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A Bad Week for TSA; a New Section of Central Park: The View from AFAR

Plus: Hilton expands in Peru and astrotourism grows in the Canary Islands

This was a good week for the American bison, a travel icon that was (finally!) named our country’s national mammal. The week had its share of other travel-related news items, and we’ve rounded up the latest and greatest of them for you here. If you have any questions or comments about the contents of this column, please Tweet us at @AFARmedia.

Bad week for TSA ends with calls for privatization

Wait times at airport Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints are getting longer, and it’s not just passengers who are feeling the pain. Lines worsened last month, with passengers Tweeting about wait times of up to three hours. This past week, airlines joined the chorus and started to demand change. The industry trade group Airlines for America has launched a website, iHateTheWait.com, which asks fliers to post photos of long lines on social media along with the hashtag #iHateTheWait.

The pressure may be starting to work. Some lawmakers have wondered aloud if it’s time to privatize security checkpoints to improve efficiency. A comprehensive USA Today article published this week noted that the TSA has asked Congress to approve overtime pay for screeners and is “taking other measures” to try to make lines move more quickly. Whatever happens next, the situation likely will get worse before it gets better. Our advice: Get to the airport early. 

SBE to buy Morgans Hotel Group

Another month, another major hotel acquisition. Less than 30 days after Marriott subsumed Starwood, SBE has agreed to buy Morgans Hotel Group—a deal worth an estimated $794 million. The move would combine two companies united by a sense of style. SBE owns or operates almost all of the nightclubs and hotels under the SLS brand (including the Bazaar by José Andrés, Hyde Lounge, and the Redbury), and Morgans is known for uber-sophisticated boutique properties such as Delano South Beach in Miami and Mondrian Los Angeles in West Hollywood. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, once the deal is closed, SBE will have 20 hotel properties, including Morgans’ portfolio of 13 hotels in London, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Istanbul. So far, the plan is to have Sam Nazarian, the current CEO of SBE, retain control of the new entity. However, that move is not without controversy—Nazarian was forced to give up his ownership stake in SLS Las Vegas after a Nevada gaming board investigation found he had used illegal drugs and was the target of an extortion scheme. 

Previously off-limits section of Central Park reopens

Bird-watchers and other nature lovers rejoiced this week when a secret section of New York’s Central Park reopened to visitors. The four-acre Hallet Nature Sanctuary sits on a peninsula that extends into the Pond in the southeast corner of the park, near the Plaza Hotel. It has been mostly closed to the public since the 1930s but is now open in the afternoon three days a week through June 30, and will be open four days a week from July 1 to August 31. According to an article in the New York Times, the reopening is the result of work done under the Central Park Conservancy’s Woodlands Initiative, a $40-million project to revitalize some areas of the 843-acre park. In this case, Conservancy volunteers removed invasive plants and relandscaped with native species. The new-and-improved area also has walking paths and benches for rest and reflection. Experts believe the sanctuary will continue to be a popular rest stop for migrating birds.

Ride-sharing services pull out of Austin

Getting around Austin, Texas, got a bit more challenging this week as Uber and Lyft pulled out of town in response to a city ordinance requiring ride-sharing drivers to submit to fingerprint background checks. Reuters reported that leading up to the city’s May 7 election, the companies had spent a combined $8 million to try to repeal the law, but their campaign was unsuccessful: 56 percent of voters chose to keep the law in place. Whether this vote impacts how other cities receive Uber and Lyft remains to be seen.

Hilton Worldwide set to expand in Peru

This week Hilton Worldwide announced that it will more than double its presence in Peru over the next three years as part of the company’s expansion across Latin America. According to a press release, this move will include the development of six new properties across four brands: Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites by Hilton, DoubleTree by Hilton, and Hampton by Hilton. A hotel in the San Isidro neighborhood of Lima will be cobranded as both a Hilton Garden Inn and a Homewood Suites by Hilton. There will also be a Hilton Garden Inn Lima in the Santiago de Surco district—the first international hotel in the neighborhood, which is close to the U.S. Embassy. And a DoubleTree by Hilton will be the first internationally branded hotel in Iquitos, an Amazon port city.

New London mayor promises bus-hopper ticket

London has a new mayor, Sadiq Khan, and one of his first moves in office this week was to announce a one-hour “hopper” bus ticket. Starting in September, this ticket will allow passengers to travel on two buses within an hour for a flat rate of £1.50. Although the move is designed to help locals who rely on buses to commute, it will also help visitors get around the city for less. The “hopper” ticket will be built into London transit cards (called “Oyster cards”), and an article in Time Out London said the new feature will automatically be applied for pay-as-you-go passengers. Khan, whose father drove a London bus, has promised another “hopper” ticket by 2018 that would allow unlimited bus transfers in a one-hour period. 

Kansas museum to honor unsung heroes

A new museum opening in Fort Scott, Kansas, on May 24 will shine a spotlight on everyday people who do extraordinary things. The Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, located about 90 miles south of Kansas City, Missouri, will tell the stories of ordinary people whose courage and selflessness have gone unheralded. As outlined in a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, the museum works with high school students and teachers to identify honorees and highlight their achievements through websites, plays, and documentaries. The inaugural exhibit features, among others, a high-school student who stood up to racist bullies and a photojournalist whose iconic photo helped draw attention to the AIDS epidemic. Admission will be free.

Good reads

As the global population grows and technology becomes more prevalent, we humans are running out of truly dark places where we can get an unadulterated look at the night sky. One of the last remaining spots: Spain’s Canary Islands. In a recent feature for the New York Times, Nina Burleigh shines a light (pardon the pun) on the islands’ “astrotourism” scene with a story that weaves together the islands’ history and plans to capitalize on its unique view of the heavens. 

There’s more than one Garden of Eden in Iraq. Literally. And in a detailed essay published this week on Longreads, Jennifer Percy explains how a number of sites thought to be the location of the biblical paradise remain intact, even after years of conflict in the region. The story is a tour de force of reporting: Over the course of 4,000 words, Percy paints a colorful picture of each place and explains how Iraq’s religious tourism infrastructure has survived the past few decades.

Nevada is a quirky place. And as Spencer Spellman wrote in a fun blog post this week , it’s the kind of quirk that keeps you coming back for more. On his list of “11 Ways Nevada Has Blown My Mind”: ghost towns, Great Basin National Park, and the climbing wall on the side of the Whitney Peak Hotel in Reno. The piece is approachable and entertaining, and it’s illustrated by engaging photographs. Give it a read before planning your next trip.

 Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 18 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Alaska Airlinesand more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.