Monday, March 30, 2009

Ticket to Timbuktu, Outer Space & Back

The travails of the Travel industry 

I am not in the Travel industry but work with several companies who are from this sector including airlines, hotels and tour operators. Last month, 6 of our client's staff who were on an Incentive Holiday in Southern Thailand were abducted by insurgents and had to spend 5 harrowing days in captivity before a large ransom was paid and they were released. Added to this, the suspicious deaths last year in Croatia of a few business tourists on an organised ‘business visit ‘is a case in point. More recently, the miraculous escape of recruits of a big name IT major from their drowning cruise boat in Goa, India; the temporary suspension of flights to Bangkok and the hijack of a tourist tour bus in Timbuktu was simply the latest in a succession of incentive travel related scares affecting this sector.

Evidently no matter how outstanding some incentive travel promotions may be, none of them are worth dying for. After all, it's only exaggerated marketing. But the constant search for the exotic and the arcane can lead to silly errors of judgement when it comes to destination choices for incentive, business or leisure travel.

Our world is still safe by and large. For as long as I can remember, Pakistan is perfectly safe, provided you stay in urban areas and resist the urge to go deeper on a Taliban sight-seeing safari. Equally some parts of Sri Lanka are strictly out of bounds, unless part of the promotion is an unscheduled trip to LTTE country and an indefinite stay in a fortified Army mountain village with no road or electricity. Somalia is pirate paradise - a virtual buccaneer zone where anything and everything is possible. But all of these places are only a spit and a stride, aviationally speaking, from some of the worlds most popular and stable tourist areas. Sorting fact from gossip is not easy.

A irresponsible media also aggravates. I recall the astonishing and once-only occurrence of a failed terrorist car bomb attack at the Glasgow airport a few years back. My client, who was an Italian subsequently, cancelled a group meeting in Glasgow because Scotland was suddenly perceived as 'dangerous'. The client's office was in Palermo, Italy home of the modern Mafiosi gangster!

The 2 disastrous Gulf Wars itself produced an amazing volte-face within the incentive and business travel industry during which all outbound destinations westward received an unparalleled rise in business. Anywhere east of Paris was deemed to be inherently perilous by the corporate world. Yet, a few countries have always remained in the limelight. Thailand, Dubai, Singapore, Ibiza as an outbound destination from Europe and the US have remained in top spot for quite some time. India remains a favourite too but exorbitant hotel rates and fraudulent tour operators are a major spoiler. The recent 26/11 Mumbai attacks, bad PR, dim-witted marketing and the monthly reports of rape and molestation of foreigners have only compounded India’s already poor image.

So, who can you turn to for help? You can ask friends and business colleagues, but they are there to enjoy themselves or do a bit of business, not to do a site inspection for demanding corporate customers. You can ask a reputable travel agency, but they are unlikely to paint anywhere totally black, if there is even a small chance you might spend some money with them.

Fortunately, in some countries like England and US, the Nanny State - in the guise of Bureau of Consular Affairs or the Foreign and Commonwealth office travel advice section - can come to your rescue. If you care to visit or, you get an alphabetical listing of nations around the globe which are rated a bit risky, medium risky or very risky - so risky that the probability of you coming back alive is a question mark.

Croatia is okay now; Somalia is a strict no-entry. Apart from Malaria and Dengue fever, India is a cautious 'yes'. Algeria, Azerbaijan, Philippines, Albania, Cambodia, Colombia, Ecuador, Russian Federation, Georgia, Madagascar, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Yemen are advised against. Many comparatively noiseless African states like Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Mali and Niger (where Timbuktu is located) besides the usual suspects like Burundi, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda also make it to the No-Go list. Needless to say Afghanistan, Chechnya, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Kosovo, Lebanon, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe are Strict No- Fly zones - out for the foreseeable future.

But as with all this information, Caveat Collector! It is well known that the situation has to be terminally bad for the UK’s FCO or USA’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to advice against traveling. After all, its true function is to sell exports abroad. Johnny Foreigner is not going to buy if he's getting bad reviews in the sales office of US & Co or U.K. plc. So if the official advice is to exercise prudence, it's already gone from bad to worse. Don't send your Champions there. They might not come back alive and with the exception of the funeral business, dead winners are no good to anyone, least of all your client!

Incentive Travel may be unsafe and complicated but there a viable 'out of this world' safe solution. In 1990, Toyohiro Akiyama, a reporter of Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) was flown to the MIR Russian space station where he spent a week giving the world’s first TV broadcast from outer space. Akiyama became the world’s first corporate–funded space traveler as his employer TBS bore all costs and paid the cash starved post-Perestroika/post-Cold War Russian space folks - a handsome $28 million for the full trip including space boarding, space food & galactic sight seeing!

Its 2009 now and the travel costs haven’t changed much. If you want to send your best performers on a outer space incentiviser, contact Space Adventures. Space Adventures is a real company and have been instrumental in sending all the Space Tourists (albeit self-funded) to outer space so far. For $25 million upwards per space passenger, Space Adventures will take your star employees to Outer Space aboard a Soyuz aircraft to the International Space Station for a week or more. With the recession in the background, you could perhaps negotiate a discount as well!

And if your company can’t afford those costly millions, contact the Spaceriders and they could help. A bunch of space travel aficionados who are building a private spaceship in Nevada, their super secret Spacerider as its called is allegedly capable of taking you on an extraterrestrial flight for only $100000 return, 6 people per flight, gourmet food, hi-fi virtual reality entertainment and a hot supermodel space hostess on board. I don’t know if this is a hoax as a departure date has yet to be announced but apparently, the Spacerider is soon to be tested at the Mojave Desert. Outer space as a destination is still not on the Foreign Office, CIA or the travel insurance list so I guess it must be safe and besides, even your most disgruntled employee will thank you for the Star Trek!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

FireFighting a Global Warming Duel

For those of you who are unaware, I am actively involved in an Environmental and Health NGO – Green Coalition Network. Part of my participation involves reading voluminous environmental reports related to climate change, global warming, sustainability, pollution, public health, etcetera, etc - submitted by various organizations that is later compiled and summarized for content syndication worldwide. Being an avid green activist, I would be a hypocrite if I criticized the reports I read every week, discounted their theories or disputed their findings.

But after 4 years of almost significant participation, I am still wondering where this is leading to? Daily news continues to roll in with regard to global warming and weather change especially but international and national policymakers remain unsure of both its veracity and consequences. Information that supports the theories of eco-alarmists and environmental skeptics alike seem to pepper the airwaves, while news of bush fires in Australia and devastating floods in India only aggravate the issue. To add to the barrage, I recently read that an internationally funded Weather satellite has just been tasked to exclusively study the melting of ice that sits atop the North Pole, allowing researchers to watch the movement of ice in great detail for the first time (yes, apparently first time). And the borders of Italy and Switzerland have to to reworked due to the melting icepeaks!

This issue that the human industrial presence was causing an unprecedented rise in global temperatures sparked a lively discussion among 2 of my close friends who are also involved in this area but in diametrically opposite fields. One is a researcher at a Greencetric NGO that actively hunts environmental violations by corporates and fights it out in courts while the other is a lawyer who coincidentally represents these corporate baddies. I played the firefighter albeit with a green bias and got to hear interesting arguments.

For my attorney pal, he dismissed the alarmist point of view and argued that nature needs to be harnessed. With regard to ice melting at the poles and the Italian-Swiss borders, he felt we could gather scientific data before jumping to political conclusions. Just because a wacky global warming activist misrepresents scant satellite information for her own visionary schemes, he felt there was no reason to go off half-cocked and ban the global internal combustion engine.

He complained that there were too many people who wanted social change at all costs, such as those who released urban bred animals to certain death in the forests rather than use them to warm our bodies or fill our stomachs, those who would rather leave millions starve for water than let build a dam and those who preach about poverty alleviation, govt negligence but themselves don’t pay the tax. Hmmm!

Even if the ice was indeed melting at the poles, he argued that we needed to avoid the divisive rhetoric of the eco-radicals in dealing with it, if we need to deal with it at all. After all, he felt there has been far more damage to forests from Mother Nature’s rains and floods than harvesting by loggers would ever cause. And responsible loggers replant with a constructive purpose; nature still needs to be harnessed. Mother Nature doesn’t think, and often environmentalists and global warming worrywarts don’t take time for that either. He stated both needed to be challenged when they run amuck.

After my lawyer pal was through downing almost a full bottle of Smirnoff, my eco-warrior buddy made his case for caution in our overconsumption and overcopulating ways.

Mother Nature, as you say, “needs to be harnessed” because we as a species have this mistaken notion that our running amuck is a “natural” Progression. If we hadn’t been so arrogant as to think plopping down 7 billion people on this planet wouldn’t have adverse effects on the climate, ecology, etc. then we’d understand that losing 200,000 acres of forest to wild fires isn’t that big a deal – or wasn’t till we reduced our forests to such a small tiny mass. We’d rather believe that this planet can get along fine with very limited populations of all species except our own.

Sure, the ecosystem is very large and not all effects are felt immediately; however, the belief that our present course of action won’t result in the destabilization of said system and the destruction of the planet as we know it - is the same stupidity and lack foresight and judgement which resulted in so many our children being born deformed due to their parents either exposed or/ of drinking contaminated water and food. He added that everyone wanted to believe that if it looks good two years down the road, then there are no worries… but as we all now know, that’s a big mistake and too big a gamble to risk this planet.

After hearing this loud verbal duel, I was left with enough food for thought of my own that I couldn’t declare a verdict nor present my personal view to this hugely gigantic issue. Mankind I realized needed a much bigger, collective and gargantuan firefighter for this burning problem and I was just a small fry. Really small indeed.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hothouse Flowers - Songs From The Rain

Celtic Smorgasbord For Your Ipod

An atypical Irish rock band, the Hothouse Flowers were once hailed as the "the best unsigned band in the world" by Rolling Stone magazine. A notion that is almost true as they continue to skim around the media limelight, happy to just satisfy the expectations of their global fans like myself.

I call them an atypical rock band cos they really are non-conforming, unusually different for their Celtic roots, mixing melodious rock with dollops of folk rock, gospel, alternative and even conventional pop music. Hothouse Flowers are the sort of band you need to listen - at least twice to get it inside you. Once inside your system, you’ll only hit the rewind button as their magic engulfs you – unhurriedly, bit by bit, until you are in total awe deeply profound.

Hothouse Flowers have produced over 9 albums so far but I consider their 1993 release – ‘Songs from the Rain’ their best work – a sentiment shared by even their most ardent critics. Download the album and you’ll understand why? Emotional Time and Isn't It Amazing are stellar tracks alone worth the effort.

This Is It (Your Soul)
One Tongue
Emotional Time
Be Good Listen
Good for You
Isn't It Amazing
Thing of Beauty
Your Nature
Spirit of the Land
Gypsy Fair
Stand Beside Me

Songs from the Rain Mp3 Album Download -

Monday, March 23, 2009

Viral Fever Blues

I am sick with a mysterious viral infection that has worsened day after day – for the last 14 days and it continues to aggravate – spoiling my work, my daily dose of ‘hi-bye’ emails, web surfing, googling new discoveries, reading illicit stuff, Jay Leno, HBO and a whole lot of intensely important things of my everyday existence.

One of my favorite daily rituals consists of waking up early each morning, brewing a big cuppa of hot herbal tea and returning to bed for about an hour to sip my Camellia Sinensis while reading the printer-fresh copy of the daily newspaper that lands on my doorway during the early hours of the sunrise. It's a calming little routine that gives me the chance to shake off the previous night's sleep (or no sleep) while catching up all the news, gossips, events and scoops of the (hopefully) new day ahead.

Lately, I confess, the financial news has been rather bewildering. On one hand, vapid tales of a total economic slowdown and mass layoffs have become a regrettable staple of each day's news. Yet at the same time, I keep reading reports and studies of how Creative agencies like mine which also employ temporary workers are magically faring quite well amid all the downward slump. What a piece of crap!

As one reporter wrote "Part of the advertising industry's elasticity can be credited to the increase in demand for highly skilled professionals, who hitherto were not part of the temporary employment pool." The article went on to cite data from some acronymistic trade association which indicated that temporary design, editorial and media staff were among the fastest-growing categories this year, based on industry profits. Wheh!

And then, of course, there are articles like the one I read this today morning, which says that shopper confidence worldwide increased during February indicating that positive consumer perceptions of the current economic meltdown were increasing far faster than actually expected for the next six months or so. One more piece of crap!

Faced by these assorted and utterly confusing pointers, I have realized it’s pretty pointless to complain and an apposite time to stop my insane grumblings, view my viral sickness as a holiday break, stay at home, savour my camelia infusion, listen to soulful music and Seize the Day. After all, its free, doesn’t bill my credit card and should probably reinvigorate, refresh and rejuvenate me for all the uncertainties ahead. And thank god, this is no crap!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Original Indiana Jones Trilogy

I recently had the opportunity of seeing Steven Spielberg’s latest - the 4th installment of the Indiana Jones series – Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of Crystal Skull – something I had been eagerly looking forward to for the last several years. After wasting 122 minutes of mindless nonsense, I was wondering what took Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford and Co 9 long years to make this stupid mess. Utterly disappointed and let down, I decided to refresh my good memories of the famed adventurer and watched the original Indiana Jones trilogy again and again until I could banish all remnants of the 4th disaster.

I remember seeing the first part – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Last Ark when I was very young. A swash buckling magical adventure, it set new standards and was the original blockbuster though some current viewers may find it a little dated. The fact however that it’s still ranked at No.18 on the IMDB Top 250 chart is proof of its all time popularity.

The second part – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a dark ride, supposedly set in India but actually shot mostly in Sri Lanka. With the original bad man of Hindi cinema - Amrish Puri for good company, this is my personal favourite. It’s an other story that it received mixed - negative reviews and was banned in India for its racist and religious overtones depicting Indians as monkey-eating practitioners of the occult. The third installment – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with Sean Connery is a more of a rehash of the first part but its more spectacular, thrilling and is considered by many fans as the best of the three.

Skip the most recent version and watch the 'original' originals! 
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