Cruise passenger on sinking tour boat recalls scary experience: ‘I was in shock’

A total of 10 passengers from the Celebrity Equinox (above) and Royal Caribbean International's Navigator of the Seas needed to be rescued last Wednesday.

A Royal Caribbean passenger aboard the ill-fated tour boat that sank off the coast of Cozumel last week said he was shocked at how fast the vessel sank.

“I’ve been diving for 12 years and never seen something like that before,” Thiago Koga told The Miami Herald. “I was in shock.”

Koga was one of 10 Royal Caribbean cruise passengers who needed to be rescued last Wednesday after their cruise-sanctioned boat tour went south near the Mexican island.

The passengers — four from Royal Caribbean International’s Navigator of the Seas, and six from Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Equinox — had booked the trip as part of a sponsored scuba diving excursion during a stopover in Cozumel.

Their plans were cut short after the boat began taking on water shortly into the trip.

Crew members instructed all passengers to move to the bow of the vessel and to throw their weight belts ─ which would’ve been used to keep them underwater during scuba diving ─ into the ocean to lighten the boat, Koga told the Herald.

Passengers were soon forced to jump into the water, as the boat continued to sink.

The Mexican Navy, along with a handful of other vessels and another boat from the same diving company, Sand Dollar Sports, responded to the scene, pulling all 10 passengers out of the water, the Herald reported.

GASTROENTERITIS OUTBREAK ON SEA PRINCESS CRUISE SICKENS 200 PASSENGERS

Royal Caribbean said all passengers were returned to their respective ships the same day, and that no one was seriously injured.

“On Wednesday, January 3, six of our guests from Celebrity Equinox and four from Navigator of the Seas were on the “Certified Scuba Dive” shore excursion in Cozumel, Mexico, when their boat began to take on water.  All guests we rescued returned back to their ships later that same day,” said Royal Caribbean in a statement to Fox News. “The cause of the incident is still under investigation.”

Royal Caribbean also confirmed that the diving trip was indeed a sponsored shore excursion for passengers of the Navigator of the Seas and the Equinox, both of which had sailed from Miami.

Bus flipped en route to Mayan ruins.

Koga further wrote on Twitter that he was thankful to have survived, unlike some of the bus passengers involved in the fatal tour bus crash in Mexico on Dec. 19, which claimed the lives of 11 Royal Caribbean cruise passengers and the tour bus operator.

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Both incidents also draw attention to the safety of cruise-sponsored excursions. In many cases, however, the cruise companies themselves are not held liable for any accidents that take place on such trips, as the operators are acting as independent contractors, maritime lawyer John M. Hickey told Fox News.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. operates both Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises.

‘Game of Thrones’-themed Ice Hotel features White Walkers, ‘Hall of Faces’

For this year's SnowVillage, Lapland Hotels partnered with HBO Nordic to give the structure a distinct "Game of Thrones" theme.

Good news for “Game of Thrones” fans who enjoy freezing their butts off: You can now book a stay at a frigid “Ice Hotel” that even a hardened wildling from the Frostfangs might find a little too chilly.

The Lapland Hotels SnowVillage, which is erected each year out of ice and snow in Kittilä, Finland, has partnered with HBO Nordic to give this year’s structure a distinct “Game of Thrones” theme, including rooms that feature White Walkers and a Braavosi-style “Hall of Faces” carved into the walls.

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The “Game of Thrones” SnowVillage hotel will remain open through April 2018, at $200 a night

This year’s SnowVillage also features a map of Westeros carved out of snow, a dragon-shaped slide, and an Ice Throne made to look like the Iron Throne from the series, complete with a sculpture of “The Mountain” standing guard nearby.

The entire structure took only a month to build, according to Conde Nast Traveler, and was constructed by artisans and builders from Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Latvia.

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The rooms at Lapland Hotels SnowVillage each feature different snowy carvings protruding from the walls.  (Tuomas Kurtakko/Lapland Hotels)

The hotel itself features 24 rooms, each with a different snowy sculpture protruding from the walls. There’s also an “ice theater” and an “ice chapel” on site, for anyone looking to watch a “making of” documentary about the hotel, or plan a wedding, respectively.

Rooms at the SnowVillage start at around $200 per night, but Lapland Hotels doesn’t suggest booking more than a single night: At just 23 degrees F, the “igloo” hotel is only suitable for short stays, and Lapland Hotels operates warmer lodgings nearby for those looking to pay a visit.

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Guests can also dine at the SnowVillage’s Ice Restaurant, and drink at the Ice Bar.  (Tuomas Kurtakko/Lapland Hotels)

Fans can also purchase $18 passes simply to tour the “Thrones”-themed village, and additional activities — like reindeer rides or snowmobile trips, or dinner and drinks in the on-site “Ice restaurant” or “iIe bar” — are also offered.

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The Lapland Hotels SnowVillage is open through April 2018, so long as an Ice dragon isn’t dredged from the bottom of the sea and ordered to destroy it.

Six big travel questions for 2018

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Rather than making the usual predictions, this year I’m raising some of the really big questions that travelers and the travel industry are likely to face in 2018 travel. You may not see many final answers to these questions in 2018, but you can certainly expect the beginning of some important actions. Here’s what to watch out for in 2018 travel.

Will destinations address over-tourism in 2018 travel?

After simmering under the radar for decades, the problem of over-tourism has suddenly become a hot topic — maybe even the year’s hottest travel topic. Nobody denies the problem; the big question is how impacted areas will try to manage it and how future changes will affect 2018 travel.

Chances are you’ve experienced over-tourism already: Wall-to-wall people in St. Mark’s Square, a shipload of 5,000 cruise passengers descending on tiny Skagway, bumper-to-bumper traffic at Yosemite National Park. It’s a world-wide problem. But how do we fix it? You can’t tell people to skip Venice and visit Parma instead because Venice is too crowded; you can’t find the features of any world-class destination anywhere else. We can’t install turnstiles everywhere: Anything too draconian will generate strong opposition from locals whose livelihood is tourism.

You can, however try to “encourage” off-season visits, while it is inevitably limited by both climate and schedules. Certainly, pricing will have to enter that picture: Destinations can increase hotel, restaurant and attraction prices, or at least make them more seasonal. Cruise ship and other arrivals can also be limited, but none will be simple or easy.

Over-tourism is already damaging the allure of many popular destinations. The big questions revolve around what leaders in the impacted areas will do, when they will do it, and how their decisions will affect travelers. I don’t have answers, but you’re likely to see some adjustments begin with 2018 travel.

What more will airlines do to incentivize direct buying?

Why do airlines want you to buy your tickets directly instead of through an online travel agency (OTA) such as Expedia or Priceline? They avoid paying commission to a middleman, and they’re better able to offer you a bunch of “upgrade” and bundle options. Currently, they’re fighting proposed regulations that require them to provide more information to OTAs about prices for items like checked bags and seat assignments.

Big hotel chains have gone a similar way: Limit access to “free” Wi-Fi to travelers who book direct; make people who book through an OTA pay $10 a day or more. Some also offer discounts to loyalty program members, but those are usually pretty small. Still, that free Wi-Fi limit is obviously drawing lots of travelers to the hotel chains’ own websites.

Can airlines do something like that? They could, for example, limit frequent-flier mileage and status benefits to travelers who book direct. I haven’t seen anybody suggesting that yet, but it would be a big pull. Keep watching.

Will travelers lose more consumer protections?

Anyone looking at this topic right now might answer “duh.” The current administration campaigned on reducing or eliminating regulations, and what little consumer protections exist are currently implemented through government regulation.

A realistic observer might rephrase the question as, “What consumer protections do we stand to lose?” And that’s not trivial: Big airlines are already attacking two important consumer protections. They want to eliminate the requirement for up-front fare pricing, and the 24-hour free cancellation requirement that allows you to lock in one deal while still searching for a better one. Will the Department of Transportation cave? It could affect 2018 travel.

Is ‘hyperloop’ train travel for real?

So far, the idea of hyperloop train travel has mainly been just “hype.” But now some big names are backing some serious proposals for a tube tunnel-based transportation system that they claim can beat both the speeds and the costs of standard high-speed rails. The claims may sound out there, but if they materialize they would lead to a revolution in mid-range travel: up to 500 miles or so away.

Certainly, even conventional high-speed rail beats flying in terms of comfort and convenience, but a new even faster, even cheaper system could reshape the nation’s transportation system. You won’t be riding any hyperloop train lines in 2018, but you might see big companies commit to actually starting to build one.

Will the loss of net neutrality impact travel buying?

Even the Internet geeks don’t seem to know exactly how removing net neutrality regulations will actually come to affect ordinary consumers. But, clearly, anything that substantially impacts the Internet will impact travel. And you somehow get the feeling that any substantial impact is likely to disadvantage, not help, consumers.

When will OTAs list true, overall hotel prices?

If you want to compare the costs of renting a car, a quick check with Priceline’s rentalcars.com or any other similar OTA returns rates that include base charges, airport surcharges, local taxes, road and license fees, and any other applicable fees from the get-go. You don’t even see a breakdown of base rates and tax/fee items; what you see is what you pay.

And that capability raises the obvious question: If OTAs can present aggregated, fee- and tax-inclusive car rental rates, why can’t they present fee- and tax-inclusive hotel rates, too? A few years back, a small and long-forgotten metasearch system started to do just that, but it quickly disappeared without any real explanation.

Other consumer advocates and I have been nagging the Federal Trade Commission and individual state attorneys general to tackle the obvious deception of “resort” and other mandatory hotel fees. But if Expedia or Priceline were to present inclusive prices, nobody would need any governmental intervention. I wonder just why those or other OTAs don’t do just that, and maybe some finally will grant it for 2018 travel.

Obviously, consumers need more than just an explanation. Travelers need them to take action. But will they?

Delta Air Lines sends its last Boeing 747 to Arizona ‘boneyard’

ABOARD DELTA FLIGHT 9771 FROM ATLANTA — Passengers wrote on the cabin walls. There was free champagne for all onboard. And there was a wedding in economy class.

Delta Flight 9771 was anything but ordinary, and that was by design.

The Wednesday flight from the world’s busiest airport in Atlanta to a remote salvage yard in southern Arizona marked the last time that Boeing’s 747 jumbo jet would fly for a U.S. passenger airline.

United retired its last 747 in November, leaving only Delta. Some foreign airlines — including British Airways, Lufthansa and Korean Air — still use the 747 for passenger flights, though numbers of the aircraft flying non-cargo flights are on the decline.

In the U.S., Delta operated its final regularly scheduled flight on the jet in mid-December. The 747 lingered on at Delta for two more weeks, flying charters — mostly for college and pro sports teams.

That era officially closed this week. Delta flew its last 747 charter flight on Tuesday (Jan. 2), bringing the Clemson University football team home to South Carolina following the 2018 Sugar Bowl game in New Orleans.

With that, there was only one mission left for Delta’s last remaining 747: a flight to the “boneyard” — a salvage facility where retiring planes are sent to be stored or scrapped.

That was the mission for Delta’s unusual Flight 9771 Wednesday, when the airline sent its 376-seat jumbo jet on one last flight. On board were just 48 people, a combination of the flight crew, media and other Delta employees and family members with ties to the 747.

During the flight, passengers used permanent markers to write farewell messages on the plane’s seats and cabin walls.

Mike Vetter, himself a former Delta 747 pilot, had just spelled out his name above the arm rest at seat 10D. He added the date along with the words, “LAST FLT” — an obvious abbreviation for the plane’s “last flight.”

“No, never!,” he exclaimed when asked if he had ever written on the inside of an airplane before. He let loose with a laugh, adding that such a move might be grounds for termination on a normal flight.

On this particular plane, however, Vetter had a lot of company. Even before the retirement flight took off from Atlanta, its interior already bore graffiti from several previous sports charter flights. Delta spokesman Anthony Black said passengers on those flights were told of the plane’s impending retirement and were encouraged to leave their own farewell messages on the side of the plane.

The Clemson football team appeared to be the most prolific of the message-leavers, though the plane’s unique graffiti also suggested the presence of the Buffalo Bills NFL team and an untold number of Delta employees.

On Wednesday, the mood was festive throughout the four-hour flight — perhaps most so during a wedding that gave new meaning to “walking down the aisle.”

The in-flight ceremony joined Delta 747 flight attendant Holly Rick and Delta 747 pilot Gene Peterson, who fittingly met nine years ago while working on 747 military charter flight in the Middle East. The couple considered several spots for their wedding, but ultimately chose the so-called “Queen of the Skies” for their ceremony.

Aisles in Delta’s economy section were gussied up with white lace bunting and rose petals in the aisle. The bulkhead separating Delta’s Economy Comfort seating from business class doubled as a backstop for the altar.

“This is my dream wedding,” Rick said. “I’m on my favorite place to be in the world.”

For Delta flight attendant Chris Fincher, Flight 9771 was both a first and a farewell.

Fincher, 32, said he had never flown on the jet prior to Wednesday, despite working for Delta for about 3 ½ years.

“It’s unbelievable,” the West Virginia native added about finally making it onto the 747, saying the plane had lived up to its billing.

On the 747’s upper deck, another Delta flight attendant stood, taking in the moment with friends and co-workers.

Unlike Fincher, Nancy Cobb said she’s been on the 747 before. Many times.

Somehow, she says, she ended up working the 747 on her first-ever flight for Northwest Orient back in 1985. The carrier — later Northwest Airlines — merged with Delta in 2008.

“I’ve spent my whole life flying this plane,” said Cobb, now based in Detroit.

Like nearly everyone else on the flight, Cobb said it was “bittersweet” to witness the end of the 747 era at Delta. But she said she also was determined to look ahead, noting that Delta’s new state-of-the-art Airbus A350s have already begun arriving to the carrier.

“It’s time for something new,” she said. “I think it’s going to be great for our customers.”

But on Wednesday, there was one more day to savor the iconic 747.

“She’s special to us,” Cobb said.

 

Honeymoon guide: Romantic resorts on Mexico’s Caribbean coast

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The resorts along Mexico’s Caribbean coast have enough variety to please the most demanding honeymooners. Here they’ll find luxury resorts, eco-chic properties, resorts that hum with activity, and those that have a more subdued, sophisticated vibe. They can keep things simple by choosing an all-inclusive resort, or choose a pay-as-you go property, which encourages getting off-resort to explore the locale.

Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita

If Dos Equis’ ”The Most Interesting Man in the World” were to go on vacation, he’d pick a place like Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita. It’s a high-end all-inclusive luxury resort with a five-diamond AAA rating, stunning beachfront setting and public and private spaces showcasing museum-quality art. On arrival, guests are greeted by huge Balinese dragons — authentic pieces of art. As a person moves through the resort, it just keeps getting better, with amazing décor and interior furnishings collected from around the world in all 90 suites. While Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita is an all-inclusive resort, it operates at a higher level. Dining is top-notch, rooms have Bvlgari amenities, and the spa specializes in thalassotherapy treatments using seawater, seaweed and marine mud. Included in the rate is a shopping trip by boat to nearby Puerto Morelos, as well as a complimentary sunset catamaran ride. Honeymooners will find Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita to be a luxurious oasis, and the resort offers a complimentary Art of Romance Honeymoon Package with $1,800 of credits and amenities.

Viceroy Riviera Maya

If the Mexican Caribbean has a center of hipness, it would have to be the beach town of Playa del Carmen. Travelers from all over the world jet in for the nightlife, dining, shopping, and the town’s first-rate beach. The adults-only Viceroy Riviera Maya is an elegant resort located just outside Playa del Carmen, in Playa Xcalacoco. The beachfront property has 41 palapa-roofed villas furnished with canopy beds and hand-carved stone dining tables. Villas also have their own private patios, hammocks and plunge pools. Honeymooners may want to consider booking one of the beachfront villas, which open right onto the beach. Viceroy Riviera Maya also has a spa, a lagoon pool with sundeck, daily Hatha yoga classes, and two restaurants serving a fusion Mediterranean/Mayan cuisine. The Viceroy is perfect for couples who want to combine a luxurious resort stay with easy access to the social swirl of colorful Playa del Carmen. Online rates around $655 a night.

Azulik

There’s bespoke luxury — the type a person would find at a Ritz-Carlton — and then there’s rustic luxury, where natural materials such as stone and wood are assembled in such a way that a feeling of well-being abounds. This is what guests will find at Azulik, a villa beachfront resort in Tulum, further down the Caribbean coast of Mexico. Azulik is adults-only and gay-friendly, with an eco-conscious spirit. The property’s 15 luxury villas feature sea views and some have their own stairways directly to the beach below. The Azulik Honeymoon Villa is three stories high, with two private decks, an outdoor plunge pool, a Balinese bed and a shower (the only villa with a shower; the rest have mosaic tile bathtubs). The resort also has a spa, daily yoga classes and an onsite restaurant. The beach is clothing-optional, something to definitely know about in advance. Choose Azulik if you’re a couple looking for rustic high-style and a close-to-nature vibe at a non-inclusive resort. Online rates around $545 a night.

NIZUC Resort & Spa

While NIZUC Resort & Spa in Cancun is a large resort (274 suites and private villas), it still manages to provide a sedate and sophisticated beach vacation experience.

Punta Nizuc, where the resort is located, is a luxury enclave just south of Cancun’s hotel zone.

If relative peace and quiet are desired, the resort’s Ocean Suites are kid-free. Honeymooners will also want to take a close look at NIZUC’s Private Pool Villas; these have rainfall showers, outdoor showers and their own infinity pool and waterfall. Altogether the resort has five pools, an award-winning ESPA spa, a cigar lounge and six restaurants serving Mexican, Asian, Mediterranean and Peruvian cuisine. NIZUC Resort & Spa is a good choice for honeymooners looking for an extra measure of luxury and sophistication. Advertised rates $790 a night.

Hard Rock Hotel Cancun

It’s difficult not to crack a smile when staying at the Hard Rock Hotel Cancun. There’s a constant soundtrack of Billboard’s greatest hits playing in the background, rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia is everywhere, and spirits are high. If romantic-minded travelers enjoy a high-energy all-inclusive resort and they don’t mind sharing the scene with families with kids, then the Hard Rock Hotel Cancun is a great choice. The 601-room resort has five restaurants, seven bars and lounges, a gigantic pool overlooking the beach, and a full-service spa that includes outdoor palapa-style massage areas. A fun new touch is the addition of turntables in each room, giving guests the option to spin vinyl for a retro experience. Honeymooners should consider booking the Rock Royalty Level, where they’ll receive such services as a 25-minute complimentary couple’s massage, and the attention of their own Rock Royalty Personal Assistant. Hard Rock Hotel Cancun is offering up to $3,600 in resort credits that couples can use for spa visits, tours and upgrades.

Fun foods for watching football this weekend

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It’s NFL Wild Card Weekend, and food is almost as big a part of the game tradition as football itself. Whether you are hosting a party or headed out to watch, we’ve rounded up some iconic game day specialties from favorite restaurants Great American Bites has covered in the past several years — from wings to barbecue to pizza.

Some of these are signature sports snacks, others from cities with NFL teams, and more than ever are available via mail order if you can’t make it in person. What these all have in common is that they are sure to be hits for football fans.

Browse the photos above for all-American foods that are perfect for watching football this winter, and see more from Great American Bites below.

Scenic hidden gems within our national public lands

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The US Department of the Interior manages everything from national parks to wildlife refuges to public lands, so who better to ask about America’s hidden gems? The photos above were chosen by the Department from its

Instagram account, USInterior (www.instagram.com/usinterior/), so scroll through the gallery, and make plans for a visit soon. Want more? Take a look below for more stunning photos from the Department of the Interior’s Instagram:

Off-the-radar cities to explore in 2018

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If your new year’s resolution is to travel, you might want to follow in the tracks of Sal Lavallo, who at 27 is one of the youngest Americans to have visited all 193 U.N. member states. During his explorations, which were partially underwritten by Marriott International, he found that obscure destinations were the most memorable, and he shared many on his Instagram feed, @sallavallo. He recalls some favorites with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY. But before booking a trip, check U.S. State Department warnings because some destinations are near trouble spots.

Baku, Azerbaijan

This oil-rich capital city has invested billions in culture and modern architecture, making for a surprising stop in the Caucasus. “Walking around in the city is like an open-air museum. They have these ancient, ancient ruins and in the background are modern buildings,” Lavallo says. There’s also ballet, opera and caviar tastings. “You can do quite a bougie trip in Baku.” azerbaijan.travel

Dili, Timor-Leste

Don’t expect to see many other tourists in the capital city of one of the world’s newest countries, Lavallo says. “You have stunning beaches and mountains and almost no one going there. The general mood is hanging out in paradise.” The island nation, which sits just north of Australia, uses the U.S. dollar and is surprisingly easy to visit, with direct flights from Bali and visas available on the spot. “You can literally just arrive.” timorleste.tl

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Although less flashy than neighboring Dubai, Abu Dhabi has more must-see sights, says Lavallo, who lived there for several years. Highlights include the new Louvre museum, the Emirates Palace and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which he calls the “most beautiful mosque in the world.” Although a global city, it doesn’t feel like it could be anywhere, he says. “It’s absolutely my favorite place.” visitabudhabi.ae

Kigali, Rwanda

Lavallo calls Kigali “Africa’s safest and cleanest city,” one of the few places on the continent where it’s practical for visitors to rent a car. The country makes it easy to visit national parks to see gorillas in the wild and, on a more somber note, to learn about the 1994 genocide at memorial sites. rwandatourism.com

Skopje, Macedonia

This Balkan city offers visitors a fascinating mix of Eastern and Western Europe. “Just walking through town is like a history lesson. There seems to be more statues than people,” Lavallo says. “They’ve really focused on tourists, and it’s fun to go. Everyone’s really excited you’re there.” exploringmacedonia.com

Beirut

Although it remains under a State Department travel warning, this Mideast capital is also a shopping, dining and party center, Lavallo says. “The best food, maybe in the world, is in Lebanon. I went there one time with my girlfriend, and rented bicycles and went to rooftop bars at sunset. It’s like a pleasure city.” destinationlebanon.gov.lb

More: Five myths about State Department travel warnings

Mendoza, Argentina

Visitors to Argentina should venture beyond Buenos Aires to this city in the foothills of the Andes, known for wineries, olive oil and barbecue. “There’s a heightened feeling of Argentina. There’s so much to do,” Lavallo says. welcomeargentina.com

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Lavallo calls this West Africa’s most beautiful city, with unmatched beaches and oceanside cliffs. The country’s 1990s civil war made headlines, but that’s long over, he says. “In our minds, it’s so dangerous, but it’s fine now. It looks like a lot of islands in the Caribbean. It has the best beaches in West Africa, and no one’s ever there.” sierraleonenationaltouristboard.com

Asmara, Eritrea

While you must visit with a tour group and the State Department cautions against travel in other parts of the country, Lavallo says it’s worth seeking out this city, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017. The former Italian colony offers an intriguing mix of European and African influences. “It feels like Italy did in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There are cafes on every little street, and Italian food everywhere.” eritrea.be

Bagan, Myanmar

With a huge concentration of temples that some compare to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, this ancient city is beginning to attract tourists, so the time to go is now, Lavallo says. For many visitors, one of the top experiences is floating over the archaeological zone in a hot air balloon. myanmar.travel

Constantine, Algeria

Built on and around mountains, this former Roman outpost is often called the city of bridges because of its many ravine-crossing spans. “There are lots of viewing platforms and the views are stunning,” Lavallo says. “It’s a combination of Northern African and Berber culture, and French.” However, it’s advisable to stay in the city, as the State Department cautions against travel to remote areas. ont.dz