Monday, May 14, 2012

High-speed rail's competing visions

As roads become more crowded each year, transportation planners have been looking for a game-changer that can reduce congestion and efficiently move millions of people.Enter rail — a centuries-old mode that may be a shining savior to those hoping to push the United States into a new way of getting people around at high speeds. But it won’t work everywhere — a lot depends on simple geography.

And lawmakers are torn between how to use limited funds: along the densely packed East Coast, which has a history of commuter rail, or out West, where California has ponied up billions of dollars to build a high-speed system, much of it from scratch.

Amtrak’s Acela service from Boston to Washington runs the fastest trains in the country, maxing out at 150 mph and increasing soon to 160 mph. The 12-year-old service has gobbled up airlines’ market share and allows the railroad to make an operating profit on the line that can be reinvested in the system, which needs more than $100 billion to reach speeds envisioned at 220 mph.

Three thousand miles away, California is inching ever closer to its high-speed rail vision, having formally approved the initial Central Valley route and scheduling a May 17 meeting with design-build teams. If constructed, California’s system will exceed 200 mph and, for many Americans, be the first example of “true” high-speed rail touted by China, Japan and Europe.

The state is using $3.3 billion in federal funds with $2.7 billion in state funding to construct the Merced-Fresno route, with a completion deadline of 2017. The project could break ground as early as this year — provided state Republicans don’t overturn funding and that an impending investigation by House Oversight and Government Operations Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) into use of the federal funds doesn’t raise red flags. Clouding the debate: Many think the best starting point for 200-mph rail speeds is the Northeast Corridor rather than a state known for its driving culture.

Dan Richard, the newly appointed chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, recognizes the challenge. A new business plan shaved $30 billion off an eye-popping $98 billion price tag for the rail project and embraced integrating high-speed trains into existing rail services.

“A big part of high-speed rail’s problem is that it’s been viewed as this stand-alone, insular — frankly, arrogant — organization that’s singularly focused on fast trains. Wrong starting point. Right starting point: What do we do to meet the mobility needs?” Richard said.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Missing tourist from Taiwan

A Taiwanese tourist is missing after a tour boat capsized in the reservoir of Ratchaprapa dam in Ban Ta Khun district of Surat Thani province on Thursday afternoon.

Surat Thani police confirmed that the missing tourist was a 47-year-old pilot from Taiwan. He was travelling with his friends from Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand.Initial reports said the missing tourist was from Singapore.

Rescuers from the Kusol Sattha Foundation plucked four survivors from the water after the accident. One of them was the Thai boat operator, identified as Adipong Wichiankaew, and three others were foreign tourists, who were not immediately identified.

The Ratchaprapa dam is a tourist attraction inside Khao Sok National Park.Eyewitnesses said four foreign tourists hired the long-tailed boat operated by Mr Adipong to take them out onto the lake for fishing and sightseeing. The boat capsized after hitting a floating tree trunk.

National park officials went out in a speed boat on a search and rescue mission but had still not found the missing tourist as evening fell.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Safe Arab tourism destinations thrive

DUBAI — The Arab Spring has resulted in a sharp drop in tourism in countries at the centre of the turmoil, to the benefit of safe destinations in the region, experts say.Major tourist destinations such as Tunisia and Egypt saw the numbers of visitors plummet because of uprisings last year that spread to other nations where confrontations with autocratic regimes turned deadly.

The Gulf city state of Dubai, as well as popular destinations outside the Middle East, became the focus of diverted tourism."The Middle East and North Africa saw a drop as a whole in international arrivals, mainly in Egypt and Tunisia," said Ahmed Youssef, MENA director of marketing and operations at Amadeus.

"Tourist flows from Egypt to Turkey increased by 400 percent in 2011," said Youssef, speaking at the Arabian Travel Market last week in Dubai. His company provides IT solutions for the travel industry.According to the World Tourism Organisation UNWTO, international tourist arrivals in the Middle East declined 8.4 percent to 54.8 million in 2011, after growing 14.9 percent the year before.

UNWTO statistics also showed that tourist inflows to North Africa slipped 9.9 percent to 16.9 million after increasing by 6.5 percent in 2010."Due to the social and political developments," Syria saw a drop of 41 percent, Egypt by 32 percent, Tunisia 31 percent and Lebanon 24 percent," UNWTO statistics showed in March.

In autumn last year Jordan reported a 16-percent drop in its tourism revenues in the first seven months of 2011. The sector contributes 14 percent to the kingdom's gross domestic product.In Tunisia, where tourism accounted for seven percent of economic output in 2010, the sector's receipts plunged by a third in 2011.

Syrian state newspaper Al-Baath reported last week that four million tourists visited Syria in 2011, despite insecurity in the country where thousands have been killed since anti-regime protests erupted in March 2011.But the number reveals a drop of more than 40 percent from the seven million tourists registered in 2010.

On the other hand, Turkey received 1.4 million Arab tourists in the first eight months of 2011: up from 1.2 million in 2010.And Dubai last year posted a 10-percent rise in guests at hotels and hotel apartments, reaching 9.09 million, with revenues hitting 15.97 billion dirhams ($4.4 billion), 20 percent up from 2010.

In the first quarter of 2012, the number of guests increased nine percent to 2.6 million guests, according to Dubai authorities. They hope the number of tourists will hit 10 million this year."The Arab Spring has left an impact," said Khaled al-Mazroui, general manager of Fujairah International Airport in the United Arab Emirates.