Pray for Syria

The Syria I remember, does not look like the one that we see on TV.

I was in Damascus, the capital of Syria, with my friend Diana during 2008 when there was a real sense of optimism.

Blessed with biblical history (as Mark Twain once said: ‘Go back as far as you will in the vague past, there was always a Damascus’), the medieval UNESCO World Heritage listed beauty was charming travellers in their droves.

And for good reason. Back then, the Syrian capital boasted an embarrassment of riches: citadels, ruins, religious, architectural and archaeological sites and a labyrinth-like souk were are all present and correct.

As someone who was living in the Gulf region at the time, I can say that, in 2008, Damascus was easily the most magical city in the Middle East – and the most diverse. Contrary to popular perception, Damascus isn’t an Islamic state. During my sojourn, the skyline was punctuated not only by domes and pencil slim minarets of mosques, but also by churches and synagogues and the three religions successfully mingled and collided on every street corner.

Fast forward 10 years  and the death and destruction sweeping Syria is on a scale not seen since the Second World War. The widespread annihilation of Syria's towns and cities by the Syrian military, the Islamic State group and international forces have left entire neighbourhoods in ruins.

The locals I met a decade ago were all unfeasibly friendly – and fiercely proud of their country. Not so today in the wake of the news that an estimated 400,000 people have been killed and 5.6m have become refugees, since the start of the Syrian War in March 2011.

Indeed no one can be proud of their part in the Syrian conflict. Not Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, the brutal dictator intent on slaughtering his own people. Not the Islamic State– the terrorist organisation that, though damaged, remains a threat. Nor the rebel groups, many of whom have have committed some unquestionable atrocities.

And certainly not the UK whose Tory government has, after turning a blind eye to the genocide of the Syrian people for so long, suddenly professed to be sickened and saddened by the suffering of the Syrians – despite their poor record on taking in Syrian refugees.

When we left Damascus in 2008, Diana and I vowed to revisit Syria a decade down the line having reached the same conclusion as French archaeologist Andre Parrot, that: “Every person has two homelands; his own and Syria.”

Diana and I have, for obvious reasons, decided against experiencing Syria any time soon but that’s not a luxury the Syrian citizens have.

Britain and the US can no longer turn its back on the Syrian people and leave Syria to the whims of Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

In the words of Marshall McLuhan: “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew.”


Bye bye Britain

Torturous Brexit negotiations, four terrorist attacks in a month, the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a coalition of chaos… it’s time to escape for the summer, says Kaye Holland

July and August are when most Brits take to the skies in search of the three Ss- that’s sun, sand and sea – but, traditionally, they’re two months when this globe trotter stays put.

I’ve always enjoyed spending the summer in London when the capital empties out and I get to enjoy its brilliant parks, carnivals, theatres, restaurants, art galleries, museums and markets in t-shirt temperatures, without the fear of getting crushed. (http://www.justabouttravel.net/2013/08/09/london-looks-lovely-in-august/)

This year, though, it’s all change. After yet another terrorist attack – this time at a London mosque, on Monday, near Finsbury Park, I figure: aren’t we due a break?

Regardless, many of us appear to be taking one. Over a recent bottle of wine with friends, the usual question was asked as to what peoples’ plans were for the summer?

Those that usually, like me, man the office in August, replied that they were going away. And when I say away, I don’t mean up to Edinburgh for the annual festival or off to Wales to see the relatives. Rather, I’m referring to far flung travel.  

My mate Maz who always stays put for summer (and then escapes somewhere exotic during the cold winter months) is travelling to Colombia. Karen has gone back to Barbados. Others are off to Africa, Ecuador, Russia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives...  Sure, some are high earners but, by and large, they’re average Brits who have simply had enough. They’re Brits who want to be someplace sunny –light amid the literal and metaphorical darkness - where a coalition between the Conservatives and the DUP can’t haunt them. Or as my friend Murray put it: “Right now, I need to be ABB (anywhere but Britain).”

And why not? After all August – aka the height of the school holidays - is a time when your boss won’t really notice whether you’re at work or not.

One caveat: choose your travel companions carefully (http://www.justabouttravel.net/2014/01/20/four-tips-for-successful-group-travel/_): in the aftermath of all the angst and anger back home, you’ll want to avoid arguments while abroad.

We’ll see you in Santorini…


Rwanda Day returns to Belgium

Thousands of Rwandans from around Europe descended on the Belgian city of Ghent last Saturday (10 June) for Rwanda Day.

The event was attended by Paul Kagame - president of Rwanda - who used the occasion to highlight Rwanda’s history, celebrate the progress that has been made and outline plans for the future to build a prosperous nation.

Past Rwanda Day events have been held in San Francisco, Amsterdam, Dallas, Toronto, London, Boston, Brussels, Belgium, Paris, Chicago and Amsterdam - and have attracted thousands of Rwandans living abroad who want to connect with their home country.

Rwanda Day Belgium was held a few days after Rwanda’s national carrier, Rwandair, launched its inauguraldirect flight to Europe.

Elsewhere World Travel Awards - the travel industry’s leading awards programme - recently revealed that Rwanda will host its prestigious Africa Gala Ceremony 2017(https://www.worldtravelawards.com/event/africa-2017).

The glittering awards ceremony will take place at the five star Radisson Blu Hotel & Convention Centre - which features the first convention centre in Rwanda with room for up to 5,000 delegates – on 10 October 2017, with hundreds of hospitality leaders from across the region expected to be in attendance.

Watch highlights from Rwanda Day 2017 here: http://rwandaday.org/2017/

View the post here: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+Worldtravelnews365/posts/cNTX7ReGTky

What's hot: May 2016

Just About Travel tells you what’s hot in the travel world this month


London calling
Record numbers of tourists are expected to visit the English capital this summer - partly due to affordable exchange rates and partly because of celebrations such as the Queen’s 90th birthday, and exciting new exhibitions like Vogue 100: A Century of Style at the National Portrait Gallery.
In other good news for the capital, London has been hailed the most talked about travel destination on Twitter. The word 'London' was tweeted more than 81 million times in 2015, which is more than Sydney, Tokyo and Rome combined. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson commented: “With our unbeatable cultural attractions, outstanding dining and top notch shopping, it's no wonder that London is the most talked about travel destination on social media.”

Golfing in Egypt
The Egyptian Tourist Authority (ETA)recently host some of the world’s best golfers at the Red Sea Egyptian Challenge (20-23 April). The second tournament in the European Challenge Tour 2016 was be held at the Sokhna Golf Club in Ain Sokhna, a beautiful town on the western shore of the Red Sea's Gulf of Suez - and was shown on TVs across the world in what can only be a welcome boost for tourism to Egypt.
The once popular holiday destination attracted just 346,500 tourists in February 2016 compared to 640,200 the previous year, in the aftermath of bombings, a decade of political unrest and last year's plane crash in Sharm El Sheikh.

Love at first flight
Single and looking for love in 2016 but done with the usual dating websites and apps? Then new dating site, UPdates, is the name you need to know - so long as you’re cashed up. The brainchild of entrepreneurs, Léon McPherson and Gareth Thompson, applicants are screened and vetted thoroughly to ensure that ensure eligible singles with similar lifestyles can meet each other. Members are then flown by private jet to enviable locales where they can enjoy bespoke dates such as gourmet dining, wine tasting, river cruises and curated cultural experiences. For more information, visit www.up-dates.london

Touching down in Dubai
Dubai International Airport has overtaken London’s Heathrow to become the world’s third busiest airport in terms of international passengers.  The Middle Eastern Hub leapfrogged Heathrow to claim third place behind Beijing (second) and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson (first). The Delta hub, which saw more than 100 million passengers pass through its terminals last year, defended its title for the 18th year. However aviation insiders say it’s inevitable that Dubai will soon be the world’s busiest airport. 

Planning a trip to Peru
Paddington Bear will be able to visit his Aunt Lucy a lot more frequently from now on thanks to BA’s new twice weekly (and three times in the summer months) direct Gatwick to Lima flights, which start this month. starting in May. While he’s there, the Marmalade loving bear might want to check out Mountain Lodges of Peru’s new cultural programme which allows guests to choose their own adventures each day. Need help planning your trip to Peru? Look to Lonely Planet’s new Peru travel guide - guaranteed to take you to the heart of Peru.

Travel talks
National Geographic Traveller will be regularly hosting Travel Geeks: Rush Hour - a new informal series of after-work get-togethers brings together experts, writers, readers and travellers in an open forum to talk about travel. The events are tailored to fit into participants' busy schedules - subsequently Travel Geeks: Rush Hour lasts for only one hour, during which guests can share a drink and join in with the lively debate.
The next event takes place on 3 May 2016 and is aimed at First-timers to South America. Future events include Expeditions: Arctic and Antarctic (7 June) and Walking and trekking (5 July). Tickets available now from natgeotraveller.co.uk/events

No more lugging luggage to the airport
Huzzah! The days of bags slowing and weighing you down are numbered thanks to AirPortr - a London based travel-technology company that delivers passenger bags within hours between London locations (homes/ hotels/ offices) and London Heathrow airport. Bags are either dropped off in the airport with an AirPortr, before being promptly transported to their London destination. Alternatively, bags are collected from any London location and delivered to the airport allowing travellers to make the most of everything the city has to offer. Even better? AirPortr has extended its service at Heathrow to include Terminal 4, so it is now available at all Terminals – arriving and departing.

Best book
Travelling with little ones over the May half term? Treat to this bright and bold journal (£8.99) from Lonely Planet Kids. Packed with writing topic suggestions, lists to complete, ideas for getting the creative juices flowing and lots more fill‐in fun, it’s the perfect way for young travellers to record their memories from a trip. There’s space to write, draw, collage, colour and complete – turning the finished journal into a wonderful scrapbook to treasure. It’s backpack friendly too…

Flying with Virgin America

The Virgin budget airline, which flies to 21 destinations in the US and Mexico and was launched in 2007, has been bought by Alaska Air.The Seattle-based airline has acquired Virgin America in a US$4billion deal, to become the fifth largest US airline vaulting over JetBlue Airways Corp, which also participated in the bidding for Virgin America.
Despite the cash windfall, Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson says he is saddened by the merger. The British billionaire wrote in a company blog: "I would be lying if I didn't admit sadness that our wonderful airline is merging with another.”

Minding the gap
Advertising mogul, Sir Martin Sorrell has clashed with student travel firm STA over the value of gap year breaks. Sir Martin, chief executive of WPP - the largest advertising agency in the world - claims gap years are too short to be meaningful and need to be "more focused and specific”. Speaking at the Varkey Foundation Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, Sir Martin said:"I don’t believe in gap years. Those [gap years] from what I’ve seen, that tends to be wasted."

Postcard from Argentina: part two

Kaye’s constant quest for adventure has taken her back to Argentina – the land of gauchos, glaciers, futbol, tango and beef

Continued from last time

Buenos días from Buenos Aires. And what a beautiful morning– think blue skies and balmy temperatures – it is here in Argentina’s charismatic capital, whose alluring lifestyle revolves around cafes, culture and all things cosmopolitan.

I love that the Paris of the South – a city with no end of places to go, things to do and people to see – still has the type of shops that have pretty much vanished from British high streets.

I’m talking independent bookstores, butchers, bakers, green grocers, repair shops, hardware store, proper cafes (Costa doesn’t count) and post offices.


I adore living in a town where I can stroll to individual shops each day to get my Cortado (essentially a shot of espresso, with an equal amount of steamed milk) and alfor (a divine Dulche de leche cookie) fix and fulfil my errands. Ok so I am not sure I actually ever stepped foot in a butchers back home – being a lifelong veggie and all – but I rather miss them now.

What’s more, I miss picking up a local paper too. A staggering 150 local papers have folded since 2008 – a stat that fills me with sadness. Sure as a journalist, I have a vested interested in the survival of papers but, even so, I genuinely don’t think that there is any institution as important as the local paper which serves as a vital link for the area’s residents, telling them what is really going on in their community. By contrast Buenos Aires cherishes its newspapers and books (not for nothing, is BA known as the book capital of the world).


All of the aforementioned (and more) led me, last year, to state that Buenos Aires may just be my favourite city. It’s a bold assertion but I stick by it, which is not to say that there haven’t been hiccups.

My apartment has been plagued by power cuts this past week (every morning when I ask when electricity will be back, I’m told: “mañana” …). Meanwhile my shiny new iPhone was recently stolen at La Bompa de Tempo (a percussion concert that is fast becoming one of Buenos Aires’ biggest and best parties). Argentina – for whatever reason – has banned the sale of iPhones meaning that Apple products are irresistible to the city’s pickpockets.

But perhaps the fact that my smartphone was stolen at a party that was packed – even on a Monday night in January – just underlines my belief that nowhere produces drama quite like Argentina.

Case in point? I thought Monday’s party was off the scale but, according to my Mati, my Argentine mate, it was a tame evening out. Reader – it was anything but your average Monday night. At 2am the band – all brass and bongoes – were belting out Argentine rhythms mixed with Central American and African beats from the stage, while the crowd was giving it large on the al fresco dance floor. If Mati wanted to show me a quiet night, he took me to the wrong place.

But while La Bompa de Tempa might have been buzzing, I will allow that the streets of the Paris of the South aren’t packed with quite as much excited chatter (studies by the World Health Organisation have shown that Buenos Aires is the noisiest city in Latin America) as usual. 

Portenos tend to beat the summer heat by escaping to Mar de Plata – the premier Argentine beach destination – on the Atlantic Coast for the duration of January and February, despite having just had Christmas off. What can I say, the Argentines are lovers of life… How do/can they afford it? Well as the old adage goes: “An Argentine will make one peso and spend two.” All of which perhaps explains why Argentina seems to be stuck in a permanent financial crisis…


One Porteno who has stayed put is new president, Mauricio Macri. The former mayor of Buenos Aires defeated rival, Daniel Scioli (who shared the previous president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Peronist pedigree) in a runoff election late last year. If you read the international press, chances are you’ll be under the impression that Macri’s upset victory (he won with 51.4% over Mr Scioli’s 48.6% in the second round) prompted jubilant cries of “Vamos Argentina!” together with much fist pumping throughout Buenos Aires’ Parisian style apartments.

And in many, it did. By and large the Buenos Aires residents I’ve encountered are ecstatic that 12 years of Kirchnerismo (a political movement named after the late President Nestor Kirchner and his spouse and successor, Cristina) are over.

For while the Kirchners made a lot of progress – particularly in the early years –  in reducing inequality and unemployment and securing deals with some of Argentina’s creditors, it was under their watch that inflation surged to 30 percent and the poverty gap widened.

Queen Cristina, as she was known, also had no trouble making enemies abroad (she famously called Britain a “crude colonial power in decline” and wrote an open letter – published as a full-page advert in The Guardian and The Independent – to David Cameron “in the name of the Argentine people”, calling for the UK to soften its stance towards the Falkland Islands).


Speaking of which, whatever you do, don’t mention the Malvinas to an Argentine, all of whom have strong passionate opinions on the subject. Make no mistake: the amount of anger and sadness that still surrounds this conflict, has caught me by surprise.

The war took place some 30 years ago and yet posters reasserting Argentina’s claim to the Falkland islands are a common sight on the streets of Buenos Aires. Meanwhile plenty of young people – many of whom weren’t even alive at the time of the skirmish – sport tattoos of the Malvinas in the national colours.

I was asked one evening, while out with an Argentine lawyer (Javier) who speaks five languages and has lived abroad in Brazil and America, as to what we Brits think about the islands. I tentatively tried to explain that the average Brit doesn’t really think much about the Malvinas at all, while simultaneously stressing that we respect the islanders right to self determination.

Wrong answer - Javier’s face noticeably darkened. When I pointed out that all but three islanders chose to stay British in a March 2013 referendum, Javier exploded that the referendum was redundant because the islanders are British. “What is the point of asking Brits if they want to be Brits? It is a waste of time” he exclaimed angrily - and even went so far as to call the islanders “illegal settlers on Argentine soil.”

To the Argentines, it’s obvious that The Falklands belong to Argentina but were wrongly captured, occupied and defended by Britain. They see the islands are part of their identity – it’s tied up with their performance on the world stage – and can't comprehend while Britain won’t hand the islands back… Needless to say, largely due to our different opinions over the Malvinas, Javier and I didn’t make it to date two…

But back to Mr Macri,  the first centre-right leader to come to power since Argentina returned to democracy in 1983. As mentioned many Argentines are thrilled by his victory, heralding it as a the beginning of a new era not only for Argentina but for South America. Since assuming power, the new president – a wealthy businessman of Italian descent – has promised to introduce more pro-business policies, cut deals with foreign creditors and forge closer relations with the US and UK (as opposed to Venezuela and Iran).

However his critics counter that under the “blue eyed millionaire businessman” the country will return to “savage capitalism.” They aren’t making it easy for Macri: everyday a different street is closed with Peronists protesting the departure of ‘Queen Cristina’ who controversially chose to skip the swearing in of her successor.


Not that Macri is exactly a colourless character himself… The 56 year old, who is estranged from his Father and has described his Oxford-educated wife, Juliana Awada, as “insatiable” in bed, was kidnapped by rogue police for 12 days back in 1991 – an experience that prompted him to consider entering the world of politics. First though, the thrice married Macri entered the world of football as president of Boca Juniors (Maradona’s club) from 1996-2008, before becoming mayor of Buenos Aires in 2007 (he was re-elected again in 2011).

It’s early days but after a dark decade there is, with Macri at the helm, a sense of optimism in Argentina right now and a real feeling that the future is bright.

Of course Argentina being Argentina, it’s impossible to say whether this period of peace will last…

Talk to you in two weeks!



To read part one of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here