Great Comeback Cities For Travel

comeback cities - Detroit love
Flickr, Michigan Municipal League

Recently, the former automotive boomtown of Detroit made history by filing for bankruptcy, making it an easy butt of jokes on Twitter and in the news. However, Motown has also been making strides to become America’s great comeback city, with artists and entrepreneurs lured by cheap rents, and innovative projects happening all over town (disclosure: I’m a big fan of the city, and so is the New York TimesFrank Bruni). Detroit has more than a few great things going for it, including architecture, museums and sports, and tourist dollars could go a long way in helping the city recover. Can it become a tourist destination again?

Some of the top tourist destinations in the world were once no-go zones for travelers, suffering from financial crises, war, natural disasters and rampant crime. Here are a few of our favorite comeback cities:Berlin: One of the world’s most resilient cities, Berlin has been through war, occupation and one gigantic divide, and come back to thrive. In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, East Berlin in particular has become a hipster mecca, due to some of the lowest prices in western Europe for nightlife and a vibrant art and design scene. While not everyone welcomes the gentrification, the German capital is continuing to gain millions of foreign tourists each year.

Buenos Aires: A mix of hyperinflation, government corruption and mounting debt led to riots and an economic crisis in Argentina in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The country has stabilized and the peso value has risen, but it’s affordability has made it increasingly attractive to travelers in the last ten years, making it the No. 1 tourism destination in South America. Buenos Aires is opening more boutique hotels each year, ensuring a place every year on lists such as Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List of new hotels.

New Orleans: A longtime favorite for the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, along with events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, New Orleans was profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tourism is the biggest source of employment in the city and a major factor to its economy, and the disaster made visitor numbers plummet. Louisiana’s recovery has been slow but steady, and major infrastructure improvements brought on by this year’s “Super Gras” have helped the Big Easy come back.

New York City: Visitors to the Big Apple have topped 50 million, spending billions of dollars in the city annually. While New York has never suffered from lack of tourists, the 1980s crack epidemic and surge in crime gave it an image of being a violent, dirty and dangerous city and visitor numbers dipped. Like Detroit, it also faced possible bankruptcy in 1975 and President Ford was infamously (mis)quoted to tell NYC to “drop dead.” The terrorist attacks in 2001 caused another slowdown in visitors, but it’s now one of the safest, most visited cities in the world.

Tokyo: While Tokyo was not as devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as other parts of Japan, it definitely felt the hurt with a sharp decline in tourism, major damage to national infrastructure, and radiation concerns. Foreign visitors are now exceeding the pre-disaster levels, though seismologists worry that an even bigger earthquake is due to hit Tokyo.

An honorable mention must go to the countries in the former Yugoslavia, especially Croatia and the cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo. Twenty years ago, who could have predicted the popularity of the Dalmatian coast as a beach destination, or the battle-scarred Serbian capital as a nightlife hotspot? They aren’t quite seeing the same tourism numbers as the destinations above, but they should be on your travel radar. Istanbul and Beirut are also favorites for their many comebacks and reinventions, though the effects from current events are already being seen in the local tourism industries.

What are your favorite “comeback cities”?

Mar Mikhael: Beirut’s Shopping District

Mar Mikhael

Beirut‘s Mar Mikhael (Saint Michael) looks at first glance like a pretty quiet neighborhood, a place where the sounds of machinery coming out of auto repair shops emit the only real noise of note. Scratch the surface just the tiniest bit and it becomes obvious that Mar Mikhael has gone the route of many other neglected urban corners. In between the exhaust and the whirring motors, the neighborhood boasts lots of innovative shops. Taken together, they offer the perfect antidote to the much-hyped Beirut Souks shopping center with its Beverly Hills-in-Lebanon glitz.

Here is a clutch of exciting stores for shoppers and culture browsers in Mar Mikhael.

1. Papercup (Agopian Building, Pharaon Street) is a bookstore/café, the obvious place in the neighborhood to launch or conclude a Mar Mikhael shopping adventure. It’s well lit, has a community bulletin board, serves very good coffee – try the Vietnamese espresso! – and stocks an impressive selection of magazines and books, some keyed to current museum exhibitions around the world.

2. Tan (Alexandre Fleming Street) is conceptually geared to the current financial moment. Partners Ghada Rizk and Rima Sabbah decided that the global recession was a good moment to start a business and proceeded to start a label of affordable clothes for women: “We can’t afford to pay $500 for a dress, and neither can our friends,” they told me. Sensible. Their signature item is a lovely versatile tank top, good for work and going out both, priced at $80. Tan set up shop in Mar Mikhael in October 2011.

3. Plan Bey (Armenia Street) is to my mind the star shop of the neighborhood. It is an extraordinary bookshop and exhibition space that also sells music, photographs and various little objects. Owner Tony Sfeir has curated an appealing selection, and is exceptionally friendly. When I visited, Ethiopian jazz was playing and the star products for sale were super seasonal jams and oils from Syria. I didn’t leave empty-handed.

4. Nayef Francis (Armenia Street) opened in December 2011. The store sells Francis’ own very expensive mirrors, furniture, aluminum cups and lamps. Everything is beautifully finished and made in Lebanon.

5. Some great mid-century modern furniture pieces, plus some one-of-a-kind vintage signage and other industrial cast-offs can be found at Studio Karim Bekdache, a vast space on Madrid Street. Some of architect Bekdache’s original designs are for sale here.

6. Find jewelry nearby at Rania Choueiri’s L’Atelier Fanfreluche (Madrid Street). The shop doubles as an exhibition space. Last year saw an innovative exhibition of buyable upcycled goods, including furniture and lamps.

[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]

My Year In Adventure Travel: A Look Back And A Look Forward

adventure travel, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
We’re approaching the end of 2012, so it’s a good time to assess what we’ve done and where we’re headed. There’s a whole year of adventures and opportunities awaiting us in 2013, despite what the New Age crystal clutchers say. The world is not ending and that’s a good thing!

I’ve had some interesting adventure travel this year. My family and I spent a week on the rugged Orkney Islands north of Scotland. We visited Neolithic stone circles, a haunted island, and I had my first (bad) experience driving on the left.

I really clicked with Orkney. The people are wonderful and the scenery is breathtaking. I’m thinking of going back to do a writer’s retreat there sometime if I can afford it. It’s an interesting culture with its own distinct traditions and music and I bet it would provide lots of inspiration.

The big trip for this year was a 17-day tour of Iraq. This was the culmination of a lifelong dream for me and I loved almost every second of it. Nearly getting arrested wasn’t too cool, but I got to visit the world-class National Museum of Iraq, archaeological wonders such as Ur and Babylon, see an Iraqi amusement park, and take a solo stroll through Baghdad.

Of course I wasn’t the only Gadling blogger to have adventures. The ones that made me most jealous are Anna Brones’ trip to Afghanistan and Dave Seminara’s ongoing anecdotes about life in the foreign service.

So what’s coming up in 2013? I’ll be seeing that year in with my wife on a brief getaway in Tangier, but beyond that I have no set plans. I’m probably going to hike the Great Glen Way in Scotland this summer. There are some other possibilities too. Here are the three major contenders:

Sudan. I’ve always been intrigued by this desert nation. Sudan has its own pyramids, medieval Christian sites, and a beautiful desert landscape. An English teacher I know in Khartoum has nothing but good things to say about Sudan’s capital.

Iran. I went to Iran back in 1994 and I’m interested in returning to see how things have changed. One of the sites I didn’t get to see last time was Alamut, the fabled castle of the Assassins. My archaeology contacts have told me that Iran’s government is restoring the castle in the hopes of turning it into a tourist attraction. My wife is interested in coming along on this trip and so we’d get both a male and female view of life inside this strictly Muslim country.

Lebanon. This nation on the Mediterranean is doing better than it has in many years. Lebanon has a wealth of archaeological sties, great nightlife in Beirut, and from what I’ve been told the best cuisine in the Middle East. It’s also right next to Syria, allowing an insight into that country’s bitter civil war.

So which country would you like to read a series about? Take the quiz and tell me!

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[Photo courtesy Rob Hammond]

The Caucasus, Central Asia And British Airways

caucasus and central asia

I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.

“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.

BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.

Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.

Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?

Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.

Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.

[Image: Flickr | Thomas Depenbusch]

Tawlet: Lebanese Locavore Love

tawlet

On my first visit to Beirut’s Tawlet, I stopped to ask a shopkeeper directions. “Tawlet?” she verified. I nodded. “C’est très bon,” with a delicate flutter of the fingers accompanying her très, before she pointed me in the right direction. I’d heard great things about Tawlet for quite some time. The shopkeeper’s gesture was the icing on the cake. I knew the way I know my own name that this meal was going to be exceptional.

I found Tawlet at the rather inauspicious end of an industrial cul-de-sac in Mar Mikhael, an up-and-coming neighborhood with an exciting slate of new shops, some of them quite innovative.

It was still on the early side but I couldn’t wait. I walked into Tawlet before the restaurant opened for lunch and sat patiently for the wait staff to finish setting things up. A Saudi television crew was taping interviews of the day’s chefs. Just when my hunger had reached epic proportions, just when I thought I wouldn’t be able to wait any longer, a distinguished looking man approached me in English and told me I could begin to eat. He carried himself like a proprietor. And as it turned out, he was Kamal Mouzawak, the head honcho. I introduced myself and we chatted briefly.

Mouzawak has pioneered and tended a food revolution in Lebanon. Souk El Tayeb is the umbrella organization behind his efforts. It has spawned the Beirut Farmers Market, founded in 2004, Dekenet, a farmers shop, established in 2006 and regional food festivals, which followed in 2007. Tawlet, interwoven into the other Souk El Tayeb endeavors, opened its doors in 2009.The restaurant is an emporium of fresh, organic, and very local food from all over Lebanon. It is set up essentially as a farmers table. Different individual chefs or cooperatives host the buffet every day, working with a few permanent kitchen support staff. The result is essentially home-cooked food that reaches a clientele far wider than most home-cooked food tends to do. The presence of different chefs means that every lunch is different. (I didn’t think twice about returning for a second lunch the day following my discovery.) Including VAT, the buffet costs 44,000 Lebanese pounds ($29). Water and dessert come with the meal. Not included are regional wines, some very good.

The chefs-for-the-day come from all over Lebanon, bringing local variations in recipe and ingredients to the attention of a wider audience, elevating local regional culinary traditions to national attention. Tawlet publishes weekly menus online, which detail upcoming menus and chefs. On occasions Mouzawak himself does a turn as guest chef. Tawlet also offers brunch on Saturday.

What Mouzawak has done with Souk El Tayeb has major far-reaching implications. He has established a blueprint for encouraging and supporting local food traditions, for transforming vernacular food into recognition-deserving “cuisines” and for giving a wide range of cooks and chefs exposure to larger markets. This blueprint is broadly applicable to other countries and territories. It is a model for championing sustainable local food traditions.

[Image: Alex Robertson Textor]