It wasn’t so long ago that any mention of Lebanon conjured up images of a war-torn landscape and a frightened population rushing home before curfew.
But things have changed radically and tourists are returning to a country which the New York Times has described as being ‘poised to reclaim its title as the Paris of the Middle East.’
Lebanon welcomed 1.3 million tourists last year and in 2009 is expecting a record 2 million – many of them from other Arab countries, but plenty more from elsewhere.
The rocky beaches of the north and the sandy coasts in the south are buzzing with local and foreign holidaymakers, and restaurants in the renovated heart of the capital, Beirut, are packed most nights of the week. Hotel occupancy has reached 85 per cent.
Summer music and dance festivals, which had to be cancelled in previous years because of war or political turmoil, are back on the entertainment calendar this year, attracting thousands of visitors.
Lebanon is not yet sold in Europe as a holiday destination and the US State Department still advises citizens against travel there as the ‘situation remains tense and a resumption of sporadic violence remains a possibility.’
But confidence is on the rise, as is investment in hotels – Gordon Campbell Gray (of One Aldwych, London and Carlisle Bay, Antigua fame) recently opened Le Gray in Beirut. He, too, thinks Lebanon’s time has come again.
by Andy Moreton, with Rana Moussaoui
Luxique can arrange the best rates at one of the loveliest luxury hotels in Beirut – the Albergo, which is part of the distinguished Relais & Chateaux chain. Situated in the heart of old Beirut, it’s an art-deco mansion with 33 differently-themed suites.
Malaga on the Costa del Sol in southern Spain was Picasso’s birthplace and the city is rightly proud of its most famous son.
There’s a museum dedicated to the paintings and drawings he gave his family or kept for himself. And the latest exhibition, which runs to August 30th, is of his later sculptures.
The museum is housed in the 16th century Palace of Buenavista, right in the heart of the historic centre of the city, with the dramatic backdrop of the Alcazaba Fortress and Gibralfaro Castle close by.
Separate from the museum, a short distance away, is the Casa Natal (Picasso’s birthplace), which is also open to the public.
Advance bookings, with or without an English-speaking guide, can be made online at www.museopicassomalaga.org
And Luxique has the best available rates at two luxury hotels in Malaga – the rustic and traditional Cortijo Valverde and the contemporary Room Mate Larios.
Elsewhere in Spain, hotel workers on the Costa Blanca, which is particularly popular with British tourists, are threatening strike action over pay in August.
Unions say wage rates for chambermaids in the region, which includes Benidorm and Alicante, are the lowest in the country.
Spain is already suffering from a decline in British visitors because of the recession and the falling value of the pound. Tourism Minister Miguel Sebastian says he expects foreign tourist arrivals to drop by up to ten per cent this year.
by Andy Moreton
Tourists in the Italian city of Naples are being given a helping hand by ex-prisoners.
The former convicts, dressed in yellow jackets, have been posted at various points including the port and the station. They help visitors cross the streets, offer them information and even escort them through the city’s more dangerous alleyways.
The education chief in the Campania region, Corrado Gabriele, told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that the escorts had followed a 60-hour theory course to prepare them for their new role.
“It’s true that we’re entrusting tourists to former prisoners but who knows the risks of the city better than they do?” he asked.
Hoteliers and tourist agencies are not convinced this projects the right image for Naples. The city has already taken a bashing through the award-winning film Gomorrah, which exposes the city’s Camorra crime syndicate.
The city council’s head of tourism, Valeria Valente, commented: “This service requires a certain politeness, a bit of language knowledge and people skills.”
One of the course trainers, Vincenzo Minopoli, conceded there had been teething problems with the ex-prisoners. “In the first few days we had some issues with getting them to be a little less brusque with tourists, but they do have a great desire to work.”
by Andy Moreton
The French are seemingly coming round to the view that tourists deserve to be greeted with a smile.
Hard on the heels of the Japanese company that’s using technology to measure the smiles of its employees, the Paris tourist board has set up stands at popular tourist areas staffed by ‘smile ambassadors’.
Officials are worried that it’s the Parisians’ reputation (deserved or undeserved) for unfriendliness, as well as the economic downturn, that’s led to a 17 per cent drop in visitor numbers this year. A recent survey found Paris to be the most over-rated city in Europe, with people citing its high prices and disagreeable residents.
“We have to work on striking and simple images. There’s nothing as telling as a smile,” said Paul Roll, who heads the tourist board.
Another tourism official, Daniel Fasquelle, said that French from all walks of life needed to play their part if tourism was to remain a major economic sector.
“It’s the American tourist lost in Paris that we inform politely, it’s the English person looking for the way in northern France who we don’t get impatient with by honking our car horns,” he said.
by Andy Moreton
You’ll find the friendliest of welcomes at all the varied luxury and boutique hotels in Paris listed on Luxique.com.
I confess I was sceptical when someone told me of a pets-only airline. Was I (rather than the pets) being taken for a ride?
But no, it’s true - Pet Airways has everything for the high-flying cat or dog, including boarding lounge and pre-flight walks.
It was after their Jack Russell had to travel in a plane’s cargo hold that Alysa Binder and Dan Wiesel decided that pet-owners needed a better solution for transporting their much-loved animals.
So they spent four years designing a fleet of five planes to suit the animal travellers, as well as dealing with Federal Aviation Administration regulations and setting up schedules. And the airline is now off the ground.
Dogs and cats fly in the main cabin of a freight plane that has been re-arranged and lined with carriers in place of seats. The animals, up to 50 a time, are escorted to the plane by attendants who check them every 15 minutes during the flight.
The couple say they’ve been overwhelmed with the response to the new service, with flights already booked up for the next two months.
Pet Airways serves New York, Washington, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles, using smaller regional airports. Charges are from $149 (£91) for a one-way fare, which they tell me is comparable to pet fees charged by the largest US airlines.
by Andy Moreton
The city of Dresden in eastern Germany has lost its position as a World Heritage Site because of the construction of a four-lane bridge across the river Elbe.
The Dresden Elbe valley won heritage status from UNESCO five years ago for its 12-mile stretch of landscape, which incorporates the city centre and features Baroque palaces, churches, opera houses and museums.
Conservationists say the four-lane bridge will be a blot on the unique Elbe valley and is sited in a particularly sensitive spot, near the old city, from where it will be seen.
Construction of the bridge began in 2007. Supporters of the project say it’s essential to reduce traffic congestion. An alternative plan for a tunnel was rejected for cost reasons.
UNESCO took the decision at its meeting in the Spanish city of Seville. Areas added to the list of World Heritage Sites include the Dolomite mountains in Italy and the Wadden Sea along the coasts of Germany and the Netherlands.
The Wadden Sea coastline is a wetlands area rich in wildlife. The Dolomites, in Italy’s northern Alps, was praised as ‘one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes anywhere’.
Each World Heritage Site is the property of the state on whose territory it’s located, but it’s considered in the interests of the international community to preserve each one.
by Andy Moreton
Luxique offers the best rates at Dresden’s premier luxury hotel, the Taschenbergpalais Kempinksi, as well as three fine hotels in the Italian Dolomites.
Fears have been expressed that the ban on smoking in public places in the UK is killing off the traditional British pub.
On the second anniversary of the ban, a group of publicans, led by the TV chef Antony Worrall Thompson, wrote to a national newspaper calling for an easing of the rules.
Worrall Thompson says about 40 pubs are closing every week and many others are laying off staff in a desperate attempt to survive. He concedes that the downturn and the punitive duties on alcohol are factors, but says an amendment to the blanket ban on smoking would help.
The group hope that the Spanish system might be considered. There, venues with limited floor space can choose to be smoking or non-smoking, but larger venues can have a designated, fully-partitioned smoking room.
Worrall Thompson, who’s patron of the smokers’ group Forest, said: “Pubs and clubs used to be bastions of adult entertainment where young and old could meet and chat over a pint without the health police looking over their shoulders.”
“Modern ventilation systems combined with separate rooms make it perfectly acceptable to smoke indoors. The legislation as it stands is excessive and I would like to see it amended.”
Smoking bans in public places and offices are in force in many parts of Europe and widely in other parts of the world, and clearly the arguments for and against are set to continue.
by Andy Moreton
There are plans to stop tourists climbing Uluru, or Ayers Rock, Australia’s famous red sandstone monolith.
Climbing the 1,135-foot high rock has long been opposed by the Nguraritja, the Aboriginal tribe who regained title to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in 1985 and consider it sacred territory. The tribe and the federal parks service jointly manage the site, which holds UNESCO World Heritage status.
Signs at Uluru already ask visitors not to climb, saying it is a spiritual place for Aborigines and warning that the steep, slippery ascent can be dangerous. More than 30 people have died while climbing the rock, which is higher than the Eiffel Tower and about six miles in circumference.
There are also environmental concerns, with paths suffering erosion and wildlife affected by waste left behind.
The park draws about 350,000 tourists a year. The parks service says the number of visitors who choose to climb Uluru has dropped to about 38 per cent from 74 per cent in 1990.
New draft plans that include a ban on climbing will be open for public comment for two months before the plan is revised and presented to parliament later this year for final approval.
by Andy Moreton
Luxique offers a range of luxury hotels throughout Australia.
I’m all for customer service on our public transport systems, but you can take things too far.
A rail company in Tokyo is giving its 530 employees a ‘smile scan’ before they begin work each day.
The computer system used by the Keihin Electric Express Railway analyses facial characteristics such as eye movements, lip curves and wrinkles. It then rates the employees’ mug shots from 0 to 100 depending on what’s grandly called ‘the estimated value of the fulfilled potential of a person’s biggest smile’.
Those displaying unfulfilled potential will see such messages as ‘you still look too serious’ or ‘lift up the corners of your mouth.’ All workers receive a photo print-out of their best effort to inspire them through the day.
A growing number of service industries in Japan are apparently using the new Omron Smile Scan system for staff ‘smile training’.
I think I’ll just pop along to Transport For London’s HQ and put the idea to them …
by Andy Moreton
Get a friendly welcome at any of Luxique’s luxury hotels in Tokyo and many other Japanese cities.
Warning: those of a nervous disposition might want to look away now …
The Sears Tower in Chicago has recently opened ‘The Ledge’ - glass viewing balconies that jut out four feet from the 103rd floor, 1,353 feet up.
For those brave enough to enter one of the boxes with their transparent walls, floors and ceilings, there are unobstructed views of the Windy City. “It’s like walking on ice,” said Margaret Kemp, from California, her heart still pounding even after stepping away from the balcony. “That first step you take – [you think]‘am I going down?’”
David Roeder of the Chicago Sun-Times said:
“The Ledge delivers. The effect is spectacular even on a cloudy and drizzly day. All enclosures have visible pins and connections, so the eye has a reassuring reference point that you’re in a real structure. But it takes a certain trust in unseen architects, engineers and construction workers to take that first step overlooking perdition.”
by Andy Moreton, with Nina Douglas
For more details about the Sears Tower Skydeck and to buy tickets online, go to www.theskydeck.com. And Luxique has a range of luxury hotels in Chicago, including the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, the Ritz-Carlton Chicago and the Park Hyatt Chicago.