AccorHotels Buys Fairmont; More Cell Service in National Parks: The View from AFAR

Plus: Changes to U.S. visa waiver program; Air travel predictions for 2016

AccorHotels Buys Fairmont; More Cell Service in National Parks: The View from AFAR

You might have cell phone and Wi-Fi service in Arches National Park before long.

NPS Photo by Jacob W. Frank

International travel made headlines here at home this week, as one Presidential candidate outrageously called for a ban of all Muslims, and a body of lawmakers passed legislation to tighten visa waiver restrictions for certain foreign nationals coming into the United States. Thankfully, the politician’s comments were rejected widely as bigotry; realistically, the changes to the visa waiver program likely will become law. The bottom line: Though it is a volatile time, as we noted last week, travel remains as important as ever. If you have any questions about what you read here, Tweet them to us at @AFARmedia.

Changes to visa waiver program imminent

The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation this week to tighten visa waiver restrictions for visitors who recently have spent time in the Middle East. The bill, which was approved by a vote of 407 to 19, would prevent foreign nationals who have visited Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Sudan in the past five years from entering the United States without a visa. The legislation, which President Obama supports, is considered likely to advance through the Senate and become law by the end of the year. If it does, the biggest changes will apply to citizens of the 38 countries that currently participate in the visa waiver program; this list includes most of Europe as well as Pacific Rim countries such as Australia and Japan. Current policy allows citizens of these countries to visit the U.S. for 90 days without a visa. Under the new bill, travelers from those countries who have been in Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Sudan would require a visa for every entry, no matter how long the stay. The bill also contains provisions to make it easier for the United States to remove countries from the visa waiver program if they do not cooperate with law enforcement. This article, from Mashable, provides a good perspective on what these changes might mean for travelers coming to the United States.

AccorHotels buys Fairmont, Raffles, and Swissotel

This week was a busy one for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. First, Paris-based AccorHotels announced it would acquire FRHI Holdings Ltd., the parent company of the Fairmont, Raffles, and Swissotel hotel brands, for $2.9 billion. The move would create a new conglomerate of nearly 4,000 properties; it comes just weeks after Marriott announced plans to buy Starwood for more than $12 billion. At the time of the acquisition, AccorHotels was Europe’s biggest hotel company, operating the Ibis and Sofitel chains. FRHI, based in Toronto, operates more than 100 high-end hotels, including New York City’s Plaza, London’s Savoy, Raffles in Singapore, and a number of “chateau” hotels in Canada. FRHI also has 40 other hotels under development. One of the FRHI properties that just came out of development, the 100-year-old Claremont Club & Spa in Berkeley, California, reopened this week after an eight-month, multimillion-dollar renovation. The hotel, which opened in 1915, has 276 guest rooms and suites, a fitness club and spa, and a restaurant. It sits at the base of the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve.

New code of conduct at Angkor Wat

Don’t expect to see as many friends sharing monk selfies from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Leaders at the Buddhist spiritual center and UNESCO World Heritage site this week unveiled a new Visitor Code of Conduct that not only prohibits any act of looting or exposing of sex organs, it also requires that visitors refrain from smoking, resist giving to begging children, and ask monks’ permission before shooting pictures with them. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the move comes after a rash of bad behavior by travelers that culminated this February, when two American sisters were arrested for mooning the temple. (Seriously. What is wrong with people?) The Daily Telegraph in London reported that the new rules have been posted in four different languages outside the sacred site. Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire in Cambodia; it was converted into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century. In related news, the site announced that starting January 1, 2016, it will open daily at 5:30 a.m., two hours earlier than current opening time.

Additional cell service for national parks

The National Park Service (NPS) is gearing up for its centennial in 2016, and boosting cell coverage and Wi-Fi service are two of the ways the organization will celebrate. In plans released earlier this week, the NPS announced it would bring high-speed connections to all parks by 2018. It means that teens and other mobile-obsessed travelers will be able to Tweet, Snapchat, and Instagram in places that, for years, have been proudly connectivity-free. NPS Associate CIO Shane Compton was quoted as saying that adding cell towers and Wi-Fi could help visitors learn more about national parks. By increasing bandwidth while simultaneously adding more historical and cultural online content, Compton said, the NPS hopes visitors will be inspired to learn more about the lands—through photos, text, and maps on their phones—while in the parks. Also, more reliable cell service might reduce the number of times visitors trigger emergency beacons when there really isn’t an emergency. Some will continue to regard national parks as the ultimate destination to unplug, but the move will likely increase the temptation to stay connected. Compton said the NPS is still evaluating how and where to add the new connectivity. Stay tuned for details.

Hoverboards banned on many airlines

The hoverboard, a hands-free electric scooter like the one Michael J. Fox’s character rode in Back to the Future, is the hottest gift item this holiday season, but if you’re planning to board a plane with one over the next few weeks, you may want to consult your carrier first. A number of airlines have banned the scooters in both checked bags and carry-ons, due in part to the volatility of the lithium battery on which they operate. According to David Brennan, assistant director of cargo safety at the International Air Transport Association, the batteries can catch fire in the event of a defect, physical damage, or short-circuit, and those fires can spread rapidly when large numbers of batteries are packed together. British Airways, JetBlue, and Southwest are among the airlines that have clamped down on the scooters, and others were mulling bans, as well. The bright side: If you can’t fly with a hoverboard, a hoverboard road trip could be fun.

Harry Potter theme park to open in April

Muggles, listen up: A new Harry Potter theme park will open at Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles this spring. The park, dubbed The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, is slated to open April 7, 2016, and will include a 3-D ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, as well as an outdoor family coaster, Flight of the Hippogriff. The Wizarding World also is expected to have depictions of Hogwarts castle and the village of Hogsmeade, both central backdrops for the Harry Potter books and movies. Eventually, the California park will add its own version of Diagon Alley, another key setting in the series. The first Harry Potter park in the United States opened at the Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando in 2010, and the second one—modeled after Diagon Alley—opened at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando in 2014. There also is a Potter-themed park, The Wizarding World, at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka.

Data dumps

The end of the year is always prime time for reports chock-full of data. Two good ones were released this week. The first came from Expedia, in partnership with the Airlines Reporting Corporation. The document, “Preparing for Takeoff: Air travel outlook for 2016,” made a handful of predictions for the coming year, most notably that intra-Europe routes will be among the best bargains in 2016. The report also indicated that the best time to purchase economy tickets for travel within North America is approximately two months in advance. (Full disclosure: I serve as senior editor of the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog.) The second study came from Topdeck Travel, an outfitter that specializes in trips for 18- to 30-year-olds, and revealed some interesting—and counterintuitive—data points about younger travelers. The “2015 Global Youth Travel Survey,” polled 31,000 people from 134 different countries and revealed that the younger generation no longer seeks the party animal atmosphere when travelling but instead want meaningful experiences. Specifically, 86 percent of respondents listed “experiencing a new culture” as a determining motivator to travel. Another 69 percent of respondents said “eating the local foods” was their biggest inspiration to book a trip. At least among these respondents, “partying” didn’t even crack the 50 percent mark.

Three African cities to watch

As Africa continues to urbanize—the majority of people on the continent are expected to live in cities by 2035—three cities in particular have emerged as demonstrating the potential for increased tourism, at least according to a recent report from MasterCard. The annual African Cities Index indicated that Maputo and Matola in Mozambique, as well as Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, are the three cities with the continent’s highest growth potential. Report authors based their findings on a range of factors including stability of government, GDP per capita growth, population growth, and percent of middle-class households. The report predicts that as these three cities grow, they will continue to develop the infrastructure to support tourism, adding restaurants, hotels, and tour operators. Perhaps it’s time to add them to your dream itinerary.

Good reads

One-on-one interactions with locals tend to yield the most meaningful encounters abroad, and Celeste Brash’s recent experiences in Samoa were no exception. Earlier this year, Brash penned an essay for WorldHum about how a hitchhiker on the Polynesian island became her tour guide and friend. Dialogue in the story is phenomenal, and the author’s self-reflection is admirable. Brash also does a great job weaving in facts about archaeology and history.

Surf season in Hawaii is in full effect, which means your Facebook feed will likely soon be full of video clips of surfers besting monster waves. To get a different perspective on this spectacle, Kyle DeNuccio recently wrote a piece for the California Sunday Magazine about a helicopter rescue pilot on Maui. The story is not a typical travel narrative, but provides one-of-a-kind color and inside knowledge into the South Pacific surf scene at this time of year.

Most of the time, Jodi Ettenberg (the gal behind the Legal Nomads blog) writes about food and the people who make it. Sometimes she writes about other stuff, too. In a recent post for the G Adventures travel blog, Ettenberg drops a geology lesson about Table Mountain, the flat-top “peak” that rises behind Cape Town, in South Africa. The story is short, sweet, and to the point. It also presents complicated scientific concepts in easy-to-understand words—a hallmark of great writing.

Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. To learn more about him, visit