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Saturday, February 23, 2008

There's Something About Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein is a country that is rarely in the news. And the principality likes it that way. But now, this secretive Alpine bastion is in the center of a controversy involving rich Germans, hidden bank accounts and tax evasion. Furthermore, the United States may be jumping on the bandwagon. Senator Carl Levin has announced he is opening a Congressional investigation into whether American citizens are hiding assets in Liechtenstein's banks in order to evade taxes.

It's nasty business for this idyllic Lilliputian Eden wedged between Switzerland and Austria. Yet, the recent scandal surrounding the country's banking practices is no surprise to me. Not that I have any inside information, mind you. Nor do I have a bank account there (after all, I'm a journalist, not a supermodel). But each succeeding time I have visited the country (I've been there, done that three times), I have had growing suspicions that all is not as it seems.

My first visit to Liechtenstein was back in the day when I was doing my student Eurail tour of Europe. Frankly, I merely stopped in Liechtenstein for a day in order to add another stamp to my passport. Despite the rather hokey touristic nature of the capital city of Vaduz, I was somehow charmed by the tiny principality (smaller in area than the District of Columbia). Therefore, I licked my lips when, during my year as a graduate student in England, I once again found myself in this postage-stamp-sized country.

That visit included some one-on-one time with the locals, who invited me to go skiing and to eat out. They did not, however, invite me into their homes. There was definitely a wall between recreation and reality. The graffiti on said wall said, "Outsider, keep out." Nevertheless, what struck me during that visit was that everyone did seem quite rich and happy. While other parts of Europe were in turmoil at the time, Liechtenstein was a parapet of the good life.

But during a five-day stay in Liechtenstein three years ago, things struck me a bit differently. Perhaps the change of viewpoint developed from age and wisdom, or perhaps cynicism. First off, I stayed at a four-star business-oriented hotel in downtown Vaduz. At breakfast, I noticed a motley group of polyglots. These businesspeople were from all over the map. Their languages were all over the map. When various people broke into English every now and then (seemingly the common second language of the gang), it was heavily-accented. I later learned that some of the people were German, others Russian, and others from various points in Eastern Europe. While such international groupings are not uncommon in European business hotels, the fact is, this group didn't look cohesive. People dressed differently (even accounting for the differences in nationalities), they comported themselves differently, and if you didn't see them all sitting together at meals, you wouldn't know they were together. Naturally, my mind starting novelizing the situation. Was this a cartel of European mafia members? Was it a coterie of ne'er-do'wells? Or was it merely a bevy of badly-dressed (for the most part), suspicious-looking people who were having some kind of annual reunion in Vaduz?

Another day, as I was driving around the countryside of Liechtenstein (yes, there is more to Liechtenstein than Vaduz...in fact, there are 10 other towns and plenty of open space), my guide mentioned that the country has an open lottery for citizenship. I thought that this merited further investigation. After all, who wouldn't want to live in a fairytale land, where a courtly prince reigned and where everything was clean and everyone was rich? Granted, my lack of German-speaking ability and a real reason for needing to live there would be strikes against me. Still, going through the application process would be an entertaining exercise. However, my dreams of a Liechtensteinian lifestyle were quickly quashed. When I asked the country's press representative about the application process, an agitated look appeared on her face and her words, dismissing the topic as bunkum, were expressed with consternation. From her mien and tone, I got the feeling that this citizenship lottery was a big bean that had accidentally been spilled to me. Perhaps her response might have been different were I am German multi-millionaire.

Most countries want overnight visitors for the hotel and restaurant revenues they leave behind. But during my three times in Liechtenstein, I noticed that Liechtenstein seems to want touristic riff-raff to come in, get passports stamped (for a fee), buy some stamps, and then leave...quickly. In light of the recent relevations regarding Liechtenstein's seamier side, and the profits it may be making from fishy banking practices, there's really no need to reel in loads of tourists.

Interesting Facts about Liechtenstein

-Liechtenstein is one of two doubly-landlocked countries (the other is Uzbekistan) in the world
-Liechtenstein is the sixth smallest country in the world
-Liechtenstein has more registered companies (approximately 74,000) than citizens (approximately 35,000)
-Only about 60% of Liechtenstein's population has citizenship
-Financial services account for 30 percent of the country's GDP
-The manufacturing of false teeth takes a big bite out of the country's economic pie chart

Monday, February 18, 2008


Dear Reader: Let's celebrate Presidents Day with some weird, wacky Americana.

Amusing Museums

The Louvre has Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The Rijksmuseum has Rembrandt's The Nightwatch. The Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) has Lucy in the Field with Flowers, painted by Unknown (or someone who prefers to remain so). MOBA is the world's only museum dedicated to the collection (often out of trash bins), preservation, exhibition and celebration of bad art in all its forms. The museum is located in the basement of the Dedham, Massachusetts community theater building. The collection is lit by one large, humming fluorescent light fixture, so visitors can use flash. Admission is free, and, as they say, it's worth every penny.

If that doesn’t leave you flush with excitement, how about a visit to a gallery devoted to sinks, tubs and other plumbing items? The Kohler Design Center in Kohler, Wisconsin is truly the couture house of plumbing. Why, Kohler even contributed toilets to New York's Fashion Week this year. The Kohler Design Center is a three-level showcase of innovative product design and technology. A large gallery traces the 130-year history of Kohler Company products. It’s good stuff. The proof is in the plumbing.

Don't leave Wisconsin without visiting the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum. This museum features more than 4300 containers of the tangy condiment. Every so often, the museum hosts a Mustard Family Reunion, when those so named can "ketchup" with each other. This year, however, Colonel Mustard and kin will have to settle for getting together during National Mustard Day, celebrated this year the first Saturday of August.

Ketchup and mayonnaise seem to have been squeezed out of the museum business, but vinegar stakes its claim to fame in Roslyn, South Dakota. At the International Vinegar Museum, you can see vinegar from around the world and learn how the stuff is made. There's also an International Vinegar Festival held here in June.

Ice Cream, You Scream

Le Mars, Iowa may claim to be the world capital of ice cream, but those in St. Louis might have a cone to pick with that idea. After all, the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair gave birth to the ice cream cone. Now, 101 years later, visitors to the Gateway City can still grab a cone in Forest Park, the location of the World's Fair. Currently, the park is home to the St. Louis Zoo, the concession stands of which all feature giant-sized drumstick cones reminiscent of days gone by.

But the place for a frosty treat in St. Louis these days is Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. This Route 66 icon is noted for its "concrete" ice cream shakes—so thick you can turn them upside down and the liquid stays in the cup. Also on the St. Louis ice cream must-eat list is Crown Candy Kitchen, an old-fashioned soda fountain serving handmade ice cream and massive "World's Fair Sundaes."

For ice cream with a bit of 1960s flavor, head off to Waterbury, Vermont, home of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream plant. After taking in the New England scenery, visitors can take a guided 30-minute tour where they can learn all about how ice cream (and frozen yogurt) is made. The last stop on the tour is the "FlavoRoom," where there are free samples from the day’s batches.

And More Sweet Treats

Travelers to Eli's Cheesecake World in Chicago can visit a 62,000 square foot cheesecake factory and then enjoy a slice in the cafĂ© overlooking the Research & Development section of the bakery. More than 30 types of cheesecake (made with 3 million pounds of cream cheese annually) are cooked up here. Eli’s Cheesecake World offers tours during the week for those who call ahead and say cheese.

Another popular All-American dessert item is Jell-O. The Jell-O Gallery in LeRoy, New York tells the tale of America’s love affair with the gelatinous concoction. The museum allows visitors to take an interactive walk through more than 100 years of Jell-O, starting in 1897. Visitors learn how the history of Jell-O parallels the history of America. There are wartime recipe booklets (during World War I, Jell-O was touted as a low-cost dessert alternative) and photos from Ellis Island, where the wobbly stuff literally became the first taste of America for many immigrants.

The Capital of Giant Things

...has to be Minnesota. The Land of 10,000 Lakes is also the land of dozens of giant statues. There's the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Smokey the Bear in International Falls, the Happy Chef in Mankato, Paul Bunyan, who shows up in both Akeley and Bedmidji, and the State Fair Gopher in St. Paul. And that's just for starters.

If you are looking for a colossal Bob’s Big Boy, he still shows up in several places around the country. Next time you’re in Hollywood, stop by the Toluca Lake/Burbank Bob’s Big Boy, where the larger than life icon reigns supreme. And speaking of classic restaurant icons, if you are in the Chicago area, stop by Des Plaines. That’s where you can find an original Golden Arch, featuring Speedee, outside of a re-creation of America’s first McDonald’s. The sign, built in 1955, in its neon elegance, promotes the 15 cent hamburger.

A Belated Valentine from Roger Clemens to his Lovely Wife

With all of the hoopla surrounding the circus that was Clemens v. Congress, I have yet to notice anyone bring up a very salient point. For upon reading the evidence, it would appear that Roger Clemens was ready to hurl his wife under the bus in order to remain undiscovered in his HGH usage. Hear me out. Roger Clemens is asked to pose with his bikini-clad wife for the infamous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Roger wants his wife to look really striking. After all, the hotter she looks, the more the average male reader will think, "Wow, Roger, 350-plus wins and a smokin' wife to boot. You da man."

Now, I would imagine most husbands might suggest diet and exercise to achieve the hot bod. Who on earth would recommend Human Growth Hormone, except someone with familiarity with it?

Perhaps I "misunderstand" how Debbie managed to access HGH from none other than Roger's personal trainer Brian McNamee, especially without Roger's knowledge. But I doubt it. Anyway, let's go back in time for a moment. Debbie takes a shot (although how only one shot helps, who knows. One report said it would do swell things for her boobs). The night of the injection, she has a bad circulatory reaction to the shot. Most loving husbands, especially those for whom health care costs are not an issue, would run their wives to an emergency room, or call the family doctor to make a housecall (methinks the Clemens' probably have the clout to do that). Instead, from reports I have read, Roger tells his wife to wait the reaction out, or something to that effect. Now, this suggests two things. Number one, perhaps Roger has had the same foul reaction in the past, so he knows it's a minor league problem. Or consider this scenario. Debbie goes to Dallas, or whatever Texas city where her doctor resides, and gets treated. Suddenly, questions will arise about her use of Human Growth Hormone. These questions are likely to toss the issue right back into hubby's ample lap, just as the whole steroids in baseball issue is starting to come to light.

My guess is that maybe, just maybe, Roger thought it best to keep Debbie at home, not for her own good, but to save his own hide. Imagine what would have happened if Debbie's circulatory reaction wasn't just a minor deal. What if, days after the injection, she had the same symptoms. Would Roger have continued to keep her away from doctors at the risk of her health and his potential exposure?

Mind you, Debbie doesn't appear to be much of a prize herself. First, a delightful quote from her website: "The laws of life and fitness, as I call them, are to plan ahead, be practical and use common sense. Eat healthy; be dedicated to workout, recognizing life’s necessities that serve you well." Obviously, taking Human Growth Hormone to make your boobs look bigger in a photo shoot is both commonsensical and one of life's necessities for the Debster. Again from her website, a recounting of the SI incident: "Roger came to me one day and told me that we had been asked to do a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated. I had major anxiety! I was a 39-year-old mother of 4! Once I realized that this WAS going to be a reality, I decided I had to give it everything I had. I am not a risk taker, but have since learned that with great risk, sometimes comes great reward." Hey, Deb, what was the risk of which you were speaking?

Now, a few quotes from Debbie in the wake of the hearing. "I stand by Roger 110%," she reportedly said with Hillary tears. "I only wish that--like him--I could have just said no." Or my personal favorite: "It was wrong, and I apologize, especially to all those little girls out there who are just strapping on their first training bras." Yes, I am sure that multitudes of tweens are taking time away from Hannah Montana to dwell on the bare-breasted implications of Debbie doing drugs.

Anyway, dear reader, I am aware that this is a travel blog, and that this column has absolutely nothing to do with that topic. But as a life-long basefall fan (Go, Cubs!), I just had to get this off my non-Human Growth Hormane-enhanced chest.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Separate But Equal?

In this day and age when we have both a woman and an African-American courting the presidency, one still can ponder the state of equality in this country. Back in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled, in Brown V. Board of Education, that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. But now, in the effort to court new business, some hotels are espousing the theory of separate but equal in the area of hospitality. In the fall of 2007, a new Marriott hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan was hailing its revolutionary women's only floor. After a rash of publicity (and all publicity is good publicity, right?), the negatives outweighed the positives and the women's floor idea was put to bed.

But is separating the sexes at a hotel discrimination or good business?

The handful of hotels hosting female-friendly floors make the claim that women feel more comfortable and safer on such floors. Regarding the latter argument, one wonders, shouldn't a hotel be safe for all guests, not just for women? Furthermore, in spite of all security issues, wouldn't an all-female floor potentially be a greater target for ne'er-do-wells? For guests who want an extra sense of security--well, let them all pay extra and get restricted access to co-ed club floors. Let all guests be able to ask for an escort to their rooms, or their parking spaces, regardless of gender. After all, men want to be safe, too.

Maybe some hotels are promoting female-friendly floors, not from a sense of loyalty to its female friends, but out of loyalty to the almighty dollar. The Marriott was going to charge $30 extra a night for a room on its women's only floor, for the privilege of comforting amenities such as special hair dryers, upgraded toiletries, and chenille throws. Shouldn't comfort just be included in the regular price?

Even more offensive...in 2005, a Washington, DC hotel promoted its female-only floor by noting it was stocking its rooms with "items of special appeal" to females. Among said items--paperback novels by Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts, magazines such as Bazaar, and potpourri in the bathroom. Well, I don't know about you, dear reader, but I have never deigned to read chick trash, preferring instead classic literature and current non-fiction. As a business traveler, I would far prefer a copy of The Economist or Forbes in my room. And potpourri, IMHO, should solely show up as a category on "Jeopardy." And I'm curious as to the gender of the "decider" who selected Danielle Steel as the author of choice for the high-powered businesswomen who visit the nation's capital. Serving up such stereotypical girly amenities is insulting and sexist.

Feminista attorney Gloria Allred goes a step further. The existence of women-only floors and lounges in hotels are simply discrimination, she says. "What women (sic) want are equal rights," says Allred. "Not more rights, not less rights, but equal rights." I have to agree. Women have come far too far in the business world to take a giant step backward.

What if a hotel offered a male-only floor? After all, given that nearly 60 percent of all business travelers are men, wouldn't it be fab (and profitable) if hotels had special floors devoted to a majority of their market? Features could include a special room-service menu made up of brats and beer, magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Playboy (for the interviews), and a musky scent emanating through the hallways. After all, all men like that stuff, right? Just like women like frilly scents and mindless magazines and books. And certainly, a separate floor for male business travelers wouldn't be considered discriminatory in our politically correct world, would it?

It's hard enough as it is to be accepted as an equal in the business world. The concept of a women only floor simply caters to the stereotype of females as the weaker sex, fragile fillies who need to be protected and cosseted. It's balderdash. If women want equality with men in the workplace, it means being on their turf, regarding of whether it's a home game or a road game. Women don't need to be put in "our place" on female-only floors. Separate is not equal.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Travel Trends to Watch For: 2008

On the Map

What are the hot destinations of 2008? Well, with the dollar as weak as the early incarnation of Charles Atlas, it looks like a lot of Americans will be staying home. For those folks, national parks, Hawaii, California and Nevada will be hot spots. For those who look to venture further afield, the U.S. Tour Operators Association says Italy is numero uno among overseas destination for Americans. England is a distant second, according to the USTOA survey. In Europe, places like Croatia and Slovenia are among the hottest up and comers.

Travel by U.S. residents in the first nine months of 2007 was up eight percent to Central America and 7.6 percent to South America, according to the Commerce Department. I see both areas coming on strong, as they are both places where the U.S. dollar still buys something. Costa Rica, Belize and Panama are popular among eco-tourists, while Argentina and Chile are great alternatives for the person who loves Europe. Both offer sophisticated cities, great food and wine, diverse climates (from desert to mountain to seaside) and huge shopping bargains.

Where else in the world will Americans be traveling in 2008? For one, China, host of the Summer Olympics. For two, Quebec City. Despite the loony decline of the U.S. dollar against the Canadian loonie, the 400th anniversary of North America's oldest city will be worth a trip across the border. Off the beaten track places that are looking to grow tourism numbers include Greenland (view the glaciers before they melt), Indonesia and Vietnam (see Komodo dragons and Siamese crocodiles, respectively, before they go extinct), and Madagascar and Mozambique (where vacationers can volunteer to help conserve wildlife).

Top Travel Trends

It's easy being green when it comes to travel. More and more tour companies and hotel outlets are hanging out their green shingles. Whether claims are just that, claims, or whether companies are truly offering travelers a chance to travel with a light footprint--well, that is the question. While visitors may want to head to the Galapagos or Greenland to see nature in pristine form, they should be aware that their very vacations to such places may end up harming them.

Medical tourism--traveling to Singapore or South America for procedures ranging from open heart surgery to boob jobs--is definitely on the upswing. With insurance limits on what, or how much, is covered, Americans are opting to travel abroad to get better care at lower prices.

Living on the Edge: Okay, maybe Americans aren't ready to head to Iraq's Green Zone, but interest in exotic escapes like hanging with the remote tribes of Angola or the Amazon is definitely happening.

In the Air

After a year filled with extreme delays, stranded passengers and plenty of airline and security woes, travel in 2008 promises to have a few more bright spots -- but plenty of turbulence, too.
A weak economy and high fuel prices may end up reducing delays, if a lessening demand for seats and an increasing cost of petrol combine to cause airlines to cut schedule cuts.
Watch for demand on both federal and state levels for legislation designed to provide discomforted travelers during airline delays.

Going into Labor
: 2008 could be striking for labor issues at the airlines. Trouble may be brewing at American, US Airways, and United, to name a few.

Low Cost Carriers are about one-third of the U.S. industry. Their impact is even greater in places like Europe and Southeast Asia. The new carriers also have raised customer-service pressure on existing carriers -- some new entrants offer more in-flight entertainment, fewer ticketing restrictions and penalties, friendlier service and non-stop options not previously available. They've also introduced the idea of ala carte services, meaning passengers pay for reserving specific seats or checking bags. Mainstream carriers may opt to increase revenue by doing the same, albeit to a lesser degree (initially).

It's All Business: That's where the profit is and that's why airlines are looking to increase business and first-class offerings. In fact, there are now three carriers flying business-class only flights between the U.S. and Europe: Eos Airlines, Silverjet and L'Avion. A fourth, MaxJet, recently went belly up, but that does not necessarily bode badly for the others. With the Open Skies agreement in place between the U.S. and Europe (see below), the business class wars are likely to heat up. Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have announced plans for all-business-class services across the pond.

Merger Mania: Will Delta be united to United? Or will the fickle flyer finagle with Northwest? Stay tuned to the latest airline merger soap opera. Even airlines that choose to stand alone are likely to sell off assets and spin off subsidiaries like regional airlines and frequent flier programs.
Wi-Fi Sky High: Airlines are looking into in-flight WiFi with voice capabilities blocked so you don't have to listen to a seat mate negotiate a deal or argue with a spouse. Tests are under way at several airlines. American says it will have WiFi service this year (for a price) on most of its transcontinental flights.

The Skies Are Open: Treaty restrictions on travel between the U.S. and Europe will elapse at the end of March, meaning the skies over the Atlantic will be a free for all. A new Open Skies agreement will allow any European or U.S. airline to fly any route between any city in the EU and any city in the United States. Currently, European carriers are only allowed to fly to the U.S. on flights originating from their home country (Lufthansa/Germany; Alitalia/Italy and so forth).

There will also be more choices on flights to London, as the agreement allows a half-dozen carriers to add direct flights to Heathrow from Atlanta, JFK, Houston, Newark, Philadelphia, Dallas and Los Angeles. Heathrow accounts for 40 percent of transatlantic flights from Europe, but is only served by four airlines (United Airlines, American Airlines, BA and Virgin Atlantic). Even though slots remain scarce, opening up that venue to new competition could ultimately bring down prices.

What will the impact of Open Skies be? The agreement should increase translantic traffic and competition. Experts say traffic could increase by 26 million passengers per year, leading to a fare decrease of up to 15 percent. However, environmentalists on the European side of the pond are concerned about the extra traffic and increased emissions. Expect some protests.
The new Open Skies agreement effectively does away with the old European system of national flag carriers. As a result, EU airlines are likely to merge. With the termination of restrictive bilateral air service agreements between European national carriers and the U.S., airlines can merge without worries about losing access to the lucrative U.S. market. Weaker airlines like Iberia and Alitalia may be among the first to be snapped up by players like BA, KLM or Air France.

The US has retained two important concessions: EU airlines are not able to operate internal US flights and EU companies cannot purchase more than 25 percent of a US airline. The perceived one-sidedness of the agreement may be a topic for discussion during the next round of negotiations.

European Union spokespeople say new economic, social and cultural relationships -- in services, tourism and various products exchanged by the two regions -- will now open up, leading to the creation, in Europe, of 80,000 new jobs, and economic benefits worth 12 billion euros.

Passports/Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative

The State Department issued a record 18.4 million passports in fiscal year 2007, compared to 12.1 million in 2006. Thirty percent of Americans now hold passports, up from 27 percent.
The increase was spurred by new rules requiring passports for air travel to the U.S. from Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada. Mandates for passports for cruise and car travelers were supposed to be enacted this year. However, it looks like Congress will delay putting that requirement in place for another year. However, starting January 31, all U.S. and Canadian citizens must have more identification to cross the international border.Under a new U.S. law, all travelers, including children, who don't have passports must show proof of their citizenship at land and sea border crossings — a birth certificate or naturalization certificate — to re-enter the United States from Canada.

The land/sea passport requirement of the requirement of the Western Hemispheres Travel Initiative will now likely begin in June 2009. The birth-certificate/photo-ID requirement that begins at the end of the month is merely an interim measure. Passports were due to be required for all cross-border travel starting in June, including by land and sea, but that has been delayed a year after congressional and industry protests. Those were spurred by the lengthy delays last year in issuing passports, due to the increased demand after the air-travel passport requirement kicked in.