Thursday, March 17, 2011
Last November I went to the World Travel Market, a big London travel trade show. In the three days I was there, I gallivanted around the globe, visiting countries from Africa to Asia and beyond.
While there, I met some great hotels, tour operators, and travel companies, many of which I have since visited. Not least among these is explora, the hotel company that I stayed with in the Atacama Desert and Easter Island on my recent trip to Chile.
Having gotten so much out of WTM London, I decided to continue attending travel conferences. As such, I planned a trip to one of the largest travel trade shows in the world: ITB Berlin. Taking place every March in the German capital, ITB attracts over 11,000 travel companies and 170,000 visitors from all over the world.
More than 188 countries exhibit the best of their tourism offerings in large, colorful pavilions over the course of the five days of ITB. The show is so large that there are buses to take attendees from one end of the conference center to the other, and there are no less than three metro stations that serve different entrances. It is enormous. I couldn’t wait to go and see it for myself.
I arrived in Berlin at noon on Wednesday and caught an airport shuttle just as it was leaving Tegel for ITB. The bus dropped me off at the south entrance of the conference center, where I checked my coat and my bag, and walked into the show.
I had written down a list of specific countries I wanted to visit—Andorra, Brazil, Cambodia, Cyprus, Malta, Mauritius, Peru, and others—but when I walked in to the first big room with its huge colorful pavilions, delicious plates of food, and costumed performers, I couldn’t help wanting to see the whole world.
Starting in Europe, I worked my way from Spain to Sweden, Iceland to Ireland. I passed by Romanian musicians playing traditional music, Dutchmen cooking up delicious-smelling stroopwafels, and Scotsmen clad in tartan kilts. Mixed among them were Disney-like characters in full costume and Madame Tussuads-like wax replicas of historical figures.
The show being in Berlin, the German pavilions spanned several huge rooms. Every region, from Bavaria to Brandenburg,was represented by everything from piano players serenading us with the works of Franz Liszt, to performers walking on stilts, to roulette tables surrounded by hopeful betters.
As I walked through Europe, I talked with a tour company from Andorra called Original Andorra, a range of hotels in Cyprus, including So Nice, Grand Resort, and the Four Seasons, hotels in Malta like the Cavalieri, the Hilton, and the Corinthia hotels, the Serbian national tourist organization, an Icelandic spa by the name of Blue Lagoon, and the GM of the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski in Hamburg, which is finishing a renovation that will be completed in time for its 102 year anniversary in early May.
Throughout the day, I learned that Andorra can be reached from Barcelona in just three hours, that Serbia has a thriving domestic wine industry, and that Romania has hundreds of cycling routes starting in Cluj-Napoca and running throughout Transylvania.
Between countries, I stopped to rest at some of the many ITB Berlin seminars. There were multiple rooms with all-day programs that ranged from travel technology seminars to wellness seminars to country-specific seminars. I went to one panel discussion on using social media for travel businesses, and another called the ITB World Travel Trends Report.
The former continued to beat the drum about mobile, which is a hot topic and has been touted as the future of the travel industry for quite some time. The latter gave an interesting overview of the tourism industry with a particular focus on Europe, and offered very positive predictions for 2011.
Speaking of Europe, by the time I left ITB that evening, I had barely visited the whole continent. In only two more days, I had to see the rest of the world. It was both intimidating and exciting, and I looked forward to going back the next day.
But first it was time to see the little bit of the real Berlin that I could explore outside of the city’s large pavilion at ITB. My guide in this endeavor was my boss from when I worked at Brown’s study abroad office my senior year of college. Despite the fact that I hadn’t seen him in almost seven years, our conversation picked up as if we had met every day in the interim.
Our plan was to go out for dinner, and he took me to a restaurant in Berlin that would give me a feel for the local scene. Fra Rosa was located in the northeast of the city, and had a unique pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth policy. I had seen a restaurant in London do this before as a marketing stunt, but my friend assured me that in Berlin it was more of a tax-evasion stunt, and was quite common at restaurants throughout the city.
Over a great four-course dinner, he told me all about Berlin. He was getting his PhD in German history, so was a particularly excellent source of knowledge. When we weren’t discussing his research or our favorite works of art in our current cities’ respective plunder rooms (i.e. the British Museum and the Pergamon Museum), we talked about our experiences as expats, lamented the ever-changing visa rules of our respective countries, and discussed our loves and frustrations with our adoptive cultures. I went home that night happy to have caught up with him, and fell into bed dreaming of Europe.
The next morning I was up and off to explore the rest of the world. Day two at ITB Berlin started off with Asia. The whole continent was contained in two enormous rooms. I walked from country to country, talking to tour companies, hotel managers, and other representatives, all the while getting excited to explore more of the East.
I met Angkor Village in Cambodia’s Siem Reap, an area that is high on my list of places to go this year, and the Movenpick hotel in Hanoi, which, after visiting Ho Chi Minh City in January, is somewhere I really want to go. I also talked with an adventure travel company that runs cycling tours of Vietnam called The Indochina Trekking Company.
When I wasn’t meeting people, I was watching them. There was an artist painting huge canvasses in the Indonesia pavilion, performers getting ready for a show in Mongolia, and people in traditional dress in many other areas.
From Asia, I walked to Africa. There I met with the Shanti Maurice resort in Mauritius, an island nation about which I have heard amazing things. Despite the recent political turmoil, I was happy to see that Egypt had an entire room in the show, complete with a giant sarcophagus head.
The Arab world was next. True to form, everything was huge, ornate, and luxurious. Emirates airline had its famous first class suite on display, and luxury hotels had huge pillowed pavilions. Etihad even had an impressive race car next to its information desk. I stood for awhile and watched as a man whittled a whirling wooden top with his feet, then turned around to find myself face-to-face with a knight riding on a great big white horse.
Following the Middle East, I hopped across a landing and found myself in Latin America. First came Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. The pavilions were decorated in everything from the Costa Rican rain forest to the St. Lucian sea, and all around the room were performers dressed in elaborate indigenous costumes, women weaving on traditional looms, and stalls selling handicrafts.
In the next building was the rest of Latin America, namely South America. From Brazil to Bolivia, the continent’s pavilions were bursting with life. I spent most of my time there talking with Explorandes, who got me excited about all of the opportunities for adventure travel in Peru and Ecuador.
After half of the Americas and all of Asia, Africa, and the Arab world, I was exhausted. Having stupidly worn heels, my feet were killing me. My eyes were on sensory overload. But I was an intrepid traveler, and there was still more of the world to see.
I took a short break to rest my feet, then continued on my journey. Soon I found myself in India, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. I waived hello to the giant boat that served as the gateway to the Maldives pavilion, then stumbled upon the Pacific Islands. Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji were all present and accounted for, and a warrior from Papua New Guinea posed for a picture as I made my way towards New Zealand and Australia.
From there I jumped back to the other side of the Pacific with a visit to my home country and its continent. As an American, it was interesting to see how the USA pitched itself to the world as a tourism destination. As I wandered through the American flag-filled pavilions, I was surprised to see how few places were represented. If I didn’t know any better, I might have thought that the US consisted of five states: Orlando, Las Vegas, New York City, California, and a Native American reservation. Hmmm.
Then there was the type of companies present. The first one I noticed was an RV rental company that promoted seeing the USA by motor home. There were a few tourist boards, some casinos—both of the Vegas variety and of the Native American variety—and amusement parks, complete with giant posters of The Simpsons.
Between the egregious use of the American flag, the disproportionate ratio of cowboy hats to states where people actually wear them, the industries represented, and the seemingly random representation of the geographic regions of the USA, it wasn’t exactly the way I would have portrayed my country. It made me wonder if people from other countries felt the same way about their own pavilions.
Running from the colors that don’t run, I passed by the Canadian pavilion and found myself in a Ukrainian pavilion. I was a bit confused at first given Ukraine’s lack of geographical proximity to Canada, but then a Russian pavilion appeared in the next room. It was followed closely by Central Asian pavilions, where I met companies called Caravan Travel and Discover Central Asia Tours that offered expeditions throughout the under-visited region.
My energy flagging, I decided to hobble home in my ill-chosen shoes. I took the S-Bahn train back to my hotel in the city center and changed into flats as fast as I could. I did a bit of work, then caved into a growing sense of hunger. Inhaling a bowl of ravioli at a touristy Italian restaurant on Under den Linden, I decided that I would spend the evening taking advantage of the fact that Berlin’s major museums offer free entry in the final opening hours of the day.
I walked over to Museum Island, excited to see the Neues Museum with its famous bust of Nefertiti and the Pergamon Museum with its namesake Greek treasure. Both museums, as well as many others in the area, had special late opening hours on Thursdays, which was perfect.
Unfortunately, when I arrived I was informed that the policy of offering free entry at the end of the day had been done away with in December. Not wanting to pay 10 euros for a mere 45 minutes at the museum, I left and went to bed. It was 8pm. I got 12 hours of sleep. It was amazing.
I always knew that traveling was exhausting, but seeing 188 countries in three days was in a category of its own. Getting tons of sleep was exactly what I needed to energize myself for my third and final day at ITB Berlin.
Having seen all of the pavilions in the first two days, I decided to use my third day to re-visit some of the countries that I hadn’t seen enough of in my first two.
I went back to the Peru pavilion, where Explorandes gave me additional information about their offerings. Then I met with Andes Explorer and Galasam, who explained all about their tour options for Galapagos cruises in Ecuador. In Brazil, Del Bianco took me on a virtual tour of the country, highlighting the areas of interest and specific tours for everyone from sports lovers to butterfly enthusiasts.
I checked out one of the Tourism Companies rooms, where I met BZ.comm, a firm that does travel PR in Germany, and then walked over to the other Tourism Companies room, where I tried to find someone from Hilton that I had met the first day. When that failed, I availed myself of some free ice cream.
At that point it was time for me to leave ITB. I was sad to go, but happy to have met so many great companies throughout the surreal world of the travel trade show. From tourist boards to hotels, tour companies to airlines, I left with the hope of visiting them all in the real world at some point in the future.
Leaving ITB Berlin, I got back on the S-Bahn and traveled to the main train station to catch my train to another place in the real world: the Czech Republic. More specifically, I was off to Prague, the impossibly beautiful Bohemian city located four-and-a-half hours from Berlin. To be continued…