Travel to Sri Lanka grows, along with obstacles for tourism

Travel to Sri LankaSince the end of the Tamil Tiger confilct in May 2009, travel to Sri Lanka has been increasing, with the country celebrating their 600,000th foreign tourist last month. This year, 700,000 are expected with tourism growing to 2.5 million a year within 5 years, reports the BBC. “The nature has blessed us with beautiful beaches, waterfalls, exotic wildlife and historic places. We as a nation have a reputation for our hospitality,” says Basil Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka‘s Minister of Economic Development. While the increase in visitors is welcome, Sri Lanka is experiencing some growing pains and challenges as a tourist destination.

India and the United Kingdom are currently the largest sources of tourists, though now it is claimed that the Eastern European tourists who came during the confict are being ignored in favore of Western travelers. Russian-speaking tourists are being turned away in the tourist boom, hotel prices have soared, and Russian guides complain of lost income. A proposed change in the visa process could discourage more visitors, though the government claims the new system is designed to help travelers.The visa can currently be obtained for free on arrival for citizens of 78 countries including the United States. Similar to the Australia electronic visa, the new visa process would be done from your home country online. Approval would take 24-72 hours and “special facilities” would be provided on arrival for tourists with the online visa. An added fee could potentially dissuade visitors who could instead spend their vacation dollars at a free visa destination.

The government hopes to allow tourism to develop naturally without direct intervention, though some small businesses feel they are struggling while larger-scale projects are planned. In northwest Sri Lanka, an adventure tourism zone is being developed with whale watching, scuba daving, and an underwater vistor center. A similar Tourism Promotion Zone is in the works near the country’s international airport to capture a similar transit market as Dubai, and increasing Sri Lanka’s flights as a major Asian hub.

Have you been to Sri Lanka? Planning to travel there now that warnings have ceased? Leave us your experiences in the comments.

[Photo of Sri Lanka’s Pinewala Elephant Orphanage by Flickr user Adametrnal.]

Anthony Bourdain enjoys Sri Lankan street food in the below video.

Ten most corrupt countries of the world

You spend every holiday weekend annoyed that you can’t talk your way out of a speeding ticket. If only there were some way out of that predicament … aside from taking your lead foot off the gas, right? You may be out of luck on the New Jersey Turnpike, but there are plenty of places in the world where money talks, according to a new study by Transparency International. So, if you tend to disregard local laws and customs, you may want to pick one of the 10 countries below for your next vacation.

WARNING: You may need to bring a bit of fire power for some of these destinations.

1. Somalia:
Is this even a country? It has no real government to speak of, not to mention a history of piracy, mob violence, warlord brutality and kidnapping. So, chew a little khat to take the edge off.

The Good News: You can’t really break any laws where there aren’t any.

2. Myanmar: Okay, the human rights issue here is pretty severe, and the military regime is known for being among the most repressive and abusive in the world. So, don’t complain about the thread-count in your hotel.

The Good News: There’s plenty of wildlife to enjoy as a result of slow economic growth. A bleak financial outlook is good for the environment!

%Gallery-106020%3. Afghanistan: Ummmm, there’s a war going on there – you may remember that. So, you’re dealing more with warlords than conventional law enforcement officials. This takes some of the predictability out of your mischief, and it does amp the risk up a bit.

The Good News: There are several options for civilian flights. Also, fishing is fine, but you can’t use hand grenades.

4. Iraq: Again with the war … The easiest way to get there is to wear a uniform, but that will make bribing your way out of trouble far more difficult.

The Good News: Prostitutes may not be in abundance, but if you have an itch in Baghdad, you’ll probably find someone to help you scratch it.

5. Uzbekistan: The CIA describes the government as “authoritarian presidential rule.” Is there really anything else you need to know? Yes, there is: Uzbekistan has a nasty human trafficking problem.

The Good News: Uzbekistan’s currency is the Ubekistani soum – that’s what you’ll use to bribe your way out of trouble.

6. Turkmenistan: Uzbekistan’s neighbor is no prize, either. Instead of trading in skin, though, Turkmenistan prefers drugs. It’s described in the CIA World Factbook as a “transit country for Afghan narcotics bound for Russia and Western European markets.”

The Good News: If you’re in the heroin business, this is a crucial stop in your supply chain. If you’re not, well, there isn’t a whole lot of reason to care about the place.

7. Sudan: The global financial crisis of 2008 actually affected this country. Until then, money was flowing in just as fast as oil could flow out. Then, economies crumbled around the world, which dealt a nasty blow to the country.

The Good News: There’s at least one form of equal rights in Sudan: both men and women can be drafted into military service.

8. Chad: Why is Chad so corrupt? Well, this may have something to do with the human trafficking problem, which the country “is not making any significant efforts” to address. Rebel groups in the country add to the likelihood for mayhem.

The Good News: Chad ranks 190 worldwide in terms of GDP, which means your bribe dollars will go much further than in more developed nations.

9. Burundi: A dispute with Rwanda over sections of the border they share has resulted in various conflicts and a spirit of lawlessness that will make your own nefarious plans pale in comparison.

The Good News: Though landlocked, there is probably some great real estate alongside Lake Tanganyika.

10. Equatorial Guinea: Any country that has failed to try to combat human trafficking is probably a top spot for corruption, so it isn’t surprising that Equatorial Guinea made the top 10.

The Good News: Government officials and their families own most of the businesses in the country, so any broad complaints can be addressed by a handful of people.

[photo by The U.S. Army via Flickr]

Pittsburgh restaurant features ‘conflict cuisine’

Most American travelers will never set foot in Iran, but at least now if they make it to Pittsburgh, they can enjoy some of the country’s delicious cuisine. It’s the idea behind a new take-out restaurant called Conflict Kitchen, a new eatery that’s attempting to feature cuisine from countries the United States is in conflict with.

Conflict Kitchen might serve food, but it’s hardly your normal carry-out joint. The project, which was started by artist Jon Rubin, will regularly shift themes to feature a different “conflict country” and promote cross-cultural understanding. The first four months are devoted to a collaboration with Pittsburgh’s Iranian community. In addition to delicious food like the Kubideh Sandwich, Conflict Kitchen also plans to host events, performances and discussion surrounding this much discussed Middle Eastern country. Though there’s been no announcement on the project’s website, chances are good that other “rogue states” like North Korea, Venezuela and Afghanistan will get similar treatment.

The Conflict Kitchen project raises an interesting question. Who are we demonizing when we disagree with a country’s politics? Is it the government of that country? Or is it also the people who live there, many of whom have nothing to do with the policies we dislike? Perhaps by traveling and through projects like Conflict Kitchen we can learn to better differentiate between the two.

10 Tips for visiting Bethlehem this Christmas

Those of us who travel to Bethlehem soon discover the huge gap between our happy Sunday School expectations and the heavy realities of visiting the West Bank in person. It’s not such an easy place to get to, though world interest makes Bethlehem far more accessible than say, Ramallah or Jericho.

Out of 133 destinations rated in this month’s issue of National Geographic Traveler, the West Bank’s little town of Bethlehem ranked the lowest. Sad but true, travel experts consider the birthplace of Jesus Christ to be the world’s worst travel destination, one that’s surrounded by a giant concrete wall with difficult checkpoints and generally tangled in a political rat’s nest.

Still, for those in search of a geographically-correct Christmas, Bethlehem offers a nice dose of nostalgia served with a serious side of political pondering. It’s also a bit of a circus, like Las Vegas with Franciscan monks and machine guns. In such a place, it helps to have a guide. In lieu of a bright star shining in the east, behold ten hints for helping you navigate the dark streets that shineth:

  1. Check the border situation constantly: security in Israel varies wildly. Peace or violence in one location does not pre-determine security in other locales, especially in Bethlehem. CNN, BBC, and US State Department travel alerts are interesting but rarely compelling. Instead, ask around in country. Learn to listen beyond the bias and get the inside scoop as to which entry points are ‘hot’ and which ones are getting less traffic. Which brings us to the next point:
  2. Plan a window of extra time: crossing into the West Bank is always a gamble. In some cases, you may not even make it, so don’t write “Bethlehem” into your travel planner between 10:00 and 12:00. Instead, plan a range of days and hope that your first attempt is successful. If not, try, try again.
  3. Hire a Palestinian taxi driver with Israeli license plates: When it comes to straddling a tumultuous border, get the best of both worlds: A Palestinian driver with Israeli papers (and driving a car with Israeli plates) is pre-cleared and faces far less hassle when crossing back into Jerusalem. They will also be much safer escorts for you while you are in the West Bank. Again, ask around and seek trusted insights from insiders.
  4. Avoid big bus tours: though safer in principle, taking a tour bus into Bethlehem is often a recipe for a painful wait at the border in either direction. Add fifteen minutes for every olive wood sculpture of the baby Jesus in your backpack. If possible, travel ultra-light (passport, camera and a bottle of water) and in small groups.
  5. Visit the Church of the Nativity backwards: the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ is anything but peaceful, with all the wailing Russian Orthodox pilgrims and nit picky clergy who voraciously guard their little corner. Take a second to relax your religious connotations and realize that you are in a major tourist destination with crowds like those at the Empire State Building or Dollywood. Visiting the church in reverse order–saving the Grotto of the Nativity for last–can help you skip some of the longer lines.
  6. Don’t go on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day: I know, I know, that’s kind of the point, but know that it will be a Christian madhouse. Try going instead to visit first thing in the morning of December 24th, otherwise (insert joke about there not being any room in the inn, ha, ha.)
  7. Dinars or dollars: shekels have very little use in the City of David and most ATM’s disperse Jordanian dinars. Get some cash before you enter, or use US dollars. Again, the lighter you travel, the better.
  8. The Shepherds Fields of Bethlehem is a hoax: What? You mean the shepherds that saw a star shining in the sky and then heard angels singing, “Glory to God”–they weren’t actually hanging out on that specific hilltop that happens to be a ten-minute drive from the Church of the Nativity? No, sorry. The chapel and twisted olive trees are a nice reminder of a cool event, but it’s a Victorian-era invention for tourists like us.
  9. Bring a bible: The Book of Luke is probably the best and only guidebook to take with you. The book never gives false information about restaurants, opening hours, or directions, and offers some great context about the town itself.
  10. Keep apolitical: It sounds way obvious, but a trip to Bethlehem is not the time to show off your cocktail conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Be assured, no matter what you say, you will offend least one person. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would put his foot in his mouth in Bethlehem, so better to shut it. Talk about the weather and delve deeply into your clueless tourist persona–on this border, it’s the safest way to be.

Pilots and crew brawl at 30,000 feet because of a flight attendant

The wide open skies turned into the Wild West on an Air India flight when the pilots and crew started fist-fighting. The plane was heading to New Delhi from Sharjah, UAE when the altercation that had started before the plane took off heated up.

This was not a remake of the 1980’s movie Airplane, although the scenario that unfolded at 30,000 feet sounds as if it could be. Picture an Airbus A-320 bouncing around in the skies, if you will.

The fight started when one of the pilots supposedly molested one of the female flight attendants. In response to the allegation, the pilot and the co-pilot and two of the crew members threw punches in a display of fisticuffs that began in the cockpit and spilled out into the galley.

As they looked on, the 106 passengers probably wondered what the heck was going on and who exactly was flying the plane, as in should one of them offer to take control.

By the end of the incident that has subsequently grounded the four brawlers, one of the female flight attendants and one of the co-pilots did end up with bruises. There is an investigation as to what happened exactly. Sorting out who did what may not be all that difficult considering there were eyewitnesses.

I’m wondering if beverage service was disrupted. It sounds like this would have been a flight to add popcorn into the snack option. You can read more about this truth is stranger than fiction story here.