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Brazil Waives Visa Requirements, Major Cuba News: The View from AFAR

Plus: Marriott re-raises in poker game for Starwood and a motorized papasan tour of L.A.

Terrorism reared its ugly head again this week, this time in Brussels. The U.S. State Department responded with swift and decisive action, issuing a travel warning for ALL OF EUROPE that expires June 20. While this sort of alert is cause for concern, it must not be a deterrent for travel; no amount of terror should scare us from exploring our world, and the moment it does, the bad guys win. In this vein, we press on with our weekly column of travel updates from around the world. If you have any questions or comments about what you read here, please tweet them to us at @AFARmedia. And please share the column with friends!

Brazil launches visa waiver program for Olympics

Good news for residents of the United States, Canada, Japan, and Australia who plan to attend the Summer Olympics this year: Brazil is waiving its usual visa requirements. The move exempts travelers from these four nations from needing a visa for travel specifically between June 1 and September 18. Even better, visitors do not need to provide proof of tickets to attend any of the Olympic events; all travelers from those countries are eligible for the waiver this summer, whether they’re going to the games or not. According to official documents, the waiver will benefit travelers for a stay of up to 90 days from the date of first entry in the country. So if you’d like, you could skip the Olympics entirely and use the waiver to travel there in the fall—as long as you arrive by September 17.

Cuba news

Travel headlines from Cuba are coming fast and furious these days, as U.S.-based companies line up to take advantage of the new market. Two news items in particular stood out this past week. First, Starwood received a green light from both Cuban and U.S. officials to operate hotels in Cuba. This deal—a pact to renovate and run three separate hotels, all in Havana—represents the first time in 60 years that a U.S.-based hotel company has agreed to operate hotels in the nation. According to the announcement, The Hotel Inglaterra will join Starwood’s Luxury Collection brand, the Hotel Quinta Avenida will become a Four Points by Sheraton, and the Hotel Santa Isabel will become a Luxury Collection property.

Also this week, Carnival Cruise Line won approval from the Cuban government to offer cruises from the United States to Cuba. Carnival will jump in with seven-night cruises through Fathom, the company’s do-good brand. The first trip leaves May 1; pricing starts at $1,800 per person. (For what it’s worth, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line were not part of the initial group of companies cleared to cruise to Cuba, but are expected to receive the green light any day.) 

Marriott wins back Starwood with bigger bid

In the kind of move most often reserved for poker rooms, Marriott International re-raised a competitor to buy rival hotel chain Starwood this week, snatching back the inside track on a merger that would create the largest hotel company in the world. The new offer from Marriott totaled $13.6 billion, leapfrogging the $13 billion bid from a rival group of investors led by Anbang Insurance Group, from China. (If Anbang’s offer had held up, the transaction would have been the largest ever by a Chinese company in the United States.) As this column reported last week, Anbang had swooped in with an unsolicited offer larger than Marriott’s initial $12.2 billion. But Marriott, it turned out, didn’t want to lose the deal. “We think what we can accomplish together is just fabulous,” Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson told USA Today. Technically, Anbang still has an opportunity to counter the re-raise and bump the price even higher, but as of Monday, the company would not comment to Reuters about plans for a new bid.

Conceirge service at SFO

For travelers willing to pay the right price, flying from or through San Francisco International Airport (SFO) just got a whole lot easier, thanks to the country’s first-ever airport butler program. The program, which launched this week, offers travelers their own personal Mr. Carsons who can perform a variety of services, from escorting elderly passengers through the terminal to arranging airport meeting rooms or “discreet entry and exit” of the airport (you know, in case you’re Jerry Seinfeld or something). Prices for these services vary. This marks the first deployment of the program on U.S. soil (Airport Butler has been up and running at Vancouver International Airport since 2013), but we are perplexed by the choice to launch at SFO, which is already arguably one of the best airports in the country. Who needs a butler at an airport with a yoga room? Time will tell.                                                                                                                                                                  

British Airways launches new routes

British Airways is having a growth spurt. The airline added more than 20 new routes out of London last week, and many of the new itineraries kick off in just a couple months. Among the new routes: Flights from London City and London Stansted to Berlin, starting June 19, and flights to New York JFK from London Gatwick, starting May 1. Other destinations include Hamburg, Tehran, Malaga, Faro, Ibiza, Palma, Mallorca, Crete, Kalamata, and Inverness (to name just a few).

New ME hotels

ME by Meliá is also growing, with the brand’s first U.S. location, ME Miami, slated to open April 7. This new hotel has 129 rooms, a sun deck, a killer spa, and a new STK restaurant. The downtown property is within walking distance of such major cultural institutions as the Pérez Art Museum and Arsht Center, as well as the city’s design and arts districts. Last week the company also reopened ME Cabo following a $16 million refresh. That hotel also has a new multi-concept poolside beach club (developed with international lifestyle brand Blue Marlin Ibiza), which offers lunch, dinner, and cocktails by day and music from cutting-edge DJs in an avant-garde atmosphere by night. Both properties sound like they’re well worth their respective trips. 

Motorized papasan tour of L.A.

Look! There on the side of the PCH. It’s a sports vehicle! It’s a hot rod! No…it’s…a motorized papasan chair! Spotters this week reported a couple cruising the western part of Los Angeles in a wheeled papasan with an ottoman attached. Nobody knows much about the couple—a man and woman seemingly in their thirties—but witnesses said they saw the duo in the West Los Angeles and Santa Monica areas. The word is still out on whether motorized papasans are easier to parallel park than Toyota Priuses, but this couple certainly wins major style points for tricking out their ride.

Good reads

You don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate Dan LeBatard’s piece this week about baseball and America’s fascination with Cuba. On the surface, the story was about the exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team played in Havana on Tuesday. But dig deeper and the story is really about LeBatard’s personal history with Fidel Castro’s dictatorship and his conflicted feelings about the historic reconciliation between the United States and Cuba. It’s a different perspective. And a great read.

Lenore Griner’s recent essay for WorldHum is about sailing San Francisco Bay and grappling with the death of her father, and it certainly has plenty of nautical analogies. But the best part of the piece are Griner’s vivid descriptions of Chinatown and other pockets of the city. What’s more, her thorough writing educates even those of us who already thought we knew the city well. We’ll never look at “The Slot” the same way again.

We’re suckers for a well-told daddy-daughter story. We are also big fans of Chris Colin (who wrote about renting friends in Japan for the March/April 2016 issue of AFAR). Naturally, then, Colin’s recent feature for The New York Times stole our hearts. The story tells the tale of a recent camping trip the author and his 6-year-old daughter took to the desert of Southeast California. Between the description, the dialogue, and the perfect POV of a developing human, the piece is, in a word, genius.

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 includingTIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Alaska Airlines, and more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia, 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.