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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Travel

TUNISIA: Provocative advertising campaign stirs the pot in foreign capitals

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During Tunisia's popular uprising, which led to the ouster of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali in January, tourists deserted the country en masse.

Advertising agencies are now trying to attract tourists and sunbathers back to Tunisia's beaches and Roman ruins through a controversial billboard campaign that is stirring the pot in foreign capitals.

One billboard appearing on public buses in London features an image of a woman receiving a back massage with the accompanying text, "They say that in Tunisia some people receive heavy-handed treatment."

Another poster reportedly running in the campaign depicts the country's fabled Roman ruins next to the line: "They say Tunisia is nothing but ruins."

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EGYPT: As Cairo emptied of foreign vacationers, one sightseer headed to the revolution

0203-OEVACUATE-Egypt-americans_full_380 While foreign tourists were flying out of Cairo in the masses amid the mass demonstrations against the government of President Hosni Mubarak, lining up at Cairo International Airport to get on the first flight out, 37-year old Belgian consultant Floris Van Cauwelaert was trying to get on a flight into Cairo to get a first-hand glimpse of the dramatic events unfolding in the Egyptian capital.

He was the regular guy who'd grown tired of watching history on TV instead of experiencing it in real life.

"I was lying in bed saying to myself: 'I should be in Egypt now'," he told Babylon & Beyond. "I was so enthusiastic about what was going on there. So I bought the ticket the next day not really thinking about how I was going to do this. When I was on the plane I thought to myself: 'What am I doing?'"

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EGYPT: Curfew thwarting travel, but 200 Americans evacuated

The United States and other foreign governments stepped up evacuation of their citizens caught up in Egypt's spreading unrest on Monday, although a midafternoon curfew was frustrating travel within the country.

Egyptian railway authorities said trains had been halted to conform to the 3 p.m.-to-8 a.m. curfew announced Sunday by the government in an attempt to dispel protesters demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak's 30 years in power.

Two flights organized by the U.S. State Department took more than 200 Americans to Cyprus and Greece on Monday, and others were planned to evacuate diplomats, students, business travelers and tourists stranded by the chaos enveloping Egypt for the last week.

Israel also sent two planes to carry its nationals home to safety, and Canada and Thailand announced special government-arranged flights to collect their citizens.

Normal air traffic to and from Egypt's major cities has been sharply curtailed by those carriers still flying to the besieged country, and many airlines, including U.S. carrier Delta Airlines, have indefinitely suspended service because of the unrest.

Travelers struggle to exit Egypt; State Department updates advice

Egypt's police return; foreigners try to evacuate

Photos: Unrest in Egypt

-- Carol J. Williams 

Photo: Tourists from the U.S. arrive at Athens International Airport, Monday, Jan. 31, 2011. Credit: Thanassis Stavrakis / Associated Press.

EGYPT: Air travel disrupted; Cairo airport besieged by fleeing tourists

Egyptian flag

Mounting unrest in Egypt disrupted air travel to and from Cairo and other major Egyptian cities on Saturday as carriers canceled or delayed flights.

One Cairo-bound jet from London turned back in mid-flight after Egyptian authorities extended a curfew to start at 4 p.m., making it impossible for passengers aboard the British Midlands flight to make it out of the airport in time to avoid the police patrols.

More than 1,500 travelers descended on Cairo International Airport, about half of them tourists, after the United States, France, Germany and other countries warned their citizens to cancel nonessential travel and avoid the major Egyptian cities where anti-government protests have become violent.

Airport officials told the Associated Press in Cairo that the Israeli carrier, El Al, was attempting to send in a plane to pick up about 200 Israeli citizens.

Delta Airlines announced that it was indefinitely suspending its flights from the United States to Cairo "as a result of civil unrest.”

British Airways said it had revised its flight schedule to land well ahead of the start of the 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew imposed by the government in response to widening unrest.

German carrier Lufthansa canceled both of its Saturday flights to the Egyptian capital, as did Air Berlin and Poland's LOT.

Dutch-based KLM, Italy's Alitalia, EgyptAir and Emirates said they would continue to fly to Egypt but on schedules adjusted to accommodate the curfew.

Cairo, Alexandria and the port city of Suez have been the scene of violent clashes between anti-government protesters and police for more than five days as Egyptians demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.


Protecting King Tut's gold mask and other treasures

Eight prisoners die in escape attempt amid Cairo unrest

Opposition leader Mousavi supports Egypt, Arab uprisings, condemns Tehran hard-liners

-- Carol J. Williams

Photo: Protesters wave an Egyptian flag atop a street sign at Cairo's Tahrir Square on Saturday. Credit: Reuters

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Government plans to charge Canadians up to $1,000 for visas


Don't expect a lot of Canadians at the annual landmark Dubai Shopping Festival next year unless they're willing to plunk down serious cash to enter the country.

The United Arab Emirates is set to begin charging Canadian travelers up to $1,000 for entry visas starting Jan. 2.

They would need to pay a $250 fee for a one-month visa, a $500 fee for a three-month visa and $1,000 for a visa valid for up to two weeks at a time over a six-month period, according to the website of the UAE Embassy in Ottawa.

Canada was previously among 30 countries whose citizens could obtain entry visas upon arrival at UAE airports. The new guidelines come amid a growing battle between the UAE and Canada over landing rights for commercial flights.

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IRAN: Three aviation incidents in 24 hours highlight hazards of flying


As many as 600 people aboard three different planes owned by Iranian airline companies were endangered when two of the aircraft made emergency landings after the engines caught fire and another ran off the runway, all within a 24-hour period.

Iran's aviation industry has a history of fatal technical failures, with 14 fatal civilian and military aviation accidents since 2000, seven of which have taken place during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency, according to a previous report by the Los Angeles Times.

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IRAN, ARMENIA: Booze and relative freedom lure Iranians to Christian enclave to the north

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Landlocked and still recovering from the decades of Soviet rule and a war with Azerbaijan that quickly followed, Armenia may not be the world's most attractive vacation destination.

But for those living in the neighboring Islamic Republic, it's a kind of earthly paradise.

Iranians purchasing souvenirs In March, 27, 600 Iranians spent Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. 

But late spring and summer -- when the weather is comfortable, delicious fruits are harvested and outdoor events are numerous -- tourists also come in droves. 

An Armenian community leader in Tehran said up to 80% of Iran's Armenians, speculated to be as many as 500,000, travel to Armenia at least once a year.

The visitors can enjoy Armenian shish kebab and rice pilaf with a bottle of pomegranate wine or homemade liquor, or pick up a lahmajoun, an Armenian thin-crust meat pizza, on the street.

"Iranians are looking for reasons to leave their country so they can experience some freedoms," said Vanoohi Googasian, a Persian Armenian tour guide living in Yerevan.

"It's not about the specific holiday," she said. "It's about Iranians finding an excuse to leave their country to party."

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SYRIA: Long and winding 'peace road' a pipe dream or a sign of things to come?


Damascus is busily working on a highway that will eventually link Syria to Jerusalem in what has unofficially been called the Peace Road. Forward planning or wishful thinking?

On the outskirts of the village of Qatana, 16 miles southwest of Damascus, construction of a route nicknamed a "peace road" is well underway. 

The highway's planned route passes into Israel through the town of Quneitra in the Golan Heights, perhaps back in Syrian hands by the time the highway is completed.

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ISRAEL: Israeli tourism minister invited to Iran -- or not


Israel is participating in Madrid's  FITUR, the largest tourism fair for the Spanish-speaking and the Latin American market,  and is showcasing airlines, hotels and travel agencies in the Israeli exhibit in order to encourage tourism to the nation. 

The delegation, headed by Israel's tourism minister Stas Misezhnikov, is also interested in increasing cooperation  in this field with other nations, including those in its own region.  The Israelis visited the exhibits of Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, and Misezhnikov also exchanged warm greetings with the director-general of the Palestinian tourism minister, expressing hope for successful cooperation. The Syrians ignored the Israeli delegation.

But a pleasant surprise awaited the Israelis upon arrival at the Iranian exhibit, according to  the Israeli tourism ministry. Hesitating at first, the Iranian representative presented the exhibit of Iran's tourism options to the Israelis, and invited Misezhnikov to visit Iran. (Above, an Iranian exhibitor at the fair, left, talks with Misezhnikov.)

Misezhnikov reportedly shook hands with the  Iranian official  -- later identified in the press as tourism minister and vice president Hamid Baghaei -- and expressed the hope for better relations in the future. "We are both from the same region and tourism can be a bridge to peace," he said. "The people of Israel see the people of Iran as a friend but it is important that the Iranian president stop his wild incitement against Israel and bring Iran back into the family of nations." 

He was invited to visit Iran's  nature reserves and cultural sites, he says.

Iran denied the handshake or that the two even stood next to each other. The official news agency IRNA stated that the "Zionist regime published a blatant lie in order to distract global attention from its crimes in Gaza" in 2009.

"The Zionist regime is illegitimate and trying to promote their interests by issuing such news," foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said today, according to the semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency. "The Islamic Republic and Iranians despise Israel. The Zionist regime officials are aware of such feelings, therefore they try to conduct psychological warfare."

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EGYPT: Heavy rains, flooding kill 15

ASWAN_PIXEL_SIZE_38_674153aDownpours and heavy flooding have killed six people in the Sinai peninsula and nine others in Aswan in some of the worst storms in over a decade. Rain fell and lightening flashed across Egypt on Sunday, and more than 40 homes and 57 electrical towers have collapsed in cities and villages.

The resorts of Taba, Nuweiba and Sharm el Sheik on the Red Sea had temporary blackouts, and visitors spent Sunday evening lighting candles. The Sharm el Sheik airport was closed for several hours after rains destroyed part of its ceiling, and the city's main telephone communications center was severely damaged.

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SAUDI ARABIA: Security forces issue stern warnings ahead of hajj pilgrimage

Saudi security hajj aljazeeraCC

Handling an influx of 2.5 million pilgrims is a challenge during a good year, but at a time of increased tensions with Iran and rampant fears of swine flu, Saudi authorities are on high alert for any threat that could disrupt hajj, the annual holy Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

On Sunday, security forces sent a clear message to would-be saboteurs by staging a huge military demonstration involving thousands of troops, armored vehicles, helicopters, and first response teams. The Saudi government has announced it will deploy more than 100,000 security and emergency personnel for hajj, which will last from Wednesday to Sunday.

Sunday's show of force comes after months of deteriorating relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen, with both sides accusing the other of military intervention. Last month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad warned against Saudi restrictions on Iranian pilgrims, eliciting a sharp rebuke from Riyadh with the top Saudi cleric warning against the politicizing of hajj.

"We hope we will not be obliged to resort to force," Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz told reporters after the demonstration Sunday, referring to calls by some Iranian figures for their pilgrims to use hajj as an opportunity to protest against the United States and Israel, Agence France Press reported.

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QATAR: Awash in oil and gas cash, Doha announces $25-billion rail system

Just two months after Dubai unveiled its plush metro system, Qatar announced it will build its own multibillion-dollar railway that will include a local metro in Doha, its capital, as well as freight and passenger trains to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia via the world's longest causeway.

The railway is expected to cost $25 billion and be completed by 2026, but officials are eager to have sections up and running by 2022, when Qatar hopes to host the World Cup, Reuters reported.

The deal between Qatari Diar, a real estate investment company owned by Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, and the German transport company Deutsche Bahn was announced today. 

The contract comes against a background of increased spending on rail projects by the oil-rich Arab gulf states that is expected to exceed $100 billion.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: The west bay of Doha, Qatar. Credit: wikimedia commons


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