Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A place that makes sense to me

Monday afternoon, America watched with horror as Boston, Massachusetts became the most recent city within our borders to experience a terrorist attack. The identity Boston held in many people's minds and hearts swiftly changed. To some, a city typically regarded as the enemy, was viewed compassionately as a brother. To others, an exciting vacation spot became a nightmarish hell--one they may never muster up the courage to visit again. And to many more, the love they had for this city only grew stronger with heartbreak.

Inspiring display outside The Brooklyn Academy of
Music after the Boston Marathon explosions
The geographic term "sense of place" describes the way in which places are experienced subjectively. Whether through personal experience, or from outside learned knowledge, most people tend to view most locations through a specific, individualized lens.

Take the city of Hartford, for example; the not-quite-metropolitan capitol of my home state, Connecticut. I love Hartford. Sure, there isn't always a lot to do, and the skyline is rather ugly, but it's my city. It's where I was born, where I went to high school, and where I'll probably get married one day. It's the place I've most explored (and gotten most lost in); the place I've seen plays and concerts, and been to museums and nightclubs; the place I crashed my car and tried my first cigarette; the place I made lifelong friends and decided upon my future career; the place I grew up. 

Not everyone sees Hartford the same way as I do. It is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country, and I wouldn't argue the fact. Some people think of the urban hub as being quite well-off (whether because certain television shows portray it as such, or because of the general assumption about Connecticut's wealth), while others will say it must be one of the poorest in the area. Many will never bother to consider Hartford as anything besides a cause of traffic between the greater cities of New York and Boston. 

Everyone is correct. There are mansions, and there are gunshots, and there is certainly bad traffic, but no matter how one chooses to see Hartford, theirs is only one view out of an indefinite amount. This is true of any and every location. Thanks to globalization, we are now able to visit and learn about more locations than what was even imaginable in the past. With this increase, the idea of "sense of place" is more prominent than ever, especially in the travel industry.

Everywhere, from tiny towns to major countries, is constantly working to maintain and improve their image. Tourism brings in a lot of money, and also a better reputation. Even New York City, a place that tends to sneer at tourists, is completely reliant on them. Mayor Bloomberg confirmed in 2011“The strength of our tourism industry is one of the reasons New York City was less impacted by the national recession than other cities, and it continues to be one of the reasons we’re growing faster than other cities today.”

Posing with friends at the Dead Sea in Israel
I had the opportunity last week to meet Michael Tuchfeld, a leading journalist in Israel. One of the points he made over and over again is that the media focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict far more than it ought to. "The conflict does not define the country," he said. When I asked him what he thought should define the country instead, he suggested the many advancements in medicine and technology Israel is responsible for, their superb educational system and stable economy, and the fact that Israel makes a wonderful vacation spot.

Having been to Israel, I can attest to that. It is an absolutely gorgeous, culturally enriching, and fun country to visit. I find it bewildering that Cyprus, the super small island next door, currently has nearly 3x the amount of annual tourists that Israel does, according to Tuchfeld. The reason for this, as I'm sure you can assume, is because of the conflict with Palestine. When the only thing you hear about a country is that it's "at war," you're not often rushing out to buy a plane ticket there. Even after I came home from my trip, completely safe and with great stories, the only reaction I got from some people was a stuffy, "I'm glad you didn't get blown up."

Similarly, I recently realized, must be the case of Korea. Aside from the success of "Gangnam Style" singer, PSY, Korea seems to only be in the news for Northern leader Kim Jong-un's alleged threats of war and destruction. I am sure the negative publicity is stressful for the citizens of his regime, but probably even more so for the folks in the South. Though separate countries, both parts of Korea are being thought of as warzones in the minds of many ill-informed people.

When leaving the Condé Nast Building the other day, I noticed a rather large billboard in Times Square. On it was a lovely sailboat and ocean scene, with text reading: 
"VISIT KOREA: 9000 miles of unspoiled coastline. 3000 islands of rare beauty. Discover the unexpected charm of Korea."
Billboard advertisement in Times Square, NYC
My initial reaction was confusion. I had prided myself in being open-minded enough to see Korea as more than just Jong-un's playground, but had never considered vacationing there--especially not for their beaches. To be honest, it didn't occur to me before seeing this advertisement that Korea even had beaches (silly, I know). I took note of the wording: unexpected charm. 

It was true; Korea probably isn't the first location that pops into the mind of even the most sophisticated traveler when thinking of island beauty, but that doesn't mean it's without. By acknowledging that it is a more under-the-radar travel destination, Korea is validating the audience's individual perception of the country, while gently letting them know that there's more than what meets the eye. The viewer is being informed of the truth, while maintaining their personal sense of place.

Though I am grimacing slightly at the thought of this billboard's price tag, I think it was a smart decision to have it posted. People who have established their Korean sense of place through what they've seen in the media (feeling uncomfortable or possibly scared at the thought of going), are likely to only allow the media to change their minds. Korea reiterates on its tourism website that it has "maintained its longstanding reputation as a safe tourist destination" and that it is working to further increase the number of tourists; doing so, in many ways, by appealing to the individual's sense of place.

Regardless of a person's travel expertise, they often times know where they want to go, and why. People do like to learn, but they do not like to be told that they're wrong. In order to get the highest number of visitors each year, towns and nations need to act as travel agents with only one destination. Listen to the customer, and work with them to give them the best vacation possible... within your borders.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Sky High Standards

One of my editors at Condé Nast Traveler is coordinating a photo shoot this week on the island of Dominica. The photographer will be shooting select hotels and restaurants that an incognito writer previously visited and reviewed. I was researching the locations the other day (finding images online of the buildings and grounds) to help give my editor a head's up on what was going to be shot. When I showed her some of the pictures I pulled, I was quite surprised at her reaction. "Are you serious?" she exclaimed, bewildered. "These are the hotels we have to work with? [Pointing at the computer screen] Why would the writer stay here? It looks like a dump."

While I wouldn't necessarily compare these hotels to the Taj Mahal, one would have thought she was looking at pictures of a Motel 6 in the Bronx, rather than a quaint resort in the Caribbean. I do not think my editor is stuck up by any means; the problem is that the majority of hotels we feature do resemble the Taj Mahal. When you're photographing something for a glossy mag, you want the shot to look absolutely perfect, regardless of what it's of; in this case, the design of the interior and exterior of the hotel. Likewise, I believe most readers would prefer to see a high resolution shot of the crystal chandeliers at The Plaza Hotel than the continental breakfast spread at the Holiday Inn Express.

qualia in Hamilton Island, Australia;
CN Traveler's pick for the world's best hotel
One of the reasons I love reading and working at Traveler is because of the magazine's intelligence. The articles are much heavier than your average magazine, in regards to both the topics discussed and the language used. The pictures are stunning and sophisticated. Even little things, like the fonts chosen, exude a certain class. It is a breath of fresh air to read a beautifully written exposé on Arabian horses after you've been informed, for the dozenth time, who Justin Bieber is now dating by other publications.

When I look at the magnificent hotels, restaurants, and activities featured in Traveler, I enjoy it through the "living vicariously" point of view. Sure, I may not be able to afford a $500/night hotel room (more like 10% of that price), but my empty wallet can't stop me from ooo-ing and ahh-ing at the pictures and descriptions.

Our standard demographic of readers are well-off, educated, and middle aged, so it makes sense to feature nicer locations. However, I think sometimes the grade A locations listed can be slightly detrimental. Though I intend to eventually be successful enough to graduate from the Best Western to the Westin, I don't think I'd ever stay somewhere nicer than that. I'm not the type of person to shell out insane amounts of money on anything, let alone a hotel room. Once you reach a certain point of luxury, it seems (to me, at least) that extra money is being spent simply because it can be.

My extremely inexpensive "Room with a View"
at the Palm Grove Hotel in Virginia Beach, VA
Dominica is a teeny, tiny, little island in the Caribbean I hadn't heard of, until I chatted with a bartender on a cruise ship last year who had grown up there. While it seems absolutely beautiful, I wouldn't call it the Caribbean's #1 destination for the rich and famous. What then, is the harm in having some middle-level hotels as a center spread? They might not be as gorgeous as readers are accustomed to, but they're still pretty darn nice.

One of the sections included in every issue of Traveler is called "Room with a View," that highlights--you guessed it!--a hotel room (they even give you the specific room number) that has an extraordinary view. The hotels are located in the Swiss Alps, along the Indian Ocean, and other exotic, beautiful places. 

I traveled to Virginia Beach with a friend when I was 18, and after being turned away at the front desk by the hotel I had made reservations at (turns out they had an under-21 policy that conveniently was not listed on their website at the time), I found a cheap, but relatively decent looking hotel that accepted not only walk-ins, but 18 year olds. When I finally got to my room, completely exhausted from both the ride down and the unexpected hassle, I was shocked and overjoyed that I somehow had a balcony and ocean view. Virginia Beach was certainly not the loveliest destination I had ever been to (I doubt I will go back), but as a teenager paying under $100/night; this was my Taj Mahal.

I am excited to one day be able to select a hotel by its amenities, location, etc. and not solely its price. Until then, it's fine to dream... and it's nice when the dreams are realistic. Today I am dreaming of the 4-star hotels in Dominica.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Spring break, all I ever wanted

Spring break is something I have coveted regularly since grade school. While referred to by different names depending on which school I attended, it always meant the same thing: vacation time. My family went away fairly often throughout my childhood, and while I always enjoyed these trips and am appreciative of them, my one-track child mind cared about one thing--not having to go to school. Whether or not we traveled didn't matter to me as much as getting a break from homework, my teachers, and waking up early.

But today, as I sit on my parents' couch in suburban Connecticut, opposed to a chaise lounge in the tropics, I find it hard to feel the same way. It's not so much that I am desperately craving a beach vacation (I was lucky enough to go to the Caribbean in January), but that I'm being told by pop culture that by staying home I am "doing spring break wrong."

The ocean in Treasure Island, Florida
I'm not really a "spring break" person by typical college standards. I have a difficult time seeing the appeal of partying-into-belligerence and dropping tons of money to do so, which often seems to be the expectation. I did go to Florida during my spring break last year, but the trip was quite far from anything you'd see on MTV. However, as I made my way through the beaches and cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Clearwater, I found myself surprisingly disappointed by the lack of exciting nightlife and daytime opportunities. I realized that even though I intentionally avoided debauchery-filled hotspots like Daytona Beach and Miami, I had still managed put the state of Florida on a pedestal, assuming it would provide me with a magical vacation, since, hello, I was a college student on spring break.

A film called "Spring Breakers" recently hit theaters and I had the (mis)fortune of seeing it. Overall the film was trash and I would not recommend it to anyone, but it did have an interesting message, if nothing else. The storyline follows the experience of four college-aged girls who, after obsessing about spring break, manage to travel to Florida to "live the dream." Their vacation quickly goes from a carefree (read: raunchy) party scene to getting involved in gang-related crime, and ultimately partaking in a murder spree.

The super classy stars of Spring Breakers
This is, of course, an unrealistic and quite absurd portrayal of the average spring breaker, but it exposes the shallowness and hedonism that many young travelers possess during this season. College students flood the beaches in herds, trying to create an experience for themselves that is ultimately more destructive than enriching.

This type of tourism carries much further beyond college. A couple months ago I saw an advertisement for a huge travel expo that was coming to Long Island. I was very excited, and decided immediately that I would attend. I imagined meeting representatives from travel spots all over the world, and listening to fascinating lectures about different locations and types of travel. Unfortunately, after looking a little deeper into the expo, I realized it was more of an opportunity for hotels to sell timeshares than anything else. And people were still happily attending.

I am not against frivolous travel. I think everyone who travels is entitled to have a good time, and if that includes wild partying or staying solely at all-inclusive resorts, then that's okay by me. To each his own. But I am disheartened that so many people view this as the only way to spend their fleeting amount of vacation time; whether a week off from the school semester, or a total of two weeks off from an entire year of work. When I see my friends posting pictures of their trips to Panama City Beach, I want to shake them and say, "Did you know you could've traveled to the real Panama City for less money than you just spent? How much more exciting would that be?" 

If someone willingly chooses a less exotic travel location, then fine, but knowledge of what I consider true travel is diminishing more and more in our culture. Many people say they would love to travel the world, but go their entire lives without leaving their native country. I implore everyone settling for a "fun" spring break to imagine where they could have gone, and what they could of done instead. I certainly am from my couch.