte Beach. The tiny circular track occupies part of the park just behind the beach, and the train goes round. And round. And round. There’s no sense of mystery, no deviation, no point.
It’s the only ride there, as well, so it can’t exactly hide its pitiful existence behind something good. The train sticks out like an elephant in a ballroom.
And the strange thing is, despite living in Sydney for nearly five years and going to Bronte regularly, I have never seen anyone other than the driver sit on the shame train.

This should keep me busy for the day

I’m quite enjoying – and no, they aren’t paying me to say that – Cheapflights’ new game, Travel Pursuit, that’s just been released.

There are three levels to play and the more points you get, the higher up a leader board you can go. You can also avoid tricky questions or play 50:50.

Some of the questions are incredibly simple to get you going (‘Where is the Leaning Tower of Pisa) but as the game goes on, it gets harder, especially the interactive questions where you have to plot where a plane is flying around the globe.

My main concern is that travel geeks keen to show how much they know (and that includes me!) might spend most of the day playing the game and prizes on offer are pretty standard (a Mac Book Air, a couple of Wiis and five iPods).

You can play the game by clicking the image below but turn the sound down unless you want to annoy colleagues with the looped Cafe Del Mar style tunes.

travpursuit

Crap things I've seen while travelling. No1

In the first of an occasional series on crap things I’ve seen while travelling, I bring you The Bucket Fountain, Wellington, New Zealand

Back in the late 1960s, the tramlines of Wellington in New Zealand were pulled up along one of the main shopping streets, Cuba Mall. The street was paved and this crazy water fountain took it’s place.

Like the old board game, Mousetrap, the idea is one thing from the top sets a series of events in motion. In this case, the top bucket fills up with water and becomes so heavy the bucket tips on a hinge and pours its water into the bucket below. This then fills and the sequence is supposed to continue… except it doesn’t. Instead water splashes all over the place and when there’s a wind (not unusual in Wellington, I hasten to add), shoppers passing by get drenched.

To be fair, no one in Wellington thinks the Bucket Fountain is any good, to the point where they actually switched some of the buckets around on one refit to purposefully make it splash more.

There’s a website dedicated to it click here and on Friday and Saturday nights, jokers sometimes stick a load of washing up liquid in it making Cuba St look like a foam party with this very odd contraption at its centre.

Begone you pesky tourists!

How annoying is it when you’re travelling and come to one of the great sights in the world, only to have your pictures ruined by the dozens of other tourists milling round the place?

Well you can say goodbye to a host of fat waddlers using the Tourist Remover function on free web-based photo hosting service snapmania that someone told me about yesterday.

It’s simple to operate once you’ve signed up for an account. Just stick the camera on a trip or stable surface, reel off three of four snaps of the same scene, download the pics, apply Tourist Remover and the software does the rest.

I tested it out this morning by waking mrsworldofjames up a bit earlier to photograph her walking across our street. It took about an hour for the results to come in from snapmania, but I’m sure you’ll agree the resulting image that takes her out of the equation is pretty impressive.

The site is snapmania.com if you’re interested, the images are below…

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Tourist removed
Tourist removed

Who lives in a house like this?

42212_slide_showWell it could be you thanks to a new social accommodation network that’s just launched in London called Roomerama.

Some of you may know of couchsurfing.com, the accommodation network where people loan out a stay on their couch and that was going great guns until some recent allegations of a woman getting raped while staying on a blokes couch. Well Roomerama is a similar concept, but different.

You list your house or flat on the site and rent it out as a whole – plus you can rent it for as short or long a let as you like. You could for instance go on holiday and put your place up for two weeks to help claw some of the costs back…

At the moment, the site is largely populated by short term rental apartments and some of the pictures on there are seemingly being duplicated – I can’t quite work out if there’s been some bulk adding to the site or not. But it’s been a success in the States so I can’t see a reason why it wont catch on here.

In fact, come the Olympics, when many of us may want to get out of London, it may actually be a godsend although slightly worryingly, I can’t find any information about how your home is insured when someone stays there.

Brixton launches its own currency

Given I live just up the road from Brixton, the news the south London village is launching its own currency seems a novel one (the story is here http://bit.ly/gKu0i).bskyb_image_15382832_400x240

The idea is that a Brixton pound, is equal to a normal pound but can only be spent for shops and services in Brixton itself in an attempt to keep Brixton money within Brixton.

Personally, I think a more novel idea would be to encourage shops and services to provide decent value, courteous service and decent products in an effort to keep customers. I would have thought once the novelty of the Brixton pound wears off, people are not going to bother messing around changing them to sterling and back again meaning money will still flow out, giving people a decent service though will always keep them coming back.