My latest outing for Lonely Planet has hit the bookshelves. I covered Rajasthan – one of India’s most popular tourist destinations – for both LP’s Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra, and India, the 16th edition of one of LP’s most epic guidebooks.
Researching a destination like Rajasthan presents a different set of challenges to other guides I’ve done. Despite what the internet may tell us about the declining state of the printed guide, India is a country where it still very much holds sway – backpackers don’t refer to the Lonely Planet guide as ‘the Bible’ for nothing. For the writer, that means that any hint that Lonely Planet in town instantly brings out the touts hoping to get their business in the book. While I normally use my discretion as to whether I tell people what I’m doing (it’s useful in some circumstances, less so in others), Rajasthan is one place where it’s essential to keep a vow of silence. It’s easier said than done of course, and there were still several occasions where I was rumbled and had to change travel plans to avoid welcoming committees at train stations when I arrived in a new city – something that happened on more than once. At times I felt more like a spy than a travel writer! Luckily, India is a country where the rewards of travelling more than outweigh the challenges, and I’m happy to be able to help guide others around some of its sights.
Lonely Planet’s Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra is available here. Lonely Planet India is available here.
The new issue of Wanderlust travel magazine has hit the shops, and features a large trip planning article to Morocco, spread over a dozen pages. The piece has several different themed itineraries to give you a taste of the country: Cities, Mountains, Coast and Desert, plus a short nuts and bolts primer on getting the most out of a trip.
I still remember my first time in Marrakech, feeling bewildered in the maze of its traditional medina but always being sucked back to the pulsing energy of the Djemma el Fna square, with its musicians, acrobats, steaming pots and smoking braziers. Everything was loud, uncompromising and thoroughly joyful. On that trip, I hopped, skipped and jumped my way to Morocco by bus from London, but these days the cheap flight revolution has helped transform the country’s tourism, and Marrakech is an accessible four hour flight from a host of regional British airports, as well as easily reachable from other European hubs.
That first trip I made to Morocco was back in 1994. There weren’t any fancy riads then, but I can remember an awful lot of grungy hotels. I’ve been travelling there regularly ever since, including a spell leading tour groups there, and contributing to the last four editions of Lonely Planet’s Morocco guidebook (twice as head author, including the current edition).
You can find Wanderlust online here. The Lonely Planet guide to Morocco is available here, in book/e-book and PDF formats.
Between the summer of 2013 and spring of 2014, I was based in Jordan’s capital Amman, living just off the popular thoroughfare of Rainbow Street. The end of my time there coincided with the commissioning of the new edition of Lonely Planet’s guide to Jordan, and I was very pleased to sign on to the book and share my experiences of the country, along with co-author Jenny Walker. That guidebook finally hits the shelves this week.
As well as covering Amman for the guide, I also updated chapter on the Dead Sea, as well as all the the area around Irbid, the wonderful Roman city of Jerash and the Jordan Valley.
Jordan is a fantastic country to visit, a relative oasis in a tough neighbourhood, but one whose tourism industry has been taking a beating in recent years. Yet the startling ruins of Petra are somewhere that should be on anyone’s travel bucket-list, while only this week the country got its fifth UNESCO World Heritage site with the inscription of ‘Bethany Beyond the Jordan’ – the site where Jesus Christ is believed to have been baptised. That this announcement came in the week when the guidebook hits the shelves may just be coincidence, but Pope Francis visited the Baptism Site while I was carrying out research for the book, so wonder wonders if he has the inside track to a higher reviewing panel than a mere guidebook writer.
Although it can’t guarantee an answer to such theological and editorial conundrums, the new Lonely Planet guide to Jordan, will help you navigate your way around one of the Middle East’s most interesting destinations. It’s available to buy here.
I’m currently carrying out research into the life of Henry Christophe, the Haitian revolutionary leader who later crowned himself king of Haiti. His is an utterly fascinating life – a man who started life as a waiter in an inn, helped lead his country to freedom in a slave revolution which he then divided in civil war. His kingdom was a contradiction – he saw himself as the one to bring enlightenment values to Haiti through mass education, but supported the state by forcing his people back to work on the hated plantations or building the Citadelle la Ferrière, his greatest monument (and nowadays the jewel of Haiti’s nascent tourist industry). His rule ended in insurrection against his tyranny, and the king alone in his palace putting a bullet through his own heart.
It’s Christophe’s early life – those years as a waiter – that are currently fascinating me. He was deliberately opaque about his early life, and as yet the paper trail is quite thin. But thanks to the excellent Marronage in Saint-Domingue archive I’ve just turned up the following advert from a 1789 issue of the Saint-Domingue newspaper Affiches Amèricaines:
A Monsieur Badêche is mentioned in several accounts of Christophe’s life (as early as 1825, by the Haitian writer Hérard Dumesle), as the owner of the Hôtel La Couronne in Cap Français (present-day Cap-Haïtien) where Christophe allegedly worked. Dumesle also writes that Christophe had worked as a mason. The age also matches Christophe’s ‘official’ 1767 date of birth. Could this advert be at all related?
Other elements don’t match, most importantly the description of him as mulâtre, and his height – some firsthand accounts put him at closer to five foot ten. But it’s an intriguing find nonetheless.
I’m looking into this more, and discussing it further with academics specialising in the period. In recent years there has been a lot of new scholarship that’s shed light on the early lives of the revolutionary leaders Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, but there has been relatively little focus on Henry Christophe. It’s exciting that there’s still plenty of space out there for new leads and discoveries!
Registration has just opened for the forthcoming conference ‘After Revolution: Versions and Re-visions of Haiti’ co-hosted by the Institute for Black Atlantic Research and the University of Liverpool. The conference takes the centenary of the US occupation as an occasion to explore Haiti’s history, politics and culture since its 1804 Declaration of Independence. I’ll be presenting a paper, on representations of Haiti in travel guidebooks produced during and since the US occupation. There’s a great line-up of speakers, including the curator and long-time photographer of Haiti Leah Gordon, with keynote addresses by anthropologist/performance artist Gina Athena Ulysse and Matthew Smith of the University of the West Indies (Mona).
The conference is in Preston, England on July 9-10. There’s more information here, and the full programme of speakers here (PDF).
Lonely Planet asked me to write about nightlife in Jamaica for their website. Most tourists concentrate their visits around Montego Bay, but I really wanted to take the chance to sing the praises of Kingston. It receives far too few visitors, but really is the cultural heart of the country, and there’s great music to find any night of the week, from live bands to fantastic street parties:
What Kingston is really famous for is its sound systems: giant speaker stacks with a ‘selector’ (DJ) playing the tunes and a ‘toaster’ acting as MC to the proceedings. Part block-party, part fashion show and all-out stereo war, sound-system parties are an essential Jamaican experience. They start late in the night and go on into the early morning so you’ll need to pace yourself – don’t even think of turning up before midnight.
For me, the real gem is Kingston Dub Club, up on the skyline above the city. It’s a great scene with locals of all stripes, elder Rastas, Japanese reggae enthusiasts, Red Stripe and rum, and DJs playing sublime dub on a set of decks under a huge mango tree. You can find some Soundcloud mixtapes here.
I listen to a lot of podcasts. One I’ve been enjoying a lot recently is Sources and Methods, a podcast describing itself as a show where ‘interesting people doing interesting things get to talk about the what, how and why of what they do.’
I’ve known one of the hosts, Alex Strick, for a number of years – he helped out with the Pashto phrasebook section of my Lonely Planet Afghanistan guidebook – and was thrilled when he asked if I would be interviewed for the podcast. In the resulting hour-long discussion we range from the mechanics of researching travel guides, the nature of writing about countries where visitors are more likely to be NGO workers than tourists, and the challenges and opportunities for guidebooks in a digital landscape where everyone can upload a hotel review to TripAdvisor, and expect to get the resulting travel information for free.
I also got to play a mini-round of Desert Island Discs, picking a book, a film and a song to recommend – the hardest aspect of the entire interview!
You can listen to the podcast here (where you can also read the accompanying show notes), or via iTunes or Stitcher.
January 12 2015 was the fifth anniversary of Haiti’s earthquake. The anniversary is usually the prompt for a slew of articles about the failures of reconstruction, and press releases from NGOs explaining that while there have certainly been plenty of problems, the work they’ve personally done has been great. But this year, there has been a new theme: the rise of Haitian tourism.
Lonely Planet (for whom I coordinated two editions of the sadly-missed Dominican Republic & Haiti guide) asked me to weigh in on the subject in an article for their website:
Say ‘Haiti’ and most people’s first response isn’t likely to be ‘holiday destination’. From political troubles to natural disasters, recent decades haven’t been kind to this Caribbean nation. Five years on from the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti to its foundations, the country is still rocked by an ongoing political crisis and struggling to haul itself out of the rubble. But there’s a change in the air, and Haiti is loudly proclaiming itself ready to welcome tourists back to its shores. Visitor numbers are up and the word is out: Haiti is, supposedly, the hot new travel destination for 2015. We ask if Haiti is really ready for tourists.
You can read my full article here. Spoiler alert: Yes, Haiti is ready (but terms and conditions apply).
It’s been hard to keep up with all the coverage that Haitian tourism is getting right now. When I started writing my Bradt Haiti guidebook , there were occasional speculative pieces about whether tourism could really return, (this piece from 2012 is a typical example), but the long PR game that the ministry of tourism has been playing does seem to be paying off, as the stories have not only multiplied, but crossed over from the foreign news and business pages to the travel media proper. Haiti has hit the top travel destinations for 2015 in the Independent, the Guardian, Rough Guides, Travel+Leisure, Wanderlust and the Travel Channel. It’s been a long time since the country has such overwhelmingly positive press. Tourist arrivals seem to be rising accordingly.
Several articles have caught my eye in the past week. The Huffington Post published a big piece extolling the virtues of Haiti as a family destination. The writing is a bit breathless, but it has the genial tone of someone collaring you because they can’t stop talking about their great vacation. It’s a big contrast to the editor of Yahoo Travel who went to Haiti on a press trip and spent the entire time scared of whether her hotel door would lock, worrying about the food, and jumping at the ‘hostile’ locals. One gets the sense that Disneyland would have been a destination too far for this nervy writer (the same press trip also generated this far cheerier ‘Top 5 Experiences in Haiti” advertorial on the G Adventures website).
Forbes published a useful three part series on Port-au-Prince (here, here and here). There’s a strong focus on Port-au-Prince’s fancy new hotels here – for balance, read them alongside Emily Troutman’s interviews with the hotels’ Haitian staff. The article’s headline feels deliberatively provocative, but the interviews themselves are a model of empathy. Finally, the New Yorker takes a look at the complicated and much-overlooked issue of land-ownership in Haiti. While this might not seem directly tourism related, it covers directly touches on the proposed Carnival cruise port on La Tortue, and the controversial eco-tourism resort project on Île-à-Vache, shedding some light on why these projects can look great on paper but often run into big difficulties during implementation.
Of course, it’s rather unfortunate that all this coverage arrived just as Haiti was entering a period of political uncertainty, with the dissolution of parliament and President Martelly ruling by decree (in the consensus cabinet announced this week, the high-flying Stephanie Villedrouin was reconfirmed as Minister for Tourism). But for the travel press at least, Haiti’s moment does seem to have arrived. The challenge ahead is to follow through on the promise so that we can really say Haiti ap dekole: Haiti is taking off.
The new edition of Lonely Planet’s Jamaica hit the shelves last month, and I’m proud to be its lead author. It’s a fantastically interesting country to travel in, with multitudes to explore beyond the paradise clichés of the all-inclusive resorts. I’ve just written a mini-guide to the country for The Independent, which includes everything my favourite Kingston sound-systems to the island’s best festivals and food experiences. I was particularly pleased to sing the praises of the capital, which is often unfairly maligned as a travel destination:
Kingston has frequently been regarded as the sort of place you would arrange your trip to avoid, but these days the city is very much on the way up, brandishing a rich cultural life that is tempting travellers back through fine dining and local festivals.
The music scene is extraordinarily vibrant and a real eye – and ear – opener for anyone who thinks Jamaican music begins and ends with Bob Marley. From live jazz and roots poetry to raucous dancehall street parties, Kingston lays it on with the knowing self-confidence that is the country’s stock-in-trade.
You can read the full article here. The Lonely Planet guide to Jamaica is available here.
A little over a month ago I was in London at an adventure tourism promotion event at the Haitian embassy in London. I was rather touched to be called up to be presented with an ‘award’ for services to Haitian tourism by the Minister for Tourism Stephanie Villedrouin. But I was even more pleased to see so many tour operators present, many of whom have started to sell trips to the country. While I was writing the book, there was a regular stream of articles in the mainstream press about how Haiti was going to be the next big thing in tourism, but these only ever appeared in the business pages, rather than the travel sections of the papers. At last, the green shoots of an industry that appeared to have died a death some time in the mid-1980s finally seem to be putting in an appearance.
Here are three articles about Haiti I’ve been asked to write recently. The first is for Lonely Planet, about how travellers can experience Vodou:
Just saying the word ‘vodou’ brings forth a tumble of clichés, from the comedy witch doctors of the Bond movie Live and Let Die to Hollywood’s endlessly shuffling fascination with zombies. Lurid fears have been stoked about these religions since the time when Haiti’s slaves had the temerity to free themselves from Napoleon’s rule and set up the world’s first black republic two centuries ago, with propagandists and pulp novelists dining out on stories of cannibalism and possession by jungle drums ever after.
The other two articles are for G Adventures, who have a new tour to Haiti. The first tackles Haiti’s greatest sight, the magnificent Citadelle:
How many times have tourist boards sold a half-baked destination as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World?’ Sometimes however, the real deal is tucked away in some long-forgotten corner, waiting for discovery. As Haiti makes tentative steps to reintroduce itself to the travel market, it carries a pretty impressive trump card in the shape of the magnificent Citadelle le Ferrière.
The complete piece can be found here. The second piece is about the delights of Jacmel on the south coast:
Of all the countries in the Caribbean, Haiti has perhaps the richest visual arts tradition. Even the local buses (known as taptaps) are often pimped and decorated to the point where they resemble art galleries on wheels. But nowhere in the country is the artistic tradition than in Jacmel, a few hours’ drive south over the mountains from Port-au-Prince.