Monthly Archives: December 2016

31Dec 2016

Israel issues travel warning for India – Aljazeera.com


Israel’s anti-terrorism directorate has issued a travel warning for India, citing immediate “terrorist attacks” on tourists and Western targets, particularly in the southwest of the country.

The Counterterrorism Bureau, in a statement released by the Israeli prime minister’s office on Friday, raised the alert level and said it corresponded to a “concrete basic threat”.

“We are warning Israeli tourists in India of the possibility of imminent terrorist attacks against Western targets and tourists, particularly in the southwest of that country,” the statement said.

“A particular emphasis should be put on events in the coming days in connection with beach and club parties celebrating the new year where a concentration of tourists will be high.”

READ MORE: Israel ‘using Indian tax money to oppress’ Palestinians

The statement recommended that tourists avoid participation in such parties. It also called on families in Israel to contact their relatives in India and tell them of the threat.

In addition, it recommended avoiding markets, festivals and crowded shopping areas.

Unusually, the warning was published on Friday evening in Israel, after the start of the Jewish Sabbath, when government offices close for business.

The directorate did not say what prompted the warning.

India is a popular destination for young Israelis, especially after they have concluded their military service.

In 2012, the wife of Israeli diplomat stationed in India, her driver and two others were wounded in a bomb attack on her car. Israel and India share close military ties.

Source: News agencies

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31Dec 2016

3 Helpful Tips for Getting Out of Credit Card Debt – Forbes


Shutterstock

Being approved for your first credit card is exciting. It’s living proof that someone at a bank thinks you’re credit-worthy and wants to lend you money. Your first credit card is the first step toward building your financial future, but what if you don’t know how to manage money?

A lot of people spend money on their credit card without giving a second thought to the payments — until the statement comes at the end of the month. By that time you may not have the money to make the payment. This leads to late payments, late fees, and a diminishing credit score — no one wants that.

The good thing about getting into credit card debt when you’re young is you can recover from it, start over, and turn your financial life around. Learning from your mistakes is part of growing up and this includes learning how to manage your money responsibly.

If you have more credit card debt than you can handle take these three steps toward becoming debt free:

Leave the plastic at home
If your credit card is in your wallet then you may be tempted to use it — so just take it out. Leave your credit card at home to help avoid impulse purchases, keep your balances from increasing, and help your debt start to get paid off.

It’s very easy to tell yourself, “I’ll just use it this one time,” but we all know that one time leads to more spending, higher balances, and bigger monthly payments. Let’s avoid that. The first step toward becoming debt free is to stop spending. If you don’t have your credit card with you then you can’t use it.

Don’t apply for more credit cards

When you’re in debt and your credit card is maxed out, you may be tempted to apply for another credit card. It’s a bad choice, but a lot of people do it. Paying credit with credit is a vicious (and costly) cycle because it isn’t helping your debt get paid off, it’s just making your debt load bigger and costing more in interest charges.

The only way to pay off your debt is to stop accumulating debt. Welcome to step two. Stop spending and start living on less to help free up income and make payments on your credit card.

Set up affordable payments

One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to pay off debt is making payments they can’t afford. Very often people make large payments on their credit cards and don’t leave themselves enough money to live for the rest of the month. Then they end up using their credit cards again until their next paycheck. This is a bad habit.

Set up automatic payments on a frequency that coincides with your pay check. Credit card payments should be factored into your monthly budget as a fixed expense. If that means you need to make cuts in other expenses then so be it.

Voila! Now you’re on your way to becoming debt free in three easy steps.

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31Dec 2016

Alaska Airline-Virgin Merger Makes Best Frequent Flyer Program … – Thrillist


I thought someone had messed up and assumed “ORD” was the code for Orlando. When I looked at my mileage statement and saw I’d received only 215 miles for flying from Miami to Chicago, I called the airline’s customer service to find out what happened.

“We’ve switched to a revenue-based system now,” the rep told me. “So you only get a percentage of the miles based on the fare you paid.”

Fuck. That.

Used to be, you’d earn air travel perks based on distances flown, not dollars spent. Now the legacy carriers — United, Delta, American, and whatever airlines they’ve absorbed — have taken their part of “loyalty” out of their customer loyalty plans, taking lots of the value (not to mention fun) with them. But one airline is still giving 100% credit no matter how big or small the spend: Alaska. And now that it has completed a $4 billion merger with Virgin America, there’s little reason for anyone to be “loyal” to the legacies ever again. Here’s why.

The great Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan hack

I’ve been an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan member since I was 10, when my family moved to Seattle and my mom signed us up. Living in Miami now, I still use Alaska as my frequent-flyer program of choice, not because I enjoy using an airline with just one flight a day in my hometown. Rather, I stayed because Alaska partnered with American, Delta, and other airlines that flew to South Florida.

But no more. Now with the merger coinciding with American and Delta watering down their programs, I won’t be flying those carriers much.

Chris Parypa Photography / Shutterstock.com

Now, instead of being relegated to Portland and Seattle if you want to fly a decent airline and get full miles on a West Coast flight, everything has opened up. The Virgin hub in San Francisco means major East Coast cities — New York, DC, Boston, Miami — can go pretty much anywhere on the West Coast and still get full mileage credit. (On a superior airline, no less.) And with connections through Alaska flights, Virgin customers can now reach smaller airports all over the American and Canadian West.
 
Then, when you want to fly somewhere those two airlines don’t go, you can redeem all those miles you racked up. You can even spend them, at full credit, on American. Funny how that works, AA. 

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Buckets of miles, plus easier rewards

For now, the merger of Alaska and Virgin looks like the rare mash-up that might benefit customers. Virgin miles, for instance, are credited at 100% on the Alaska Mileage Plan for even the cheapest fares, and up to 150% for the most expensive coach fares. That’s literally four times the miles you’d get on other airlines. (A recent Miami-to-Seattle trip netted me 2,717 miles flying up on Alaska, and 635 coming back on American.)

You might think Alaska would jack up the cost of awards tickets to compensate for all the new miles it’ll be awarding with the merger. Nah — so far, so good. Alaska actually DROPPED the costs of awards travel, some dropping by more than half. HALF, Eddie. HALF.
 
Starting in January, you’ll be able to apply those miles to Virgin flights as well. Worth it for the safety videos alone.

Loyalty has to be a two-way street, even in the sky.

So, to recap, Alaska just opened up full-credit mileage on all Virgin America flights. That means Mileage Plan members can fly either of the two most tolerable large airlines, all over the country, and get credit for the miles they actually fly. Then they can redeem fewer miles to get the rewards. Sounds unbelievable, but maybe this is how the new kids keep the heat on the legacy carriers.
 
Even if you don’t live in Seattle, or ever plan to go there, sign up for an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan account. That is, if you’re sick of bigger airlines treating you like cargo with a pulse and want to exercise your option to vote with your wallet. Loyalty has to be a two-way street, even in the sky. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll learn from Alaska and Virgin’s example.
 
*Yes, cult-of-Southwest, before you jump down to the comments and say how great SWA’s rewards program is, and how it doesn’t charge to check bags, and how it invented penicillin and gives 90% of its profits to starving orphans, I know. Southwest is the great asterisk in any conversation about “the airlines,” so let’s just leave it at that.

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer at Thrillist who fully expects all his “partner” miles on American to mysteriously vanish tomorrow. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.

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30Dec 2016

David Johnson rewards Cardinals' risk with record-breaking season – ESPN (blog)


David Johnson, the 86th overall pick in 2015 out of Northern Iowa, has more than panned out for Arizona. 

TEMPE, Ariz. — Ron Rivera liked him.

Dirk Koetter loved him.

But neither the Carolina Panthers nor the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted David Johnson.

Actually, 31 teams didn’t take a chance on the kid from Northern Iowa over the course of the first 85 picks of the 2015 NFL draft. By the time the Arizona Cardinals drafted Johnson with the 22nd pick of the third round — 86th overall — the New Orleans Saints had skipped over Johnson five times, the Cleveland Browns four times and 16 teams three times. Even the Cardinals passed on Johnson in the first and second rounds.

But after watching Johnson shatter NFL and franchise records during his first two seasons, coaches have gushed over the 25-year-old in 2016, expressing their adoration of and praise on a weekly basis.

“Of course they did,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said with a hint of sarcasm. “Everybody knew he was going to be a great player. Everybody. Just like Antonio Brown.”

A taste of the love that has been coming from opposing coaches:

  • From Seattle’s Pete Carroll: “He has just become an extraordinary player regardless of where you put him. … He can do everything. This is as difficult a guy as we play against.”

  • From Washington’s Jay Gruden: “He’s dangerous.”

  • From Atlanta’s Dan Quinn: “He’s got the size of the big guy when the team is trying to load up to go get him and then has the ability to jump-cut like a smaller guy. That’s a pretty rare combination to have.”

  • From Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer: “He’s probably one of the most well-rounded backs there is in the league. … they’ve hit on a big one there.”

  • From Carolina’s Rivera: “He has great feet and good patience in the hole. He can juke you when he has to and he can run you over when he has to. He has outstanding hands, so he has the full trifecta. … We liked him. We really did.”

  • From Tampa Bay’s Koetter: “I loved him coming out of Northern Iowa. I liked this guy a lot. He’s a complete back.”

Hindsight is clearly 20/20.

“Hell, they all say they had him high on the board now,” Arians said. “Why didn’t they take him in front of us if they had him so damn high?”

As soon as Cardinals running backs coach Stump Mitchell watched Johnson on film, he walked to wide receivers coach Darryl Drake’s office next to his and said, “This is the guy I want. This is the guy I wish we could draft.”

Johnson reminded Mitchell of New York Jets running back Matt Forte: Big, fast, quick and could catch the ball.

Even Forte thought Johnson played like him.

“My best friend is a scout for the Saints, and he told me, ‘Hey, they got this young rookie coming out. He reminds me of how you are,’ ” Forte told ESPN. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah?’ So he sent me his film via text message, YouTube or something. I was watching and I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s a bigger back and has good speed, but you can’t tell he’s running fast because he has long strides. He can catch the ball and run routes.’ So when he was coming out, I thought, ‘I think he’s going to be pretty good.’

“I’m a pretty good judge of talent, especially when it comes to running backs. I felt like he might be pretty good, and he comes out and he’s catching the ball very well and running the ball very well, too.”

Johnson, for the most part, was running under the radar in the lead-up to the 2015 draft. The big name was Georgia’s Todd Gurley, who went in the first round to the then-St. Louis Rams. Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah was another top prospect. The Cardinals wanted Abdullah, but he went to Detroit four picks before Arizona in the second round.

Johnson was one of the first running backs to get Arians’ attention because of his size and speed. After watching the film of Johnson against Iowa, when he torched the Hawkeyes for 237 all-purpose yards, Arians was sold.

“You saw what you wanted,” Arians said. “You saw the things [Cardinals running back] Andre Ellington had, so if you could find a back that you can continue to do the things you like to do.”

Mitchell knew if Arians could coach a player like Johnson, there would be no ceiling on what Johnson would be able to accomplish.

“I knew what B.A. would do with David once he saw his skill set,” Mitchell said of Arians. “B.A. is a very creative playcaller, play designer. He uses guys to the best of his abilities and that’s why it doesn’t matter if you get a first-round pick or a free agent. If they have something, B.A. will find a way to use him.”

Arians was first impressed by Johnson’s tape, then by his maturity after meeting him. After drafting Johnson, it took all of a few days for Arians to understand what kind of talent he had on his hands.

“It was probably the third day of spring where he took off around the corner, and he has that funny gait where nobody can catch him,” Arians said.

Since then, Johnson has been proving doubters wrong on a weekly basis and setting records in the process. After the first two weeks of his rookie season, Johnson became the first player in NFL history to score rushing, receiving and kickoff-return touchdowns in his first two games.

He has set team records for touchdowns and rushing touchdowns in a season, and became the first Cardinals players with 2,000 yards in a season. He also set the NFL record for most consecutive games with 100 yards from scrimmage to start a season.

Johnson enters Week 17 needing 159 receiving yards to become the third player in NFL history with 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season.

Mitchell saw this coming. He told Johnson during the offseason to prepare himself to get 2,000 yards.

“I saw some of the things that David did in college so nothing that he does surprises me,” Mitchell said. “A lot of the things that he does impresses me.”

Arians says Johnson would’ve been as successful on any team. He just ended up with a coach “that is old enough” to know what to do with him better than others.

Two years later, the Cardinals don’t have an ounce of buyer’s remorse. They took a chance on a kid from an FCS school and it paid off. The return, thus far, has been immeasurable. The Cardinals have a cornerstone of their franchise for as long as Johnson stays healthy. At 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, he’s built to last.

And every season he continues to put up MVP-caliber numbers will make the coaches, general managers and owners of the teams that passed on Johnson kick themselves.

“Every team that didn’t pick him is probably regretting it,” Los Angeles Rams interim coach John Fassel said. “I can’t answer why, maybe small school. Maybe because teams don’t value the running backs as higher draft picks. That’s kind of been a trend. Other than that, I don’t know.

“He clearly has been fantastic.”

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30Dec 2016

Low airfares make this an easy year for travel resolutions – Alaska Dispatch News


Some of the best prices to destinations throughout Asia are on Chinese airlines such as Xiamen, Hainan, China Eastern and China Southern. Some of the connections feature long layovers. For example, from Seattle to Bangkok on Feb. 15, the price is $539 round-trip on Xiamen Air (http://www.xiamenair.com/en-us/). But the itinerary is brutal: there’s a flight from Seattle to Shezhen, which is right next to Hong Kong. From there, it’s a 70-minute flight to Xiamen, where there is a 17-hour layover. In this case, the airline will provide accommodations and transfers. Sometimes it’s worth it to save a few bucks, but sometimes it’s not.

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30Dec 2016

Here's Why Alaska Airlines Is Keeping Its Generous Frequent Flyer … – Skift


Just after closing its acquisition of Virgin America, Alaska Airlines surprised travelers — and some loyalty experts — by making a simple announcement about its frequent flyer program: Passengers will continue to earn one mile for every mile they fly.

Not long ago, that was normal for all U.S. airlines. Travelers on most airlines who flew one-way from Seattle to Chicago, earned roughly 1,720 miles in the carrier’s loyalty program, regardless of whether they bought a cheap ticket or an expensive one.

But that’s no longer the case. In the past two years, American, Delta and United have joined Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America in adopting a revenue-based system, awarding miles not for distance flown, but for money spent. That’s good new for business travelers who buy four our five figure fares — on United, a high-level elite frequent flyer on a $6,000 business class ticket from Frankfurt to Newark earns 66,000 miles, roughly three times more miles than in the old paradigm — but it’s not so helpful for everyone else. Still, airlines argue it makes sense to reward lucrative customers over those who fly long distances on deeply discounted fares.

Alaska had been the lone hold out, rewarding travelers based on how far they fly. But when it acquired Virgin America, no one was sure how the airline would handle its combined frequent flyer program. Since Virgin America awards points by tracking customer spending, Alaska would have had an excuse to follow other airlines. But on Dec. 19, it chose a different path, not only retaining the old system, but also slashing the number of miles many passengers need to redeem free flights.

“We think it’s the fairest thing to do,” Ryan Butz, Alaska’s managing director of loyalty marketing, said in an interview. “Frankly, it is something our competitors have moved away from and it hasn’t been something that people have liked, other than the small percentage of customers flying on really expensive fares.”

A differentiator

Airlines are publicly traded corporations with investors, and they rarely make decisions only because of altruism.

In sticking with the status quo, Alaska is betting its program can be a differentiator that keeps customers loyal. It’s a similar strategy to Southwest, which still allows all passengers to check two bags for free, going so far as to trademark the phrase, “Bags Fly Free.” Every other airline charges for checked bags.

By sticking with its system, Alaska may award more miles than its competitors, and the airline will have to keep them on its books as a liability. But Butz called it a worthwhile investment.

“I think it may cost us more to have a mileage-based program than a revenue-based program, but the lost revenue from alienating loyal customers is more than we wanted to take on,” Butz said.

Undoubtedly, Alaska’s customers will appreciate the decision, since most will earn enough miles for free trips much sooner than on Delta, United or American.

But whether they will be more loyal to Alaska is less clear. Infrequent airline passengers like generous loyalty programs, but they often prefer discounts even more, and might defect to Delta, or even Spirit, to to save $5 or $10 per ticket.

Ryanair founder Michael O’Leary once said that a major percentage of travelers would crawl over broken glass, naked, to get the lowest fare.

“There is a component of the marketplace that is very sizable — perhaps 50 percent —that will only consider price, even with the inconvenience of a connection versus a nonstop,” said Jay Sorensen, an expert on loyalty at IdeaWorks Company who has consulted for several airlines, including Alaska. “But frequent flyer programs have never seen designed to win everyone. They have been designed to win at the margins.”

Sorensen, who did not consult with Alaska on this decision, called Alaska’s ploy smart, comparing it to Donald Trump’s campaign strategy of “targeting the forgotten voters who live in impoverished rural areas.” Other airlines, he said, no longer reward loyalty from occasional travelers, preferring to focus on high-value customers in first class, business class and premium economy. (Alaska is also rewarding those customers, announcing plans to give more bonus miles to premium customers on its partner airlines, including Cathay Pacific and Emirates.)

But in the aggregate, occasional travelers can be valuable to an airline. At United and American, executives have said infrequent flyers account for about 85 percent of all customers, and roughly half of all revenues. (Butz declined to share figures for Alaska.)

“They want to send a message that if you are a less frequent traveler, this program can mean a lot to you,”Sorensen said. “They certainly are picking on a part of the market that has been neglected by the moves made by Delta, American and United. There’s always value in doing that.”

Alaska also must earn trust from Virgin America’s customers. Virgin America does not have the most rewarding frequent flyer program, but it developed a loyal following through other means, like cultivating a fun, friendly environment on its aircraft. While Virgin America will remain a stand-alone entity for the foreseeable future, Alaska wants to focus on retaining those customers over long term, and a generous frequent flyer program is one part of the strategy.

“We have got to earn the loyalty of the Virgin America flyers,” Butz said. “The intent is to keep our MileagePlan as generous and aggressive as it is. We were going to do that independent of the Virgin America deal. But the trick now is to make sure Virgin America flyers understand [the value proposition.]”

In a recent post, airline blogger Gary Leff, an expert on points programs, commended Alaska for its decision, calling its a strong move to build loyalty as the company merges two airlines into one. But he noted Alaska could always reverse course.

“It’s notable … that the airline says they aren’t planning to go revenue-based with its frequent flyer program,” Leff wrote. “I’m always skeptical of such claims, but there’s a good chance that this merger will forestall any move to go revenue-based that would otherwise have been on the table. It’s unlikely we’d see a major upending of the program before 2019.”

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30Dec 2016

$140K Rewards Beg for Clues in Bob Cassilly's Death, Cementland Fire – Riverfront Times (blog)


  • Photo courtesy of Giovanna Cassilly

Two big monetary rewards seek critical information in two high-profile incidents at Cementland, the late Bob Cassilly’s 56-acre project on the Mississippi River north of downtown St. Louis.

The rewards are being advertised by Cassilly’s widow, Giovanna, who is begging for information about both a December 9 warehouse fire on the site, as well as her husband’s 2011 death.

Giovanna Cassilly believes that her husband was murdered, and she is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to his assailant’s identification and conviction. Another $40,000 reward seeks info about the more recent fire, which appeared to have no obvious ignition source, yet burned intensely for hours.

Information about both rewards is below.

“I’m hoping that this amount of money will be inspiring to people who have an interest in solving this,” she says, “or who know something about it.” That might be someone who knows something directly, she says, or just an amateur sleuth willing to put the time into unraveling some key pieces.

The founder of City Museum, Bob Cassilly’s body was found slumped in the seat of his bulldozer at Cementland on September 26, 2011. The St. Louis Medical Examiner quickly labeled his death an accident, positing that the bulldozer had tumbled down the hillside, fracturing Cassilly’s skull, before landing upright at the base.

But Giovanna Cassilly has recently sought to get police to reopen the case, noting some facts that don’t fit the idea of an accident, as well as a police investigation that failed to determine who’d seen Cassilly last or explored other alternatives. A medical expert hired by her attorney, Albert Watkins, says he believes the noted sculptor was beaten to death. And in light of that theory, older pieces of evidence are gaining new attention. A rock at the crime scene — photographed and catalogued by the Medical Examiner’s Office — appears to show blood. Now city officials are admitting they failed to preserve any evidence from it.

Interestingly, a newly uncovered deposition suggests that at least one expert on the scene soon after Cassilly’s body was found also had questions about the medical examiner’s theory.

The St. Louis police have, in part, defended their investigation by saying that OSHA also investigated the death scene. But as the RFT has previously reported, the OSHA investigation appeared as cursory as the police one. “A sole proprietor was killed during construction of a private property,” its inspection notes.

And as a member of Cassilly’s “crew” would later testify under oath in a related lawsuit, the OSHA inspector was befuddled by the medical examiner’s theory of the case.

The attorney asked crew member Richard Fortner if he’d talked to the inspector. “I kind of remember that guy,” Fortner replied, according to a transcript of his deposition. “He was kind of funny.”

The attorney asked if he was funny odd, or “just funny.”

“Funny odd, because he wasn’t sure how the accident happened, is what was funny about it,” Fortner said. “He wasn’t sure how the accident happened … how he ended up dead on the tractor. He couldn’t see any signs of it rolling or what had happened.”

Giovanna Cassilly still has the bulldozer in which her husband was found; she believes that analysis will show that the bulldozer never rolled over, much less tumbled down the hillside.

The bulldozer is no longer on site at Cementland and is instead in a secure location, Watkin says.

A bomb and arson unit jointly managed by St. Louis County and the city fire department is investigating the December 9 Cementland fire. Watkins tells the RFT that all signs point to arson.

Giovanna Cassilly notes that a previous fire in 2014 was found to be intentionally set — and that fire followed a major theft at the warehouse. More recently, the warehouse was robbed, with again a fire following — a pattern she finds troubling.

“I hope someone will be inspired to come forward,” she says. “This is not going away.”

click to enlarge img_0739.png
click to enlarge img_2656.jpg

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com

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30Dec 2016

Why Eastern Europe Will be 2017's Hot Travel Destination – Vogue.com


Gazing up at the Eiffel Tower post-baguette, or tossing coins into the Trevi Fountain before devouring bowls of cacio e pepe are dreamy European experiences that will forever inspire flights to Paris and Rome. Beyond such timeless locales, however, curious itinerants are increasingly looking east for inspiration, dreaming of washing down braised beef and bread dumplings with Pilsner in Prague, or hatching holiday plans around the Glühwein-fueled Christmas markets of Vienna. Now that these majestic capitals are swelling with tourists, the intrepid are seeking out the rough-around-the-edges delights of less-developed nations like Montenegro, Slovenia, and Georgia, a predilection poised to intensify in 2017.

Jack Ezon, president of New York–based travel agency Ovation Vacations, works with a number of Generation X and Y clients. Fear, he believes, incited by the likes of terrorism and Zika, dictated many of their sojourns in 2016. “The world of possibilities shrunk for most American travelers. While frustrating and initially disappointing, it forced people to explore secondary, less-touristy destinations,” he says.

This motivation, coupled with an affinity for immersive, sophisticated experiences unfolding in local neighborhoods rather than dime-a-dozen designer-store-anchored shopping drags, led many to seek out cities like Dubrovnik, Berlin, and Budapest. What do they have in common? Robust artistic and culinary identities that help unleash what Ezon calls the “Indie Brooklyn Effect.” While Danube River cruises often afford glimpses of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, java aficionados prefer to actually wander the picturesque streets of Old Town for an impressive café scene. Likewise, a tour through Dracula’s Bran Castle in Romania should be paired with a tour of the capital, Bucharest, where the opulent mansion of executed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is now open to the public. An episode of the Netflix favorite Chef’s Table, devoted to Ana Roš of the countryside restaurant Hiša Franko, (a two-hour drive from scenic Lake Bled) has also given Slovenia a boost in tourism.

“We are witnessing a significant growth of arrivals to emerging European states,” explains Siniša Topalovic, managing director of hospitality consultancy Horwath HTL’s Zagreb office. “Once predominantly visited by aging baby boomers, now the regions are attracting younger customer segments looking for excitement, safety and a ‘different’ Europe, where there is the charming reminiscence of past socialist times with modern twists.”

Consider Poland, where Kraków is a fusion of a gorgeous preserved medieval-era historic center with an energetic nightlife and the deep, haunting Wieliczka Salt Mine just a quick jaunt away. The country has a rich arts legacy, as underscored by Wroclaw’s 2016 European Capital of Culture Awards. The year also saw the release of VeryGraphic: Polish Designers of the 20th Century, a book chronicling the expansive history of Polish graphic design, and the opening of the exhibition-filled Centre for the Meeting of Cultures in Lublin. Warsaw, rebuilt after significant World War II–era damage, draws raves for a slew of attractions like the Neon Muzeum. When the city’s circa-1857 Hotel Europejski transforms into a luxe Raffles property in 2017, Ezon predicts it will be “a game-changer.”

That’s the same word Michael Holtz, founder and CEO of the high-end New York–based travel agency SmartFlyer, uses to describe Croatia’s impact on Southeastern Europe’s heterogeneous collection of Balkan countries. One might uncover a wonderfully burgeoning wine scene in Bulgaria or hang out in a kitschy bar sipping the indigenous fruit brandy rakija in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s once war-torn Sarajevo. Other draws include gawking at Ottoman architecture in Macedonia or hiking Mount Dajti, located just outside the Albanian capital of Tirana. Yet it’s Croatia, mixing pristine waterfalls in Plitviče with the stone walls of Dubrovnik and Roman ruins like Diocletian’s Palace in Split that compels travelers to visit the area. Along with Slovenia and the heady landscape of Montenegro, Ezon says Croatia propelled 80 percent growth in the Balkans market over the past five years.

Photo: Alamy

“Croatia is, at the moment, the busiest country in the region in terms of the development pipeline, and it is only warming up. New hotels, including luxury, boutique, and resort-style, are set in beautiful natural surroundings, while a number of virgin locations are still waiting their turn,” says Topalovic, pointing to the success of the opened-in-2015 Hotel Adriatic in Rovinj, where contemporary European artists were commissioned to dress up the property. In Dubrovnik, Holtz says it’s the Hotel Dubrovnik Palace that resonates with clients: “It’s right on the Adriatic Sea and it looks like a Richard Meier building.” Zagreb, the capital, has experienced double-digit tourist growth in the last three to four years, Topalovic adds. It’s decidedly more urban, but its atmospheric, café-lined streets are alluring, as are landmarks like the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships, an ode to failed dalliances that has spawned an outpost in Los Angeles.

Must-sees, like the Museum of Yugoslav History and the Nikola Tesla Museum, as well as nighttime carousing on floating barges called splavs, make the enchanting Serbian capital of Belgrade another up-and-coming hotspot. Holtz says that the debut of Air Serbia’s direct flight from New York to Belgrade, the only non-stop between the U.S. and Balkans, has invigorated interest in the city. “People want to see new places. When there is a convenient flight like this, run by the quality Etihad Airways, it certainly makes the decision easier,” he says.

Well-known hotel brands synonymous with top-notch service and accommodations also help solidify interest. Montenegro, for instance, is fast catching up to Croatia thanks to the arrival of Aman Sveti Stefan and a One&Only Resort in the works. Ezon notes that 73 percent of his clients headed to the Balkans to squeeze in a stay at the Aman, a seaside oasis with centuries-old red-tiled roofs. “Montenegro and Croatia definitely opened people’s minds,” he continues. “They got infected by its beauty and people and heard about neighboring regions, so now they have places like Albania, Macedonia, and Serbia on their list to go back to.”

Northward, the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea promises just as much stimulation courtesy of the Baltic States Latvia and Estonia. Latvia’s capital, Riga, is a captivating Art Nouveau haven, while Estonia’s Tallinn, a popular port of call on cruise ships, is a walled fairy-tale city melding the sleek and the baroque. Interest in the adjacent Scandinavian countries continues to spike, so Holtz suggests tacking on an easy-to-plan stay in Tallinn via Helsinki, Finnair’s home base. “Helsinki is the gateway to Tallinn,” he says. “Just a 30-minute flight away and there is so much great history.” For hotels, he recommends the 19th-century Telegraaf, complete with Elemis Spa.

Straddling Europe and Asia is Georgia, a former Soviet Republic bordering the Black Sea. One of the world’s oldest wine regions, its lively capital is Tbilisi, where a cable car whisks one up to the ancient Narikala Fortress and pedestrians walk over the Bridge of Peace, a space age steel-and-glass marvel. Here, Adjara Group Hospitality lent its design expertise to the Rooms Hotel and converted an old sewing factory into La Fabrika, an industrial multi-use space bringing together a gallery, courtyard, and guestrooms. A former publishing house with a fireplace lounge, retreats at the Rooms Hotel feature leather and handmade wallpaper. A timber-clad sister property in Kazbegi ensures that even the rugged Caucasus Mountains now make for a fashionable getaway.

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29Dec 2016

Police searching for credit card thieves who went on shopping spree – WAAY


Police are looking for two people who they said did some Christmas shopping with a stolen credit card.

Florence police released surveillance images Thursday of a man and woman who they said stole a credit card from Muscle Shoals on Dec. 14. The two used the credit card to buy gift cards in Florence, which they then took to Athens to buy electronics and other items, police said.

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(Photo provided by Florence Police Department)

Anyone with information about the suspects is asked to contact Florence Police Det. Michael Price at 256-760-6504 or text a tip to 274637 using the keyword “FPTIP” and your message.

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29Dec 2016

Comment: Israel and the Arab world — Take a risk, reap the rewards – Jerusalem Post Israel News


At a time when Israel’s international diplomatic relations seem to be a low point following the outrageous UN Security Council vote last week, there is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise grey world that Israel’s relationship with the Muslim world may not be all doom and gloom.

The relationship Israel has with Muslim and Arab countries across the Middle East may well define the next chapter of its history. It would be all too easy to overlook Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently returned mission to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, but these relationships, and others like them, could be the basis for positive change, whatever happens at the UN.

Netanyahu’s trip sought to focus on security, economic and diplomatic ties. We should not underestimate the significance of this dialogue to Israel and the host countries. Both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan prove that it is possible for Israel to have a positive relationship with Muslim countries and I believe relationships such as these will allow future engagement with Muslim states across the region and throughout the Gulf.

Israel’s relationship with Kazakhstan is robust and growing. In 2009 as much as 25% of Israel’s oil came from the country. Similarly, Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan is testimony to the power of longterm dialogue. These have never been relationships that Israel has looked to publicize, yet they have slowly become beneficial. Israeli companies have been active in Azerbaijan for more than 20 years and have been extremely successful. Azerbaijan has spent millions of dollars on Israeli defense systems and other equipment, strengthening the trade ties between the countries.

Israel has a lot to offer the Muslim world in terms of science, innovation and technology, and indeed there is a growing realization in these countries that they can benefit hugely from a better relationship with Israel. There is no reason why Israel should not build relationships beyond the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, with countries like the Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

In fact, there are many reports coming out that attitudes towards Israel in the Arab world are softening and that over time economic development can be achieved.

As the president of the American Jewish Congress, I have always advocated the importance of engagement and dialogue between Israel and the Muslim and Arab world. Even if someone has gone beyond the political mainstream, there is still a chance that progress can be made through finding common ground and positive discussions. It may be slow progress, but it will still be progress.

For years, advocating for Israel, I went to meet leaders across the world who many thought were authoritative governments. However, even then I saw progress. I saw the foundations for further dialogue and, ultimately, I saw small changes that cumulatively helped people in those countries. It may be easier to simply cut off any country whose views differ from our own, but all sides suffer a disservice.

Israel has a lot to be proud of. It is at the forefront of innovation and technology. During a recent trip to Tel Aviv, I brought 25 mayors from throughout the world to experience first-hand how Israeli developments are changing industries such as communications, transportation, agriculture, cyber and defense, with the last two developing endless possibilities for civil applications and purposes.

Leaders from around the world come to Israel to see for themselves, not just how Israel has made the desert bloom, but also how they have harnessed technology to improve the lives of their citizens and around the world. If these technologies, products and services can be traded – fantastic. If they can be used as a tool for diplomacy and engagement, so much the better.

Politically, Israel’s relations with Muslim countries could help avoid confrontation on the world stage, as the UN spends a great deal of time these days condemning Israel. The UN would be a better place if Israel could contribute rather than be attacked, as we witnessed with the recent damaging UNESCO votes on Jerusalem. That’s not to mention the economic benefits of having better commercial ties with Muslim countries throughout the region, and in particular the Gulf.

We are all too aware of the wariness that Israel has had with Muslim and Arab countries for generations, but we are now in an era where we need to distinguish between those who want to do Israel harm and those who would be prepared to engage in dialogue. One thing we know with certainty is that there is no such thing as status quo in the Middle East, and the consequences of not engaging are too great. If we do not build allies, it will have a detrimental effect on the peace process as well as on commerce.

Netanyahu is increasingly prioritizing global diplomacy and the calculated risks he is taking are starting to reap rewards, showing the power of constructive dialogue. We should not forget the inherent potential that exists among people of good will – the large majority of whom desperately want to find the right path out of the maze of troubles that infect the region.

Israel should look to judge each country on their individual merits and where there is an opportunity for discussion, they should take it. The potential is there for the relationships with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to foster many more similar arrangements.

Despite the madness at the UN, Israel should continue to explore ways to sit around the table with Muslim and Arab leaders and begin to build for a more positive, peaceful, and prosperous future.

The writer is president of the American Jewish Congress.

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