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London hosts a world of travel
A staggering total of 54.65 million passengers passed through London Heathrow in the first nine months of 2013.
I’m not sure it’s anything to boast about but so far this year I’ve flown at least 120,000 kilometres, passing through more than a dozen international airports in the process. It hurts me to say it, but the only one where the aircraft invariably takes a slightly tedious holding pattern before landing is the one that serves my own country: London Heathrow. On the positive side, I get magnificent and slightly prolonged aerial views of the capital city where I feel most at home.
I pass through Heathrow more often than any other airport, so I was especially interested in one item of ‘news’ that emerged last week: Finnair had been placed on a “list of shame” of airlines for its noise pollution at Heathrow. My eyebrows were raised: surely Finnair’s relatively small aircraft couldn’t be making a bigger noise than the vast and numerous Boeing 747s that regularly descend across West London?
My suspicions were well-founded: it seems that Finnair had neglected to update its data on Airbus aircraft types in line with the “chapter” system for noise emissions described by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), in order to upgrade the aircraft from a less impressive Chapter 3 rating to the Chapter 4 category with which they actually comply. Finnair’s place on that list of shame is therefore unwarranted.
I was in London to attend the World Travel Market, one of the biggest confluences of the global travel business community anywhere on the planet. I love travel markets and the opportunity they provide to stroll from, say, Rio to Rwanda in just a couple of minutes. It’s fun to be accosted by a Costa Rican adorned with pineapples on one corner and a lady from a Chinese hill tribe dripping with golden jewellery on the next, passing a Maasai warrior in full regalia on the way. I also admit to the vice of stuffing myself like a child with the candies and chocolates that many stands generally offer to visitors.
China leads the way for emerging travel markets in Asia.
But travel fairs are also a great way to make and re-establish contacts and to find out what’s new in the world of travel generally. One of the main items under discussion in the UK travel community, apart from issues of sustainability and responsible travel, is the need for more capacity at Heathrow, if not a whole new London airport – putting an end to those extended landings at one of the world’s biggest aviation hubs. The fact that London remains so busy, of course, is a reflection of the continued and increasing appetite for air travel.
In its 2013 Industry Report, the WTM states that “nine out of ten senior travel industry executives… polled are optimistic about the prospects for both their company and the wider industry as a whole in 2014”. It doesn’t deny that “the industry still faces some hurdles, with half of those polled highlighting the negative impact international and domestic conflicts can have on the industry”. Taxes – the UK’s Air Passenger Duty is set to go up again in 2014 – and visa regulations are viewed as other obstacles.
Supporting Finnair’s own strategy is the report’s conclusion that Asia is the “next tourist hotspot”, with Finnair destination countries Vietnam and Thailand as well as Myanmar and Cambodia among the countries highlighted, but with China taking a clear lead as “the industry’s most important BRICS market”. Finnair’s own China network extends to Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and, for the first time this summer, Xi’an.
Visit Finland’s stand at the World Travel Market.
Other conclusions are more surprising. For example, there is a general assumption that the printed guidebook is in its death throes and that online travel media, much of it user-generated, is taking over. But the WTM Industry Report shows that six out of ten British holidaymakers use a hard copy traditional guidebook, compared to 25% who print from the web and 20% who use an app. Online and social media are certainly here to stay and play an increasingly important role in travel decisions and bookings, but the printed guidebook, it seems, is far from extinct.
Lastly, one more surprise, and one that aroused my suspicions again: can it really be true, as a WTM survey concluded, that the most popular celebrity family to sit next to on a flight would be the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Baby George?
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Change for Good supports Vietnam’s minorities
Every weekend after the last school lesson has finished, 10-year-old Va runs eight kilometers to get back to his home and parents before darkness falls in his remote mountain village in the Dien Bien province of northern Vietnam. A rugged trench runs along the centre of the track, the course of a river during the rains, and Va and his friends have to negotiate some steep and rocky gradients to make it to their one-room family homes, basic wooden shelters with corrugated roofs and hard mud floors.
Va (right), his father Chinh and mother Ong sit down for lunch at home. “I never had the time to read or write,” says Chinh. Va wants to be a teacher when he grows up.
Luckily Va only has to make the return trip once a week. His parents live more than three kilometers from the school, so until their son reaches secondary level they qualify to let him stay for free at a semi-boarding school for the week during term time. UNICEF‘s Country Programme for Vietnam for 2012-2016 is supporting this effective approach to education for young children, and this year Finnair passengers will be invited to support it as part of the Schools for Asia programme by contributing to the Change for Good Christmas campaign.
Va’s father, like most people in this stunningly beautiful upland region, is a farmer, growing maize and rice, which are also the two staples of the local diet. Meat is only eaten on festivals and special occasions, so protein is in short supply. Dien Bien is the second poorest province in Vietnam. At school Va enjoys a more varied and balanced diet and regular meals, as well as lessons in the majority Vietnamese language. He is also taught about hygiene and other health issues, information which he is encouraged to share with his family when he goes home.
Ten year old Ho Thi Dua is one of Va’s class mates at semi-boarding school. Maths and Vietnamese are her favourite school subjects.
Va and his family are members of the Mong ethnic minority, one of the most disadvantaged in Vietnam. The country is one of the world’s new economic powerhouses and has achieved “lower middle-income” status in recent years, an impressive improvement reflected in an annual economic growth rate of over 5 per cent. But because of their geographical and linguistic isolation, and in spite of some genuine efforts on the part of the government, the minorities have lagged behind, not least in education.
For instance, only 60 per cent of ethnic minority children finish the first five years of their primary education compared with 86 per cent of the Kinh ethnic majority. Stunted growth in children is higher among mountain minority children than among children in the lower valley areas, too, and there is a whole raft of other statistics to confirm that these kids need support.
Thought for food and nothing else at lunchtime. Mong ethnic minority schoolchildren get well-balanced, nutritious meals at semi-boarding schools.
This week I was lucky enough to be taken on a UNICEF field trip to Dien Bien, to talk to Va, to other children and their families and to experience the open hospitality of the minority villages. I also witnessed – not for the first time, since I’ve also been on trips with the agency in India and Kaliningrad – the effectiveness of UNICEF’s work in the field. It’s not always glamorous or high profile, but the efforts of the agency’s dedicated staff invariably make a difference. UNICEF has a long-established and respected presence in Vietnam, which means its work has the potential to be even more effective than usual.
So when the Change for Good campaign on Finnair flights comes along in December, be assured that any contributions you make really do make a difference. Finnair cooperates with UNICEF as part of its Corporate Responsibility policy – and since Asian destinations are central to the Finnair strategy it makes sense for community-related activities to be linked to this continent whenever possible.
I’ll be writing a full length feature with photos about my trip to Dien Bien which will be published in the December issue of the Finnair inflight magazine Blue Wings – watch out for that.
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Coming to grips with the gratuity
You’ve finished your exotic meal of local delicacies, you’re sipping the last of your local beer, and the moment you’ve been dreading is approaching. When the bill arrives, the situation is none the clearer and you break into a sweat. The percentage signs next to the figures above the total – are they for tax or service? Are you supposed to tip or not? How much? Will they be insulted if you don’t? Will they think you’re a brazen mug if you do? Will their friendliness turn to malice if you don’t tip enough?
It’s one of the most stressful of travel situations. Nobody likes to admit it – which makes it even worse. “Tipping is not essential or expected but the gesture will be much appreciated”: this vague advice often appears in guidebooks. Well, obviously it’s going to be appreciated. Except in Japan, where it might be regarded as slightly vulgar, if not downright insulting.
Would you dare NOT to tip a New York cab driver?
Whose idea was tipping in the first place? Does a journalist get a tip for writing an especially brilliant article? Does a shopkeeper receive a little extra for friendliness? Would you consider offering a little extra to the plumber who fixes your pipes or the electrician who mends your fuse box? Unless you have money to burn, of course you wouldn’t. Which is not to say these services are unappreciated. But is it the poor confused traveller’s fault that restaurant waiting staff, for instance, are so poorly paid in some countries, to the extent that “tip” may actually mean the same as “salary”?
Tipping is an especially complex science in travel situations. Imagine checking in to a better than average New York hotel. For many travellers this is a moment of relaxation, to savour the pampering. For others, it’s a moment of intense trauma. The fellow who grabbed your cases from the taxi – what’s in it for him? The other fellow who brings them to your room and shows you how the air conditioning works is loitering at the door – it isn’t because he enjoys your company.
The waiters in the restaurant, the concierge, the chambermaids, the masseuse, the hairdresser, the spa attendant… Is five dollars an insult? Is ten dollars setting an extravagant precedent? And what if you’ve only got two singles or you haven’t had time to change a hundred? Will you be totally ignored for the rest of your visit if you don’t tip anything?
US tipping culture is highly evolved and disdain of low tippers particularly conspicuous. But the situation could just as easily be repeated in New Delhi or Bangkok. So here are a few tipping tips for some popular Finnair destinations to lead you through the gratuity minefield – and to let you know your pain is shared:
In small, less tourist-oriented hotels and restaurants, tipping is not expected and watch out for the service charge often added to the bill – the official tip, in other words. Otherwise, it’s acceptable just to round up the bill and leave some small change. A tip of 40-80 baht – equivalent to one or two euros – is usually sufficient in finer hotels for bell hops and doormen who grab a taxi for you, for example. Those famous Thai smiles are worth a supplement.
The otherwise impenetrable curtain of Japanese etiquette draws back with absolute clarity when it comes to tipping: there isn’t any. It may be complicated in other ways – the language, the dining customs – but the tipping rule couldn’t be simpler: don’t. Relax, really, it’s OK.
Unless it’s a fixed fair, taxi drivers may get grumpy if you don’t add a pound or two to your fare. You are never likely to see them again but it leaves a bad taste – another instance of the complex emotional blackmail at play. Leave 10-12% of the bill in restaurants and a couple of pounds for doormen who hail you a taxi. Many restaurants include a “discretionary service charge” on the bill. Discretionary ought to mean optional, but the persistent pressure of tipping psychology means you always pay. If you want to be sure that your waiter or waitress receives his or her gratuity, it’s probably best to leave a cash tip rather than add it to your card payment.
As in Japan, tipping in China used to be insulting and broadly speaking it’s safe to assume that it still is. There is no need to tip in rural areas and in towns and cities that are less familiar with the ostentatious sai yan or Western traveller. Gratuities are still not standard practice but it’s increasingly common in the Western-style hotels and restaurants of megacities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Until 10 or 15 years ago, nobody ever tipped anyone and the situation everywhere – in hotels, in taxis, in restaurants – was gloriously uncomplicated. Service mentality and its attendant complexities made a late appearance on the Finnish hospitality scene. It’s still almost unheard of to tip taxi drivers – the fares are high enough. Tipping is still unusual in all but the most upmarket hotels and restaurants, where you might add around 10% of your bill, but you will not be blacklisted for your restraint. Needless to say, “the gesture will be much appreciated”.
This column originally appeared in Finnair’s inflight magazine Blue Wings.
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Make the most of your holiday snaps
Nobody really knows how many photographs are taken every year but one estimate puts the figure at about 380 billion. Everyone is a photographer in this digital age, and the holiday season is when your camera – whether it’s a hefty pro-quality digital SLR or the tiny built-in snapper on your smart phone – is likely to get its maximum work out.
Manhattan skyline: we’ve seen a million pictures of it, so why not try to see it in a new light?
Holidays are a good opportunity to slow things down, to appreciate experiences frame by frame rather than in a continuous stressful blur. So rather than let your images be submerged in the vast photographic mass, it makes sense to think about how to make them stand out from the crowd, to make them a little more special. Here are some ideas about how to do that:
Quality, not quantity
Digital memory is cheap, so you can experiment to your heart’s content. But why take 30 shots that are pretty much the same when, with a little time and thought, you could take four or five that are different and more interesting? Slow down, you’re on holiday!
Best foot forward
The zoom lens on your camera or device is great for situations where you can’t move around or get any closer, but your feet are the most effective tools for finding a more interesting angle. If you see a crowd of tourists standing in one place to photograph a building or activity, don’t assume that they are standing in the best place!
Take a different perspective: looking down on the hat stall at a Hanoi market.
Less can be more
A picture can be made more effective by what it leaves out as much as for what it includes. Try to concentrate on one clear subject, rather than attempting to cram too much information into your frame. This makes for a stronger composition.
Take a sideways view
The age-old “rule of thirds” for artists and photographers remains a good guide. Many cameras present a grid of four lines, two vertical and two horizontal, in the viewfinder or screen. Place your subject at any point where these lines meet and you will have a better balanced image than if you place it right in the centre.
This shot of a Hanoi restaurant waitress is improved by placing the subject’s face away from the centre of the image.
Don’t be shy, and mind your manners!
Whether it’s in a western city where everyone is used to cameras, or in a remote Asian village, people usually don’t mind having their pictures taken – as long as you are polite and friendly about it. If you can, exchange a few words or gestures with the person first – don’t suddenly present your camera and start shooting without warning. If it’s clear that the person is uncomfortable either walk away or, if you really want that shot, take a little more time to communicate and put them at ease. Remember to consider people’s feelings about having a camera poked at them.
You’re in New York on holiday and you want to shoot all the incredible views and architecture – in your own way. Take a little time to look at the hundreds of postcards and picture books of the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. Now try to avoid doing the same and do something different.
Know your camera
Even the simplest cameras these days are pretty versatile – don’t just stick to the Auto setting but find out what that dial does if you move it round. Find out about depth of field (the area of an image that’s in focus), apertures and shutter speeds. Photography is actually a very simple creative science and the same principles apply if you use an all-singing, all-dancing digital monster as if you were using a 50-year-old film camera.
Beautiful light on mountains just before sunset in Madagascar.
Find out where to go – and when
Find out what events might be taking place while you’re in your holiday location – festivals and special sports, for example. Find the local market, often a good source of colourful and lively shots with a distinctive local character, or look out for high viewpoints to capture sweeping panoramas. You could be in a hot sunny place but bright sunshine is not necessarily the best light for good pictures. Go for an early morning walk when the light is low and subtle or wait until an hour or so before sunset when colours can be interesting, not bleached by the sun. And try turning your back on that magnificent sunset for a moment – you might find its rich reflected light, on a line of seafront buildings for instance, or on someone’s face, is even more spectacular!
Tim Bird’s travel photography is frequently published in Finnair’s inflight magazine Blue Wings. He was awarded as Photographer of the Year 2012 by the British Guild of Travel Writers. If you are in Helsinki in August, you can see some of his photos from India in Café Aalto at Stockmann’s Academic Bookstore.
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Finnair likes it HOTT
Under construction: Finnair’s new Head Office – HOTT – is nearing completion close to Helsinki Airport.
Ah! Summer in Finland. The sizzling of barbecues, the long light evenings, the smell of burning birch wood warming the sauna… and the construction sites messing up all Helsinki’s prime tourist spots.
As a keen cyclist I spend much of my Finnish summers on two wheels. I know some of the routes around Helsinki like the back of my hand but I wouldn’t risk trying them blindfolded – there’s too big a risk of pedalling into a freshly excavated hole. This spring they chose my own street for a massive sewer pipe renovation, employing an impressive “no-dig technology solution”. No holes to cycle into, then, just a huge black pipe running down the middle of the street.
Of course, I know that much of the street renovations have to be done when the ground is not covered by snow and frozen hard. I also know that all this frantic construction and renewal that has hardly paused since I first moved to Finland 30 years ago is a symptom of comparative economic health. I dare say the citizens of Spain and Greece would welcome more holes in the road if it meant that their utility companies and governments had the funds for renewal.
Moreover, when the projects in Helsinki are complete, there are usually conspicuously positive results. The seemingly endless building that went on around the site of the new Music Centre was a blot on the landscape for many months, but the landmark that sits there now already feels agreeably irreplaceable. Likewise the pedestrian street of Keskuskatu, one half of which is covered by a vast ugly tent this summer but which will be a welcome addition to the traffic-free zones of the capital in future summers (and winters) when complete.
Helsinki Airport has also been the site of some high-profile construction projects recently. The long-overdue new rail link between central Helsinki and the airport has caused some disruption and a lot of ground-shaking but nobody will complain when the trains start running in 2014. And soon, this summer Finnair will be moving to a smart new high-tech Head Office near the airport.
The new building, known as HOTT, or House of Travel and Transportation, has a total floor space of 70,000 square metres and is located next to the current Finnair head office building in Tietotie. The big move about to take place is also nicely timed to coincide with this year’s 90th anniversary of Finnair’s founding in 1923, when the airport was not much more than a shoreline quay. Most of Finnair’s functions will be in the same location, a move intended to increase cooperation and communication between different units.
The new office building also includes all kinds of eco-friendly features, so in terms of temperature, it will probably not live up to its HOTT label. For Finnair staff it should represent a big improvement in terms of working environment and facilities. Next time I start to curse as my cycle route takes a detour round a new building site this summer, I must remind myself of the benefits of this annual construction activity.