New North Korea tour company needs approval from the feds

Mount Kumgang, North KoreaA new company is trying to get into the North Korea tourism game. Korea Pyongyang Trading USA, based in New York, is looking to diversify out of its current business – importing Pyongyang Soju from North Korea. Founder Steve Park has his eye on Mount Kumgang, the site of a resort that involved a joint venture between South Korean companies and the North Korean government. It went sour when a South Korean tourist was shot there in 2008.

It seems like an interesting business opportunity, given how interesting the hard-to-reach company is too many travelers. And, since it’s so hard to do business with the regime, competition is unlikely to be stiff. The regulatory red tape, on the other hand, is a different story.

South Korea is saying that Korea Pyongyang Trading USA will need to get permission from the U.S. government in order to get the operation off the ground. The Dong-A Ilbo reports:

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A government source in Seoul said, “According to U.S. Executive Order 13570 (effectuated on April 19), all products, services and technologies brought into the U.S. require permission from the U.S. government,” adding, “If a company seeks to engage in the service business of Mount Kumgang tours with North Korea, it should win approval from the U.S. government.”

So far, the application hasn’t been submitted.

There’s a reason South Korea is weighing in on this. Inside Investor Relations explains:

This deal [with Steve Park] follows several years of difficulties over managing Mount Kumgang through an agreement with South Korea’s Hyundai Asan. The resort provided significant cash to North Korea, but the arrangement was terminated in 2008 when a North Korean soldier shot dead a tourist from Seoul. South Korean officials demanded an apology, and its northern neighbors say they will “deprive Hyundai of its exclusive right to the mountain tour project and seize all of its assets in the region.”

Is there an ownership or rights dispute in the works? According to The Dong-A Ilbo, officials in Seoul are struggling to accept that North Korea can yank Hyundai Asan’s “exclusive right to the tours.” Of course, there’s always a shot that the U.S. deal will fall apart (with North Korea, this is always a concern!). The Dong-A Ilbo continues, “The South Korean government understands that the North is taking steps to attract another foreign business other than the American company.”

The odds of this happening, however, seem low.

photo by yeowatzup via Flickr

Aberystwyth: Exploring a seaside resort in Wales

Aberystwyth, Wales
When deciding where to go for a beach vacation, Aberystwyth in Wales probably isn’t the first place you think of. It wasn’t ours either. My wife and I picked it on the advice of an English friend who had never been there and about an hour’s research on the Internet. We like to travel by the seat of our pants because it usually leads to a great experience. Usually.

Since this will not be an entirely positive article let’s get the downsides out of the way. First, the beach is stony and smells of rotting seaweed. Second, in four days of eating out at restaurants recommended by locals the only decent meals we had were at our B&B and a Sunday roast at The Fountain Inn. Third, there’s no nightlife outside the pubs and we saw a bunch of football hooligans fighting on the street outside one of them. Blood flowing, police sirens wailing, the whole nine yards. I feel bad mentioning these things because the locals were generally very nice. Most of those football hooligans were actually Scottish. Let’s get on to the good things.

Aberystwyth has been a popular seaside resort for a century, although now it’s suffering from competition from easyJet and Ryanair. In the days before £100 round-trip fares, working class people could only afford to go to places like Aberystwyth or Blackpool. Now they can go to Cyprus or Spain. While this is bad for the local economy, it does bring prices down, making Aberystwyth a good spot for budget travelers. Our B&B, the Seabrin Guest House, was a ridiculously cheap £55 a night for me, my wife, and son. We got a delicious breakfast and a huge bay window overlooking the sea. Some of our best moments in Aberystwyth were lounging in front of the Seabrin drinking beer and watching the sunset with the owners.

%Gallery-129146%Aberystwyth has ancient roots. There’s an Iron Age hillfort just outside of town and the remains of a castle founded in the 12th century stand picturesquely on the seaside promenade. This promenade is good for some lazy strolls, especially in the late summer evening as the last rays of sunlight turn the sky a faint pink and the water a rippling cobalt. Many locals build fires on the beach and hang out enjoying the view.

Museum goers will want to see The National Library of Wales, which has exhibitions of rare books and manuscripts.The regional museum, called the Ceredigion Museum, makes the understated boast that it’s “sometimes described as probably the most beautiful museum interior in Britain.” Housed in an old converted music hall, it features displays of archaeological finds and historic artifacts from the area. While I was here I had the weird experience of showing my five-year-old a record player and having to explain what it was. A few minutes later I saw another parent doing the same thing!

My son loved the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway that rides up the steep slope of Constitution Hill and affords a sweeping view of the town and bay. At 778 feet it’s the longest cliff railway in Britain and is an electric cable train with tilted carriages. Once on top of the hill he got to unwind in a bouncy castle before we went to see the Camera Obscura. This is a clever device that uses a rotating rooftop mirror reflecting onto a white disc inside a dark room to give a view of the surrounding countryside. This gave me the chance to give the kid a quick lesson in optics that he then repeated to everyone who came in, especially a certain girl he’d met in the bouncy castle.

Despite my crack about the local pubs, I have nothing but good to say about The Ship and Castle. This is what all pubs should be: fun, friendly, and serving up great local real ales. It’s won awards for best regional pub in 2007 and 2011. If you go to Aberystwyth, don’t miss it.

Aberystwyth is also a good base from which to explore the rest of Wales. Tomorrow and the next day I’ll be talking more about what to see in the region.

Tierra Atacama: luxury base camp for desert adventures

The Tierra Atacama, a luxury resort in Chile's northern desertFor the past few days, I’ve been sharing stories about my recent travels to the Atacama Desert, located in northern Chile. I’ve mentioned several of the highlights of that destination and even wrote about my climb to the top of an 18,000-foot volcano. Hopefully those stories conveyed a sense of the adventure that can be found in the Atacama, which is amongst the most beautiful and diverse places that I’ve ever visited.

While visiting some remote destination, adventure travelers often find themselves huddled inside tents and making do without their favorite creature comforts. I’m happy to report that that doesn’t have to be the case in the Atacama however, as San Pedro has a number of options for nearly any budget. Options range from youth hostels all the way up to all-inclusive luxury resorts, with a number of options in between. During my stay in Chile, I had the pleasure of staying at the Tierra Atacama, a resort that falls on the higher end of that spectrum.

We first told you about Tierra Atacama last summer, when it was awarded a Juli B style award for “Best International Resort.” At the time, it was lauded for mixing both adventure and luxury in a fantastic natural setting. Now, having visited the place first hand, I can appreciate that combination even more.
The Tierra Atacama Resort and SpaI arrived at Tierra Atacama after more than 24-hours of travel that included four flights, three layovers, and an hour long car ride from nearby Calama. Needless to say, I was quite exhausted, but upon my arrival, the resort staff were extremely accommodating and within minutes I was checked in and whisked off to my room. The accommodations were spacious, comfortable, and featured a large comfy bed, indoor and outdoor showers, and free WiFi Internet service that was far better than I had any reason to hope for. The room had no television whatsoever, but one glance out the sliding glass doors, which led out onto a comfortable, private deck, explained why. The view off of my room was nothing short of spectacular, with snow-capped peaks dominating the horizon in all directions. Who has time for television, when you have that to look at?

As you would expect in an all inclusive resort, your food and drinks are part of the package at the Tierra Atacama. But what I didn’t expect was that that “all inclusive” also meant that adventure was part of the package as well. The resort has quite an extensive list of excursions available to its guests, and within 30 minutes of my arrival, I was sitting down with a staff member to plot out my own adventures for the duration of my stay. We came up with an excellent scheduled that allowed me to see as much of the desert as possible, in an efficient manner, while also keeping me plenty active, at the same time. Excursions can include everything from desert hikes and mountain bike rides, to day trips to visit the local salt flats and challenging high altitude climbs up local volcanoes. Each excursion is led by a friendly and knowledgeable, bilingual guide, who have forgotten more about the Atacama Desert than most people will ever know.

After a long day of exploring the desert, you’ll definitely want to refuel in the resorts dining hall. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served on a regular schedule, and the food was always excellent. The offerings varied greatly from day-to-day and meal-to-meal, ranging from classic gourmet fish and beef dishes to more traditional local fare. The chefs never ceased to impress with their creative and tasty combinations, which often included liberal uses of fresh fruits and vegetables as well.

Meal times at the Tierra Atacama are something to look forward to, and not just because of the great food. The atmosphere at the resort is one that is conducive to being social, and the dining room made it easy to gather around with your fellow travelers and swap stories about your daily excursions while enjoying the fine food or a cool beverage. Other communal areas, such as sun decks and observation lounges, were regularly occupied by guests as well, with visitors from around the globe sharing the Atacama experience with one another. It was not uncommon to walk past a table and hear multiple languages being spoken in excited and jovial tones.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the resort also has a full service spa, but alas it was not something that I took advantage of. It seemed very popular with the other guests however, many of whom were visiting the Atacama for a little rest and relaxation. I did take advantage of the hot tub on my final night at the hotel however, relaxing in the hot water, while a blanket consisting of a billion stars twinkled overhead.

While I made my visit to the Chile solo, couples looking for a romantic, yet adventurous, getaway, should consider making the journey as well. Tierra Atacama is a fantastic destination for a romantic escape, as you’ll spend the days exploring a unique destination, unlike any other place on the planet, only to return to the resort in the evenings for a comfortable and relaxing night around the fire or sitting out under the stars.

The resort also sits right on the edge of San Pedro, the town of 4000 inhabitants that serves as the unofficial capital of the Atacama. It is close enough to easily stroll into town for a little shopping, sightseeing, or to simply enjoy a Pisco Sour while watching the tourists and locals go about their day. The proximity to San Pedro adds a healthy dose of local color to your trip, as the town has plenty of character to spare.

In short, a stay at Tierra Atacama offers travelers adventure, luxury, romance, and culture. What more could you ask for on your next journey?

The Tierra Atacama sits on the edge of San Pedro in the Atacama Desert

Lesbian couple sues hotel after being denied double room

lesbianA lesbian couple is suing a hotel in England after being refused a double room.

Rebecca Nash and Hope Stubbings say they tried to check into the Brunswick Square Hotel in Brighton but were refused a room because the hotel only gives rooms to couples.

This is surprising for a number of reasons. First, it’s illegal in the UK for hotels to refuse rooms to gay and lesbian couples. Second, Brighton is England’s most popular gay and lesbian seaside town and surely the Brunswick Square Hotel has had to deal with gay guests before. And third, a court fined a bed and breakfast for refusing a room to a gay couple earlier this year.

In the earlier case, the hotel owners were defiant, saying homosexuality was against their Christian principles. In the Brighton case, it’s a matter of “he said, she said.” The manager says the couple hadn’t made a booking. The lesbian couple said the manager got angry and told them “no two boys, no two girls” in the rooms before kicking them out.

[Lesbian flag image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Where are all the travel guide apps for Android?

travel guide apps for AndroidNearly two years ago, I bought my first smartphone: the T-Mobile Android MyTouch*. I’m only occasionally jealous of my iPhone-carrying friends, as I find few travel guide apps for Android. Even after a move to Istanbul, I still use and rely upon it daily; Android‘s interface is fast and easy-to-use, and seamless use of Google applications like Gmail and Google Maps is part of the reason I bought it in the first place. Living in a foreign country means English-language books and magazines are expensive and hard-to-find, and like many travelers, I don’t want to carry bulky books around when I’m on the road. This leaves a perfect opportunity for mobile developers to provide real travel guide content and not just travel-booking apps, especially apps produced by reliable media sources with professional editorial. These days, every guidebook and travel magazine publisher is coming out with apps for the iPhone and now iPad, supplying users with content and directions on the go, but there are hardly any for Android.

So what’s available for mobile travelers from the top travel book and print sources? Better hope you’re running Apple OS…Guidebooks:

  • Fodor’s: Happy 75th Birthday Mr. Fodor, but we wish you had more than just five city guides for purchase (in London, New York, Paris, Rome, and San Francisco) and only for Apple.
  • Frommer’s: iPhone guides are available for ten major cities in the US, Europe and Asia, but nada for Android.
  • Lonely Planet: iPhone users are spoiled for choice: dozens of city guides, language phrasebooks, audio walking tours, and eBooks optimized for the iPad. Android users in 32 countries including the US are in luck: there’s a free Trippy app to organize itinerary items, as well as 25 “augmented reality” Compass city guides and 14 phrasebooks. NOTE: This article originally mentioned that the Compass guides were unavailable in the Android Market store, but they should work for most US users. I happen to be in a country where paid apps are not available and not shown in the Market.
  • LUXE City Guides: 20 cheeky city guides work for a variety of mobile phones, including iPhone and Blackberry, but none are compatible with my Android. Bonus: the apps come with free regular updates and maps that the paper guides don’t have.
  • Rick Steves: If you are headed to Europe, you can get audio guides for many big attractions and historic walks for iPhone, plus maps for the iPad. You can also download the audio files free for your computer, and props to Rick for mentioning that Android apps are at least in development.
  • Rough Guides: Here’s a new one: the Rough Guides app works for many phones but NOT the iPhone OR Android! It’s not as slick as some of the other guides (it’s a Java app) and you will use data to use it on the road, but it provides lots of info for many cities in Europe. You can also find a Rough Guides photo app on iTunes to view pictures from around the world with Google Maps and captions from Rough Guides.
  • Time Out: City travelers and residents might want to look at the apps from Time Out for 5 European cities and Buenos Aires, with Manchester and New York on the way. More cities are available for free on iTunes, search for Time Out on iTunes to see what’s available. iPhone only.
  • Wallpaper* City Guides: 10 of the design mag’s 80 city guides are for sale for iPhone for Europe, Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles.

Print media:

  • Conde Nast Traveler: It makes sense for magazines to embrace the iPad, and CNT has free Apple apps specifically for Italy, cruises, and their annual Gold List of hotels and resorts. Blackberry users can download an etiquette guide, but Android users are snubbed.
  • National Geographic: As befitting any explorer, Nat Geo has a world atlas, national parks maps, and games featuring their amazing photography, all for iPhone. A special interactive edition of National Geographic Traveler is for sale on the iPad; you can also read it on your computer. Androids can download a quiz game and various wallpapers; and all mobile users can access a mobile-friendly version of their website at natgeomobile.com.
  • Outside: Adventure travelers can purchase and read full issues on the iPad, but no subscription option yet.
  • Travel + Leisure: The other big travel glossy also has an iPad app for special issues. Four issues have been released so far with one available now on iTunes (romantic getaways) but future editions will follow to be read on the app. Just in time for spring break and summer, they’ve also released a Travel + Leisure Family app with advice and articles specifically geared towards travel and families. The apps are both free but you’ll need an iPad – these are designed for tablets, not phones. You can also read full issues of T+L and their foodie cousin Food & Wine on Barnes & Noble’s NOOK Color ereader; you can save per issue if you subscribe to the e-reader version.
  • USA Today Travel: Most major newspapers have mobile readers for all types of phones, but USA Today is the only one with their own travel-specific app. AutoPilot combines an array of cool travel booking capabilities and information with articles and blog post from the newspaper. Only iPhone users can enjoy free.

Two of our favorite magazines, Budget Travel and Afar, have no mobile apps yet but great online communities to tap into their extensive knowledge.

All in all, other than Lonely Planet’s Compass guides, a pretty weak showing for Android travelers. While iPhone has been around longer as a mobile platform that Android, they’ve lost the market share of users to the little green robot. As Android is available on a variety of phone manufacturers and providers, expect that number to continue to grow, along with the variety and depth of content for mobile and tablet users. Will the developers ever catch up or will travelers have to choose?

*Android has not endorsed this or paid me anything to write about them. But to show I’m not biased – Apple, feel free to send me a sample phone and I’ll test out the apps!

Photo courtesy Flickr user closari. Special thanks to Sean O’Neill, who blogs on Budget Travel and the new BBC Travel blog.