Cretans not Cretins

Just had a couple of days in Crete. Not been to the Greek island since the 80s and, surprisingly, not much has changed at the stunning Venetian harbour in Chania or the inspiring 1900 BC Minoan palace at Knossos.

IMG_0806

Your author at Knossos, Crete this week

It was a magical place to attempt to think profound thoughts as our guide reacquainted us with the ancient myths beneath the spring sunshine.

But all the time I came back to thinking about Brexit and Grexit, particularly when reminded of the mythical god Europa, the revered mum of Crete’s King Minos. She was not a UEFA creation but born in…. modern-day Lebanon. Now there’s a shock to those Europhiles who celebrate her depiction on € banknotes and as a symbol of Euro-unity.

Those banknotes could have become extinct last year as Greece’s ruined economy teetered on the edge of Grexit.

Well they are still legal tender there as the country’s eurozone membership continues. Despite traditional Hellenic tax-dodging continuing (our hotel suggested we pay in cash!) the economy is stabilising.

And Cretans are not Cretins. They know how to attract trade and tourism to their fabulous island. No wonder Europa was so attracted to it.

Let’s celebrate her legacy with a resounding ✔️ in the Remain box in the June referendum.

Syria solutions

Travelling to Beirut from Damascus via Homs in the eighties was a pretty hair-raising experience. For a while the only reasonably secure way of reaching Lebanon’s capital was starting from Syria’s capital.

The journey we took was at its most surreal when “encouraged’ to sing songs at the border crossing – as a humiliating penance for failing to produce $100 for its guards – and then being “invited” to camp down there as dozens of Syrian rocket-launchers roared freely into their neighbour’s country through the night.

Returning through the Bekaa Valley one evening a few days later it got even weirder. Once again we enjoyed the hospitality of Syrian forces – this time intercepted at gunpoint and driven to a Damascus barracks before being released unharmed at dawn.

Beirut, August 1982

What were we thinking? Your author (tall bloke, far left) with Euro student union group in The Levant, 1982

That’s the closest I have been to Syrian military hardware. Millions have experienced it even more closely and brutally, especially in recent years.

So what special insight do I have for the country’s current troubles whose bloody and humanitarian reverberations are so affecting us?

Well, none really. Other than a growing feeling that, to defeat the greater evil of ISIS, we need some kind of temporary accommodation with Bashar al-Assad’s horrid regime which – by the way – we should have confronted properly in 2013.

Indiscriminate barrel-bombing by his vile henchmen accounts for 95% of the country’s recent destruction. That has led to 330,000 dead, seven million people internally displaced and five million fleeing as refugees in the last five years.

Not a good guy then. But in the league table of evil he comes a few rungs below ISIS whose horrors my vocabulary is too limited to describe.

I confess to applauding the regime’s retaking of ancient Palmyra. And now I want it to keep going. Onto Raqqa and anywhere else where the caliphate reigns.

The current US-Russian led Geneva-brokered “cessation of hostilities”, which excludes ISIS and Nusra Front, has enabled the regime to direct its firepower on their forces. Can we help them do that by sharing intelligence? Co-ordinating our air strikes with their ground troops even?

Let’s keep that accommodation going while the talks continue to create a diverse, tolerant and democratic opposition to Assad and ISIS. Pipedream maybe.

And if the price is to allow Assad to have some role in rebuilding Syria without a referral to The Hague, then we might just need to bite that bullet before too many more Syrians are shot by one.

[Got that off my chest as the third introductory blog on my three chosen subjects…..back to sport and business matters now!]

A friendly digital divide

My best friend is a leading travel journalist. He champions the consumer. We have collaborated on articles and videos from numerous destinations over the years.

Although an Uber user and no luddite, he has reservations about and through Airbnb and some hostility towards online discount hotel booking services like Trivago, majority owned by Expedia.

That has caused a digital divide between us.

This week, in Majorca, he only half-jokingly mocked my substantially reduced-rate reservation at our supercool hotel through one such “evil” service. Once again, I insisted they are only doing for the discerning traveller in need of a room what Uber is doing for the traveller in need of a ride.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 17.28.39

Palma: scene of a digital rift this week

I say it is just a clever technical platform built to respond to personal tastes and price preferences. Hotels are not forced to become its partners but, if they don’t, their rooms will slip off the retail radar.

No wonder a report last year showed executives in the hospitality and travel industry stand out as believing more than in any other that their business is most at peril from digital disruption.

Friend says these services are unfair to the poor hotel owner whose margins are being squeezed by anonymous and remote multinationals. Furthermore, a direct booking is often cheaper and might offer occasional extras like a free ride in from the airport.

Fair enough, I retort, but the online service at least gives travellers a chance to compare deals and my heart is not going to bleed that much for hotel multinationals who dominate the industry and who need kick-up-the-arse competition.

As for Airbnb, it’s just an Uber with beds. No one is forced into offering or renting rooms through them. If taxes are being avoided, that’s not their fault – politicians and their public revenue authorities need to toughen up.

And so the argument went on over the ensaïmadas and coffee: enjoyed at an 18th century Palma cafe but discovered through 21st century technology.