Kurdistan and Catalonia updates. Turkey visas kerfuffle. Stricter TSA security. Wild animal interactions cut.

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the December 2017 issue.

“A Great Emporium,” by Malcolm Koh, is one of four sculptures in the historically themed “People of the River” series along the Singapore River in Singapore.
Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 502nd issue of your monthly foreign-travel magazine, the one largely written by the people who read it, frequent world travelers.

There’s lots of news to tell you about this month, so I’ll get right into it, starting with updates on the independence votes in semiautonomous regions of Iraq and Spain.

• In Iraq, the state of Kurdistan, along with some outlying areas under Kurdish control, voted on Aug. 25 in favor of independence. One of those outlying areas was the city of Kirkuk, which had been liberated from the Islamist militant group Daesh (ISIL) by Kurdish forces. 

On Oct. 17, the Iraqi government, which did not recognize the vote for independence, sent soldiers to non-Kurdistan areas controlled by Kurdish forces, including Kirkuk, pushing Kurdish forces back to the pre-2014 borders of Kurdistan. As of press time, Iraq had not yet sent troops into Kurdistan proper but had said that it would take control of the border crossings between Kurdistan and neighboring Turkey and Syria.

The Kurdistan regional government offered to freeze secession in order to negotiate with the Iraqi government, but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi refused, demanding that the result of the vote be annulled. 

Due to criticisms of the way the independence vote was carried out, Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani agreed not to seek reelection and stepped down on Nov. 1.

• Meanwhile, after the region of Catalonia voted for independence from Spain on Oct. 1, the Spanish government took steps to take control of Catalonia’s administration.

During the vote, Spain sent in national and military police, who are still present, to take over security duty in the region.

On Oct. 27, Spain’s Parliament activated Article 155 of their constitution, which allows the national government to take over the administration of the region during a “crisis.”

Carles Puigdemont, the leader of Catalonia and an independence proponent, was removed from his position along with 150 other regional government officials on the 27th. Puigdemont and some of his allies fled to Belgium to avoid arrest.

As of press time, neither Kurdistan nor Catalonia had officially declared independence.

(By the way, Patricia McLeod of La Verne, California, caught a typo in my reporting on this last month. The text should have read, “Catalonian officials said that the vote was ‘overwhelmingly’ in favor of secession” [not “succession”]. Oh, well, if at first you don’t secede…)

At press time, the US and Turkey were still embroiled in a diplomatic spat.

It began when Turkey arrested two employees of the US consulate in Istanbul and the wife and daughter of a third in early October, accusing them of being associated with Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in the US who is critical of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an. Being a member of Gülen’s sect is illegal in Turkey, and he is blamed for, among other things, helping orchestrate the attempted military coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016.

In response to the arrests, on Oct. 9 the US Embassy in Ankara declared that it would no longer process visa applications from Turkish citizens wishing to travel to the US. Turkey, in turn, made the same declaration regarding US citizens planning to travel to Turkey.

This means that if any US citizen wants to travel to Turkey for a reason that requires a visa that must be applied for (tourism or business), he or she will not be able to go until further notice. Anyone who already has a visa or who is only transiting through Turkey can still travel there at this time. 

Neither country has given any indication of the conditions under which this impasse might end.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) implemented new airport security guidelines on Oct. 27 for all US-bound international passengers, including US citizens, on both foreign and American carriers.

Though the TSA has not revealed the exact security protocols being implemented, airlines have announced that passengers can expect to be interviewed about their travel plans, have their bags inspected by hand or be asked to fill out forms provided by the airline. 

The greater scrutiny means longer wait times in airports. Delta Air Lines is recommending that passengers flying to the US arrive at the airport three hours before departure.

Flights within and out of the US are also seeing tougher security rules, as now all electronics larger than a cell phone — including laptops, tablets, ereaders and cameras — must be removed from carry-on bags and placed in separate bins during security screenings. TSA Pre√TM (Pre-check) members are exempt from this new electronics rule.

The TSA is also considering banning electronics from checked luggage, due to lithium-battery-fire concerns, but has not made a final ruling on that.

Getting away from governmental regulations, this next item involves limits set by private firms.

In July 2017, the online travel-booking company Expedia (expedia.com) announced that it would no longer sell “activities involving certain wildlife interactions.”

Under the advice of groups such as the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the US Wildlife Tracking Alliance, the Born Free Foundation and the Humane Society, Expedia reviewed wild animal experiences that it sold through its site and its other distributors, then removed from sale experiences that they found to be questionable or unethical. 

Experiences where travelers do not come into direct contact with wild animals, such as safaris and experiences involving domestic animals, will still be available for booking on the site. 

The tour operator smarTours (www.smartours.com) similarly announced, on Oct. 3, that it would no longer be offering elephant rides on their India tours. This change was effective immediately, including on already scheduled 2017 and 2018 tours. 

Greg Geronemus, co-CEO of smarTours, described riding elephants as “inconsistent with smarTours’ values.”

The two companies are part of a growing trend in which tourism companies are distancing themselves from wild animal experiences. In October 2016, TripAdvisor announced that it would no longer sell wild animal experiences on its travel-booking site, Viator (www.viator.com). Like Expedia, Viator retained experiences in which people did not come into direct contact with wild animals.

CORRECTIONS to note —

• After reading subscriber Bill O’Connell’s letter titled “Thinking of Singapore(Oct. ’17, pg. 53), which referenced Marvin and Carole Feldman’s feature article about Singapore (July ’17, pg. 34), Mr. and Mrs. Feldman wrote to ITN, “Mr. O’Connell stated that we ‘neglected to see… or just didn’t write about’ a number of places ‘essential for any visit to that city-state’, all of which, and many more, we have, incidentally, visited over these years.

“Our article was never meant to be about ‘essential’ things to see in Singapore but was an account of that particular trip only. We, therefore, did not write about certain other places in Singapore that we did not visit on our most recent trip.

“Having been to Singapore more than 20 times in the past 40 years or so, we have found it a wonderful, ever-changing country, and it is, as Mr. O’Connell said, ‘truly a destination full of surprises’.”

• An item in our August 2017 issue, page 69, stated that the Monastery of Saint Thaddeus (the Black Church), near Maku in northwestern Iran, was accessible to visitors only one day a year, Oct. 28, the Feast Day of St. Thaddeus.

Bruce Berger of Palo Alto, California, wrote, “I just returned from a 3-week tour in Iran, including a visit to this remarkable site on Oct. 13, and there was no indication that visitor access was restricted to any particular day. Our guide did tell us that the church was used by the Armenians for a big celebration one day each year, but I believe that was in July.”

In researching that monastery, an ITN staffer referred to a pilgrimage guide that stated, “Any visit to the shrine… should specifically target the Feast Day of Thaddeus, the only day of the year that the monastery is open to Christian pilgrims.”

The staffer then erroneously added the date of the Catholic Church’s Feast Day of Saint Thaddeus (aka Saint Jude [Judas] Thaddaeus), Oct. 28, not realizing that the Armenian Apostolic Church uses a different calendar than the Gregorian calendar of the Catholic Church. The Armenian feast day usually falls in our late June or in July.

While it appears to be true that the monastery is “open to Christian pilgrims” only on the feast day (or, more accurately, has scheduled worship only on that day), a caretaker will open the door for visitors for a fee if he is available. Guidebooks claim “Ring the bell if it’s locked” and “Your taxi driver will help you find the man with the key in the nearby village.”

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