16 July 2007

'Festival in the Desert' now on my To Do list

Perhaps it was just a co-incidence of festivals.

On Saturday morning I was lying in my tent listening to Radio 4's Excess Baggage. It was particularly interesting because Sandy Toksvig was talking with her four guests about music festivals worldwide.....and here I was, camped in a field in Dorset with 3/4000 others, at the Larmertree Festival, which is mostly world music.

One of her guests, Simon Broughton, contributor to the Rough Guide to World Music and editor of the magazine Songlines, (subject: world music), started talking about the 'Festival in the Desert' - a Tuareg festival held out in the sahara not far from Timbuktoo in Mali. In recent years it has become quite well known outside the country thanks to broadcasters and writers like Simon Broughton and Andy Kershaw, but only a handful of international travellers actually make their way to this remote spot.

It sounded - go to the EB site and look for the podcast clip for that edition on 14/07/07. (There's no permalink so I won't link to it directly here) - fabulously exotic and attractive... but then after a windswept and rainy night in a tent in a muddy field, anything would!

After another day & night of good music (and rain) I was talking with the two middle-aged couples in the next door tent about Larmertree and festivals in general. I mentioned the R4 programme and the Festival in the Desert.

"Oh yes" they said, "We went a couple of years ago. It IS fabulous."

It turns out they made their way there having read about it in the Guardian, and found themselves in company Ex-Led Zeppeliner, Robert Plant, who gave a performance under the stars (Stairway to Heaven?) with some local musicians.

"Magic", said Nigel, a solicitor from East Devon. "...if not a little surreal!"

...And the sand underfoot, they agreed, is exactly as Simon Broughton described it - "like hourglass sand".

I'm hooked. I'll have to find a commission and go!

11 July 2007

New travel ideas are not always obvious

Last night I went to the annual Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) Summer Press Party in London, where AITO members (tour operators) and travel journos get to relax, and chat.

The AITO chairman, Derek Moore, made a short speech with a couple of interesting points in it.

One was that the new DoT guidelines on the travel industry still fail to nail down a precise definition of what a package holiday is, and so leaves plenty of wriggle room when it comes to compensation and cover against failure. His point was that ALL holidays provided by all AITO members are fully covered....period.

The other point he made, with journos looking for story ideas in mind, was that not all AITO tour operators have fresh, quirky, innovative 'new product' all the time. Most AITO tour operators are specialists in their niche and many just get on with doing what they are good at....better.

It was a good point. Moments earlier I had run into Akin Koc, MD of Anatolian Sky . He specialises in holidays to unspoilt parts of Turkey and to North Cyprus. He has been doing it - very well - for many years.... and I've run into him many times over those years at functions like this.

When I asked him "what's new this season, Akin?". The answer was, as I expected, not much. A couple of new tours along the Black Sea coast of Turkey.

It's a pity. There are loads of really good, small independent tour operators (not all members of AITO) who specialise in their own niche area - it might be a destination or a special interest - and who don't always get the publicity they deserve because they don't stray far from their core business and create new news-worthy 'products'. They just quietly get on with doing what they are good at as best as they can. (These, by the way are the ones I'm always keen to find and list on Travel-Lists)

Ironically, it later turned out Anatolian Sky are doing something new and interesting.... they just didn't realise it.

I was chatting later to a friend who has just spent several weeks in North Cyprus checking details for a guidebook. He returned to his local airport in the UK on a direct flight from Larnaca on the Greek side of the 'green line' - something that would have been impossible until recently.

It turns out that restrictions on movement between north & south have been eased and, although it is still not falling-off-a-log easy to cross the border (nor is there any significant time saving), for some British travellers who live near regional airports it is a new travel option for getting to North Cyprus (instead of flying via Turkey).

When I mentioned it a little while later to Akin, "why didn't you tell me about the new way of getting there?", he said, "Oh yes, we are doing that. We've started offering it to our clients this season... I just forgot!"

Sometimes travel companies don't realise they are doing something newsworthy... or, in this case, blogworthy - until we write about it.