Friday, February 20, 2009

Trendspotting in Northern California

An image came to mind after attending this week's Northern California Visitor Industry Outlook Conference: the thousands of people lined up along San Francisco's Crissy Field on a beautiful day several months ago to watch the arrival of the Queen Mary, the largest ship ever to sail under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was an exciting day and an amazing sight -- the massive ship seemed to barely squeeze under the span. Those kinds of experiences -- fun, close to home and free -- may be what people will be looking for this year and possibly for a couple of years to come. The industry experts and economists at the forum painted a gloomy picture of the U.S. economy and its impact on travel. Consumers are "spending less and staying closer to home," said Dan Mishell, research director for the California Travel and Tourism Commission. A recent CTTC survey found that 19% of consumers planned to take fewer trips this year and 23% would stay with friends and family instead of paying for lodging. The upshot for travelers who have a bit of discretionary income is that they will find good deals: hotels all over California are lowering prices to lure guests. In San Francisco, hotel prices are dropping and the convention and visitors bureau is starting a special campaign to attract locals to the city's special events, such as the King Tut exhibit opening June 27 at the DeYoung. For better or for worse, that term coined last year -- "staycation" -- looks like it's here to stay.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Bit of Bhutan in San Francisco

It's one of those places that people who've been say IS truly magical -- the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. It's on my wish list but, for now, an exhibit here in San Francisco will have to do. The Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan, opens Saturday, Feb. 21 at the Asian Art Museum. I got a sneak preview at a press event of the spectacular objects that cover three galleries on the museum's first floor. Last year was the first time Bhutanese art has ever been exhibited outside of Bhutan: the show went first to Honolulu and then to New York. "It's a wonderful platform for Bhutan," said a beaming Penden Wangchuck (shown above), Bhutan's minister of cultural affairs, on Wednesday. "It's an opportunity to showcase a small country wedged in the Himalayas between two giants, India and China." He said all the objects are sacred to the Bhutanese, who practice a type of Buddhism (Vajrayana) that arrived in the country -- one of the few in Asia never colonized -- in the 8th century. The exhibit pieces are used in daily religious practices, such as a ritual to wash away bad karma. Sculptures of dieties are covered with gold, turquoise and coral. Just outside the galleries, Bhutanese monks chant and perform rituals at an altar several times a day during the duration of the exhibit. The museum store, as usual, is selling some terrific stuff, including new items from Bhutan. I came away vowing to return soon to see the art at a calmer pace -- and to get some of that bad karma cleansed.