The World’s Healthiest Cities

So how do you decide what a healthy city is?  Usually, like BBC Travel, you use a few figures to find out such as the pervasiveness and ease of use of the mass transit system, access to greenery, and available healthcare.

Singapore ranks in the healthiest cities to live in.  With a low infant mortality rate, high life expectancy, and one of the best healthcare systems in the world, Singapore is certainly one of the best cities in which to live.  With strict anti-littering and even anti-spitting laws, Singapore runs a tight ship.  There are numerous gardens and parks as well as a mass transit system that carries 2 million people to and from work each day.  Singapore also has focused on being a biker-friendly city as well as promoting a good balance between work and recreation in daily activities.


Tokyo is rated the number 2 healthiest city by the Guardian in 2012.  The greenhouse emissions in Tokyo are significantly lower than in most Asian cities, and the public transportation is legendary.  In addition to the implementation of universal health insurance in 1961, strong family and communal ties keep the life expectancy very high at over 84 years old.

Perth is Australia’s and one of the world’s healthiest cities.  According to women’s health, Perth is near the best city for healthy eating, mental wellbeing, life satisfaction, and mental health.  Perth is near plenty of beautiful Indian Ocean Beaches and actively supports outdoor activity.  There are bike shelters at many of the train stations to allow people to bike to the Transperth, Perth’s wonderful public transit system.

Tunisia Tourism Expected to Rise

Tamara Hillstrom tunisia toursimMany American’s think of Tunisia as a dangerous place, but there are signs that perspectives may be shifting. There have been a number of terrorist attacks in the country, including one on the US embassy there in 2012, but the country is undergoing monumental changes to increase political stability and increase security. Will this be enough to encourage a tourism industry? Many Tunisians are banking on it.

USA Today reports that tourism is expected to rise sharply in Tunisia, an industry that has been more or less dormant since their revolution during the Arab Spring. With revolution has come social and political freedom, and that is giving citizens hope that they can overcome economic struggles. And they are officially ready to welcome travelers.

Shop owners in the old quarter of Tunis, the country’s capital, are desperate to have tourism return. Before the revolutions, the massive Mediterranean coastline was full of popular beach resorts in close proximity to ancient ruins and beautiful desert landscapes. Dougga, a northern village, is considered by UNESCO to be the closest thing to antiquity-like daily life in Northern Africa, and also a big draw for curious foreigners.

A couple months ago Tunisia received a shout-out from Condê Nast Traveler, calling them the next big travel destination. Reasons cited were the optimism and diversity. While these qualities aren’t usually cited as vacation makers, they are notable in light of other nearby Muslim countries. But don’t worry, there’s also a vibrant nightlife where non-muslims can partake in alcohol and dance until the morning.

The country’s tourism minister, Amel Karboul, has predicted they will receive seven million tourists this year, which would be a record. The hope is that Tunisia’s boast as the first democracy in the Arab world will help to attract travelers hoping to be a part of an historic event. The tourism industry in Tunisia employs over 400k people, and accounts for 7.5% of GDP.

Despite the national feeling of change and progress, Tunisia still has to battle with some harsh realities. Terrorism is still a problem there. Militant attacks continue, and they are constantly facing travel warnings issued by the western world. A suicide attack last year near a beach hotel in a tourist resort town doesn’t make for good press. Future attacks, including kidnappings, are possible, and even expected.

With continued work, though, Tunisia will most likely be grow the number of tourists, which could in itself even play a role in helping to shape the future of the country. Perhaps once the country feels the positive economic impact of tourism, unrest will decline in a more substantial way.

El Amor de Patricia – Hope Transforms Lives

This video from El Amor de Patricia highlights the sponsor program, along with interviews with many of the proud participants.  Becoming a sponsor has enriched the lives of the donor while at the same time changing lives in Guatemala.

Travel Industry Thrives

Tamara Hillstrom travel industryOne of the first sectors to see an early comeback after the recession was the travel industry.  The global economy got a solid boost from travel.  Last year travel and associated industries accounted for nearly 10% of the global economy & workforce, which amounts to almost $7 trillion, employing well over 250m.  In a recent article from the NY Times, David Scowsill was interviewed.  Scowswill is the president and chief executive of the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Scowsill remarked that the travel industry grows over 1% faster than the world’s economy at large.  Expectations is that this year growth will be 4.3%.  A lot of this growth is in Asia.  It used to be that Europe and the US were the strongest travel industry areas, but predictions have China overtaking the US in 2027 as the world’s largest travel and tourism economy.  That’s not to say that US travel is down, just that the global balance is shifting.

This shift is a direct result of the number of people moving into the middle class in the east.  Ernst & Young recently claimed that nearly one billion people will be in the middle class in China in 2030.  On top of that, the Chinese government has made tourism a key part of their economic growth.  They have made federal investments in high-speed trains, massive hotel complexes, and large airports.  At the time of this writing, there are 69 large airports in construction in China.  The goal is to make every Chinese citizen less then 90 minutes drive from an airport.  Outbound travel from China has doubled, with 100 million people making an international excursion last year.  That figure can be expected to double again by 2020.

The countries most visited are, in order, France, the United States, China, and Spain.  France has a staggering lead, with 83 million visitors in 2012, compared to the United States with 67 million.  China and Spain each had 57 million.

One of the major inhibitors of continued growth is that nearly three fourths of travelers have to go to an embassy in order to travel internationally.  Travelers going to Europe, if they can’t get a Schengen visa that allows them to visit a selection of 25 European countries, must go to the UK consulate to pay and be interviewed for a second visa.  That’s a lot of facilitation necessary for a simple holiday jaunt.  Some countries like Mexico have very low restrictions…if you’re allowed in the US, you’re allowed in Mexico.

Best Travel Destinations in Central America

Tamara HillstromWhen traveling to Central America, there are an overwhelming amount of activities that one could do. Here are a couple of the top priority spots and activities that one should consider when exploring this vast array of countries.

The Panama Canal, first opened in 1914, is 80km long and allows ships to pass from Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. The most popular area to see the canal is at the Miraflores Locks.

Panama and Costa Rica are known for their coffee, and the coffee plantation tour is a great way to see how the beans are gown, picked, and ground.

Panama, Belize, and Honduras all have beautiful coastlines with beautiful coral reefs filled with a variety of colorful fish. This makes scuba diving and snorkeling a very popular endeavor.

Takal in Guatemala is one of the most impressive Mayan ruins in the region. Copán in Honduras and San Andrés in El Salvador follow closely behind.  Pyramids, wall carvings, and ancient columns make for a great historical excursion.

Also in Guatemala, most tourists visit Chichicastenango, which is the largest native market in Central America. This is a great place to assimilate to the native culture of Guatemala and purchase authentic cheap food.

In Honduras, the biggest carnival in Central America, La Cieba, fill the streets with dancing and festive attire. The bars and clubs are filled with the carnival party mindset.

The canopy tours of Central America are a very popular way to see the magnificent rainforest. The canopy tours take you on a zip line through the rainforest where you’ll see a diverse wildlife of jaguars, howler monkeys, tropical birds, and large lizards

La Libertad in El Salvador is home to some of the best surfing in Central America. With a beautiful beach, killer waves, and endless seafood barbeque this spot makes for a great vacation destination

Ometepe Island in Nicaragua is the world’s largest volcanic island in a freshwater lake. The main hub for tourists is in Moyogalpa with an abundance of restaurants and hotels. Also the Cascada San Ramon is a beautiful waterfall that can be reached by an adventurous four-hour hike.

Last but not least, what is sunny Central America without the beaches? Some of the best beaches in Central America include: Playa Manuel Antonio and Playa Samara in Costa Rica, West Bay Beach in Honduras,  Ambergris Caye  and Placencia in Belize, Barra de Santiago in El Salvador, Bocas del Torro in Panama,  San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua,  and Tulum in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Common Sense While Traveling

Tamara Hillstrom common senseWhen you travel, you have to employ common sense. Every once in a while we hear a story of a traveler meeting some terrible unfortune that seemingly could have been avoided had they been employing common sense. A story about common sense and traveling was recently posted on USA Today, and it got me thinking.

A hotel security worker in New Orleans says that every night there are 25 to 30 doors left open when guests go out. That’s right. They leave their door not only unlocked, but OPEN. Guess what happens? They get robbed. And for what? So the guest didn’t have to bring a key with them when they went out, whether for the night or a quick errand. It’s the number one way people get robbed at that hotel (which is a major chain, by the way).

A corporate director on Long Island, NY reported that many guests leave electronic equipment around public areas of hotels, including the pool area. Someone who leaves a $600 iPad by the pool thinking it will still be there when they get back are not thinking clearly. Would they do this while in their hometown? Many are then shocked that the hotel accepts no responsibility for the device, left out in the open.

An airline worker claims she could fill a book with the lack of common sense on airplanes. People ignoring and intentionally disobeying signs, or walk around, eyes glued to their smart phone. An adventure guide from West Virginia actually logs the common senseless events, including visitors trying to touch lethal snakes and plants after they’ve been told how dangerous they are. Adventurers on vacation stand way too close to crumbling cliffs, and wander off alone into jungle areas. Some people actually try to feed crocodiles by hand!

When we’re traveling, we’re a little more exposed than normal. This requires us to have a heightened alertness to protect ourselves from elements we’re not use to facing. Thieves and burglars target travelers, and many vacations include situations that are more precarious than they outwardly seem – such as a cruise, hiking, or visiting a very busy city.

Maybe it’s the way we can travel without much planning or education because of the technology we keep on ourselves at all times. Or maybe it’s the seeming ease of modern travel, where it seems nothing could go wrong. Or is it a sense of entitlement? That some of us just think nothing bad should or can happen to them, not while they’re on vacation! A survival instructor thinks one of the facts is survival shows, which glamorize dangerous situations, shown being executed by trained experts.

I only wish the best for people while traveling, and hope to see less and less of these stories of foolishness while on the road. Common sense goes a long way.

Americans in Cuba

Tamara Hillstrom CubaVisiting Cuba is on a lot of bucket lists, but the decades-old embargo & travel restriction between the island nation and the United States has made checking that one off illegal.  At the same time, there are a lot of Americans who support the embargo, hoping that being cut off from the business and tourist benefits from the US will help topple an anti-democratic regime.

During his first term, President Obama opened up the borders slightly, allowing ‘people-to-people’ travel between the two countries.  This has allowed select thousands of Americans to legally visit the island for the first time in a generation or more.  This article about the effects of the decision tells the story of Americans and Cubans warming up to the idea of another.

A Philadelphia-based organization called Friendly Planet Travel has been promoting legal tours of Cuba, and distributed over 400 multiple choice surveys to Americans making the trip.  The results?  A large number of travelers believe US-Cuban relations should be open.  That might make sense, as these are not Cuban hard-liners scheduling trips to the Caribbean nation.  But there’s something more going on in these survey results that are worth looking at.

One interesting finding is how most people feel about Raul Castro’s government before they leave and after they return.  Before leaving, nearly half of the travelers felt the Cuba’s government was a ‘repressive Communist regime that stifles individuality and creativity.’  After they returned, only 20% felt the same way.  What’s more, after the return, the new most-popular opinion, held by a third of travelers, that the Cuban government is ‘a failing government that is destined to fall.’  Bleak, but not quite as energetically negative.  And nearly 90% of respondents said their trip has made them more likely to support ending the embargo.

Taking a harder look at these trips, though, is important.  These tourists are not seeing the entire country.  Travel within the country is not restricted as it is in North Korea, but there were no reports of meeting dissidents, or feeling the real brunt that Cuban economic policies have had on everyday life.  In fact, tourists travel on air-conditioned buses and sleep in luxury hotels.  Reports of expensive beans and the fact that adhesive bandages and other goods can be hard to find aside, travelers are seeing Cuba at its best, the way the Castro government wants it to be seen.

Only time will tell what impact, if any, these trips will have on relations between the two countries.  At the very least, the people of the two nations are reporting that they are enjoying the cultural exchange that is occurring.

Information and Tips About Traveling in Guatemala

Guatemala is a beautiful country situated in Central America that holds majestic landscapes, old ruins, enthralling volcanoes, and vibrant cities.  There really is something for everyone in Guatemala and while everyone should try to visit it in their lifetime there are some useful tips and information that you should know before you go.

Tamara Hillstrom Guatemala LandscapeEntry

When entering Guatemala there are different requirements based on which country you are coming from.  British citizens for instance do not need a visa to enter if they are staying for less than 90 days.  Check your local .gov page to find out if your country requires a visa to visit Guatemala.

Make sure you have had a valid passport for at least six months and while it is not required for all country visitors to have a yellow fever vaccination it is good to go ahead and get it anyway.

The Central American Border Patrol may require you to have documents if you are planning on visiting multiple countries.  Once you leave it is typical that a $30 departure fee will be applied.  This is most often calculated into the ticket.

Safety and Security

Guatemala has one of the highest crime rates in Latin America.  Over 6,000 violent deaths occurred in 2012, however most were associated with gang related violence.  However, some violent acts have taken place in tourist heavy locations.

When traveling it is safest to avoid public buses and take a taxi instead.  There has been an increase in crime on buses since 2009.  Also be careful when withdrawing money.  Some ATMs have been tampered with and do not withdraw too much at one time or at night if possible.  Criminals in Guatemala pay close attention to ATMs so keep yourself from becoming a target.

Natural Disasters

Because of Guatemala’s location and landscapes natural disasters have been prone to happen in the area.

There are active volcanoes in the country.  If you are near a volcano a local authority should have a good idea about exit procedure and the volcano’s recent activity.

Hurricanes have taken place during the rainy season in Guatemala which is from July to November.  This matches up with the hurricane season in the Caribbean so be sure to check the local weather when visiting.

Earthquakes have also taken place and the country is still recovering from the most recent one in November of 2012.  The country is subject to minor tremors quite often.  Most are not serious but in the event of a major earthquake get in touch with local authorities for strategy in case of a serious earthquake.

The best tip for traveling to Guatemala is to read lots of information beforehand.  It can sometimes be a dangerous country and you must be prepared before you arrive.  That being said it is also a beautiful country and if you put the research in you should have a wonderful time.