After four gloriously inventive performances in the Olympic Stadium in August and September people’s perception of Britain wherever they are will have been shaken and stirred – all positive stuff as far as your blogger is concerned. Gone is the flag-waving of Rule Britannia and in come punk-rockers, flying umbrella dancers and nurses on roller skates. When the Last Night of the Proms appeared in its annual slot in the middle of September, it suddenly looked and sounded totally moribound, ridiculously old-fashioned and jingoistic by comparison.
Your blogger had the fortune of attending the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Her seat in Row 75 provided a breath-taking view of the spectacle with its changing colours, loud music and the almost chaotic programme. But there was a plan which slowly emerged presenting London and Britain as both friendly and eccentric where even the Queen was prepared to play along. Not to mention the almost equally famous Mr Bean. There were no beefeaters, no Blitz, just a few marching bands competing with the pop and most of all lots of loud fun.
The Olympics and Paralympics ceremonies showed us how to celebrate British culture without being stuffy or nostalgic. Yes, mark the history of science and literature and the heritage but give it a 21st century twist. So what about the Last Night of the Proms – apart from the Proms in the Park there has been little innovation in the last ten years. Come on, BBC, it’s time to give the Last Night a shove and involve someone like Danny Boyle in bringing it into the 21st century.
For the most excruciating opening ceremony of all times you only had to watch the Ryder Cup at Medina, Chicago. Thank God Europe won the tournament, so we could forget the horrors of the dressed up wives’ parade, golfers in grey suits and to cap it all Justin Timberlake in a tight golfing sweater. Here is another institution which needs to be refreshed. Let’s see what Scotland comes up with when it’s Gleneagles’ turn in 2014. This is what the Daily Telegraph thought of it:
Nauseous musical Polyfilla. The pop star Justin Timberlake reading a poem called “Golf” set to strings. And, of course, the now ubiquitous sight of the players’ wives and girlfriends being wheeled out like perfumed chattel.
In fact, about the only thing missing was the sight of Paul McCartney croaking out a tuneless Hey Jude in front of a swiftly emptying crowd.
Yes, I forgot to mention that in my first paragraph, we were on our way to the tube by then…..like many others. And yes, it all worked brilliantly – the tube, I mean.
Back in the world of dreams….
On a study visit (you understand) to the new Hippodrome Casino your blogger discovered previously hidden architectural treasures. For those of you with long memories, this is a Frank Matcham building on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Leicester Square dating back to 1900. And it was built as a circus! The huge swimming pool where elephants frolicked was also used by midget acrobats who dived in from the gallery just below the decorative ceiling.
In 1909 it became a music hall and theatre launching famous stars such as Julie Andrews. In the destructive 50s new owners were allowed to rip out the interior and create the Talk of the Town cabaret and nightclub. Here a long list of international artists starred including Judy Garland and Eartha Kitt. What happened next? Well, Peter Stringfellow turned into a club in 1983 renaming it the London Hippodrome. It changed again several times before Simon Thomas, who has made his money out of bingo clubs, managed to persuade Westminster City Council to grant a casino licence. After a lengthy restoration which returned the interior to the Frank Matcham opulent gold and red design, it opened this autumn as London’s largest gambling venue, without any membership requirement and with three floors of gaming, an intimate music venue, bars and a restaurant.
Your blogger once had an office high up in the old building on the opposite corner giving a perfect view of the Hippodrome’s crowning sculpture – the horse and charioteer. We shared this with the esteemed Josephine and Vincent Burke of theatreland fame and their lovely dog Charlie. Five floors up and no lift – brave clients had to be revived with oxygen! The Burkes were a great loss to London when they decamped to Adelaide.
As part of the redevelopment of the Hippodrome, which included the vacant Cranbourn Mansion, the new owners set aside a floor as a new home for the Chinese Community Centre. It has its own entrance (of course) and a lift to the third floor where Chinese Londoners enjoy talks, classes, and friendly get togethers. Maybe one or two slip into the Casino afterwards…it’s certainly going down well with Chinatown as a whole – there is a direct entrance at the back!
While the National Gallery in Stockholm prepares for renovation, closing in February next year for maybe two years, art seems to be exploding in the most unexpected places in the Swedish capital. And it’s the philanthropists who are out in front creating new venues.
Artipelag is an amazing development on one of the capital’s beautiful islands in the vast archipelago which Stockholmers enjoy. Take the ferry, bus or drive from the centre to reach this stunning new art gallery on Varmdo where it nestles unobtrusively among the pine trees. It’s only when you are inside that you realise its huge size – 10,000 square metres of exhibition space, two restaurants and seminar rooms – designed by the (late) architect Johan Nyren.
The estimated £50million development was financed by Bjorn Jakobson based on the fortune he made from his Björn baby carrier and baby products business launched 50 years ago. The opening exhibition, Genuis Loci, features contemporary artists as well as a selection of paintings from the National Gallery and takes the location and its relevance to our age as its theme. Candida Hofer’s evocative photographs form a separate exhibition covering her work from Germany in the 70s to more recent photos of museums and galleries around the world. While the shop was disappointing (with some of Bjorn’s baby products on sale) other facilities were excellent – a popular and delicious buffet lunch – and architectural touches even in the loos with a rock wall and granite wash basins.
But Sven Harrys was closed….
A year earlier in a central Stockholm park, another art gallery opened. This is Sven Harrys – a golden emporium housing a gallery on the ground floor and a museum of the creator’s former home on the top floor. In between are flats, offices and a restaurant. The latest innovation launched while your blogger was in town was a daily soup kitchen for the homeless. As the art gallery was closed for a re-hang we were tempted to join the queue!
Despite the disappointment of not going inside, seeing the building clad in bronze was impressive. Sven Harry Karlsson, a millionaire based on his successful building business, collected Swedish art of the early 19th century as well as supporting young artists through his foundation. Now 80, he was determined to share his collection with a wider audience. Getting permission to build on the edge of the park was something of a battle and the interesting mix of commercial, residential and cultural spaces is the result of the negotiations with the local authority.
The chocolate park…..
As a contrast we visited Marabou Park in Sundbyberg north of central Stockholm to explore a creation by an earlier generation of philanthropists, the chocolate makers Marabou, and its owners, the family Trone Holst. The Trone Holsts were originally from Norway where they founded the chocolate firm Freia. In 1919 they expanded, moving into the Swedish market. The chocolate was re-named Marabou – after the stork on the packaging – and the distinctive brand survives till this day although it’s now owned by Kraft Foods.
Marabou Park was created as a recreational area for the factory workers inspired by the Cadbury family’s developments at Bourneville. Today it’s managed by the local authority and offers a popular respite for office workers and families (the chocolate factory has moved further north). The fine collection of sculptures displayed around the park features international and Swedish sculptors, including a full size copy of the antique figure of Poseidon (Zeus). The art gallery is located in the company’s former chocolate laboratory and there is a popular café looking out over the park (serving hot chocolate and delicious prawn sandwiches – but not necessarily together!).
Wallander on stage in London….?
More on the Swedish theme. Remember Wallander? Or rather Krister Henriksson who played him successfully through the most recent series. Well, soon you may be able to see him on stage here in London. Wait for more news next week but it could well be a London performance of the one-man play, Doktor Glas, by the Swedish author Hjalmar Soderberg, which Krister made his own in Sweden, most recently at Dramaten, in an acclaimed performance. Will it be in English or Swedish? We’ll have to wait and see.
Gamesmakers triumphed in the Olympics by sheer perseverance and great visibility! Despite the initial reluctance to the recyclable uniform with its purple and red top and jacket, once it was everywhere – on the tube and in the streets, and at every game – we all took pride in it. As a final reward, Olympic volunteers collected a specially engraved silver baton and thanks from Lord Coe. Now your blogger has packed her uniform away, apart from the trainers, which were really comfortable and saved the day on the long walks through Excel where the five arenas were busy from morning to night.
What did we learn…..
Gamesmakers of all ages learnt one thing – your legs do begin to ache when you stand or walk or climb up and down the steps in the arenas all day. So many of us are deskbound these days that the sheer physicality of the job was a real test of perseverance. And getting up at 5 in the morning was not great – for many their journey from outside London started much earlier. Of course volunteers did different things – some were drivers finding their way by satnav through London’s streets and speeding along the Olympic lanes, others were medics, dealing with faints, sprains, and the odd broken arm – possibly worse things which we don’t know about, some assisted the athletes and officials, and others worked with the thousands of press descending on the capital. At Excel your blogger was part of Event Services looking after visitors: from the moment they stepped off the DLR at Custom House to the time they left Excel at the East entrance.
The public was great…..
Some 70,000 people a day visited Excel at the height of the Games and once the media put the spotlight on the British boxing and Judo successes there was even more pressure on tickets. Nearly every session in every arena was full and the enthusiasm of professional supporters with their flags and colourful tracksuits was just as infectious as the many families who came along with children, some from just a few weeks old, to watch some previously unknown sport like weightlifting, because theywanted to be part of it! Of course, some went over the top, drinking far too much beer, and making it uncomfortable for others. But we were there, with the support of the stewards and security staff, to sort them out. And then we saw them on their way… helped by the amazing efficiency of the London transport system and great efforts by helpful staff on every platform. (And who said the transport system would collapse!)
Would I do it again?
As the politicians and others laud the volunteer effort, they should consider the wow factor of being involved in a once in a lifetime event. It doesn’t mean that thousands of additional people are suddenly going to want to give up their paid job, retirement, holidays or studies, to volunteer in schools, hospitals, museums etc. The Olympics volunteers were special, well-motivated, properly trained and organised by professionals. It will happen again at the Paralympics, although this time your blogger shall just be a spectator.
Volunteering on this scale - at a once in a lifetime event – is a fantastic experience and achievement, but for the spirit it has engendered to survive, it has to be nurtured – not exploited.
Usain Bolt could cover the 600m long Excel London 2012 venue in 60 seconds….weary Gamesmakers (and spectators) will probably take more like 15 minutes. Your blogger has been in intensive training for the last few months and now has the coveted purple and red uniform of the Olympic volunteer force – some 10,000 of whom will be assisting at various functions at Excel.
So what’s going on at Excel with its five arenas just a few stops on the DLR from the Olympic Park? Nothing very glamourous but you can choose between some ancient sports such as wrestling, boxing or fencing or for quieter pursuits Judo or Taekwondo. Expect your blogger to be an expert on all of these, albeit somewhat exhausted, at the end of the two week long sporting feast.
Museums 2020 and the New Elizabethans
There are no museum directors on the BBC’s list of 60 New Elizabethans. There are artists, writers and architects, and one advertising man turned art collector, Charles Saatchi. According to Calvin Tomkins writing in the New Yorker, the man who has most influenced how our museums operate today is Nicholas Serota, Director General of Tate. This is the man who not only made contemporary art respectable and fun but also contributed hugely in changing museums into social places.
In Tomkins’ article he quotes John Elderfield as saying “what’s happened at Tate Modern is a really radical change in how people use museums now. It’s not only about looking closely at works of art; it’s moving around within a sort of cultural spectacle. I have friends who think this is the end of civilisation but a lot more people are going to be in the presence of art and some of them will look at things and be transported by them.”
So while on the one hand people are obsessed with keeping in touch through social media, they also want to be part of something. Just one example, look at the numbers turning out for the Olympic torch relays.
It still doesn’t answer the question why neither Neil MacGregor nor Nick Serota is on the New Elizabethans’ list. Between them they have done more to change our perceptions of museums and galleries, opening the doors to millions who would previously have walked by.
Enter the Tanks
Tate Modern has unveiled or uncovered its new Tanks… dark and mysterious exhibition spaces used many years ago for storage when the building was a power station. Art installations of various kinds now entice the visitors. A superb experience on a hot day and a perfect illustration of the kind of cultural spectacle people want to be part of today.
The magical atmosphere of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter won the Art Fund Prize last week against stiff opposition. The hard-nosed judging panel led by Lord Smith of Finsbury was blown away by the refurbished 144 year-old local authority museum. The invited guests at the British Museum prize-giving reception were thrilled with the results and RAMM’s Camilla Hampshire in accepting the prize of £100,000 graciously acknowledged the three shortlisted contenders, “you are all winners, too”, she said.
“Magic”, said Chris Smith, “round every corner there is a surprise, fascinating stories and a strong sense of adventure….. At a time when local authorities are under pressure, this is a fantastic achievement.”
“Cultural excellence is what matters in museums today”, said the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP, speaking at the reception before the results were announced.
The three runners-up took it in good spirit – they were the Hepworth, Wakefield, the Watts Gallery, Godalming and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. See my last blog for more information on this year’s very strong longlist.
Your blogger joined this year’s special Art Fund Prize winners. They were the unsung heroes chosen for their services to museums. From the many worthy candidates nominated by museums around the country, ten, mostly unpaid volunteers, were selected to mark ten years of the Museum Prize (first known as the Gulbenkian and then as the Art Fund Prize). Nine made it to London with their companions to enjoy afternoon tea at the British Museum with Ed Vaizey, Minister for the Arts, Viscountess Penelope Cobham, Chairman of the Museum Prize Trust and trustees.
In his speech to them Ed Vaizey made the point that volunteers are not a stopgap and certainly not amateurs but make an essential contribution to the life of museums. Lady Cobham presented special pins and gifts from the British Museum, last year’s Art Fund Prize winner. After that we were guided on an after-hours tour of some British Museum galleries. There is something special about being in a museum not full of people (but see more below). Then the no longer so unsung heroes joined in prize reception – a great way of recognising the work of thousands of volunteers in UK’s museums.
Clore scores twice…again
Last year the Museum Prize Trust introduced the Clore Award for Museum Learning – and the judging panel announced two winners. The same thing happened this year with the Whitworth Gallery and Leicestershire Heritage winning £10,000 each for their education programme.
Leicestershire County Council’s Held in the Hand boxes were commissioned from artists all over the UK to create a series of sculptural pieces designed to engage and stimulate young minds. The Whitworth Gallery has been developing social, imaginative and playful ways to engage early years children, practitioners and parents. The two winners were well received. For more on the shortlist and the projects go to http://www.artfundprize.org.uk
From the UK’s lively museums and galleries where an empty gallery can usually only be enjoyed after hours to Switzerland on a short trip, where on a Saturday morning your blogger strolled alone and undisturbed through the massive Zurich Landesmuseum and most of the Kunsthaus Zurich, although there were more people around in the special exhibitions…..and it was a sunny and warm day outside.
So not surprisingly the outdoor sculpture exhibition which engulfs the little town (or village) of Bad Ragaz near the border with Lichtenstein was a much more popular and uplifting experience. BadRagArtz has taken place every three years since 2000 and is a private initiative by Esther and Rolf Hohmeister. They bring together the works of some 80 creative artists, from 17 countries. The 400 sculptures are everywhere along the streets, on balconies and roof tops, in parks, along the River, and most stunningly in the gardens of the town’s spa. And school children have contributed knitted “stockings” for lamp posts and fences! This is the place to visit this summer as the sculpture will be on show till November.
As the shortlist for the Art Fund Prize is announced this week and we head towards the final announcement in June, spare a thought for those whose hopes were raised and then dashed. After all that effort, it is just one museum or gallery that will walk off with the £100,000 cheque….and all the glory! But not quite. Now in its ten year, the reputation of the Art Fund Prize (until 2007 the Gulbenkian Prize) has grown exponentially to the point where those on the longlist, and now on the shortlist benefit almost as much as the final winner, except for the large cheque, of course.
Chaired by the indefatigable Viscountess Cobham, Penny Cobham, the Museum Prize Trust (and I am one of the trustees) has ensured that over what seems quite a long period when the judges visit all the museums, the museums can participate in an extensive programme of PR and marketing. Research commissioned by the Art Fund, the sponsor of the Prize, showed that this worked well for the majority of museums who didn’t win. They benefited in terms of local and national publicity, enthusiasm among staff and supporters, and in many cases increased visitor numbers.
So to all the six who didn’t make the shortlist this year, and to those now facing a month of uncertainty before the final announcement, don’t despair but take advantage of the interest and enthusiasm that the Prize generates.
And who are the four…..
The four chosen museums for the shortlist are the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the Hepworth Wakefield, the Watts Gallery near Guildford and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. Your blogger is not even going to try and guess who the judges may choose from this extraordinarily strong list. We all have to wait till 19th June. More about the shortlisted entries and the judging panel at http://www.culture24.org.uk
What about the six……
So there are six museums no doubt feeling a bit sore today about not making it to the shortlist. But that’s the nature of competitions and no reflection on their level of excellence or innovation – just that not everyone could go through. Let’s hear about some of those excellent entries.
As you know from my last blog, I was rather taken with all the Scottish entries. The Riverside Museum Glasgow has created probably the world’s first fun transport museum in a dramatic building which inside reminded me of the Guggenheim Bilbao except it was filled with trams, train carriages, cars, bikes and ship models. Everyone was having a good time. And in Edinburgh very few spaces in UK’s national museums can now match the restored Grand Gallery at the National Museum Scotland.
I was also rather taken with the glass extension at the Holbourne Museum Bath – some people have apparently been rather up in arms about what they see as a desecration of a historic building. But it works beautifully and gives the museum not just a wonderful café but more space and light throughout the building.
The Turner Contemporary also on this year’s longlist is a lovely gallery in a rather dismal town….but it’s on the up, so we are told. Let’s hope it happens for Margate this summer!
The MShed has proved itself with the locals and is an excellent place to expand your knowledge of Bristol, past, present and future. And at Bletchley Park, the Alan Turing exhibition is adding value to one of the more unusual visitor attractions in the UK. Well worth the trip!
And don’t forget Museums at Night….
Coming up this weekend is the magic opportunity of exploring museums and galleries around the country out of normal opening hours. Special events, tours, gigs and sleepovers abound. This year is another record with some 550 events at over 400 venues – too much to cover in this short blog, so go to www.culture24.org.uk and find just the event for you.
Hundreds of museums around the UK are now preparing their contributions to Nuit des Musees – Museums at Night which will take place over the weekend 18th to 20th May. A selection of eager participants was invited to the launch at No 11 Downing Street, no less, to a reception hosted by Frances Osborne, wife of the Chancellor. Perhaps sensing the presence of illustrious past and present ministers, Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, kept his speech short and to the point….ie not much of a story but lots of good wishes.
Storytellers sprinkled around the grand stateroom overlooking Horse Guards Parade added interesting angles on the building’s history including the cartoons on the staircase leading up to the first floor. Each chancellor gets to add one, but all of course wants one which is nice to them! There was also something about spooks – presumably previous Chancellors wandering through the building at night worrying about the budget aftermath. There was also a lot of jelly but somehow I missed the plot there after tasting one full of gin …but I think a very large jelly is going to appear somewhere…..
Adding an artistic connection and a sleepover or two…
Each year there is a new twist to Museums at Night. This year ten artists are creating installations or performing at museums around the country (that’s where the jelly comes – all around the SS Great Britain in Bristol “in a night of anarchic fun”). Hm…. You may want to head for something less squashy like bedtime reading by author John McGregor at Discovery Point Dundee.
If you wanted to join a sleepover, it’s probably too late, as these are some of the most sought after events – every parent’s dream ie the children out of the house for the night! My choice would be somewhere really comfortable like the 300 year old Great Bed of Ware which has just left the V&A to spend a year at Ware Museum in Hertfordshire (where it came from). In its early years, the huge bed was frequently moved between rival inns as a visitor attraction. It could sleep up to 12 people – just right for a sleepover with a few friends! (But I have a feeling it’s not going to be available).
It all started in France as Nuit des Musees and this year there will be events across Europe check out www.nuitdesmusees.culture.fr/ CachedMore about some of the more unusual events in my next blog or if you want to choose something right now go to www.culture24.org.uk
Touring Scotland with Art Fund Prize Judges …
Your blogger was privileged to join some of the judges on a tour of three long-listed museums in Scotland. The red carpet was rolled out first at the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, then at the National Museum of Scotland and lastly at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. We had a break in Edinburgh, enjoying dinner together, when we (ie our chairman, Lord Smith) were spotted by Alex Salmond, First Minister, delighted apparently that Scotland features so strongly in this year’s Art Fund Prize.
The pressure is now on the judging panel who have to get the list of ten* down to four… Lord Smith, Chris Smith, is in charge, and will have the unenviable task of uniting the team of seven judges on their final list. Your blogger, being also a trustee of the Museum Prize Trust, can’t of course express an opinion, but the refreshments were good in all three museums we visited – with a particular mention of the famous scones at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. On the day it re-opened after 2 years of refurbishment, the first man across the doorstep headed straight for the café and ordered one or more of the delicious scones with his cup of tea!
*The seven additional museums on the long list are Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter; Holburne Museum, Bath; Watts Gallery, Godalming; The Hepworth, Wakefield; Turner Contemporary, Margate; the M-Shed, Bristol and the Life and Work of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park.
To find out which four museums are going forward to the next stage, tune into BBC Front Row on Monday 14 May or check the website, www.artfundprize.org.uk or Culture24 as above.
And who’s our unsung heroes?
A special award for this, the tenth year of the Museum Prize (earlier known as the Gulbenkian and then the Art Fund Prize) will go not just to one volunteer or special museum employee, but to ten! Nominations have been received from across the UK (someone in Ireland got carried away by this as well!) and are now being assess by the trustees of the Prize. There are some great stories of dedication and hard work to be told and I am sure we’ll have trouble getting the numbers down to ten worthy individuals. They will be featured in June Museum Journal and will also receive an an invitation to the Prize Giving Reception at the British Museum in June, as well as a few other special treats.
Your blogger is a Trustee of the Museum Prize Trust, chaired by Penny Cobham (Viscountess Penelope Cobham), which runs the prize, sponsored by the Art Fund. The Trustees, as administrators of the prize, make sure that everything runs smoothly but it’s up to the judges to take the difficult decisions. The shortlist of four will be announced on 14 May and the winner in June.
What are the prospects for UK’s tourist industry in 2012? This week, pundits gathered at the annual Tourism Society meeting to make their forecasts. And they were deeply divided - some foresaw nothing but doom and gloom while others predicted a fantastic year with media and tourism opportunities showcasing the Queen’s Jubilee and the London Olympics. One thing nearly everyone was agreed on: there won’t be a massive extra influx of staying tourists from July onwards. The displacement effect is real but no one at this stage knows quite how it’s going to work out in practice.
So what are people planning now?
BDRC who sponsored the evening’s event at the Copthorne Tara presented some up to date figures which showed that the staycation is here to stay. 45 per cent of those interviewed at home are planning a UK holiday and 28 per cent have already booked. Half agreed that the Olympics had affected their holiday plans. Liz Hall from PWC gave details of a global survey which showed that only 18 per cent of consumers thought they’d be worse off this year – in the UK that figure was 37 per cent! So quite a few people won’t have a holiday at all. It was also clear from her presentation that as far as the hotel industry is concerned it’s all about value for money. While London hotels start the year from a relatively strong 2011 and can look forward to a good year, outside the capital it’s going to be a tougher story.
So who’s coming for the Olympics?
Ken Robinson predicted that there would be some 300,000 Olympic visitors at any one time in London – organisers, sponsors, those on special packages etc and staying in hotels – but that the majority of those coming for events at the various venues will be day visitors, or staying with friends and relatives. Most tickets have apparently been sold to people in London or within easy travelling distance. (Your blogger can confirm that her study is fully booked and her vfrs are overflowing to nearby friends!)
There was a long discussion about what people will do – will they just go to their ticketed session or will they explore London’s many attractions? Opinions were divided. Based on the experience of other destinations attractions did not on the whole benefit from Olympics visitors, although the Commonwealth Game in Manchester had showed a slightly more encouraging picture. Bernard Donghue now in charge of ALVA – Association of Leading Visitor Attractions – highlighted the strong start to the year made by London’s museums and galleries with blockbuster exhibitions including Da Vinci at the National Gallery and Hockney at the Royal Academy. There is more to come with the Queen’s Jubilee and the Cultural Olympiad. We will be overflowing with events and activities to stimulate sporting enthusiasts and entice those who don’t know Usain Bolt from Victoria Pendleton to London and other city centres.
Now for some of the bad news….. Why with the most exciting year in London’s tourism ever has its main tourist information centre closed down? That was a very pertinent question from the floor. The London Britain Visitor Centre in Regent Street operated by VisitBritain closed last year as part of the cutbacks in VisitBritain’s budget. Described as a “tourism embassy” by one of the panel members, this was the only place in London for unbiased tourist information not just about London but also about the rest of the UK. It featured changing exhibitions and promotions highlighting lesser known attractions around the country. Now it’s still an “I” on most tourists’ map but the door is closed. Will I-phones, I-pads and internet access in hotels fill the gap? Thousands of London Ambassadors employed for the Games could perhaps be helping tourists throughout the year! Or let’s have a Britain visitor centre back.
What about the paradox of thrift…. David Edwards of VisitBritain and Geoffrey Lipman, who chaired the discussion, outlined some of the factors which will influence international markets this year. Although WTO is forecasting a record of one billion international travellers in 2012, this according to Geoffrey, is threatened by the economic climate worldwide, the US elections, China in transition, oil prices rising and the Arab spring turning into a winter of discontent! David Edwards took a slightly more optimistic view but highlighted the danger of the paradox of thrift. I think we have just seen the results of that in the UK as the economy shrinks.
On balance an optimistic evening, but the jury is out not only on the immediate benefits of London 2012 to the economy in general and London’s tourist industry in particular but also on the legacy. The proof of the pudding ….., as they say, so we’ll have to wait to see the results of this massive investment in infrastructure, sports, culture, and London and the UK’s image for the future.
Vietnam is moving rapidly up the international tourism charts and your intrepid blogger set out to explore over Christmas and New Year. The tour organised appropriately by Explore, the tour company, also included a short stay at Siem Reep, Cambodia.
Impeccably organised, there were no hitches on the 15 day tour with five different hotels, and five internal flights including to Cambodia. In addition to the heritage sites and war memorials, a number of new products have been developed including cookery schools, cruising junk hotels, and traditional music dinners in ancient buildings – just some of those sampled by us on this tour.
Service in the hotels was excellent although some buildings – mostly very new – were better than others. Northern Vietnam is quite cool and damp this time of the year but hotels were generally constructed with only cold air conditioning and single glazed windows.
Thumbs down when it comes to traffic…..
The majority of the population use scooters and motorbikes and up to two adults and two children are allowed on each! That’s in addition to transporting goods of every kind from sheets of glass to live fish (which swam hopelessly across the carriage way in one of the accidents we saw). Public transport seems limited to a few buses and intermittent gridlock is surely in prospect as more cars are added to the mix. Although we drove along the main railway line from north to south for several hours, we never saw a train. Pedestrians are bottom in the pecking order, with pavements used for parking scooters. So you take your life in your own hands when crossing the road!
Ha Long Bay – best and worst….
Ha Long Bay – a World Heritage site – is glorious even when it’s overcast and rather cool. It wasn’t such a good experience for some passengers on one of the many touring junks last Spring which suddenly started sinking during the night; 12 people lost their lives including 10 foreign tourists. So we had a safety briefing before we sailed on board our Indo China Sails junk with handy life jackets on deck and in the cabins. The food was superb food and the scenery impressive.
It was a shame that our sightseeing tour on board a Dragon boat on the Perfumed River in Hue a few days later did not include safety briefing and no life jackets were in sight. On the Mekong day cruise – another highlight later in the week– we could see the life jackets but had no briefing. Hopefully these boat operators won’t wait for an accident. We all know what happened on the Thames all those years ago – and just this weekend on board a Mediterranean cruise liner.
Memories of the War….
In Vietnam, it’s known as the American War (as opposed to the French War, Chinese War, and warring with other neighbours – and between North and South). But it’s the Vietnam War, the most recent, which has left its mark on the country with more than 3 million people killed. There are war memorials and cemeteries along main roads, and in Saigon there is the War Remnants Museum in the city and just outside the Chu Chiu tunnels. Your blogger who was based in Hong Kong during the final years of the war has vivid memories from that time.
The transformation of Vietnam into a society where English is spoken everywhere and where the American dollar is the “second” currency is therefore truly amazing. But the War Remnants Museum and the introductory film at the Cu Chi tunnels tell a different story of invasion, bombings, destruction, torture and killings with the Vietnamese as the victims. The Museum was created soon after the war ended in 1975 and was originally known as the War Crimes Museum. And that is still its general message with some powerful exhibitions including one of photographs by international photographers.
The Cu Cchi Tunnels were built over 21 years and stretched for 200 km to hide the Viet Cong, first from the French and then the Americans. Visitors’ first experience is a hard-hitting film which tells the story using archive footage. There is a trail through the previously demolished landscape, now a pleasant woodland, which explores what is left of the tunnels. Tunnel openings, underground rooms and other spaces have been exposed to view. And there is an opportunity for visitors to try entering one of the narrowest of openings and crawl through some of the tunnels. This unfortunately turns the visit into something of a theme park experience….not what was intended, I am sure.
And then Cambodia….
Siem Reap a small town growing fast thanks to the nearby Angkor Wat is a delight to visit, calmer traffic, and control on buildings which cannot be higher than the famous temple, and in traditional style.
Much controversy has been caused by the new Angkor National Museum (opened 2008) housing many of the individual sculptures from the many temples in the area. This is what we might call a PFI arrangement built with Thai money and managed by them commercially on a 30 year lease. Locals apparently abhor the Thai style building (there is history, of course, between the two nations). I found the museum a delight – fantastic displays in large, cool rooms including an impressive audio visual of Angkor Wat, a nice little café, and a beautiful shop.
I emailed the museum to say how much I enjoyed the visit (it’s a bit empty as there is $12 admission charge – no concessions). I have just had a response to say that they are planning an additional “complimentary” gallery to give visitors a taste of the golden era of the Khmer empire.
And what can one say about the fantastic Angkor Wat and the many temples in the area known as Angkor Thom? You just have to go and find out for yourself!
Held to ransom by social media?
Can the customer take over the role of the hotel inspector? Should we abolish the rating systems of stars maintained by AA, RAC and VisitEngland? Is it enough to scroll through the comments on Trip Advisor or similar websites before booking a business trip or holiday? Or are we being held to ransom by social media?
This was the hot issue for discussion at the Tourism Society’s President’s debate this week. The President himself, Lord Thurso, chaired without favour to either side – those who trusted the amateur reviewer on the one hand and on the other those who’d rather rely on inspectors or assessors.
It was during the preparation of the latest DCMS Tourism Strategy that this topic became a hot issue, when the Tourism Minister, Jeremy Penrose MP, suggested that as a saving Visit England could abandon its hotel and other accommodation rating scheme as customers were doing such a good job reviewing hotels online.
Since then we have had a spate of stories, a television documentary and legal cases against review websites which have been accused of hosting malicious comments, destroying businesses, and turning a blind eye to favourable reviews posted by professionals on behalf of hotels.
So what’s the argument?
Four protagonists took the stand; Alison Rice as a journalist defended the right of customers to use social media. She also suggested that people don’t really understand the star system. Jeremy Brinkworth of Visit England, agreed that there had been a lot of perhaps confusing changes in the rating system over time but that currently the systems in the UK were well integrated – 76 percent of people interviewed most recently had said that they trusted the rating system – although there was a problem with self-classifying hotels.
Karen Plumb on behalf of Trip Advisors quoted the millions of consumers using their services and added that there was an average of 32 reviews per hotel on the site. Reviews did not replace the rating system, she said, but added those “feel-good” experiential factors which made a holiday special.
Mandy Lane of Live Tourism endorsed the importance of rating. She has extensive experience of the hotel rating business, including overnight stays in some less salubrious hotels in London. However, with 25 per cent of London’s hotel accommodation (establishments) found to be sub-standard in a survey carried out by Live Tourism for the former VisitLondon (ie they didn’t meet the minimum standards of the VL Marque), it was clear, said Mandy, that the rating system by itself did not necessarily improve the quality of accommodation overall, as it is voluntary.
A lively discussion followed
Here are a few chosen comments:
In conclusion, the audience voted for the retention of a star or similar rating system for the accommodation sector while recognising that review sites such as Trip Advisor or Reevoo play an important role in filling in the gaps.
More on www.tourismsociety.org
It’s not right just because you can….
One of the arguments in the debate was for social media per se. Just because it’s possible for every jo bloggs to blog (like me) or tweet or file a review on Trip Advisor or similar, we must put up with it even if it’s wrong or harmful to some businesses. BUT we must not be held to ransom by social media! Trip Advisor and similar websites are responsible for the content on their websites legally and morally, and should control and delete malicious, out of date and other non-genuine comments.
And individuals who use the power of the internet to extract a discount on their hotel stay or a freebie, should just as journalists usually do, own up to their readers that they enjoyed a free meal, or a reduction in price before they wrote a review (or blog!).
For example, your blogger paid for her attendance at the Tourism Society debate.
AND A MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR
TO ALL MY READERS!