Serena Hotels: Opulence amidst squalor and bloodshed

Anyone for a game of badminton and a round of emerald-hunting in Pakistan’s Swat Valley? Or perhaps you fancy a beach resort on the shores of Lake Kivu, just minutes from the Democratic Republic of Congo?

The March/April issue of Foreign Policy features an interesting story and photo gallery on the luxury Serena hotel chain, which they dub the “Ritz Carlton of Failed States.” The chain, which originated in Africa in the 70s, operates luxury hotels in a variety of dodgy places, including Pakistan, Kabul, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Mozambique and others. The Serena hotels are operated by an economic development fund founded by the Aga Khan, a spiritual leader for Shia Ismaili Muslims.

FP reports the Kabul Serena (see photo above), which has been attacked three times has rooms that start at $356 per night. The chain has been criticized for partnering with the Assad regime in Syria on the development of hotels in Damascus and Aleppo, but Aga Khan told FP that the company’s involvement in conflict zones brings “an investment seal of approval” that helps attract more foreign investment. The hotels also create jobs in countries with high unemployment.

But is there something unseemly about a luxury hotel which features “holistic health and wellness services,” a pastry shop, swimming pool, a “mind, body and spirit spa,” and other amenities in an impoverished, failed state like Afghanistan? FP’s slideshow juxtaposes scenes of opulence at the Serena hotels with images of children sorting through trash, smoldering buildings, and tin roof shacks.

One can certainly quibble with the high prices and unnecessary luxuries of these hotels, but the notion that aid workers, journalists, government officials, and businessmen should stay in slum-like conditions while traveling to conflict states is far-fetched. The reality is that many of these people are stuck in very primitive, dangerous conditions, sometimes for weeks, months or even years, and only get to repair to places like the Serena hotels for well-deserved R & R’s.

I certainly wouldn’t begrudge a Medicins Sans Frontieres volunteer who spent the last six months treating sick children in the Congo a long weekend at the luxury Serena resort in Rwanda. That said, a case can be made that holing foreigners up in luxury hotels allows them to exist in a fairytale bubble, where they are insulated from what’s going on in the country at large. What do you think?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Video: the darkest type of eclipse shot from Tajikistan

Gadling, travel blog and time-lapse video enthusiast site, is proud to present this stunning video shot in Tajikistan of the total lunar eclipse last month. The eclipse was best viewed from central Asia and Africa, and vimeo user Jean-Luc Dauvergne captured it expertly in full time-lapse glory. The clarity of the stars and the silence of the Tajik steppes combine to accentuate the interstellar view. This rare central lunar eclipse only happens when the moon passes through the center part of the earth’s shadow, providing the darkest type of eclipse.

The next eclipse will take place on December 10,2011, and the next central lunar eclipse will happen on July 27, 2018. Mark your calenders.

Total Lunar Eclipse In Tajikistan from Jean-Luc Dauvergne on Vimeo.

Travel then and now: Travel to the USSR and GDR

travel to the USSRThis year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and 21 years since the reunification of Germany. While citizens of the USSR and GDR were unable to travel abroad and restricted in domestic travel, foreign travelers were permitted under a controlled environment. In the early nineties, if you were a foreigner looking to go abroad to the Eastern Europe or Central Asia, you called your travel agent and hoped to get approved for a visa and an escorted tour. After your trip, you’d brag about the passport stamps and complain about the food. Here’s a look back at travel as it was for foreigners twenty years ago and today visiting the biggies of the former Eastern Bloc: the United Socialist Soviet Republic (USSR) and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

Soviet Union/USSR (now: independent states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldovia, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.)

Travel then: Before 1992, most tourists were only able to enter the Soviet Union with visas and travel itineraries provided by the state travel agency, Intourist. Intourist was founded by Joseph Stalin and also managed many of the USSR’s accommodations. Like North Korea today, visitors’ experiences were tightly controlled, peppered with propaganda, and anything but independent, with some travelers’ conversations and actions recorded and reported. Read this fascinating trip report from a Fodor’s community member who visited Russia in 1984 and a Chicago Tribune story with an Intourist guide after the glasnost policy was introduced.Travel now: UK travel agency Thomas Cook bought a majority stake in Intourist last year, gaining control of their tourist agencies, and many of the old Intourist hotels can still be booked, though standards may not be a huge improvement over the Soviet era. In general, the former Soviet Union now welcomes foreign and independant visitors with open arms. Even Stalinist Turkmenistan is softer on foreigners since the death of dictator Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006. Russia now receives as many visitors as the United Kingdom, the Baltic and Eastern European states are growing in popularity for nightlife and culture, and Central Asian states have a lot to offer adventurous travelers (including Azerbaijan’s contender for New 7 Wonders, the Mud Volcanoes). This year, Estonia’s Tallinn is one of the European Capitals of Culture. While a few FSU countries are now EU members, several still require advance visas, letters of invitation, or even guides; check the latest rules for Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan before you make plans.

German Democratic Republic/East Germany/DDR (now: unified state of Germany)

Travel then: After 40 years apart, East and West Germany were reunited in 1990. Like the USSR, travelers to the GDR had to deal with visas and an official state travel agency, the Reisebüro. Western tourists in West Germany could apply for day visas to “tour” the Eastern side but were very limited in gifts they could bring or aid they could provide (tipping was considered bourgeois and thus officially discouraged). Read this Spiegel article about the East German adventure travelers who snuck into the USSR to see how travel to inaccessable is often the most exciting, no matter where you are coming from.

Travel now: November 2009 marked the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Berlin is now consistently lauded as one of the world’s hippest and most vibrant cities. The city is full of museums, monuments, and memorials to document the time East Germany was walled off from the rest of the world, from the sobering Berlin Wall Memorial to the tongue-in-cheek DDR Hotel. Outside of Berlin, Leipzig’s Stasi Museum documents the gadgets and horrors of the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police. For more on life in the GDR, Michael Mirolla’s novel Berlin deals with cross-border Germany travel and the fall of the republic, and film Goodbye Lenin! is a bittersweet look at life just before and after the fall of the wall.

Gadling readers: have you traveled to the USSR or GDR? Have you been recently? Leave us your comments and experiences below.

[Photo credit: USSR flags and GDR ferry postcards from Flickr user sludgeulper, Berlin Wall by Meg Nesterov]

List of World Heritage sites continues to grow

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, also known as UNESCO, has added more sites, including several cultural locations, to its ever expanding World Heritage list. The additions were made this past weekend when the organization concluded the 34th session of the the World Heritage Committee in Sao Paulo, Brazil following more than a week of deliberation.

Amongst the new inductees are the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long-Hanoi in Vietnam; the historic monuments of Dengfeng in China; the archaeological site Sarazm in Tajikistan; the Episcopal city of Albi in France; and a 17th-century canal ring in Amsterdam. Those five sites were lauded for their cultural significance, and their inclusion brought the list up to 904 total sites.

Joining the sites named above were the Bikini Atoll, located in the South Pacific’s Marshall Islands, the Turaif District in Saudi Arabia; Australia’s famous penal colonies; the Jantar Mantar astronomical observation site in India; the Tabriz historic bazaar complex, as well as a shrine in Ardabil, both located in Iran; and the historic villages of Hahoe and Yangdong in South Korea.

Singling out the Bikini Atoll, the Committee said that nuclear tests conducted on the tiny island during the late 1940′s and early 1950′s had a profound effect on the geology and environment of the area. They also noted that the atoll had historical significance by ushering in the dawning of the nuclear age as well.

New sites are generally added to the World Heritage list on a yearly basis, with the locations receiving a measure of prestige and honor for making the cut. In order to remain on the list though, they must be protected and preserved by the country in which they reside. In recent years several sites have been added to the Committee’s “endangered list” with some actually losing their “World Heritage” status due to changes in their condition.

Lets hope these new additions are around for a long time.

[Photo credit: Chinasaur via WikiMedia Commons]

UNESCO ponders new World Heritage sites

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, better known as UNESCO, has announced that it will consider expanding their list of World Heritage Sites when the organization meets in Brazil in a few weeks time. The current list consists of 890 places from around the globe that are considered to have universal appeal for natural or cultural reasons.

There are 41 locations, in 35 countries, up for consideration this year, including first time contenders from Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Tajikistan. Kiribati has submitted the Phoenix Islands Protected Area for inclusion on the list, while the Bikini Atoll, a famous nuclear testing zone, represents the Marshall Islands’ hopes for their first World Heritage site. Tajikistan’s spectacular Pamir Mountains could be their first entry as well.

The UNESCO committee will also review the state of 31 of their current sites that have been listed as being in danger. Those sites could be under siege from a number of sources, including environmental concerns, urban development, poor management, increased tourism, wars, or other natural disasters. Last year, Germany’s Elbe Valley was de-listed because a new four-lane bridge was built through the region, while the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman was dropped because of poor conservation efforts.

The 34th meeting of the World Heritage Committee will take place in Brasilia from July 25 to August 3, with the final rulings on these new locations being decided then.

[Photo credit: Irene2005 via WikiMedia Commons]