New Seven Wonders of Natural World revealed amidst controversy

The Amazon is one of the new seven wonders of the natural worldAfter four years of hype and fanfare, the new seven wonders of the natural world were unveiled last Friday, honoring some of the most amazing landscapes on the planet. But as the competition drew to a close, dark clouds of controversy formed, casting a shadow over the entire affair.

The selection process for the new seven wonders began back in 2007, when 440 natural wonders, from 220 countries, were first submitted for consideration. Over the course of several rounds of voting and judging, that number was eventually reduced to 28 finalist. The seven winners were selected from that list following months of online voting.

According to the preliminary results, the new seven wonders include the following: the Amazon Rainforest (South America); Halong Bay (Vietnam); Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil), Jeju Island (South Korea); Komodo National Park (Indonesia); Puerto Princesa Subterranean River (Philippines) and Table Mountain (South Africa).

The organizers behind the new seven wonders are quick to note that this list is for the provisional winners, as they are currently conducting a recount of the votes to ensure that the correct wonders have been named. The results are now being independently verified and they expect to confirm the winners in early 2012.

On the eve of the announcement of those winners, disturbing stories began to emerge about how organizers were attempting to collect millions of dollars from the nations that were home to the finalists. When the search for the new wonders first began more than four years ago, countries were required to pay a $199 entry fee, but as the selection process narrowed the candidates, some countries were asked to pay large sums of cash to aid in a world-wide marketing campaign. The Indonesian government claimed, for example, that the organizers wanted $10 million to cover licensing fees and an additional $47 million to host the official closing ceremony. Earlier, the Maldives withdrew from the competition altogether when costs to participate spiraled upwards towards $500,000.For their part, organizers of the new seven wonders competition say that their branding efforts were optional, and that allegations of charging exorbitant prices are completely “baseless.” They also refused to discuss exactly how much individual countries were charged for taking part in the branding campaign, but did acknowledge that the fees varied by nation.

Considering that the entire “new seven” idea was the brainchild of an international marketing firm, it should come as no surprise that it was seen as a way to make some money. Critics have pointed out however, that the firm should have secured financial backing prior to announcing the campaign four years ago, thus avoiding any attempts to seek funds from the countries involved.

Which brings up another issue with the whole competition. Since the organizers also don’t disclose voting numbers, we have to take it on faith that they are reporting the correct winners. After all, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that a country that paid the large fees would receive some kind of preferential treatment over those that bulked at them. I suppose the independent verification system is suppose to keep everything on the up-and-up, but there is no denying that there were some strange decisions made along the way.

Those issues aside, what are your feeling on the list of the new seven wonders of the natural world? Did we end up with some good selections or are there others sites that were more worth of inclusion

Rent an African villa for an exclusive safari experience

rent an Afircan villa for a unique safari experienceRenting a private villa, isn’t a new concept for travelers. In fact, many have been doing it for years in a variety of countries throughout Europe. But now, Kensington Tours is bringing the same concept to southern Africa, delivering a unique take on the experience by offering up luxury villas and safari houses for their clients.

According to Kensington travel expert Brad Crockett, a number of luxury villas have begun appearing in both South Africa and Botswana already, and he predicts that it’ll become a very popular option for families or groups of friends traveling together. These rental houses offer all the luxurious (and then some) of home, but in close proximity to some of the best safari destinations on the planet, allowing you to escape to the wild during the day, then return to a comfortable chateau, complete with a deck, pool, modern kitchen, and luxurious beds.

Kensington, who specializes in luxury adventure travel, has a new safari option that includes a stay at the exclusive Ellerman Villa. The ten day trip offers visitors a glimpse at Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa, and includes a number of unique options that aren’t found on any other trip of this kind. For instance, the journey beings with a visit to Victoria Falls and proceeds to South Luangwa, one of the best places in Africa to spot wildlife. Later, back in Cape Town, the travelers will visit the Cape of Good Hope, take a tour of wine country, and trek up Table Mountain. Check out the full itinerary by clicking here.

Having already gone on the traditional African safari a few years back, the thought of gathering up some good friends and renting a villa for a week sounds really appealing. Spending the day on game drives and then retiring to our rental home for the evening for some good food and a bottle of wine sounds like a fantastic escape, and a great alternative to spending the night in a crowded camp site.

A Self Indulgent Interview with Helen Zille, Mayor of Cape Town, South Africa

I won’t interview just anyone. I’m Mike Barish, after all. I like to speak with dynamic, interesting, foward-thinking people who fascinate me. In the past, I interviewed Mike Lee, head of one of the country’s most exciting and up-and-coming underground eating clubs.

This time around, I scored a major coup. Well, maybe coup isn’t the right word given the position of my subject. I had the great honor of interviewing Helen Zille, the mayor of Cape Town, South Africa. Ms. Zille was named 2008 World Mayor, which is essentially the International Mayor of the Year award. And GOOD magazine ranked her number one on their list of the most innovative and effective civic leaders in the world.

South Africa stands out as an example of positive development on the African continent. And in 2010, South Africa will become the first African nation to host the World Cup.

Mayor Zille was kind enough to indulge me and I found her to be honest, frank and quite humorous.

You have been the mayor of Cape Town for over two years. In that time, what changes are you most proud of?

In such a short time it is not possible to complete any major projects, but I am very happy with the progress we have made in our preparations for 2010 [for the World Cup]. Some people never believed we could get our new 68,000 seat stadium ready on time [photo at right], especially given all the legal, geological and financial complications around the site. But we are on schedule now, and that is something to celebrate. I am also happy that we have been able to clean up the City’s supply chain management department and other key areas of financial management. There were a lot of problems with corruption that we have now addressed. Then there is the increase in delivery capacity that we have achieved by introducing a new organisational structure for the City’s 22,000 staff, which was a major achievement. We filled 2,800 vacancies and introduced a whole new set of reporting lines and management structures to ensure greater efficiency. And we have accelerated the rate at which we have been able to deliver services, having tripled our investments in capital projects from R1 billion [approximately $107.2 million] per year on average between 2002 and 2006 to R3.2 billion [approximately $343 million] in the past year. This means more public projects and infrastructure to help Cape Town grow as a world city. It also means improved services to the poor, like an increase in subsidised housing opportunities for the poor from an average of 3,000 per year between 2002 and 2006 to 7,000 in the past year. All of these things indicate greatly improved efficiency and productivity in the City.

The 2010 World Cup is rapidly approaching and South Africa will be the first African nation to host the event. How are the preparations coming along?

As I have mentioned above, we are on schedule. But it remains a very challenging project.

Any advice for travelers making their way to Cape Town specifically for the World Cup?

Make sure you leave lots of spare time to explore Cape Town. There is a lot to see and do here and you don’t want to miss out. And invest in a Vuvuzela if you want a uniquely South African soccer souvenir.

Cape Town came in third place when it bid on hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics. Does Cape Town still have Olympic aspirations and will you make a bid for the 2020 Games?

With a new stadium and improved public transport we would certainly be better placed to do it than we were in the 2004 bid. But let’s first see how the World Cup goes!

Earlier this year you received the 2008 World Mayor Award. Why do you think you won?

I was very surprised to win the award, and naturally I was thrilled. I believe that I won because of the great team I have working with me in my office, in the City of Cape Town administration, at home, and in parliament. These kinds of awards are never solo achievements.

Did you get a trophy or plaque that you make everyone look at when they visit you? Maybe a medal that you always wear around your neck?

I received a very uniquely designed metal trophy, which we have on display in the mayor’s office. But I definitely don’t make anyone look at it.

If you were giving a tour of Cape Town to your new best friend (let’s call him Mike Barish), what are the top five places that you would show him?

It really depends what my new best friend finds interesting. We haven’t known each other long so I can’t really say! But if you forced me to choose for you, I would have to say Cape Point, Table Mountain [photo at right], Table Bay (including the V&A Waterfront and Robben Island), and some local performances. This time of year I would take you to watch the Minstrels perform on the Grand Parade – about 20,000 take to the street in parades that include incredible costumes and a whole range of musical instruments. I would show you the different sides of Cape Town so that you could come to understand some of the history, culture and economics of Cape Town, so I would include a visit to the Muslim area of Bo Kaap, the cosmopolitan and highly developed Atlantic seaboard, and the communities of Khayelitsha and the Cape Flats.

I love street food and I hear that the Gatsby is the best street dish in Cape Town. What do you like on your Gatsby?

I actually prefer salomies – and I like a good lamb or chicken curry on mine. A Gatsby is a huge roll with chips and other things on it like pieces of chicken or steak. A salomi is a Cape Malay flat bread rolled around a curry filling.

People often have concerns about crime in Cape Town. What have you done to ensure the safety of both residents and travelers in your city?

We have built partnerships with businesses and the police in most of the major commercial and tourist areas in Cape Town to boost street patrols and keep these areas safer. We are now building similar partnerships with neighbourhood watches to curb crime in residential areas. The City has a very small police force. The main policing function, as well as the criminal justice system, falls under the national government. That system needs a serious overhaul in South Africa.

Many airlines charge passengers to check luggage, so it’s cheaper to just bring one carry-on bag. That means you have to pack lightly. What would you recommend travelers pack in just one bag to help them enjoy a visit to South Africa?

My recommendation is don’t bring anything, just money. Then you can buy some proudly South African clothes when you get here! But seriously, it is not as bad as that! In my experience most airlines allow you a certain weight before they start charging. It is usually about 20kg per person, and then an extra 5kg carry-on luggage. If you are limited, I would say that in summer make sure you bring some swimwear, shorts and t-shirts, and a hat, because it gets pretty hot in Cape Town between December and May. But always bring an umbrella and some warm clothes, because once in a while we get hit by cold wet days, even in mid-summer. Cape Town’s weather is very changeable, and we can also get wonderful hot days in winter too, so bear that in mind if you are coming to the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

Do you get to take much time off? Where did you go on your last vacation?

Normally no, but I am happy to say I just had a two week break in the Eastern Cape with my family, which has been my first real holiday since becoming mayor nearly 3 years ago. We went to Keurbooms River, which is a forested coastal area near Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route. It is a great place to relax and enjoy some peace and scenery.

What place in the world that you have yet to visit would you most like go to?

There are so many I can’t limit it to one. I would like to visit South America, and see cities like Bogotá in Columbia. Bogotá was able to overcome many of the similar developmental challenges to those which we currently face in Cape Town, especially around crime and urban decay. I would really enjoy learning more about how they did it.

Back in April of 2008, you were in New York to address the United Nations. Did you have a chance to do any sightseeing while you were here? What were your favorite places?

I didn’t have much time to do sightseeing, but I was very happy to see the UN headquarters, which is definitely one of the sights I would have wanted to see anyway.

As I am sure you know, America’s economy is not doing so well, so I have had to start traveling on a much tighter budget. When I come to visit Cape Town, do you think I could sleep on your couch?

You would have to fight with my sons’ friends for the space.

Many thanks to Mayor Zille for her time and graciousness. Special thanks, as well, to Robert Macdonald, Spokesperson for the Mayor of Cape Town, for his efforts in coordinating this interview.