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New Concerns About Zika, Dubai Aims High: The View from AFAR

Plus: Virgin America and Starwood partner up and TripCreator joins OTA space

This was a week of highs and lows for the travel industry. The good: Plans for a structure that would replace Burj Khalifa as the world’s tallest building. The bad: News about the Zika virus keeps getting worse. There was a ton of news in between as well, and here is a recap of all the most important tidbits. As always, if you have any questions or concerns about what you read here, please Tweet them to us at @AFARmedia. Thanks for reading!

More bad news for Olympics: Zika linked to adult brain disorder

Scientists in Brazil have uncovered a new brain disorder associated with Zika infections in adults: an autoimmune syndrome called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), which attacks the brain and spinal cord. Some researchers have also identified Zika patients who have developed encephalitis and myelitis, nerve disorders typically caused by direct infections in nerve cells. In related news, the Centers for Disease Control independently confirmed that there is no longer any doubt the Zika virus causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and severe brain defects. While these revelations are terrible news for much of Latin America and the Caribbean, it’s particularly bad for Brazil, which is expecting 500,000 international visitors for the Summer Olympics.

Dubai announces plans for world’s tallest building

Move over, Burj Khalifa—you’re about to be dwarfed. A development company in Dubai announced a new plan this week to build a tower to surpass the Burj, which is currently the world’s tallest building. The developer, Emaar Properties, has not openly discussed the height of the proposed tower, but it did note that the new structure would be “a notch” taller than the 2,717-foot Burj. The developer also said the $1 billion project is scheduled to be completed for the Dubai Expo trade fair in 2020. The structure is expected to have residential units, a rooftop courtyard, and a hotel. Designed by Spanish and Swiss architect Santiago Calatrava Valls, the tower will be supported by a matrix of cables—kind of like an upright suspension bridge—and will be built in the heart of old Dubai. 

Airline news

Virgin America made news again this week when it announced a new loyalty partnership with Starwood. Under the terms of the agreement, beginning immediately Starwood Preferred Guest members will be able to transfer Starpoints into Virgin America Elevate points at a 1-to-1 ratio, and Elevate members will earn two points for every one dollar spent on Starwood Hotel stays. According to a release, the additional rewards provided to Elevate members should make it even easier to earn points wherever their travels take them. Still, we can’t help but wonder how long this arrangement will last since both companies were acquired in the past few weeks (Virgin by Alaska Air and Starwood by Marriott).

European discount carrier RyanAir also made headlines this week when it announced the launch of new products and new digital services. At a press conference in Dublin, CMO Kenny Jacobs described plans for new aircraft interiors and simplified baggage fees. He also touted the next version of the airline’s app, which will enable customers to buy upgrades or reserved seats, get updates about available airport parking spaces, and purchase insurance and rail transfers. An article on Tnooz.com noted that the platform will also let passengers check-in, reserve a seat, and get mobile boarding passes.

Finally, JetBlue announced that it will roll out more flat-bed seats on a greater number of its long-haul domestic flights. The move fits into a larger push; the airline also said it will expand this “Mint” premium seating to seven additional cross-country routes and four new cities: Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, San Diego, and Seattle. Expanding the Mint program is a direct attempt to steal business travelers (read: more lucrative travelers) away from larger airlines. Will it work? Only time will tell. 


Enterprise adds Aston Martin to rental fleet

The next time you rent a car on vacation, consider channeling your inner James Bond and renting an Aston Martin from Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Earlier this week, the company announced a deal with the British automaker to bring some of its flagship vehicles to locations across the United States as part of its Exotic Car Collection. The deal covers a lot of ground: Enterprise will deliver the DB9 and Rapide S to select markets, including Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, SoCal, Miami, Naples, Orlando, Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Las Vegas. Customers who sign up for Enterprise’s Exotic Car Collection receive signature customer service, delivery and collection of vehicle rentals (for customers in nearby areas), and a streamlined reservation process.

Dollywood to get unique roller coaster

Theme park thrill-seekers are eagerly anticipating a new ride at Dollywood: the world’s fastest wooden roller coaster. The attraction, named Lightning Rod, is expected to open later this spring. It tops out at 73 mph, and includes a 165-foot drop at a 73-degree angle. The ride also will be the first wooden coaster to incorporate a magnetic launch. In an article on USA Today, an anonymous author noted that instead of a traditional chain lift, the ride will use separate motors to propel its hot rod-like train out of the station and up its hill. The roller coaster is part of a $300 million expansion to Dollywood. From our perspective, it’s nice to see the park staking a claim in the theme park world—even if it’s one that likely will raise hairs for quite a while.

Spotlight: TripCreator

There’s a new interactive trip-planning tool in town. TripCreator, an Iceland-based company, launched earlier this spring and has gotten significant buzz on social media in its first few weeks. What makes the company different is its approach: While other planners force the user to build out a whole trip, TripCreator actually starts with a suggested itinerary built with an algorithm that takes into account real-time availability, driving distances, and the time required to enjoy each stop. The algorithm also keyword-matches specific attractions to a user’s travel preferences. Once TripCreator’s technology has built an itinerary, a user can change or remove car rentals or hotels, rearrange days, and customize it in other ways. Users can also book the trip with one click and then view their itinerary on a map, as a day-by-day agenda, or in a calendar app. Overall, TripCreator seems aimed at independent travelers who want to be in control but don’t want to spend a ton of time planning. That’s a mission we can support. 

Good reads

If Chris Colin were a character in a video game, he’d be “on fire” by now. His latest piece, for the print version of AFAR, spotlights the rise of mezcal and tracks the impact of this unexpected boom on Oaxaca, the second-poorest Mexican state. As usual, Colin excels at the little things, like his descriptions of small towns and his explanation of how mezcal is made. There have been a number of (solid) stories in the last 12 months about booze in Mexico, but this one is particularly memorable.

It’s never easy traveling with a child who has developmental and mental health issues, but as Erin Kirkland wrote recently in a blog post for the Family Travel Association (FTA), it’s important nevertheless. In her story, Kirkland lists some of the ways she and her husband have managed to make travel easier for their son—by planning ahead, having backup plans, and keeping him informed. We admire the FTA for publishing the piece. Let’s hope travel businesses take notice too. 

Everybody likes a good love story, and Laurel Robbins’s recent essay for BBC Travel about how she met her husband is sure to make the hopeless romantics in all of us feel better about the world. In the piece, Robbins recounts how a live-aboard dive trip in Costa Rica brought her face-to-face with the man of her dreams. The story manages to weave details about shark dives together with first-person recollections about the beginning of a relationship. The result will put a smile on your face.

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.