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How Covid ended the city escape

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(CNN) — Around the world, cities are taking a pounding from Covid-19 as travelers are avoiding visiting large conurbations during the global pandemic. In turn, tourism numbers in metropolises have plummeted. In Madrid, tourist arrivals dropped by 63.8% during the first half of 2020.

The components that usually make for a great city escape are now the very reasons travelers are staying away. Crowded museums, restaurants and public transportation aren’t appealing in the time of Covid-19 when we’re encouraged to socially distance ourselves to lower the risk of contagion.

Avoiding the big city

“Many cities have been hit hard by the pandemic, so it’s not a good look to go gallivanting around while people are dying,” says New York-based travel writer and editor Teddy Minford.
Although US citizens can visit Mexico, many are opting for more remote locales like these ruins in Chiapas as opposed to a visit to Mexico City.

Although US citizens can visit Mexico, many are opting for more remote locales like these ruins in Chiapas as opposed to a visit to Mexico City.

Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images

Minford canceled a trip to Mexico City in March but is eager to visit as soon as it’s safe to do so. “I’m hoping to travel there as soon as I’m welcome in order to support one of my favorite travel destinations with tourism dollars,” she says.

Mexico has been hard hit by the virus with 761,665 reported cases and 79,088 deaths. The population of Mexico City is estimated at nearly 22 million people making it difficult to avoid crowded places. Trips to Mexico’s capital usually include visits to world-famous museums, street-side taquerias, and day trips out to ancient Indigenious sites such as the Teotihuacán pyramids.

Mexico is open for American tourists but as Minford doesn’t yet feel it’s responsible to visit Mexico City she’s been visiting family in rural areas of the US. “A remote visit feels safer. The chances of accidentally getting somebody sick feels lower simply because you’re barely seeing anybody.”

What’s even open?

The decline in city vacations is a result of people heeding advice regarding avoiding crowds, indoor activities and high-risk attractions. Travelers are also deterred by the fear of getting stuck in a city that’s liable to go back into quarantine.

With Broadway closed through May 2021 and NYC's Times Square looking very different these days, many travelers are passing on the urban vacation.

With Broadway closed through May 2021 and NYC’s Times Square looking very different these days, many travelers are passing on the urban vacation.

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

There’s also uncertainty about which attractions are open for visitors as many major cities are under partial lockdown. “We haven’t booked a single city-focused vacation. Fear of the virus has a lot to do with it, but, it’s about missing out on the actual experiences,” says Sarah Groen, owner of Bell & Bly Travel. For her clients, trips to Chicago, London, Beijing and New York are off the table.
Coronavirus has halted the urban retreat. Hotel occupancy declined 77.6% in municipal markets. Rural counterparts are performing better. For example, the Hilton Garden Inn Auburn in Auburn, NY (pop. 26,000) told CNN Travel that the hotel’s occupancy rates are leading the top 2% of occupancy across the entire Hilton brand in the United States. Similarly, the mountain town of Aspen, Colorado, has seen a steady stream of tourists since June — total visitation only dropped by 7% from 2019.

(It remains to be seen what travel to Aspen will look like come ski season.)

Road trips and RV living

RV rentals are also booming during the pandemic. RVshare fall bookings increased by 123%. Kesi Irvin, a long-term traveler, was scheduled to fly to Detroit but the morning of the flight she canceled. Instead, she went on a road trip through South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana in an RV with friends — a trip the self-declared “city girl” never would have made if it weren’t for the pandemic.
Staying in a big-city hotel is out; RV travel is in.

Staying in a big-city hotel is out; RV travel is in.

Airstream

“A road trip through the middle of America provided much-needed tranquility,” Irvin says. “I have to thank the pandemic for showing me the beauty of the US and the healing nature of traveling to rural areas.”

Major tourism conglomerates have evidence indicating the pandemic has encouraged travelers to gravitate away from city breaks. Amtrak Vacations told CNN Travel that train trips to city destinations are down by 8% compared to the same time last year. The American railroad service has seen a decline in trips to New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington D.C.

Visitor spending in the US capital city was down 81 percent ($6.5 billion) with hotel revenue down by 89% ($1.2 billion) from March to September compared to the same period last year, according to the city’s tourism board.

Scott’s Cheap Flights surveyed members in July and shared with CNN Travel that only around 18% of those polled said they’d go to a large city. Gabby Beckford, a travel blogger, predicts that she’ll be comfortable visiting a large city outside of the States by early 2021.

Beckford had plans to travel to cities across the globe this year but instead has been visiting smaller locales in her home state of Virginia. She says the rural areas were thrilled to have travelers supporting the local tourism economy as big cities usually receive all the tourism traffic. Beckford longs to visit friends in Los Angeles but she’s chosen to avoid major cities.

Places like the Blue Ridge Mountains in Appalachia have grown more popular amid the pandemic.

Places like the Blue Ridge Mountains in Appalachia have grown more popular amid the pandemic.

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Many international travelers are following suit. In 2019, some of the most popular points of interest on GetYourGuide were the Colosseum in Rome, Italy; viewing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper masterpiece in Milan, Italy; and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City. Those popular sites in Italy are distant memories — travelers are now using the platform to book nature and outdoor activities instead.
Italy had one of the strictest lockdowns. The capital city of Rome experienced a major drop in tourism and many hotels have yet to reopen. According to Giuseppe Roscioli, the president of the Rome hotel association Federalberghi, the hotel sector in the city is losing €100 million a month. Roman hotels slashed their fees in half in hopes of restarting tourism in the city.

Countryside calls

However, travelers in Italy are still opting to visit destinations in the country with smaller populations. “Italians are seeking more remote options like mountains, nature preserves, as well as bodies of water like oceans and lakes. For Italians, London and Paris were replaced with the Etna Mountains and the Maddalena Archipelago,” says Carlee Stellfox Loya, a manager at GetYourGuide.

Due to the pandemic, travelers like Patricia Estrada are opting to visit Italian towns like Calabria (pictured) instead of large European cities.

Due to the pandemic, travelers like Patricia Estrada are opting to visit Italian towns like Calabria (pictured) instead of large European cities.

Alfonso Di Vincenzo/KONTROLAB/LightRocket/Getty Images

Florence-based Patricia Estrada typically goes on weekend trips to European cities. Due to the pandemic, she’s been visiting Italian towns instead like Calabria, La Spezia and Corniglia. “I feel that by traveling to a bustling city, I’m contributing to the spread of this virus,” she says.

Other Europe-based travelers have decided against visiting cities in spite of how easy it is to travel between major cities across the continent as city travel is simply just not appealing during the pandemic. Yishyene C., a travel blogger in Portugal, had plans to travel to London but ever-changing rules and restrictions kept her in Portugal. She’s been going on road trips in the country and stopping in lesser-visited towns, purposely skipping Lisbon to lower the risk of being infected or transmitting the virus.

“It seemed a good decision to keep away from cities,” she says. “The idea of ‘escaping’ to a city has lost its appeal. Especially with the new rules requiring reduced capacity or opening hours for many establishments, it doesn’t seem worth the time, effort, or money.”

Even smaller cities have taken a hit. In Finland, despite relatively low numbers of Covid-19 cases, overnight stays in the capital city of Helsinki decreased by 75& from March through June. Half of the overnight stays in the city were from business travel. Heli Mende, Head of Visit Finland North America, shared that tourism usually generates 1.6 billion euros annually in Helsinki.

Even relatively smaller cities like Helsinki have seen a decrease in visitors, many of whom are opting to spend time in more remote parts of the country.

Even relatively smaller cities like Helsinki have seen a decrease in visitors, many of whom are opting to spend time in more remote parts of the country.

Shutterstock

It’s no surprise that all of the trips travel planner Groen booked to European capitals for 2020 were canceled. One of her clients wanted to go to Paris but decided to wait and go in the future when they won’t have to worry about whether the restaurants and sites they want to visit will be open.

Flexible city itineraries are nearly impossible as many bucket-list sites and restaurants are requiring advance reservations. For instance, the Louvre is open but it’s recommended to reserve a time slot in advance to guarantee entry. “People just aren’t interested in spending their vacations stressing out about what they’re missing out on,” comments Groen.

It’s easier to mitigate risk by avoiding epicenters of the deadly virus — dense urban areas. City breaks are likely to remain off the table for most travelers until a Covid-19 vaccine becomes widely available.

Urban travel will return, but until then travelers are expected to continue to funnel their spending into remote tourism as the pandemic advances.

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World

Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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