Travel Win and Travel Fail of the Week

Boy Finds 5-Carat Diamond In State Park

Travel Win: Arkansas and Michael Dettlaff

Dettlaff, a 12-year old boy who was vacationing in Arkansas with his family, found a 5-carat diamond while exploring Crater of Diamonds State Park. Actually, it was 5.16-carats, if you want to get technical. What does that mean? Mining.com estimates this diamond could be worth $12,000 to $15,000, and the park allows visitors to keep whatever diamonds they find.

So young Dettlaff takes the cake for vacation win this week, though we have a feeling that Arkansas’ tourism numbers are also going to enjoy a nice little boost from this one as well.

Travel Fail: American Airlines and US Airways

Well that was a surprise. The merger between American Airlines and US Airways was challenged by the U.S. Department of Justice and a few states this week, causing the brakes to screech to a halt on the airline industry’s newest mega-consolidation.

This merger was going to be the solution to American Airlines’ bankruptcy issues, and was central to US Airways’ strategy for the coming years. Now it might be back to the drawing board.

American Airlines, U.S. Airways Merger Challenged By DOJ, States

Azawad: Africa’s Newest Nation?

Azawad, MaliA Tuareg rebel group in Mali has declared the northern two-thirds of the country as a separate state.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has kicked out government troops and declared the independent nation of Azawad. The region is marked out in green in this map courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The remaining part of Mali is in dark gray just below it.

The Tuaregs are a distinct desert culture living in several African nations. They have complained of being treated as second-class citizens by the Malian government and took advantage of a military coup in the capital last week to take over the Tuareg region.

So far no nation or international body has recognized Azawad as an independent state. There are a lot of politics behind this, beyond the fact that Azawad is home to at least four rebel groups, at least one of which rejects the declaration of independence. Since the coup leaders in the south plan to retake the north, it’s an open question whether Azawad will exist next month or next year.

This begs the question: when is a country really a country? I was once asked in an interview how many countries I’d been to. I answered, “29-31 depending on your definition.” I have been to 29 countries that are recognized by most or all of the world. I say “most of the world” because I’ve been to Israel, which is obviously a country even though it isn’t recognized by 32 other nations.

%Gallery-152666%I have also been to Somaliland, which, despite not having any international recognition, has a functioning government, police, elections, civil institutions and all the other things one associates with nationhood. Somaliland has had these things since it separated from the rest of Somalia in 1991. Ironically, all the world’s nations still consider it to be a part of Somalia, which hasn’t had a functioning government since 1991.

The other hard-to-define nation I’ve visited is Palestine. I know it’s politically incorrect to say anything in support of Palestine, but I consider it a country even if the US government doesn’t. The governments of 130 nations do recognize Palestine’s statehood and that’s good enough for me.

Just like with Palestine and Somaliland, Azawad has to travel a long, rough road between creation and recognition. Since several neighboring nations have offered to send troops to help Mali’s government fight the rebels, an independent Tuareg state is obviously something that scares them. A report that Islamic fundamentalists have taken over some of the northern towns doesn’t lend confidence either. I’ve spent a few months in the Sahara and I can tell you that life there is hard enough without a bunch of wackos banning music, movies and women’s faces.

But assuming Azawad fights off the Malian government and any other enemies, and assuming they get rid of the Islamists, it’s a country I’d love to add to my passport. It’s an adventure travel paradise. The Tuareg are a fascinating culture with their own dress, music, language and traditions. Azawad is also home to Timbuktu, an ancient center of trade and learning that’s home to an amazing program to preserve more than 100,000 handwritten manuscripts dating back as early as the 12th century. For people who like things a bit more modern, the region is home to two popular music festivals: Sahara Nights and The Festival in the Desert.

Now all that’s in danger because of a war. Hopefully the current crisis will be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed, either leading to Azawad’s independence or reintegration into a more egalitarian Mali. With so many outside interests staking a claim in the region’s affairs, however, it’s doubtful that either Azawad or Mali will be safe for travelers anytime soon.

Ancient city of Palmyra under threat from Syrian army

Palmyra

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra may become the latest victim of the ongoing violence in Syria, according to a Global Heritage Fund report.

Palmyra, an ancient oasis city in the desert northeast of Damascus, remained untouched by the conflict until last month, when the Syrian army moved in. According to several reports by refugees since then, units from the army have taken up position at the medieval citadel overlooking ancient and modern Palmyra and have been shooting at anything that moves. Both machine guns and tanks are being used. One can imagine what a few tank shells can do to a 2000-year-old city.

Little is known about damage to this or other historic sites in Syria. Given the government’s eagerness to level modern cities such as Homs, it’s doubtful they’re showing any care for their national heritage. Sites in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have all suffered irreparable damage during recent conflicts.Palmyra is one of the most impressive of Syria’s archaeological treasures. I visited it back in 1994 and the memories of wandering the Roman streets and temples, the sandy outskirts with their distinctive pre-Roman tower-tombs, and climbing up to the Arab citadel remain vivid. I also remember a local hotel owner who sat with me watching Syrian music videos and discussing the relative, um, “merits” of the female singers. I also remember the cheesy hustler who tried to sell me a “real Roman coin” made out of aluminum. He had the good grace, when I laughed in his face, to laugh along with me.

Are those two guys still alive? Is the hotel still there? Is every single one of my memories of a month’s travel going to be blackened by an evil dictator while world leaders dither and make sympathetic noises?

Yeah, probably.

Palmyra

[Photo of citadel courtesy Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Photo of Roman ruins courtesy Franco Pecchio.]

Thailand’s Political, Tourist Woes Continue

Southeast Asia’s top tourist destination can’t seem to break out of its slump. Supporters of two major political parties have been clashing in the streets. Former PM Samak Sundaravej was forced from office following scandals and protests. Now, just two weeks into his run as prime minister, Somchai Wangsawat, Samak’s replacement, is under investigation for breaking the government rules about owning shares in companies that do business with the government (it’s an obvious conflict of interest). If charged, he could be tossed out of the government.

While other nations in the region seek to bolster their position as economic players and tourist destinations, Thailand is hurting. The recent riots led to a spate of cancellations. Tourist numbers for the country that once dominated Southeast Asia’s vacation trade are down. And those who are looking for any sign that things are going to get better are only able to find evidence of a worsening situation. Thailand has always bounced back from political woes before. However, with other regional player like Vietnam gaining steam, would-be tourists have other options these days. Why opt for uncertainty when there are other viable destinations out there?