Myanmar caveat. TripAdvisor and wild animals. Car rental reminder.

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the December 2016 issue.

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 490th issue of your monthly foreign-travel magazine.

This is where you will find travelers’ candid appraisals of tours, cruises, flights, etc., to destinations outside of the United States. 

Back when this magazine started, in March 1976 (!), for many years we printed no information on places in Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. ITN’s late publisher, Armond Noble, believed that most of the people going to those countries were just looking for a beach to lie on in a typical, rubber-stamped resort. There were plenty of slick magazines covering that market.

Instead, Armond wanted to target travelers who were more interested in interacting with the locals, learning about other cultures or seeking new experiences.

When he eventually acquiesced to many subscriber requests and opened ITN’s coverage up to ALL locations other than US states and territories, he was pleased that the reports we received on trips to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean continued to reflect a love of travel and learning (with, yes, a bit of plain, old relaxation and indulgence, too).

You won’t see 4-color spreads of ski chalets in ITN’s newsprint pages, but you will read reports from people writing for the benefit of their fellow subscribers, other world travelers, making recommendations, telling what to watch out for or sharing travel finds. 

The result is letters like the one we got from Norm Loeffler of New Branfels, Texas, who wrote, “I’ve been a subscriber and trip-reports contributor to ITN for many decades and congratulate the hardworking staff for maintaining such a great product through the years. Through correspondence with other subscribers, I have made friends whom I have never met in person, and I have been given insight into travel options and information available in no other venue.” 

While our small staff does its best to sort, edit and fact-check what gets printed in this magazine, much of ITN’s content is supplied by our subscribers, so what you read here ultimately is determined by you.

Send us a report on your latest trip. You will know what it is that someone following in your footsteps might like to know.

Or write to tell us what you’d like to know. We’ll open your info request up to our audience, some of the most traveled people in the world, and print what they’ve learned in their travels.

And, as Norm did, you also can have people write to you directly by having your trip-planning questions printed in our “Person to Person” section, which is open only to our subscribers.

This is the place to find your International Travel News.

While our subscribers continue to supply personal travel accounts, we provide the hard news. Case in point…

On Oct. 7, the Obama administration ended sanctions against the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar. The sanctions, which affected only commercial interests in Myanmar, not tourism, were imposed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 due to the ruling military junta’s repressive human rights policies and its actions in discouraging democracy.

In the last few years, Myanmar’s military government has softened its grip. The country held its first legitimate and validated democratic election in November of 2015, and the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by political reformer Aung San Suu Kyi, won the popular vote. (It was the second time a national vote had been won by the NLD. The first, with the result immediately annulled by the military, was in 1990.) 

Even though the military is guaranteed at least 25% of the seats in Parliament, the NLD won 390 of the 657 total seats, enough to effectively end the military’s monopoly on power.

President Obama cited improved civil rights and freedoms, in addition to democratic reforms, as reasons for lifting the sanctions.

Unlike with changes in US policy regarding Cuba, where many travel restrictions for Americans have recently been lifted, US citizens were never prevented from traveling to Myanmar, even before the sanctions were abolished, so they will not notice changes in traveling there. 

Now that the country is open to American investment, however, Starbucks outlets might begin to appear in Yangon. If you were thinking of traveling to Myanmar and you enjoy visiting more authentic sites not yet engulfed by commercialism, you might want to go there soon.

Despite the positive political reforms taking place in Myanmar, travelers considering a visit should be aware that certain strict laws have not been relaxed.

On Oct. 6, a Dutch tourist in Myanmar was sentenced to three months of hard labor because, a couple of weeks earlier, he had unplugged a stereo playing a Buddhist chant. The stereo was located in a Buddhist religious center next to the hostel where he was staying in the city of Mandalay. The tourist had been awakened by the music around 10 p.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep, so he took matters into his own hands.

Myanmar has strict blasphemy laws, particularly in regard to Buddhism. (For a partial list of other countries with enforced blasphemy laws, see my May 2016 column.) In this case, the visitor was arrested for “insulting religious beliefs.”

The Dutchman’s defense was that he had no intention of insulting Buddhism. He said that when he asked the people at the center to turn the recorded singing down, he assumed they were just kids listening to loud music. When he saw that they couldn’t understand him, he unplugged the stereo.

The court found his defense lacking. In addition to being sentenced to hard labor, he was fined $80 for violating terms of his tourist visa (which state that visitors must “respect Myanmar’s laws and customs”). 

The court did concede that the people at the center also violated the law by using an amplifier after 9 p.m., but no punishment was levied against them. 

The country-specific sites on the US State Department’s travel website include information on local laws to watch out for in other countries. To find these laws, visit and type the name of a country into the Search box at the lower left, then click on the country’s name that appears under the Search box. Once on the country’s page, click on “Local Laws & Special Circumstances.” 

On Oct. 12, the travel-advice website TripAdvisor ( announced that it and its travel-booking service, Viator (, will no longer sell, on their websites, tickets to attractions where visitors interact with wild animals or with endangered species held in captivity. This includes activities such as riding elephants, walking with lions and swimming with dolphins. 

The number of such activities and locations that are available for booking through TripAdvisor is in the hundreds. The ability to book some of these was removed at the time of the announcement, and the removal of the rest should be completed by mid-2017. 

TripAdvisor made this decision after consulting with animal welfare groups — such as the Association of Zoos & Aquariums and Global Wildlife Conservation — and with the support of the United Nations World Tourism Organization and Sustainable Travel International, among others.

TripAdvisor also will be creating a “wildlife tourism education portal,” which will provide information from animal welfare experts plus links to additional information about animal-tourism activities.

Even though customers no longer will be able to make bookings for certain experiences on the site, TripAdvisor will continue to allow users to view and rate animal-tourism activities. On each animal-activity page on the site, TripAdvisor will include a “PAW” icon, which users can click on to be taken to the education-portal webpage to learn more about the ethics of that activity.

The ability to book activities in which guests have no direct contact with animals, such as those involving safaris or zoos, will not be withdrawn.

In addition, some activities that do entail guests’ coming in contact with animals but which are nonexploitative — such as those involving domestic animals (like horseback riding); volunteer programs working toward the preservation of endangered species, and educational activities that have the direct supervision of zoo or aquarium staff — will also continue to be available for booking on the sites.

A tactic that is becoming more common among car rental companies in Europe, especially during peak season, is to enforce a clause in their Terms & Conditions stating that if a renter does not pick up a car within two hours of the contracted pickup time, the rental can be voided, forcing the traveler to rent another car, possibly for more money. 

In many cases, customers will not even get refunds, even though they did not get their promised cars, because the vehicles will have been considered “abandoned.”

As long as the renter keeps to his schedule, this will not be a problem, but when faced with a flight delay of an hour or more, the situation can become stressful.

If the car rental company you use has this policy, it will be stated in the Terms & Conditions, along with what to do in case a delay prevents you from picking up your car on time.

The rental company may have a desk in the airport at which you are delayed. If so, see if an agent there can help you reschedule the rental-pickup time. If there is no desk, call the rental company’s customer service line. You likely will be given the number of the rental desk at the destination airport in order to call them as well. 

If you make your reservation online, be sure to indicate the proper pickup time. Changing the default time (usually 12 noon) on the rental order form might not seem too important if you believe that your reservation will be held all day, but if a “2-hour pickup” clause exists, it could mean the difference between getting your rental and “abandoning” it. 

I was glad to inform one of our subscribers of an improvement to a tour he took.

After reading his copy of ITN back in April, John K. Meinert of Scottsdale, Arizona, wrote, “The article on the Baltics (page 42) reminded me of the tour of the Baltic States and St. Petersburg that I took in 2011 with Overseas Adventure Travel (800/955-1925,

“The accommodations were excellent, the food was good, and the tours were superior. The only complaints I had were the long delay at the Estonia-Russia border and the long, tiring return trip from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Phoenix, with two changes of planes. I believe OAT still offers this trip.”

ITN sent a copy of that note to OAT, and on Sept. 22 we, at last, received a reply from company representative Priscilla O’Reilly: “Thanks to Mr. Meinert for his kind comments about our 16-day, small-group ‘Baltic Capitals & St. Petersburg’ adventure, which we continue to offer. While there are border-crossing delays at times, it’s ‘smooth sailing’ at other times, depending on border staffing and other factors.

“Also, we now offer travelers the ability to customize their air itineraries so they can choose the airlines and routes that work best for them, including stopovers en route, if desired.”

News late in coming is still good news.

Those of you looking for Yvonne Horn’s “Garden Path” column in this issue and the second of her three articles on Sicily, don’t worry. It will appear next month.

Before I sign off, I want to remind everyone that, in addition to your subscriptions, one of the reasons ITN is still around after 40 years is the support we receive from the advertisers whose tours and other products you see displayed on most of these pages. When you’re planning your next trip, consider using one of our advertisers… and let them know where you learned about them.

Everyone can play a part in keeping this news coming.