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Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Audacity of Grope

Now, dear readers, as someone who travels for a living, I realize that going through airport security isn’t a barrel of monkeys. But when I read about groups going ape about full-body scanning machines, or farcockt factions calling for travel boycotts to avoid Transportation Security Administration (TSA) pat-downs, I say get over it.

My ire is currently aimed at the inane idea of Opt Out Day (I shall not deign to dignify the premise with a link). Opt Out organizers want to make November 24...the day before Thanksgiving...the time when passengers just say no to advanced imaging machines, aka virtual body scans. Ah, brilliant. Encourage people to hold up security lines on the busiest travel day of the year. That'll work like a charm, I'm sure.

There is an option, of course, for opting out of the scanner. However, the full-body pat-down opens a whole new can of worms for civil libertarians and harried passengers who say the touching is too much.

Hence, another protest group, called wewontfly.com, is asking its sympathizers to reject the pat-downs. Prima facie evidence of this group's acumen: Its website equates pat-downs with groping and suggests "jamming TSA checkpoints...until they remove the porno-scanners." Porno-scanners? Really?

"It is irresponsible for a group to suggest travelers opt out of the very screening that could prevent an attack using non-metallic explosives," TSA Administrator John S. Pistole says (as quoted in the Washington Post). "This technology is not only safe, it's vital to aviation security and a critical measure to thwart potential terrorist attacks."

I agree. The choice between an overly-friendly pat-down or a body scanner that might reveal a blurred image of one’s privates to a solitary TSA agent versus being blown up in an airplane seems like a no-brainer to me.

Seems logical to the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR) as well. The group can barely contain its excitement about the technology. “Put it in perspective, America,” an AANR press release says. “Allowing body scanners aids in travel safety and security, which is far more important than parochial concerns over a scanned image of a clothed body.” AANR’s executive director suggests imagining imaging as “a virtual skinny dip, something regarded as American as apple pie since before Norman Rockwell. (Then), everyone wins in the name of better air travel security.” Good points all (though it does give me pause to agree with a group that promotes nudist vacations as the ultimate way to avoid baggage fees).

Now, there are some arguments against scanners and pat-downs that I might buy. For example, some people are concerned with possible radiation being emitted by the scanners. I can't comment knowledgeably on that, given that I am not a scientist. Some true believers and some who are truly prudish balk at being patted down. But instead of pitching a fit, those groups can walk through a scanner.

Then there are the political theories. To wit, some say pat-downs and scanners are merely window dressing/government propaganda, and that the real evil-doers will always be one step ahead of our security systems. And there's the noted nexus between high-level DC insiders, like ex-Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, who are touting scanners as the ultimate security option, and the manufacturers of whole body imaging machines. It's a crowded lobby, indeed.

Of course, on the other side of the coin is one Mr. Ralph Nader. The consumer activist and former presidential candidate is getting his Nader’s crusaders to take an anti-scanner stance. Now, there’s a Morton’s Fork...self-interested politicians versus the guy who screwed up the 2000 election.

Nearly 500 scanners will be in U.S. airports by the end of the year, Another 500 are expected to be installed next year. Ultimately, TSA plans to have the machines replace metal detectors at nearly every airport checkpoint. So, in the 2000-teens, body imaging is going to be a fact of life. As for pat-downs, I truly doubt they are designed to provide TSA employees with a cheap thrill. That said, if a guard is the subject of frequent complaints, he or she should be retrained or reassigned to patting down cargo packages.

Perhaps a better idea is to get robots on the case. After all, if you can train Cody to give a sponge bath, scientists should be able to develop a robot that can render a reliable rubdown.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

O Say, Can You See America?

The attempt to market the tourism attractions of the United States abroad is hardly a new concept. For many years, the United States Travel and Tourism Administration robustly represented American tourism concerns overseas. But in the mid-1990s, the agency was largely defunded and its overseas offices closed. (USTTA still exists as a miniscule part of the Department of Commerce). The United States was left with the unwelcome distinction as one of the few major countries without a national tourism office.

After USTTA packed most of its bags, overseas marketing was left, in large part, to individual companies like Disney or large tourism destinations like Las Vegas and New York City. The U.S. Travel Association also has worked to bring international travelers to these shores. But especially after September 11, 2001, when tourism plummeted dramatically, the need for renewed federal support became ever more evident.

Finally, in March, 2010, the Travel Promotion Act was signed into federal law. It called for the development of a public-private Corporation for Travel Promotion, which is charged with attracting more international visitors to the United States. The U.S. Department of Commerce oversees the Corporation. An 11-member board was named in September.

At a board meeting today in Washington, DC, it was noted that President Obama has agreed to "star" in promotional spots touting the country's tourism attractions overseas. The board also discussed the use of a sexier nom de plume. "Discover America" was the popular choice. While that trademark currently belongs to the U.S. Travel Association, it appears that the name may be transferred to the new cause. The other big piece of news to come out of the session is that the board is starting the search for a full-time executive director. So, industry veterans, get those resumes ready.

Details for Policy Wonks

According to U.S. Travel, "the Corporation will develop a multi-channel marketing and communications program to attract more international visitors and explain changing travel security policies. The initiative will be funded through a matching program featuring up to $100 million in private sector contributions and a $10 fee on foreign travelers who do not pay $131 for a visa to enter the United States. No money is provided by U.S. taxpayers."

Oxford Economics estimates that, if CTP efforts are successful, it will lead to $4 billion in new spending annually, along with the creation of 40,000 new jobs and the generation of $321 million in new tax revenue each year. Additionally, the Congressional Budget Office reports that the Travel Promotion Act could reduce the federal deficit by $425 million over ten years.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pssst, Your Routes are Showing

Many Washingtonians are currently yearning to get out of Dodge, due to either the political or the natural climate. If you are one of the throngs, check out these new nonstop routes between DC and anywhere-but-here.

Gobble It Up

As a special Thanksgiving treat, Turkey is now on the menu for Washington, DC pilgrims who prefer their travel nonstop. Turkish Airlines is providing service from Washington Dulles to Istanbul four times a week starting on Saturday, November 6. The introductory one-way fare of $751 will be gobbled up fast, so book now.

Sunny Days

With Washington expected to be at loggerheads this winter, there's no better time to take off to the Caribbean. Between December 18 and April 30, Cayman Airways is bringing back twice-a-week nonstop service between Dulles and sunny Grand Cayman. Aside from the Caribbean beaches, you can visit one of the world's biggest turtle farms. No loggerheads there, just green sea chelonians. Book now and you'll only have to shell out $238 for a roundtrip ticket.

Ice, Ice, Baby

Want to go somewhere where the economy is worse than ours? Then Iceland may be your cup of tea. Icelandair begins its summer service from Dulles in May, 2011. Due to the low value of the Icelandic Krona, the country is a one hail of a deal...definitely one of the best bargains in Europe. Roundtrips to Reykjavik start as low as $429. Mind you, that's just the tip of the iceberg, as you have to add taxes and fees. But still, the trip can cost less than $700....a small chunk of change for high season travel.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Germane to Germany

After you listen* to this segment on Berlin (@ 42 minutes in), and after you have read my earlier posts about Teutonic spa culture, you might be interested in heading to Germany. November and December are particularly festive months to go, as Christmas Markets, complete with nutcrackers, gluhwein, and lebkuchen, dot the country. Dresden hosts the country's oldest Christmas Market, Nuremberg hosts the most famous, and Berlin hosts, well, the most. The capital city hosts about 60 markets in various neighborhoods. And yes, Virginia, there's even a Hanukah Market (held in the courtyard of the new and acclaimed Jewish Museum).

A few other notes for folks heading to Germany:

--Outside of the major cities, it can be difficult to use major credit cards. Many stores and restaurants don't accept plastic from non-European banks. So, bring cash.

--As I traveled through Saxony and Bavaria, I found still/flat bottled water hard to find. If you prefer your water non-carbonated, you may have to drink it from the tap (a perfectly safe option, by the by, although some waiters will look at you funny should you order it that way).

--If you want your hair to look smooth and shiny, BYO conditioner. I didn't find this amenity at any of the 12 hotels I visited during my recent trip.

*If the link takes you to the main page of the ATW website, go to the Archives for the 10/28 show.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Naked Truth: Undressed to the Neins Part II

The German spa experience is quite different from its American counterpart. Across the pond, it’s about taking the waters, relaxing, and invigorating all of one's senses (to wit, many German spas actually have concert halls where one can enjoy the sound of music in the quest to lower one's blood pressure. Quite civilized, that). Pampering and prissy treatments are verboten. Also, most spa facilities are not located within hotels or resorts, but are community centers for all who seek to unwind.

That preamble out of the way, let us return to our tale of the Naked Spa of Bad Fussing. I am traveling with a quintet of women of a certain age, including a statuesque guide of German and French Guianan descent. Given her height, her exotic skin color, and her status as an ex-model, she diverts the attention of all wandering eyes. Therefore, I suppose she is also acting as our bodyguard. Ah, Isabelle, I shall always love you.

We enter a facility that seems somewhat antiseptic, like a sanitarium of yore…not to imply that I intimately know what a sanitarium of yore looks like. (This reminds me of a recent conversation with someone who had taken a tour of an insane asylum back when political correctness had not invaded our language. Said “tourist” mentioned her guide was a schizophrenic. To which I replied, “At least you got both sides of the story.”)

Apologies for the digression. I know you are probably sitting at the edge of your seat waiting for the Naked Spa story. And naked truth be told, we were sitting at the edges of our seats naked in the honey-baked sauna. But I get ahead of myself.

The first clue that something might be amiss was in the changing area. While our little group changed into our bloomers (swimsuits were required for the pool area), we noticed men...and children...walking right on by. Here we were, buck naked (ring a bell, Seinfeld fans?), and parades of Germans were marching past. Enjoy the cabaret, mein herrs.

To warm up, three of us took part in a water aerobics session, set to a tune that was a fusion of bad 1980s Euro-disco (I know, that's redundant) and an alpine yodel. Next, our intrepid quintet made its way to the sauna garden. There, Isabelle knocked up the Sauna Meister. Apparently, Sauna Meister is a full-time job in Germany ("...and what do you want to be when you grow up, little Helmut?"). The Sauna Meister gave us the skinny on Naked Spa activities (in the name of journalistic accuracy, I should mention that the facility was actually called Thermae I).

The first sticky situation reared its head as we entered the Honegspeeleng (the honey sauna). This was the point at which we fully realized we not only had to lose our outerwear, but our towel wraps as well. Frankly, there was no choice. With the sauna room packed cheek to cheek, it became quite apparent that we would poke out like sore thumbs (or something) if we remained clad.

Thus we sat, a co-ed group of 40 naked people, with nary a washboard ab in sight. Within minutes, the Sauna Meister cometh. For those trying to picture the scene (and please leave me out of it if you are), the Sauna Meister was not naked. Nor was he wearing a Speedo, so his status as a bearer of washboard abs is in question. No, it was a fully-clothed Sauna Meister who came in bearing pots of honey. He passed them out and everyone proceeded to slather themselves and their neighbor. Isabelle advised we naifs that the honey should not be rubbed on die scheide.

After the honey mixed with sauna-induced sweat, lo and beehold, we were all detoxified. After leaving the sauna, the next step was to cool off with a naked foot bath. I had the pleasure of taking mine next to an incessant hummer (to clarify for readers of the Urban Dictionary, please note that said man was merely singing without words).

As for the rest of the afternoon, we got naked again, yadda, yadda, yadda, and then we left the premises. Seriously, after being naked for so long, it blurs altogether.

Now, lest this scare you off a spa trip to Germany, be advised that all spas aren’t naked spas. In fact, at the next place we visited, the Wellness-Hotel Sonnegut in Bad Birnbach, swimsuits were de rigueur. And interestingly enough, the bodies in those swimsuits were much more fit than the naked bodies at Thermae 1 (not that I was looking, mind you). Go figure.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Naked Truth: Undressed to the Neins-Part 1

In retrospect, it all started with a conversation I had two days before leaving for Germany. During said conversation, a friend revealed a secret past that included a nude streak in some California canyons back in the late 1960s (you know, the Age of Aquarius). As a member of a slightly younger and more prudish generation, this revelation left me feeling a bit disconcerted. Little did I know that just weeks later, I would be the one letting my hair down and letting the sunshine in (so to speak).

The foreshadowing began in Berlin. As I was on a mission to investigate the remnants of the Cold War in the once divided city, I visited the DDR Museum, devoted to all things East Germany (DDR is short for the Orwellian Deutsche Demokratische Republik). Among the exhibits was one on naked tourism. Yep, those East Germans may not have had any political freedom, but they sure let it all hang out on vacation. The exhibit was marked by what Americans would deem illicit photos (full frontal images of an unclad Mom and Dad swinging bare naked Junior through the sea) and a lovely diorama depicting all of the things East Germans did on nude beaches (I will spare you the details).

The next harbinger of things to come happened in Bad Kissingen, when I was given a rubdown with hot, oily balls by Stefan, a masseur half my age (you do the math). Mind you, I've been kneaded by many a male massage therapist, including Dan the Man the Romanian Rubber and Bud Light. But the combination of Stefan's youthful appearance and the lack of a modesty towel or sheet did give me pause.

But my dalliance with Stefan rated a mere PG-13 when compared to what happened in Bad Fussing. Now, normally, what happens in Bad Fussing stays in Bad Fussing. But this tale is too good not to bare.

To Be Continued...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Great Vacation Ideas

Pondering where to go on your next adventure? U.S. News offers advice from top travel pros, including me. Bon voyage.