Without The Mighty Tourism Dollar

Italy is suffering.  Every year — until 2020 — Italy has welcomed millions of tourists from the United States, who spend billions of dollars enjoying the charms of one of the most beautiful countries in the world.  Those tourism dollars are a huge part of the Italian economy and help to keep thousands of people employed.

empty-rome.jpg.1200x800_q85_cropBut . . . it’s 2020, which means everything has changed.  With Italy being a COVID-19 “hot spot” in the early days of the pandemic, and the United States and other countries continuing to deal with coronavirus issues, tourism from America to Italy has plummeted.  The principal hotel association in Rome says 90 percent of the hotels there remain closed, and estimates that the hotel  closure is causing an economic loss of about $115 million per month.  Restaurants are operating at much lower capacity, and the residents of Rome report that it feels almost empty without the throngs of tourists.  It’s hard to imagine Roman landmarks like the Pantheon, shown above, without huge crowds of visitors.  In fact, you might say that this would be an ideal time to visit Italy . . . but for the global pandemic.

And you have to wonder — will there be a long-term impact on tourism and travel, to Italy and elsewhere?  It’s pretty clear that travel helps to spread pandemics, which gives the notion of tourism a kind of risky taint — but once they get going, pandemics are notoriously nondiscriminatory in their impact and eventually are going to hit, and hurt, every country.  If a reliable vaccine is developed — a big if — will Americans go back to favorite destinations like Italy, or France?  Or, will they to stick closer to home for the time being and choose to travel within the U.S., until the dust settles and other tourists returning from their trips give the all-clear to travel overseas?  The Italian tourist industry representatives quoted in the article linked above seem confident American tourists will be back because they just can’t get enough of Rome and the Tuscan sun, but  after 2020 . . . well, who knows?

We’ve got an overseas trip planned for 2021 and certainly hope to be going — but between now and then we are going to be paying pretty close attention to news about vaccines, and outbreaks, and other medical developments that we wouldn’t have even considered before this year.  I’m guessing that we’re not alone.

See The Treasures While You Can

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The fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral is a devastating event for those of us who celebrate the ingenuity and creativity of our predecessors — but also teaches an important lesson.

Notre Dame is a central landmark in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and a treasure of western civilization, with its Gothic architectural grandeur and exquisite rose window and flying buttresses and soaring ceilings that seem to reach up to heaven itself.  Generations of Parisians and travelers have marveled at the cathedral’s magnificence, enjoyed the quiet solitude of its immense interior spaces, and wondered at how it could possibly have been built so long ago.

Now, much of that has been destroyed by the blaze.  The French government has vowed to rebuild the cathedral, but it’s impossible not to wonder whether fully recreating the structure can be accomplished and how the interior decorations that were destroyed can possibly be replaced.  And even if it can be done, will the result still inspire the same awe-inspiring thrill that the original Notre Dame, in all its Gothic glory, inevitably provoked?

As I was thinking of the fire yesterday, I was immensely saddened by the magnitude of the loss, but also happy that I’ve had a chance to see Notre Dame, on multiple occasions, before the fire, including a visit that Kish, Richard, Russell and I took over the holidays several years ago when I took the picture shown above.  Notre Dame was decorated for Christmas on that occasion, with a huge Christmas tree positioned in front of the entrance.  It was a memorable trip, and I’ll always be grateful that Richard and Russell had a chance to see Notre Dame as it was.

It’s helpful to try to find something positive, even in the face of a tragedy like the fire at Notre Dame.  It’s very difficult to do in this case, but perhaps the useful lesson is this:  don’t assume that wonders like Notre Dame, in all their glory, will always be around, or accessible.  If you want to go see something, do it — because you never know when it might be changed into something different, if not gone forever.

Our Gut-Suck Weekend

On my flight from Phoenix to Columbus Tuesday, I looked around at my fellow passengers and noticed a lot of them were unusually bulky and appallingly fit.

arnold-classic-worldwide-minThe implication was inescapable:  the annual Arnold Schwarzenegger Sports Festival is back in town.  And, without a conscious thought, I immediately sucked in my gut (at least, to the extent my aging, sagging frame permitted) and stuck my chin out in hopes that it would reduce the obvious wattles in the neck area.  And as I left the plane after a long flight, and saw muscular men and women lugging their tote bags and wearing their ultra-tight clothing that accentuated the strain of every conceivable muscle that exists on the human body, I tried to walk especially straight and keep those glutes as tight was possible — which admittedly was still pretty flabby.  By the time I got to my car I was sore all over.

That’s really the only downside of The Arnold for those of us who live in Columbus.  It’s a great weekend for tourism in our city, the hotels and restaurants do a land-office business — don’t try to get a steak this weekend, for instance — and there are people taking shuttles and walking all over downtown.  It’s one of the top tourism weekends for Ohio’s capital city.

But, in reality, most of us look pretty puny and paunchy compared to the contestants in The Arnold.  That means it’s a gut-suck weekend, Columbusites!

 

 

Vermilion’s Moment In The Sun

Kish hails from Vermilion, Ohio.  It’s a town located right on Lake Erie, about halfway between Cleveland and Toledo.  By virtue of its location, it’s got strong ties to water and boating — there’s a yacht club, the local water tower has an anchor painted on it, and the high school team name is the Sailors, for example — but I’ve always thought of it just as Kish’s home town, and not as a coastal tourist destination.

vermilion35Recently, Vermilion got some nice national recognition.  It’s been named one of the 10 best coastal small towns in America by the USA Today Reader’s Choice Awards.

Vermilion placed fourth after evaluation by experts — which makes me wonder how you become an “expert” on cool coastal towns, and how I can sign up for that gig — and readers.  The text on Vermilion says: “Vermilion, located on the south shore of Lake Erie, feels more like a New England seaport, complete with a historic lighthouse and rich nautical heritage. Popular in the warm summer months, Vermilion’s walkable streets feature small boutique shops, art galleries, ice cream parlors and local restaurants, and summer evenings often involve concerts on the green.”

I’ve been visiting Vermilion since the ’70s, and I’ve always thought it was a nice place.  But, like most of the laid-back, reserved Midwest, Vermilion doesn’t really blow its own horn.  It’s got that nice “boats on the waterfront” feel, but without the alcohol-fueled craziness that you find in Put-in-Bay and other waterfront locations.  The downtown area. which is a short walk from the Lake Erie shoreline, has a vintage Americana vibe, and there are good places to eat, too.

Kish still has family in Vermilion, and I know from our recent visits that the people up there are working hard to make their nice little town even better.  I’m glad to see that their efforts have been rewarded.  If you’re in the Midwest and want to check out a cool coastal town, Vermilion is worth a visit.

All About The Wall

You may have missed it, but Tuesday was the deadline for companies to submit bids for the design of “the wall” that President Trump proposes to build along at least some parts of our southern border with Mexico.

Customs and Border Protection is supposed to review the bids and announce finalists in June, and then some of the finalists are expected to build prototypes of their designs on government-owned land in San Diego.  The AP reports that the government is expected to select four to ten finalists to build 30-foot-long prototypes at a cost of $200,000 to $500,000 each.  Customs and Border Protection has indicated that it is looking for solid barriers, made of materials like concrete, rather than “walls” that rely on technology.

a0af3a441932abf668a4b1a868ee7b0aWe don’t know exactly how many companies submitted proposals, although apparently about 200 companies expressed interest in the border wall project.   I’m guessing that there were lots of bids.  What construction companies could resist bidding on a project that potentially involves pouring enormous amounts of concrete to build a barricade that extends for hundreds of miles?  The “wall” would make your standard highway construction project seem like a minor matter.

And although all of the bids haven’t been made public, we know what some companies are proposing because they have voluntarily disclosed their bids.  One bidder thinks the wall will become a kind of tourist attraction, and proposes a 56-foot-high wall designed with a walkway at the top to allow visitors to enjoy the desert vistas.  (“Hey kids!  Where should we go on our summer trip this year?  Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon, or the border wall?”)  A different proposal suggests that nuclear waste be buried in trenches along the wall — which presumably would quash any meaningful tourist activity, by the way.  Another company wants to erect solar panels on parts of the wall, to generate electricity that can be sold to communities in both the U.S. and Mexico to help pay for the wall’s cost, which would allow President Trump to say that he had met, at least in part, his campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the wall.

Will a wall actually be built, given the significant opposition to it?  We don’t know at this point, but we do know one thing:  the bids that have been made public so far indicate the this effort at large-scale wall building could be a very quixotic exercise.

Dope And Hope

The politics of marijuana are changing.

As exhibit number one, consider Michelle Malkin, a reliably conservative political commentator. Yesterday she wrote about her visit to a marijuana shop in Colorado — not to rip the legalization movement, as you might expect, but rather to describe the positive impact marijuana use has had for her mother-in-law, who is dealing with cancer and has experienced problems with loss of appetite. By using the legal marijuana in Colorado, her mother-in-law’s food intake has improved, leading to hope that she will get stronger and weather the ravages of cancer treatment. And, as a bottom line, Malkin notes that the operators of the shops carefully run neat businesses, pay taxes, employ people, and provide goods and services that people like her mother-in-law want and need.

A number of states have changed their marijuana laws in recent years, but Colorado appears to be the focus of attention. In states like Ohio, where there doesn’t seem to be an significant movement toward either approval of medical marijuana or decriminalization on a state level, I expect that legislators are taking a hard look at the Colorado experience. Are significant additional tax revenues are being produced? Is there any appreciable effect on crime? Are people like Michelle Malkin’s mother-in-law benefiting? Is the legal sale of marijuana having any impact on tourism? The answers to those questions will tell us whether states like Ohio, which tends to be a follower rather than an innovator, may change its marijuana policies.

Avoiding Egypt

Going to Egypt to see the sights in the Valley of the Kings has always been a “bucket list” item for me. The beauty and awesome antiquity of the remnants of the Egypt of the Pharaohs exerts an irresistible attraction.

Sadly, I now question whether I’ll ever scratch off that bucket list item — and apparently I’m not alone. Since Egypt has fallen into a crisis involving the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, with leaders being deposed and jailed and street clashes and deaths at demonstrations often in the news, governments have warned about travel to Egypt and tourists have avoided it. In September, tourism was down almost 70% from 2012, and in October — the most recent month for which statistics seem to be available — tourism was down 52% over the prior year.

Tourism is one of the largest segments of the Egyptian economy and one of the largest producers of foreign currency. I am sure that there are many people in Egypt — cab drivers, tour guides, street peddlers, and others — who are suffering due to the sharp drop in tourism. So why would prominent Egyptians be making public statements that simply exacerbate tourist concerns about safety and security? Recently, for example, an Egyptian editor speculated that the United States government might try to assassinate General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the general who ousted the Mohamed Morsi government last summer, and helpfully added that if such an attempt were made, Egyptians would rise up in a “revolution to kill the Americans in the streets.” Not surprisingly, the editor later tried to backtrack from his inflammatory statements and said that his remarks were about terrorism and that he bears no hostility to Americans.

American tourists aren’t idiots, and a half-hearted explanation isn’t going to cure the fact that such bloody rhetoric was used in the first place. If you like to travel, your bucket list of destinations probably is a long one. There are plenty of interesting faraway places to visit where you don’t need to worry that your visit might put your life in danger. Right now, the prevailing sense is that Egypt isn’t one of them.

Westminster Abbey

007Yesterday we visited Westminster Abbey. It’s the traditional burial site of British monarchs from Edward the Confessor to the Tudor area, the home of the Coronation Chair in which every British monarch has been crowned for a thousand years, and — predictably — a gathering spot for tourists.

The building itself is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture. Many of its original features, however, have been harmed or destroyed and then restored. Most of the stained glass windows, for example, are replacements. In addition, many of the grave markers, plaques, and other tributes to the dead are scratched and, in some instances, broken. Apparently the schoolboys who served in the choir and in other roles at the church were not worried about scratching a gibe into the back of an ancient chair or breaking off the nose of one of countless cherubs decorating the place.

011It’s interesting to see the burial places of such luminaries as Elizabeth I, her half-sister Queen Mary, and Geoffrey Chaucer, among countless others. At a certain point, however, all of the gilt and marble becomes overwhelming and seems more like clutter than anything else.

That’s why my favor part of the Abbey is the only part where they allow photography. It’s the cloister of the original Abbey, where monks once strolled in quiet religious contemplation.

Here there is a bit less clutter, a bit less bustle, a bracing shot of bright green grass after all the gold and cold white marble, and a whiff of cool, rain-washed air. The monastery elements of this lovely old building are, in my view, the most interesting, and the most enduring.

London’s Latest Tourist Attraction

We’ve all heard of Big Ben, and Winchester Cathedral, and the Tower of London, and the many other tourist attractions in England’s capital city.  Now there’s a new attraction ready to tempt the intrepid tourist.

It’s called a “fatberg.”  That means it’s like an iceberg, except its made of congealed fat.  They just found the largest fatberg yet, a 15-ton monstrosity of congealed fat, cooking oil, and used baby wipes, tossed down into the sewers of London before forming together in one huge, rank blob as big as a city bus.  It’s in the sewers in the suburb of Kingston, lurking beneath the streets and clogging the flow of water so that people in the neighborhood can’t flush their toilets — which is, of course, how the fatberg came to be in the first place.  The video footage released in hopes of making Brits think twice about what goes down the drain gives a sense of the colossal size of the disgusting object.  Imagine the look of the 15-ton mass of fat and baby wipes.  Imagine the smell of a glob the size of a double-decker bus.

Who needs the crown jewels?  Let’s all go see the fatberg!

On The Mailboat Run

IMG_4630Kish is a savvy traveler.  She does her homework, and finds bargains and options that other people just don’t know about.  I happily enjoy the fruits of her labors.

We wanted to get out on the water in Portland, and she suggested the mailboat run on the Casco Bay Lines.  You could take a private cruise, I suppose, but the mailboat run is a lot more interesting and probably cheaper, besides.

IMG_4600For only $13.50, you board an actual mailboat that takes mail and other supplies out to islands in the Casco Bay.  You sit up front with the locals while the crew works their tails off to the aft, offloading mail and pallets of supplies.  For more than two hours you steam along, stopping at Great Diamond Island, Long Island, Cliff Island, and finally Great Chebeague Island before the boat turns and heads back to Portland.

If you’re lucky enough to have good weather and sit next to a friendly native of Great Chebeague Island you can enjoy a lovely cruise and pick up some of the local lore, too — like how the Bay was outfitted during World War II, why the clouds tend to stay above the land while the sky above the sea is blue, how lobstermen guard their trapping territory, and why locals despise the ugly abandoned power plant smokestack that mars the view back toward the mainland — but also use the smokestack as a marker when they’re fishing.

Casco Bay is a lovely area, and the homes on the islands are stunning.  Kish and I came back with sunburns and a slightly deeper understanding of what it must be like to live on an island in the sea.IMG_4644

Big Old World, North Of The Border

IMG_4457As loyal readers know, for the last few days we’ve been knocking around Maine and Nova Scotia, visiting towns and bays in that beautiful part of the world.  In addition to being beautiful, I’ve also realized it’s big.

I like driving, but to get from Maine to Nova Scotia you must cross an entire Canadian province — New Brunswick — as you crawl up the west side of the Bay of Fundy and then down the eastern side.  It’s a long, butt-numbing journey.  The roads are excellent, but Canada is vast.  You look out over mile after mile of pine tree-covered landscape, and you think that the flora in Canada must be responsible for producing a huge percentage of the world’s breathable oxygen.  The freshness of the air is almost intoxicating.

IMG_4475Here’s another indication of just how big Canada is:  if you drive the main highways through Nova Scotia you will pass by Stewiacke, an otherwise unremarkable N.S. burg whose claim to fame is that it is at the midpoint between the North Pole and the Equator.  There’s some dispute about the precision of that claim, but it’s roughly accurate.  Surprising, isn’t it?  Given Central America, and America, I would have thought that the midpoint was much farther south.  It gives you a dim sense of the size of the area north of America’s northern border.

Americans tend not to think much about our friends to the north of that border.  They are polite, and friendly, and delightful folks who don’t cause us any trouble, and therefore we kind of take them for granted.  That’s too bad.  I’ve enjoyed every trip I’ve ever made to a Canadian destination, and I look forward to the next one.  I’d encourage any American who likes lakes, and oceans, and scenic beauty to look northward.  There’s a lot to see and enjoy up there.

Guam Cats, Beware! Toxic Mice Are In The Air!

Brown snakes are overrunning Guam.  They came to the island aboard U.S. ships after World War II.  Now they are multiplying like crazy, have killed off virtually every native species of bird, and are biting humans and wrecking power lines.  As a result, Guam’s jungle areas are coated with spider webs, because the birds that normally would eat the spiders aren’t there to keep the spiders in check.

Guam’s snake infestation is giving Hawaii the heebie-jeebies.  If a pregnant brown snake, or a mating pair of snakes, hitched a ride on a boat and landed in the snakeless Hawaiian Islands, Hawaii’s beautiful bird population — which has no fear of snakes — could be decimated.

Guam officials are concerned that the brown snake problem could hurt Guam’s reputation as a tourist destination.  No kidding!  Guam sounds like a nightmare.  If your small island is infested with biting snakes and spiders, you’ve already managed to creep out the vast majority of humans.  All Guam needs to do to complete the hair-raising, creepy-crawlie trifecta is to throw some scorpions into the mix.

The U.S. government has come up with a drastic solution to Guam’s brown snake problem.  It will drop dead mice laced with painkillers over the island’s jungles.  The theory is that the brown snakes will eat the mice and die by the score.   Presumably, the government has some reason to believe that other mice-eating creatures won’t gobble down the tainted mice.

I’m not so sure — and I therefore composed this bit of doggerel:

Brown snakes hitched a ride to Guam, hoping to find some lebensraum

They bred and grew to levels absurd, ’til little Guam had not a bird

And as the bird population ebbed, the isle became more spider-webbed

Then Uncle Sam said it’d help poor Guam, by inventing a toxic mice bomb

So, cats of Guam!  Good cats, beware!  Toxic mice are in the air!

The President As Pitchman

Last week President Obama went down to Disney World to tout tourism in America and got his picture taken with the Disney castle in the background.

The trip was part of the President’s “We Can’t Wait” campaign, in which he does things by himself that are supposed to promote job growth and show that we have an active executive but a do-nothing Congress.  In this case, the presidential action was expanding the “Global Entry Program,” which makes it easier for frequent visitors to get into our country, and to direct the State Department “to accelerate our ability to process visas by 40 percent in China and in Brazil this year.”  The President noted that the more foreign visitors come to America, the more Americans get back to work.

The President’s “I can do it myself” campaign leaves me cold.  I always wonder why he hasn’t already done the things he’s now announcing with such fanfare.  He’s been President for three years.  Why wasn’t the Global Entry Program expanded back in 2009?  Why did he wait so long to direct the State Department to get off its duff and “accelerate our ability to process visas”?  For that matter, why not “accelerate our ability” by 80 percent instead of a measly 40 percent?

In this case, I had a negative reaction to the President’s speech for another reason.  I know that tourism has been an important part of our economy for years, but I never recall a President trying to entice foreigners to come here and spend, spend, spend.  My reaction to the President’s event was one of embarrassment — because our national leader seems to be begging those go-getter Chinese, Brazilians, and Indians to bring their new wealth to America and help us get back on our feet.  It struck me as not befitting the dignity of the presidency.  I also wonder:  if the President is going to promote Florida tourist destinations to our friends overseas, can a commercial for GM cars be far behind?

Tightrope Walkers And Tourist Dollars

The New York legislature has voted to approve a request by Nik Wallenda, a member of the well-known family of daredevils, to tightrope walk across the Niagara Falls.  Wallenda would take a 2,200-foot walk above the falls, which are 180 feet high.  New York’s Governor still needs to approve the request, as do Canadian authorities.

Niagara Falls, of course, has a long and colorful history of foolish stunts and daredevil activities.  Everyone knows of publicity-seekers who sought to go over the thundering waterfalls in a barrel.  Some lived, many died.  For many years, such stunts have been outlawed.

In view of that prohibition, why would New York legislators vote to allow a tightrope walk over the gorge?  The answer seems to be that such a stunt is likely to increase tourist interest in the Falls — even if by sick individuals hoping to witness a tragic accident — and thereby increase tourism-related revenues for the state.  In short, the state is willing to sanction ultra-dangerous activities if they may have a positive economic impact on the state’s coffers.

Does anyone else think it is absurd that a paternalistic nanny state that will fine you for driving a car without wearing a seatbelt is happy to approve hazardous daredevil activities, so long as they may produce revenue and enhance tourism?

Help Needed In Showcasing Columbus

We’re being visited for the weekend by a friend who is new to Columbus.  They are from an urban, East Coast location and have never been to the Midwest, so they already are enjoying the charms of backyards, green grass, white fences, and rolling countryside.

But what distinguishes Columbus from other Midwestern towns that have those same features?  How do we showcase our fair city?  Having never been to Columbus as a tourist, I don’t have the slightest idea of what tourists do when they visit.  We’ve suggested Easton Town Center, the Wexner Center, the Short North, and German Village.  It’s not football season, so an OSU game is out.  The Ohio State Fair hasn’t started yet.  What else?  The Ohio Statehouse?  The Arena District?  The Park of Roses?  It makes me realize that so much of what I really like about Columbus is not showy landmarks, but instead the people and the pace.

Am I missing anything?  I’d appreciate any suggestions!