Three travel ideas from the ITB Berlin Travel Show

More than 11,000 exhibitors from 187 countries tried to make their mark at the 2009 ITB Berlin Travel Show. They showcased wines, highlighted unique local attractions and generally tried to show that they are the best places in the world for tourists to spend their hard-earned cash. Travel+Leisure tried to describe the industry’s hottest trends, but the article really came across as “here are a few cool things I noticed.” So, I took the coolest of the cool, below:

1. Get healthy
Plenty of destinations offer spas, yoga and fitness options – sometimes using them to theme an entire resort. But, that’s thinking small. Go all the way with medical tourism, and call those DDs your own in an overseas clinic. Before you develop visions of hacksaws and cigarettes over the operating table, some of these surgical getaways are in upscale facilities.

Hey, it’s up to you. Roll the dice.

2. Hearken back to the Cold War
Screw traditional cruise liners in favor of Soviet-era ships pushing down the Volga River. Praise Lenin, listen to a balalaika and drink Russian Standard vodka (quite good, actually). Lament how long it will take for the dictatorship of the proletariat to emerge.

There are other unusual cruise options out there as well – such as one in Laos that takes 28 passengers into a once inaccessible piece of the Mekong River from Vientiane.

3. Watch a new nation rise
Kosovo doesn’t have much to say for itself except that you should be patient, because the country’s just getting started. So, if you go there now, you’re getting in on the ground floor. Get to know the concierge. Tip him well. You’ll become a national hero.

Bolshoi in Russia: Stumbling between Devoloped and Developing

Here is a laundry list of my observations based on traveling in Russia and talking to people here. I am stating in advance that this post might offend people (believe me, I’ve already taken a ton of heat for my prior posts, even if some were meant to be tongue-in-cheek). Since the terms “first” and “third” world no longer carry the same meaning they once did (after the “second” world vanished with the disappearance of the Soviet Union,) I will use politically correct terms “developing” and “developed” instead.

I’ll also remind you, dear readers, that this is based on a relatively short trip, focused on Moscow and St. Petersburg, plus some background research into statistics.

I will start by saying that I have never been to a country where you are so frequently thrown from luxury to poverty in a matter of blocks or minutes (sorry, NYC, you’re not #1 in this regard). One minute, you think that you are in one of the most developed countries on the planet. The next minute, you feel…completely the opposite. The gap between the rich and the poor is wide in America, too. But it’s a little different here. There is no visible middle class in Moscow, so you get thrown from “high” to “low” very abruptly.

Top reasons that make Russia look like a developed country:

  • Arts. Museums have amazing collections; orchestras have fantastic musicians.
  • Design. Although related to Arts, but Russia’s young designers (interior, product, etc.) deserve their own category. They do really cutting-edge work here.
  • Prices in big cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg). Moscow is the most expensive city in the world. No really, it is.
  • Nightlife. As described in one of my previous posts, the club scene is dazzling.
  • Education. Very high literacy level (Russia’s 99.4% rate beats America’s). Russians are avid readers. Good schools (although I’ve heard rumors it’s pretty easy to buy a college diploma here).
  • Luxury. Premium cars and fashion brands are seen everywhere. Heck, an enormous Rolex ad sits opposite the Kremlin.
  • Sushi. The sushi wave has hit Russia big time. It’s good and it’s one of the most reasonably-priced things to eat.
  • Good coffee. You can get a good espresso so many places now.
  • Technology. You can pay all your bills through electronic kiosks. How cool is that?
  • Wi-Fi. It is not difficult to connect to free Wi-Fi. Even Red Square has Wi-Fi spots.
  • Personal safety. You do feel safe here.
  • Low birth rates. On par with the rest of the West, Russian women postpone having babies and only have one, maybe two. (Not saying that’s necessary good, but that it mimics the developed world.)
  • Secular society. Although religion (Russian Orthodox), is an important part of the society, it doesn’t enter politics too much. (Same here: this is not a judgment.)

Top reasons that make Russia look like a developing country:

  • Can’t drink tap water in most places.

  • Service is generally quite poor. Certainly not compatible with the cost of things.

  • Plumbing. Showers are smelly (lack of traps) and in many places you can’t throw toilet paper into the bowl, and are told to put it in the bin next to the toilet.

  • Lack of international signage. Reading Cyrillic is a must, in restaurant menus or public transport.

  • Pollution. Air is terrible in Moscow and not great in St. Pete’s. Cars still use leaded gas here. And, that gas is cheap.

  • Russian passport doesn’t exactly “open doors” to many developed countries

  • Human rights abuses. Lack of care for the disabled or physically challenged (as of last year, there was not even a law prohibiting discrimination). Gay parades are prohibited. On-going freedom of press issues. (In the interest of brevity, I will spare you the citations in this post, so please feel free to do your own research.) Foreigners must register, like in many “police states.” Foreign tourists still have to register with the police if they want to stay more than three business days. This is a pain in the butt, but some hotels will do it for you.

  • Poor healthcare. CIA estimates that 1% of Russian are HIV-positive, while Russia “is not counting.” (Official estimates are less than a third of what international bodies estimate, and Russian health officials scoff at international estimates.) Cancer treatment is virtually non-existent for those who can’t afford it, and survival rates are a fraction of those in the West.
  • Low life expectancy. An average Russian man can expect to live 59 years.
  • Smoking. Sixty-plus percent of adult population in Russia smokes. That certainly doesn’t help their low life expectancy. It doesn’t help that cigarettes are cheap. A pack starts at less than a dollar. A pack of Marlboros will set you back less than $2.
  • Opulent displays of wealth, real or fake. The popularity of excessive jewelry and leopard-print clothing cannot go unnoticed.
  • Rudeness and inability to form functioning lines. My pet peeve. I always thought Czechs were rude. It must be an East European thing.
  • High emigration rate. A high percentage of people leaving a country with no intentions to come back…it’s a bad sign.
  • No middle class. It’s either Bentley or a Lada. Or, it could also be a “Volsche“. One billionaire had an old Volga (another Russian car) put on the chassis of a Porsche Cayenne and had the car decorated with Swarowski crystals–and a picture of Stalin– at a cost of $1m. Call me biased, but this is easily as bad as whatever the Tsar had ever done.
  • And, of course, xenophobia. Russia still remains the greatest country ever. (A least that’s what you get by reading the Moscow News.)

From Russia, with love.