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Oct 6, 2011
Japan: Land of the rising tourism numbers? (We can hope!)
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Ever since the devastating Earthquake and Tsunami that hit Japan last March, the nation's tourism sector has been struggling to rebound. Despite assurances to the contrary, most international tourists are still apprehensive about visiting Japan, meaning many popular attractions are remarkably uncrowded for those who haven't changed their travel plans. photo
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Our Japanese guides have definitely felt the impact on their livelihoods in the past 6 months. Naoki, a private guide in Kyoto, says: "I had 40 or 50 bookings for May onwards, all from foreigners. They all cancelled. Every one. Every reservation. I had some locals coming for tours, but nobody else. My income fell to about 30% of the usual. I got some money from the bank, a temporary emergency loan."

Naoki recently took travel journalist Rob Boffard of the Guardian newspaper on a private tour of his city to show him Kyoto's unique beauty - a beauty that remains unaffected by either the natural disasters or dwindling tourist numbers. You can read about Boffard's experience with Naoki and traveling through Japan's Honshu island here.

If you've been considering a trip to Japan, but are feeling concerned about safety or other issues, please consider chatting with one of our Japanese guides. They will be able to give you first-person accounts of the situation in their various towns and cities, and help you make an educated decision, while warmly encouraging you to visit their beautiful nation.
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Oct 4, 2011
ToursByLocals featured in Family Travel column on MSNBC
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We woke up this morning to some great press coverage for ToursByLocals and one of our stellar guides: Aldo in Taormina, Sicily. photo
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Aldo spent a day touring around the historic town of Taormina and its surroundings with American travel journalist Eileen Ogintz, long-time columnist at TakingtheKids.com.

In the article, Ogintz talks about the benefits of hiring a local guide when traveling with kids, as opposed to buying spots in the ship's standard shore excursion offering. She writes: "When you book independently, you can get to places farther off the beaten path away from the crowds and tailored to your interest. The guides will be more apt to joke with the kids, answering their questions, even staging a scavenger hunt, which hopefully will keep them more interested and engaged."

While it often ends up being cheaper to hire a private guide when you're traveling with a small group, the local experience is about much more than saving money. After her tour with Aldo, Ogintz learns that "It’s about doing what you want when you want, away from the crowds. It’s the luxury of enjoying where you are without the stress of finding your own way in unfamiliar environs. That’s worth a lot."

Thanks Aldo, for showing this journalist just what ToursByLocals is all about.
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Oct 3, 2011
Top 5 day-trips in Basque Country
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Today we’re joined by Spanish Guide Jon, an experienced tour guide and long-time local in the beautiful and culturally-rich Basque region of Northern Spain. Jon promises that on another occasion he’ll share with us his favourite things to do in his hometown of San Sebastian, but today he’s letting us know about how best to spend your time OUT of the city, on a day trip through Basque country. photo
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Today I’d like to suggest 5 daytrips that can be performed easily from San Sebastian, ranging from world class museums, wine tasting, beautiful countryside views and trekking! So let’s begin:

1. GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM in Bilbao and the Gulf of Biscay

• Designed by the North American architect Frank O. Gehry, the building itself is an extraordinary combination of interconnecting shapes. Impressive limestone blocks contrast with curved architectural forms covered in titanium. Glass curtain walling provides the building with the light and transparency it needs. Explore the museum by yourself; an audio guide is included in the ticket price.
• San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Island. The island access is spectacular. A winding way that leaves from the mainland and crosses an ancient stone bridge takes you to the top zone of the small island after 237 steps.
• Gernika. On April 26th 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, the town was razed to the ground by German aircrafts, sent by Hitler to support Franco's troops. When Picasso painted the Gernika in 1937, he could not imagine that its vision of the bombing would become an anti-war symbol.

2. Inland countryside and Coastal fishermen villages

• Town exploring and beach walk in Zarautz. The strong marine tradition of whale hunting lasted here until the 16th century. Tourism began shortly after the summer stays of Queen Elizabeth II, marking the town as a true tourist destination for the last 60 years.
• The charming small fishing village of Getaria. Home of Juan Sebastian Elcano (1487 to 1526) the man who was first to sail around the world. It is probably one of the most treasured medieval centers, which best reflects the passing of time.
• The place where the green mountains, abruptly meet the Atlantic Ocean! At this point of the coast, the mountains drop dramatically to sea level, with wonderful views that also let us observe the rough rock formations formed over millions of years.
• Mount Izarraitz. Driving by old Basque farmhouses, narrow mountainous roads, small villages, sheep and cows, we will discover the essence of the Basque Country!

3. Biarritz & French coast

• Saint Jean de Luz, the former Basque Corsairs' capital. This was an important point on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, and became rich in the 16th century from fishing and whaling. Piracy brought added wealth to the town.
• Biarritz, one of the most posh beach resorts of the Basque Coast. It is a luxurious seaside town and is popular with tourists and surfers. Biarritz also boasts some of the best beaches in Europe.
• Hondarribia, the walled city. One of the region's most beautiful towns, its medieval old part is one of the few fortified towns in the Basque Country. Its walls, most of which are still standing and are constantly being restored, give it a special appearance by evoking an epic past and by impregnating every corner, alley and square with aromas, flavours and sounds that take us back to other times.

4. Wine tasting in Rioja

• Wine cellar visit and wine tasting in Elciego, the “Marques del Riscal” Wine cellar/Hotel (it is designed by Frank Gehry, the same architect of the spectacular Guggenheim museum in Bilbao).
• Laguardia, a medieval style village (optional wine tasting in a typical cave-wine-cellar).
• Dolmen “House of The Sorceress”, a single-chamber megalithic tomb, is one of the largest dolmens in the Basque Country.

5. Trekking in Basque mountains

• Mt Ernio (1075m, 2 hours up, 1:15 hours down). Across the Northern slopes of Ernio, there are forests of Beeches and Oaks. Between the stones of Ernio, a moon milk river flows, the only one in the world. It is, in fact, formed by a strange substance that nature pours off in a solid state and underground Ernio filters off in liquid state. This river was discovered a year ago by a scientific society but its exact location/source is still secret to prevent its exploitation.
• The mountain village of Errezil (Rejil). A place where time forgot, Errezil is situated in and around the lofty heights of Mount Ernio. An oasis of life and color today, but not always has it been like this; for many years this whole area was the center of hard battles, cradles of famous Carlist guerrillas and Independence war.

Clearly, Jon is an absolute fount of knowledge on Basque country!
Thank you so much for sharing with our readers your thoughts on how to spend time in the region around San Sebastian. If any travelers are headed to Northern Spain in 2012, consider chatting with Jon about designing the perfect tour itinerary. You can find his guide profile right here: San Sebastian Guide Profile.
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Sep 30, 2011
Fly me to the moon...an inside look at the Kennedy Space Center
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Space travel is the absolute final frontier for the adventurous, been-there-done-that type of traveler. If (like the majority of us) you don't have the funds required for a trip into space, head to the next best place: the Kennedy Space Center! Luke, our guide in Port Canaveral, (and also an engineer on the Space Shuttle!) joins us today to tell us about three absolute must-see attractions while you're visiting the famous "gateway to the stars". photo
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If you are visiting the central Florida area or your cruise ship is making a stop in Port Canaveral, a must see attraction is the Kennedy Space Center, America’s gateway to the stars. Just an hour from Orlando, Kennedy Space Center is America’s spaceport that launched the Apollo missions that landed men on the Moon, and all 135 missions of the Space Shuttle. While there are many attractions to see, there are three attractions that you should not miss.

First, board an air-conditioned bus for a guided tour of the Kennedy Space Center. During the tour, you will see the huge Vehicle Assembly Building where the rockets are assembled, and the Crawler-Transporter which transports the assembled rockets to one of two ocean-side launch pads where they are launched. The final stop on the tour is the Apollo-Saturn 5 Center. Inside, you’ll step inside Apollo-Saturn Launch Control to experience the launch of the mighty Saturn 5 moon rocket. You will feel the power of this massive rocket as it roars off the launch pad as if you were actually there, even though the last one was launched nearly 30 years ago! When you exit the firing room, there is a real Saturn 5 rocket for you to explore, the most powerful rocket ever flown!

Back at the Visitors Center, ride into space aboard the Space Shuttle Launch Experience and feel what it is like to ride the Space Shuttle into orbit. Feel the noise, the vibrations and the forces astronauts experience during a launch, and see Earth from a perspective that few have seen before.

Finally, travel with the astronauts of Space Shuttle Atlantis on the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in the phenomenal IMAX film Hubble 3-D. You will feel like you are right there alongside the astronauts as they service our window to the universe!

Don’t miss these three main attractions, which will take about 6 hours to see. If you have more time, check out the Astronaut Encounter to hear what spaceflight is like from an astronaut who has been there. There is a full size model of the Space Shuttle to explore, real rockets from past programs in the Rocket Garden and a great gift shop. The tour price includes the price of admission to the Visitors Center. Come visit Kennedy Space Center, it is a fun day for the whole family!

Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us, Luke. If anyone is planning a trip to Florida's Space Coast for 2012, consider getting in touch with Luke for some truly insider knowledge of all things space-travel related!
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