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]

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]

Hayete: Beautiful Budget-Friendly Beirut Guesthouse

Hayete

Hayete, a budget-friendly guesthouse in Beirut, is a rare bird: stylish, in a fantastic location, and relatively inexpensive.

Budget-minded travelers who also enjoy a bit of style are usually out of luck when it comes to accommodations. Budget-friendly options generally consist of hostels, folksy guesthouses, smarmy bed & breakfasts and budget hotel chains – all honorable and fine, but only rarely stylish.

There are very few super stylish rooms in in-demand cities with rates in the $100 per night territory. Boutique and art hotels charge several times this amount in most buzzing cities. Budget hunters usually have to rely on the occasional off-season rate dip to enjoy anything approaching boutique style.

hayete Hayete, located in Beirut‘s exciting, intrigue-drenched Achrafieh neighborhood, provides an exception to the rule. The place looks and feels like the setting for a photo shoot in an underground European style magazine. It occupies an old classic building, built in the early 20th century, with original detailing intact. The tiled floor is particularly beautiful.

On the walls here are several huge photographs of color-saturated Russian landscapes by Liza Faktor. The design template is clever and very contemporary, capturing several impressions at once. There is the breezy feel of the carefree 1970s in several pieces alongside a fussy mid-century sitting room aesthetic, itself unsettled by contemporary upholstery. Throughout, there’s a strong sense of place.

hayeteThe location is right in the thick of the Achrafieh action. Guests breakfast on a communal balcony that sits above a lively intersection, just beyond the main lounge’s enormous antique aviary with its live, singing inhabitants. From the balcony, guests can spy morning traffic extending through narrow streets, old mansions, and the noises and sights of construction and renovation projects. The Lebanese breakfast (labneh, pita bread, juice) provides a pleasant, if light, start to the day.

Hayete has just four rooms. Two, with shared bathrooms, run $105 per night for a double (or $75 for single occupancy.) Two en suite rooms start at $125 (or $95 for a single). The rate includes breakfast, tax, coffee and tea from a shared bar, Wi-Fi and use of a communal refrigerator.

These nightly rates are particularly impressive in light of Beirut’s hotel rate index, which is not generally easy on the wallet. While Hayete is not an extreme budget pick, its nightly rates put it in an all-too-slim category of reasonable, stylish hotels. For this alone it deserves to be championed.

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]

Passengers Asked To Chip In For Fuel On Diverted Plane

air france As if fuel surcharges, baggage fees and having to pay for food on expensive flights wasn’t bad enough, on Wednesday, passengers on board an Air France flight that got diverted from Beirut to Damascus were asked to help “chip in” to refuel the plane.

The reason for the diversion was tensions in Beirut. Unfortunately, the airline suspended flights to Damascus in March due to safety reasons.

Roland, a 23-year-old engineer on the flight, explained the flight got held up in Syria’s capital because of the fuel dilemma. He told news.come.au, “There were some negotiations going on to buy fuel because Air France doesn’t fly to Damascus at the moment and so it doesn’t have an account with Damascus airport authorities.”

According to an anonymous Air France employee, the crew at first tried to pay for the fuel in Damascus with a credit card; however, the transaction could not be completed because of financial sanctions, which have been imposed on Syria.

It is unclear how the issue was finally resolved.

[Image via Joe Jones]