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Building a Transcontinental Highway, Hyatt and Starwood talk merger: The View from AFAR

Plus: hurricane misses Puerto Vallarta and the feds announce new baggage rules for e-cigs

This was a week for dreaming big in the travel industry—headlines were dominated by roads connecting continents and a potential business transaction that could create one of the largest lodging companies in the world. Smaller stuff happened, too, and we’ve wrapped up all of the most important milestones for you here. If you have any questions about what you read in this column, Tweet them to us at @AFARmedia.

Land bridge to highway bridge

Archaeologists and anthropologists believe that sometime around 25,000-15,000 years ago, humans from Asia simply walked across a bridge of land in the Bering Strait and discovered North America. In the near future, highway bridges may span the same expanse, as part of an incredible transcontinental highway. The highway, formally called the Trans-Eurasian Belt, would connect Russia and Alaska via Russia’s Chukotka region and run through a number of European and Asian countries and cities. All told, it would connect with existing roads and enable travelers to drive from London to New York. The plan for this superhighway was first revealed during a meeting at the Russian Academy of Science earlier this week. Vladimir Yakunin, the president of Russian Railways, has been one of the driving forces and has described the proposed highway as an “inter-state, inter-civilization project.” It also would be a pretty cool road-trip destination, to say the least.

Hyatt to buy Starwood?

News on the deal is still developing, but according to a report in the New York Times, Hyatt Hotels Corporation is in talks to acquire Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. Anonymous sources indicate Hyatt is preparing a cash-and-stock bid for Starwood. If the deal happens—at this point, the acquisition is still a big if—it would create one of the largest lodging companies in the world, a company that could compete with market leaders Hilton and Marriott internationally. The deal also would benefit each of the companies involved, as both Hyatt and Starwood have stumbled financially this year. Stay tuned.

Puerto Vallarta survives Patricia

She was forecast to be the biggest hurricane in history, but thankfully, the Category-5 Hurricane Patricia spared resorts in Puerto Vallarta and other popular Mexico tourist towns. The storm made landfall on central western Mexico this past weekend; when it hit, the 200 mph winds set new records for the most powerful tropical cyclone of all time in the Western Hemisphere. Miraculously, Patricia didn’t wreak much havoc beyond minor structural damage and flooding. Reports from Puerto Vallarta this week indicated the city had reopened all of its hotel and restaurant facilities, and that Licenciado Gustavo Diaz Ordaz International Airport was open with no delays.

E-Cigs out of checked bags

Citing a fire threat, the federal government this week forbade travelers from packing electronic cigarettes or other battery-operated electronic smoking devices in checked bags until further notice. The rule, which goes into effect before Veterans Day (November 11), still allows e-cigarettes in carry-on bags, but prohibits passengers from recharging the devices while on planes. We feel this actually does passengers a solid; very few activities look more ridiculous than someone puffing on a metallic stick with a blue light. And in case you’ve been living on a remote Pacific island for the last 20 years, no cigarettes or smoking devices of any kind are allowed to be used on airplanes at all.

Shangri-La turning to video

Videos are becoming an increasingly popular marketing tool in the hospitality industry, and Shangri-La is the latest luxury resort brand to announce its investment in the medium. According to a report on Tnooz.com, the hotel chain quietly launched a series of interactive videos designed to showcase 25 different hotels around the world. These particular videos can take you on virtual tours; users can download the video files and plug them into a dedicated virtual reality device (such as an Oculus Rift) and “explore.” The chain’s other properties will be added to the video promotion over the next few weeks.

St. Kitts to build own cruise pier

The Caribbean nation of St. Kitts soon will open up a new $31 million cruise ship pier to welcome cruise ships. Unlike similar projects in neighboring countries, however, this new pier will not be a public/private partnership but will instead be paid for, owned, and operated by the St. Kitts government. Officials said they avoided accepting private money for the pier so they wouldn’t have to feel beholden to any particular cruise lines once the pier was built. (Ironically, the pier will be designed to accommodate Royal Caribbean’s Oasis-class vessels, the cruise industry’s largest ships.) Technically, the project has been in the works for a long while; for years St. Kitts has been seeking to build a second cruise pier to join the existing dock at Port Zante. The new pier will be complete by 2017.

Good reads

Naysayers said author (and friend) Charles Scott was foolhardy to attempt to cycle nearly 1,700 miles—and over the Rocky Mountains—with a 12-year-old and a 6-year-old. But the resulting book, Daunted Courage: A Family’s Bike Adventure on the Lewis & Clark Trail, proves the experience was well worth the effort. The book chronicles how, over the course of their two-month bike ride, Scott and his kids grew closer as they dealt with one problem after another. It was released Tuesday. (As an aside, Scott recently helped the first blind runner ascend the Inca Trail nonstop to Machu Picchu.)

We know Molly Loomis’ Sierra feature about challenges associated with the spike of emergency beacons was published this summer, but consider this a reminder: If you haven’t read the piece yet, DO IT. The story looks at both sides of the proliferation in beacons. On the plus side, Loomis argues, more people have access to search and rescue; on the negative side, a vast number of calls from these beacons are false alarms. Especially if you spend time in the backcountry, the article offers good food for thought.

Trends: Holiday travel data

When it comes to traveling during the holidays, we are a nation of procrastinators. That was the takeaway from a recent Skift charticle about holiday travel information collected by Adara, a travel data company. According to the statistics, 50 percent of all holiday hotel stays last year were booked after December 14, and half of all flights were booked after November 17. In other words, the majority of Americans book their fall and winter travel at the last minute, and they don’t always book flights and hotels at the same time. The article is accompanied by six charts that present various data points in pictorial form. If this package doesn’t convince you to go out and buy that ticket to fly home for Christmas, nothing will.

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 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.