Great Comeback Cities For Travel

comeback cities - Detroit love
Flickr, Michigan Municipal League

Recently, the former automotive boomtown of Detroit made history by filing for bankruptcy, making it an easy butt of jokes on Twitter and in the news. However, Motown has also been making strides to become America’s great comeback city, with artists and entrepreneurs lured by cheap rents, and innovative projects happening all over town (disclosure: I’m a big fan of the city, and so is the New York TimesFrank Bruni). Detroit has more than a few great things going for it, including architecture, museums and sports, and tourist dollars could go a long way in helping the city recover. Can it become a tourist destination again?

Some of the top tourist destinations in the world were once no-go zones for travelers, suffering from financial crises, war, natural disasters and rampant crime. Here are a few of our favorite comeback cities:Berlin: One of the world’s most resilient cities, Berlin has been through war, occupation and one gigantic divide, and come back to thrive. In the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, East Berlin in particular has become a hipster mecca, due to some of the lowest prices in western Europe for nightlife and a vibrant art and design scene. While not everyone welcomes the gentrification, the German capital is continuing to gain millions of foreign tourists each year.

Buenos Aires: A mix of hyperinflation, government corruption and mounting debt led to riots and an economic crisis in Argentina in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The country has stabilized and the peso value has risen, but it’s affordability has made it increasingly attractive to travelers in the last ten years, making it the No. 1 tourism destination in South America. Buenos Aires is opening more boutique hotels each year, ensuring a place every year on lists such as Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List of new hotels.

New Orleans: A longtime favorite for the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, along with events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, New Orleans was profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tourism is the biggest source of employment in the city and a major factor to its economy, and the disaster made visitor numbers plummet. Louisiana’s recovery has been slow but steady, and major infrastructure improvements brought on by this year’s “Super Gras” have helped the Big Easy come back.

New York City: Visitors to the Big Apple have topped 50 million, spending billions of dollars in the city annually. While New York has never suffered from lack of tourists, the 1980s crack epidemic and surge in crime gave it an image of being a violent, dirty and dangerous city and visitor numbers dipped. Like Detroit, it also faced possible bankruptcy in 1975 and President Ford was infamously (mis)quoted to tell NYC to “drop dead.” The terrorist attacks in 2001 caused another slowdown in visitors, but it’s now one of the safest, most visited cities in the world.

Tokyo: While Tokyo was not as devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami as other parts of Japan, it definitely felt the hurt with a sharp decline in tourism, major damage to national infrastructure, and radiation concerns. Foreign visitors are now exceeding the pre-disaster levels, though seismologists worry that an even bigger earthquake is due to hit Tokyo.

An honorable mention must go to the countries in the former Yugoslavia, especially Croatia and the cities of Belgrade and Sarajevo. Twenty years ago, who could have predicted the popularity of the Dalmatian coast as a beach destination, or the battle-scarred Serbian capital as a nightlife hotspot? They aren’t quite seeing the same tourism numbers as the destinations above, but they should be on your travel radar. Istanbul and Beirut are also favorites for their many comebacks and reinventions, though the effects from current events are already being seen in the local tourism industries.

What are your favorite “comeback cities”?

Lost travel friends

lost travel friendsBefore Facebook–hell, before mobile telephones and email–it wasn’t all that easy to keep in touch with people you might meet on the road.

You could exchange addresses and telephone numbers, of course, but by the time you were in a position to make a call or scribble a letter, the immediacy of the connection you’d shared while staying up all night on that Sardinian beach would probably be gone. Just like that, your travel friends would become lost travel friends.

In some instances, the fact that connections were more difficult to establish was a positive thing. Only connections of consequence would outlast the original encounter. The rest would fade away in a pleasant swirl of nostalgia, and you’d never be confronted by vile comments on your Facebook wall from that faint blast from the past who doesn’t belong in your future.

Nonetheless, there’s a little bit of sadness associated with all those lost travel buddies. The kinds of connections forged on the road are quite special–immediate, often effortless, involving snap decisions to trust, share, and engage.

Here’s my own hall of fame of fascinating people met on my travels over the years with whom I either immediately lost touch or failed to remain in contact.

Elke. I think that was the name of the soft-spoken anarchist who alighted from my Berlin-bound train at the final pre-border station in West Germany in the summer of 1989. We’d talked for hours and shared each other’s food. I think she wanted to write children’s books. She was deeply alienated by consumerism and dressed quite shabbily, yet she seemed cautiously happy. I remember that she waved goodbye as she left the train.

The countess. She had a von in her name and lived in a super rich suburb of Munich, on a lake. I was 17. We took the overnight train from Paris to Munich and stayed up the entire time talking and smoking a million cigarettes. Where are you now, countess? Living with your five children and count husband in a Bavarian castle? Doing drugs with your Romanian bodybuilder boyfriend in Mallorca?

The French couple who drove me and my father from Rijeka to Ljubljana in their miniscule car. We met on the Jadrolinija ferry from Dubrovnik. He was portly; she was tiny. They spoke very little English and our French was execrable but we laughed the entire way.

The East German man. Lars? It was 1992. I was stuck at a hostel in Oostende for a few days waiting for a ferry to England. He was a mad traveler, driving off every few weeks to explore another corner of Europe until recently forbidden to him. He told me how much he wanted to visit Iceland, and several months later I received a postcard from him from Reykjavik. I wonder sometimes if this fellow now works in the travel industry.

Carol Ann, the American nun. She shared a regular train compartment with me and my sister, which we tried to turn into a makeshift couchette by drawing the shades and pretending to be asleep. Whenever someone would open the door looking for a place to sit, my sister, 14 at the time, would sit up in a fake stupor and ask them to be quiet so that we could remain sleeping. Sister Carol Ann giggled each time this happened.

[Image: Flickr | fazen]

Weekending: Sarajevo


Istanbul’s unique position straddling two continents affords a lot of travel opportunities, with quick direct flights throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As an American living in Turkey, I try to explore as often as I can, particularly to less-traveled destinations. While my last weekend trip was to Prague, for this trip, I ventured to another Eastern European capital with far fewer tourists but an equally fascinating history.

The place: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
When I stepped off the plane in Sarajevo, the immigration officer asked me what I was doing in Bosnia. I struggled for a moment before answering “holiday” but really had no single good answer. A combination of cheap tickets, a holiday weekend, and an intriguing destination was what brought me to Bosnia. Most people associate Sarajevo with the tragic Bosnian War in the 1990s, or as part of the former communist Yugoslavia, but today the city is rebuilding and winning fans with cafe culture, Ottoman architecture, and easy access to outdoor adventure. The blend of religions and ethnicities have led the city to be called the European Jerusalem, and travelers will find the excellent exchange rate ($1 USD = 1.5 BAM, which is tied to the Euro 2:1) and widely-spoken English especially welcoming.

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  • One of the most amazing things about Bosnia is the the people. Resilient, scrappy, and friendly, Sarajevans have survived a lot and recovered remarkably well in a short time. I was particularly sobered by imagining the incredibly difficult adolescence people my age (30) must have had during the 1992-95 conflict. To get an idea of life under siege, you only have to walk around the city and take in the many bullet hole-ridden, damaged and shelled buildings, like the Moorish National Library which is undergoing reconstruction. Every visitor should go to the Historical Museum, across the street from the infamous Holiday Inn war correspondent hub, with a humble but moving exhibit on the siege. The Tunnel of Hope is another must-see museum documenting and preserving the cramped passage between the city and the free zone, where residents could connect with aid and communication with the outside world.
  • Sarajevo also offers excellent value. Decent hotels start at 40 Euros and rarely top 100 Euros. I stayed at the very comfortable and personal Hotel Michele for 85 Euros with a nice breakfast and wifi; celebrity guests have included Bono and Morgan Freeman. Tram or bus tickets are under 2 BAM, with taxi rides among the lowest in Europe (the most expensive ride is to the airport and under 25 BAM). Most attractive to expats who pay a small fortune for alcohol: beer, wine, and cocktails are 3 to 10 BAM most everywhere. While not a party town, there are a few good night spots including one of my favorite bars ever: the delightful Zlatna Ribica with the most well-stocked bar bathroom I’ve ever seen.

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  • While many of the sights are fascinating and affecting, the small museums and tourist attractions are still limited and can be seen in a day or two. The historic Bascarsija Turkish quarter is fun to stroll but crowded with more souvenir shops than craftsmiths these days. Sarajevo is better spent relaxing at a cafe on pedestrian Ferhadija Street and absorbing the history and culture than ticking sights off a list. Surrounded by mountains and valleys, there are also lots of opportunities for hikes, day trips, and skiing in winter.
  • Bosnian food is not bad, but many staple dishes are strikingly similar to Turkish food, such as stuffed burek pastries and cevapi meatballs (see: Turkish kofte). While tasty and locally-sourced, the food in Sarajevo tends to be heavy and meat-centric, without the abundance of salads and fish that balance out Turkish menus. High-end international and modern Bosnian restaurants are popping up around town, while cheap eats can be had for under 10 BAM. Reliable mid-range options include Noovi Wine Bar near the British Embassy for pizzas and a great regional wine list, and To Be or Not to Be (name reflects the plucky and determined spirit of Sarajevans during the siege) for homemade pastas and funky twists on traditional dishes. A famous local restaurant is Inat Kuca, or House of Spite, across the river from the National Library. The story behind the name dates back to the building of the library (then City Hall) when the house’s resident refused to let them build over his home, so they took the house brick-by-brick across the river to where it stands today (how’s that for thwarting eminent domain?).

Getting there

Tiny but admirably high-tech (they offer mobile and web check-in) Sarajevo International Airport doesn’t offer many flights outside of Eastern Europe, but national carrier B&H Airlines has affordable flights from major hubs including Frankfurt, Istanbul, and Zurich. Many travelers arrive via car or bus from neighboring countries; Croatia’s popular Dubrovnik is 5-7 hours by car and there’s an overnight train to/from Zagreb.

Make it a week

Check out the other half of B&H: Mostar in Herzegovina is another beautiful river town with a famous bridge not far from the Croatian coast. Bosnia is also an emerging destination for adventure travel with a large diversity of activities and landscapes. The Balkans have a wealth of places to go, but be aware of the history and potential Serbia visa issues when traveling overland.