TIME Thailand

Tourists Are Reporting a Dramatic Surge in Harassment by Thai Police

A tourist policeman stands guard as tourists walk along Khao San road in Bangkok
A policeman stands guard as tourists walk along Khaosan Road in Bangkok on Jan. 19, 2012 Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters

The Land of Smiles? How about the Land of Shakedowns?

Mastercard’s 2014 Global Destination Cities Index recently ranked Bangkok as the second most visited destination in the world after London. Spend a few days this hedonistic metropolis and you’ll soon understand why, for it offers an almost unbeatable mix of culture, edgy nightlife, cheap shopping, comfortable hotels, warm weather and — who can say no? — Thai cuisine.

But since the May 22 coup d’état that saw the ouster of a democratically elected government and martial law declared across the country, many tourists and expatriates in Bangkok have fallen prey to a criminal practice. The victims have little recourse when reporting incidents to the police, because the perpetrators are police officers.

“If you go to Sukhumvit Road, you can see the police looking for tourists who are smoking or drop a cigarette butt, then they ask them for their passport and make them pay 2,000 baht [just over $60]. I see this happening all the time,” says anticorruption politician Chuwit Kamolvisit.

“[And] when the tourists come out of Soi Cowboy [a notorious red-light area], the police ask them if they’ve had drugs and then make them do a pee test on the side of the road. If they don’t want to do the pee test, they have to pay 20,000 baht [about $610].”

Being a former brothel owner, Chuwit’s word isn’t exactly gospel in Thailand. But his claims are apparently corroborated by dozens if not hundreds of first-person reports in the form of local newspaper articles, complaints to embassies, blogs and social-media postings. Some believe that the coup, by disrupting traditional avenues for corruption, has forced aberrant police officers to look for new targets.

On Dec. 10, British Ambassador Mark Kent tweeted, “Met Tourism Minister this morning. Covered range of issues, including reports of stop and search in Bangkok.”

The Twitter feed of Joe Cummings, the former Lonely Planet author who practically ​put Thailand on the backpacker map, is riddled with stories detailing police harassment and extortion. “Random police searches of foreigners in BKK is getting bad,” reads a typical entry dated Dec. 6. “Many reports of innocent tourists forced to pay bribes.”

Then there’s this scathing letter to the editor by tourist Reese Walker published Nov. 29 in the Bangkok Post: “Stopped, frisked and searched. When we asked what reason was for the search, police simply laughed at us. The police even asked my fiance to perform a urine test on the side of the road … [We] won’t be recommending other people to visit Thailand based on two frightening incidents of what we believe to be racial profiling.”

Walker’s letter gives me a real sense of déjà vu because when I was assignment in Bangkok last month, I too became the victim of a police shakedown.

It was Christmas Eve and I was at the upstairs area of a terrace bar in the Silom Road area having a late-night drink. At around 2 a.m. I called it a night and descended to the ground floor. There I saw half a dozen police officers searching the premises and interrogating the bartender, who was handcuffed on a chair. An officer detained me straight away. “What’s going on?” I asked, identifying myself as a journalist.

He made a menacing fist at me, which convinced me to pipe down.

About 15 minutes later, another police officer produced a bag of white powder, shook it near my face and accused me of buying it. I emphatically denied the claim. Meanwhile, other police officers began helping themselves to drinks from the bar. When the bartender protested, they kicked him in the shins.

Eventually, a police officer took me outside where a Thai woman told me if I paid the equivalent of $15,200, I would be released. I told her I hadn’t done anything and would not pay a cent. I was taken back inside, where officers had now detained another four Westerners present at the bar. They then took all five of us in taxis to a nearby police station without a word of explanation.

Over the next four hours we were individually forced to undergo urine tests for drugs, during which a policeman standing guard in the lavatory taunted me by saying, “You cocaine.” Images from popular books and a TV series on the notorious Bangkwang Central Prison penitentiary, the so-called Bangkok Hilton, flashed through my mind.

Next we were taken to a media room with powerful fluorescent lights. Exhausted and disheveled, having not slept the entire night, and with our urine samples lined in front of us, we were photographed in a setting that made us look guilty as sin.

Some time after dawn we were presented with a typed document — in Thai — and told to sign it. At this, I drew a line and demanded to speak with the Australian embassy. Only then did our tormentors back down, casually informing us we’d all passed our drug tests and would be released — if only we signed on the dotted line. I did so, but I also scribbled, “This is not my signature” on the document before walking back onto the steamy streets of Bangkok at 8 a.m. on Christmas Day, traumatized but elated to be free.

During my detention, I identified myself as a journalist many times and asked for an explanation. None was given to me. After my release, I wrote to the official email address of the Thai police, but it bounced back. I copied half a dozen other government agencies, including the Australian embassy in Bangkok, which is supposed to have a police-liaison unit, but the only reply I got was from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which said the following:

“The Royal Thai Government and the Royal Thai Police have no such policy to detain, harass, abduct, threaten and drug test Western tourists in Thailand. On the contrary, the Royal Thai Government recognizes the huge importance of tourism and safety for all foreign tourists is an on-going priority for the country.”

One would think that would be the case. Tourism receipts and indirect tourism activity account for 15% of Thailand’s GDP — making it the largest sector in the economy. So why would police be allowed to make omelets from Thailand’s golden eggs?

The most popular theory is that low-ranking street cops, some of whom earn as little as $1 an hour, are seeking out new sources of income, because the military-led government has begun cracking down on the street vendors who were the former targets of police shakedowns. Foreigners make convenient prey because they can be intimidated and, compared with the local population, are relatively wealthy.

“This explanation says the takeover has placed the police, traditionally at odds with the military, in some sort of frenzy amidst proposed restructuring that is likely to deeply disrupt the way the police have operated — both formally and informally,” says Thai political analyst Saksith Saiyasombut.

But Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scholar based in Japan who has had his passport revoked for criticizing the military-led government, thinks the practice has, paradoxically, a social-order element to it. Demanding random drug tests from some tourists, or asking for cash for a dropped cigarette butt, the thinking goes, shows other tourists that Thailand’s new rulers want to shed some of the seedier aspects of the country’s image abroad.

“The coup makers came with a mission. And that mission is to rebuild an orderly and clean society,” Pavin says. “They believe that by appearing to be serious about cleaning up society and creating an orderly atmosphere, it will attract more tourists. They even bizarrely announced a new campaign, Tourism and Martial Law, to promote the idea that society under martial law is pleasant.”

He adds: “It will not work, because they don’t understand either the logic of tourists or indeed the economy of tourism.”

Bangkok may have had 16.42 million visitors last year. But that number is down nearly 2 million compared with the previous year, with the drop attributed to the declining ruble and corresponding fall in the number of Russian tourists. Increased fear of flying in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines tragedies has been proffered as another reason, as has general uncertainty about the coup. If action isn’t taken to rein in the Thai police, tourist numbers may fall further still.

Read next: Thai Prisoners May Soon Be Catching the Fish on Your Dinner Plate

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MONEY Travel

A Month-by-Month Guide to the Best Places to Travel in 2015

Use our new travel calendar to make this your best vacation year yet.

Cold weather got you down? Perhaps you’d like to get away someplace warm this winter. Or maybe you’re already thinking about your summer vacation destination. No matter when you’d like to escape, this 12-month calendar will help you find the best getaway—and the best deals. (Also check out these travel resolutions that can help you save time, money, and hassle all year long.)

  • January: Cruise the Caribbean

    Sun Seekers aboard The Caribbean Princess
    Sun seekers aboard the Caribbean Princess Jordan Confino—Flickr

    Why Now: January is the ideal time to sail the balmy Caribbean, says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com. “You avoid the December holiday crowds, and pricing is quite affordable,” she says. Indeed, many cruises are 50% or more off peak rates.

    What to Do: For a small island and beach-oriented trip, book a sailing in the eastern Caribbean, which includes destinations like Turks and Caicos, as well as the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. Or, if you prefer to visit ancient ruins, scuba-dive, or do some ziplining, check out the western route, where you may stop in Playa del Carmen, Mexico; Roatán, Honduras; and Belize City, Belize.

    How to Save: Starting at $309 per person, Princess Cruises’ four-night eastern Caribbean trip, which departs Jan. 22 from Fort Lauderdale, is up to 50% off its holiday price. (All rates are as of January 8.) The ship offers a poolside movie theater, history lectures, and yoga, and stops in the Bahamas and Princess Cays, the liner’s 40-acre private island.

    For a more luxurious pick, Peter Lloyd of Century Travel recommends a 10-day western Caribbean sailing on the Oceania Riviera. Departing from Miami on January 14, the ship stops in Key West, Cozumel, and Belize City. Onboard, indulge in a treatment at the Canyon Ranch spa and dine in any of nine restaurants. The trip starts at $2,699, about half off holiday and summer rates.

  • February: Ski Lesser-Known Mountains

    A snowboarder enjoys the fresh powder at Montana's Bridger Bowl
    A snowboarder enjoys the fresh powder at Montana's Bridger Bowl. Ben Pierce—www.benpiercephoto.com

    Why Now: Skiing on the edge of the season can mean bargains, but it’s hard to predict whether the snow will play along. Instead, pick a smaller-name resort in-season; you’ll find reliable conditions and savings of 20% or more (avoid Presidents’ Day weekend).

    What to Do: Some of the country’s best powder falls in Colorado, Utah, and Montana. Fortunately, you don’t need to pay through the nose to ski it. Just find the right mountain, buy your lift tickets online and in advance, and go hit those slopes.

    How to Save: In Colorado, try Monarch Mountain, three hours from Denver and located in a microclimate that gets hammered with snow, says Colorado-based travel writer Jayme Moye. Advance lift tickets start at $57 a day, vs. $110 for Vail.

    Thinking about Park City? Visit Ogden’s Powder Mountain, which gets over 500 inches of natural snow a year, instead. Lift tickets are $69 (vs. $105 in Park City)—or free when you book a package at the Ben Lomond Suites (from $144).

    Big Sky, an hour south of Bozeman, is Montana’s most high-profile resort. However, many locals prefer to head north to Bridger Bowl, where lift tickets are just $52. (They’re $103 at Big Sky.) Plus, since you’re only 20 minutes from the city, you can stay in Bozeman, where boutique properties like the C’mon Inn start at an affordable $99 a night.

  • March: Escape the Spring Breakers in Oahu

    Couple look across the Pacific from Makapuu Trail
    A view of the Pacific from Makapuu Trail Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Autho—Tor Johnson

    Why Now: Since many schools go on spring break in March, it’s a tough month for deals in fair-weather destinations. The Hawaiian island of Oahu is a surprising exception. Waikiki, the popular beach neighborhood in Honolulu, on the island’s south side, sees an average rate dip of 10%, vs. July and August, according to hotel research firm STR.

    What to Do: Oahu is Hawaii’s most populous island, but you can find open countryside and quiet beaches outside Honolulu, says Marilyn Clark with Lighthouse Travel. Take the five-mile hike at Kaena Point, the westernmost tip of the island, where you’ll see albatross and whales.

    Check out free events such as the Honolulu Festival (March 6-8), a cultural celebration that highlights Hawaiian art, dance, and music. Stay up for the Honolulu Night Market on March 21, when local designers and chefs line the streets of the city’s Kakaako district with food and fashion stalls.

    How to Save: Rooms with partial ocean views at Honolulu’s Sheraton Princess Kaiulani are $225, half off the high season. Farther inland, rates are even lower: the Coconut Waikiki hotel, a 10-minute walk from the beach, has rooms from $169 (vs. $209).

    Visiting in March could mean airfare savings as well: As of early December, nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Honolulu started at $660 in March, vs. $810 in July.

  • April: Hike Peru’s Sacred Valley

    Andean weavers in Cuyuni, a village outside of Cuzco
    Andean weavers in Cuyuni, a village outside of Cuzco courtesy of Paragon Expeditions

    Why Now: April marks the end of the low season in southern Peru’s popular Sacred Valley region. If you’ve always dreamed of seeing the sun rise over Machu Picchu, now’s a great time. April’s short but frequent showers limit crowds and keep prices slightly lower than usual. Plus, the markets will be overflowing with harvest-time bounty, and the countryside is vibrant from the past few months of rain, says Holly Wissler, a trip expert for tour operator Paragon Expeditions.

    What to Do: Obviously, you must visit Machu Picchu, the Incan emperor’s estate dating to the 15th century. A limited number of people are allowed in daily, so go with a tour group or buy your entrance tickets at least three months in advance.

    In Cuzco, the region’s largest city, enjoy historic sites like the Plaza de Armas, which dates to the Incas, and there are more modest delights too, like a glass of chicha, a fermented-corn drink, at Picanteria and Chicheria Valia.

    How to Save: Paragon’s eight-day Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley tour is $3,298, $500 less than in peak season. You’ll tour the iconic ruins, meet Andean weavers, and visit the strangely beautiful tiered salt mines outside of Cuzco.

    Another eight-day trip, the Classic Machu Picchu from Knowmad Adventures, is a manageable $2,160 in April ($200 off regular price). Standout outings include a visit to Sacsayhuaman, an Inca fortress of massive rock walls, just north of Cuzco, and a chance to browse through the artisan goods at the Sunday Urcos Market.

  • May: Safari in Kenya

    Rhinos in Nakuru National Park in Kenya.
    Rhinos in Nakuru National Park in Kenya. Luis Davilla—First Light

    Why Now: May, the tail end of the green, or rainy, season, is one of the best and most affordable months to take a safari. While the dry landscapes of high season make it easier to spot big game, visitors arriving this month will enjoy wildflowers and lush scenery, says Kent Redding of Africa Adventure Consultants. Even better, he says: “It’s birthing season, so you’ll see baby animals.”

    What to Do: Safari, of course! Depending where in Kenya you go, and what outfitter you choose, you could see everything from elephants and rhinos to zebras and impalas. Another important consideration: Will you travel by land or air? Air is speedier and more convenient, while staying earthbound will save you the biggest bucks.

    How to Save: For a splurge, pick Africa Adventure Consultants’ Kenya Unforgettable safari, a private nine-day trip by small plane. You’ll stay at camps such as Amboseli National Park, famous for its huge elephant herds, and Samburu National Reserve, where you’ll see northern species such as Grevy’s zebra and the reticulated giraffe. This once-in-a-lifetime getaway totals out at $7,494 per person, a $1,785 savings from the high season.

    For a more manageable price tag, opt for smarTours’ 12-day Kenya Wildlife Safari; it’s $3,599 for May departures, $1,000 below peak season. This group trip drives from camp to camp, visiting gems such as the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Lake Nakuru National Park, home to a rhino reserve and massive flamingo flocks.

    Airfares, too, tend to be affordable in May, according to flight search site Momondo.com. Recently, roundtrip flights from Chicago to Nairobi started at $765, vs. $1,542 in July.

  • June: Road-Trip Along Coastal Maine

    The first rays of sun after sunrise reach the Portland Head Light, built in 1791, which protects mariners entering Casco Bay. The lighthouse is located in Fort Williams Park, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, USA.
    Portland Head Light, a historic lighthouse Clarence Holmes—First Light

    Why Now: While much of New England is shifting into summer mode by June, it still feels like spring in northerly Maine, with highs in the low 70s, long sunny days, and fields of wildflowers coming into bloom. Vacationers won’t start flooding into the state in earnest until July, so you’ll find fewer crowds and reasonable prices. At many of Maine’s coastal lodges, June rates are up to 35% lower than in peak summer, says Greg Dugal of the Maine Innkeepers Association.

    What to Do: Take advantage of the relatively clear roads with a drive along scenic Route 1, which runs up the coast toward New Brunswick. Not sure where to start? The 158-mile stretch between Portland and Acadia National Park is particularly pretty. Along the way, be sure to put down several of the state’s famous lobster rolls (Hilary Nangle, author of the Moon Maine guidebook, recommends McLoons Lobster Shack on Spruce Head Island).

    Make time for a couple of leisurely detours. Stop in Boothbay to see the lovely Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens ($16). Further north, drive down St. George peninsula to take in the views from Marshall Point lighthouse.

    How to Save: Point Lookout Resort, located in Northport, knocks $45 off the peak-summer price of its gorgeous pine cabins, complete with porches and fireplaces (from $206). In Rockport, check out the Samoset Resort. The property, on 230 waterfront acres, has an 18-hole golf course, spa, and pool, and a wide range of outdoor sports courts. June rates start at $239, compared with $339 in August.

  • July: Visit Mexico’s Heartland

    Inmaculada Concepcion Church, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
    A sunset view of San Miguel de Allende Luis Davilla—First Light

    Why Now: While you could also head to Mexico’s Caribbean coast for July deals, San Miguel de Allende, located in the Bajío Mountains, is a better choice. Rather than suffer the humidity of the coast, you’ll enjoy daytime temps in the mid-70s and cool evenings. Still, tourism to the area does slack off in the summer, so there’s plenty of cheap lodging to be had.

    What to Do: San Miguel is famous for its colonial architecture. Get your design bearings with the House & Garden tour (Sundays, $20), which takes travelers inside many of San Miguel’s historic homes, suggests Zachary Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico. The city is also home to a range of superb restaurants, serving up everything from traditional enchiladas to newer spins on the classics, like short ribs in mole sauce. Then there’s the street food: you’ll find cheap eats—bean soup and stewed pork or chicken ($4) at Mercado el Nigromante, a relatively tourist-free market, says Alberto Aveleyra of Artisans of Time tours. For gifts, visit Mercado Ignacio Ramírez for brass handicrafts.

    How to Save: For an ultra-affordable stay, book Casa Gutiérrez, a colorful guesthouse where rooms with private baths start at $32, down more than 40% from spring rates. According to CheapAir.com, you’ll get the best fares to Mexico by booking three months out. And don’t forget to check fares into Mexico City, three hours away, as well as the closer Querétaro airport.

  • August: Unwind in the Maldives

    A sea turtle in the Maldives
    A sea turtle in the Maldives Courtesy of Coco Bodu Hithi

    Why Now: This island nation, off the tip of India, is one of the world’s most striking—and expensive—vacation spots. During the summer rainy season, though, resort prices drop by 30% to 40% and some hotels start throwing in free extras, says Justin Parkinson, a Maldives specialist with Linara Travel. While travelers can expect three to five showers a week in August, he says, storms are typically short and clear quickly.

    What to Do: The diving and snorkeling in the Maldives are world-class. The crystal-clear waters are home to whale sharks, rays, sea turtles, and more. In most cases, your resort will arrange for a dive (typically $80 to $150).

    How to Save: Is staying in a private overwater bungalow on your bucket list? Seven nights at Coco Bodu Hithi, located on an island in the northern atoll, costs $4,900—still a whopping sum, but more than 30% cheaper than in high season. All villas are tricked out with their own terraces and private pools.

    Guesthouses, legalized in the Maldives in 2011, are a more affordable alternative, says Guesthouses-in-Maldives.net founder Raki Bench. He suggests the Arena Lodge on Maafushi, a South Malé atoll, priced at $119 a night, including meals and snorkeling gear. A caveat: The Maldives is a Muslim country, so alcohol is banned in residential areas, and people cover up on public beaches. However, many guesthouses have day rates with resorts (from $30), where guests can have a cocktail and break out their swimwear.

  • September: Hit the Beach on the Emerald Coast

    Riding bikes on the watersound boardwalk
    Riding bikes on the watersound boardwalk Jean Allsopp

    Why Now: There are few places more picturesque than Florida’s Emerald Coast, especially the section edged by Highway 30A, east of Destin. The 28-mile road links a series of sugar-white sand beaches and manicured towns, both of which are packed throughout the summer months. But come September the families clear out, prompting hotel prices to drop and leaving you plenty of room to enjoy the clear blue-green ocean and 80° days.

    What to Do: Explore the various coastal towns, each with its own vibe. In Seaside, known for its pastel houses (you may recognize them from The Truman Show, which was filmed here), visit Modica Market to stock up on essentials. Then, stroll to the beach for a pleasantly sandy picnic. For a more active afternoon, hike along dune-flanked trails in deer lake State Park (entrance fee: $3), next to WaterSound Beach. Nearby Rosemary Beach is known for its New Orleans–style houses and charming shops.

    How to Save: Lodging prices typically dip 10% to 20% in September. For a splurge, rent a one-bedroom cottage in Seaside, where starting rates fall 17% in September to $350 a night. Or choose one of the area’s affordable inns. Rooms at the Hibiscus Coffee and Guesthouse in Santa Rosa Beach start at $125, down 15% over August rates. Plus, you’ll get a dynamite free breakfast; past visitors rave about the cinnamon-roll French toast and spinach frittatas.

  • October: Tour Artsy Toronto

    Toronto downtown panorama view from Centre Island, restaurant in foreground.
    Toronto downtown panorama view from Centre Island, restaurant in foreground. Andrew Rubtsov—Alamy

    Why Now: Fall temperatures can be cool in Toronto (think highs in the low 60s), but for culture vultures, October is an ideal time to visit. Oct. 3 is Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, a contemporary arts festival when cultural institutions, from museums to artist-run centers, open their doors and offer free access to their collections. Plus, arrive before mid-month and you’ll catch some beautiful fall foliage.

    What to Do: Learn your way around with a free walking tour of downtown, offered by the Royal Ontario Museum. Or, for something a bit more neighborhoody, explore the city’s Queen West district, known for its galleries and independent boutiques, says art consultant and city guide Betty Ann Jordan. While you’re there, be sure to check out the Stephen Bulger Gallery, where you’ll see historical and contemporary photographs by the likes of Vivian Maier and André Kertész. The space includes a 50-seat theater and hosts free films on Saturdays at 3 p.m.

    Music fans should also plan to visit the steel-and-glass Richard Bradshaw amphitheatre, which hosts biweekly performances by the Canadian Opera Company.

    For a break from the city, take in the fall colors on Centre Island, a residential isle just a 15-minute ferry ride ($7) from downtown.

    How to Save: In October, hotel rates dip by 10% or more compared with the summer high season. Rates at the 586-room InterContinental, for example, are 30% lower at $166. At the Gladstone Hotel, a redbrick Victorian on Queen Street West, industrial-style rooms with exposed brick walls start at $131 (vs. $197).

  • November: Take In Savannah’s Southern Charm

    A row of classic Savannah homes.
    A row of classic Savannah homes. Bill Stamatis—Getty Images/iStockphoto

    Why Now: Savannah is best known for its 19th-century architecture and oak-lined streets. However, the city also has an impressive modern design scene, thanks in large part to the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), which has campus buildings all over town. The crowds that flood the city earlier in the year start to thin in November, yet the weather stays pleasant, with highs in the low 70s.

    What to Do: Immerse yourself in the region’s design history with a walking tour from Jonathan Stalcup, founder of architectural Savannah. His in-depth itineraries ($30) detail Savannah’s progression from Georgian buildings (when we loved the English) to Greek Revival mansions (when we loathed the English).

    The city is also a shoppers’ paradise, stocked with one-of-a-kind delights, says editor Heather Henley of DoSavannah.com. Check out Satchel for unique leather handbags and Folklorico for crafts from a range of countries.

    Finally, be sure to sample the city’s culinary scene, which ranges from Low Country classics to newer additions, like Florence, an Italian spot recommended by Stefanie Dasher, who blogs about the city on Lifeonthesquares.com: “Try the black bucatini pasta with a pork sausage ragu ($20).”

    How to Save: Savannah’s popularity as a convention destination keeps hotel prices relatively stable, but, according to STR, the average rate does slide 10% in November as tourists head to even warmer climes. Look carefully, and you’ll find more impressive deals: At Brice, for instance, a new property with four- poster beds and a chic, all-white library, rates start at $179, down from a peak of $399. The no-frills Holiday Inn express, ideally located in the historic district, has rooms from $125 (vs. $172 in April).

  • December: Spend the Holidays in Madrid

    A giant Christmas tree illuminates the Puerta del Sol in the centre of Madrid.
    A giant Christmas tree illuminates the Puerta del Sol in the centre of Madrid. Gerard Julien—AFP/Getty Images

    Why Now: Madrid rings out the year in high style. Serrano, a top shopping street, shows off lights and festive window displays, and the city’s many churches set up glowing nativity scenes, says Virginia Irurita, founder of travel company Made for Spain. Madrid is already a steal compared with other European capitals (the average hotel rate is about $100, vs. $179 in Rome), and lodging rates dip 20% in December.

    What to Do: Get in the holiday spirit with a choral or organ performance at the Almudena Cathedral or one of the free Christmas concerts hosted by the Prado Museum, says Irurita. Then, indulge in the other thing Madrileños worship—food—at the cozy new Ultramarinos Quintín, part market, part restaurant. Don’t miss the bacalao-stuffed croquettes, shrimp, and fried potatoes.

    Shopping for holiday gifts? Skip the weekend crowds at the city’s famous Sunday Rastro flea market; the best vendors are open all week long, says Madrid-based journalist Andrew Ferren. Among his favorites: La Recova, which carries home-decor items, and la Brocanterie, the place to find mid-century furnishings. Afterward, duck into Lhardy for a cup of hot caldo, or bouillon, mixed with sherry, Ferren says.

    How to Save: For affordable accommodations, check out room-matehotels.com, a Madrid-based chain of unique properties throughout the city. Simple double rooms at Room Mate’s centrally located Mario hotel cost $73 in December, compared with $98 in summer. Planning a holiday splurge? Opt for Urso Hotel & Spa, housed in a former palace. The property has gotten a lot of attention for its elegant custom furnishings and hydrotherapy spa pool. Rates start at $205, down about 20% from March.

    Read next:
    6 Ways to Be a Savvier Traveler in 2015

MONEY Travel

Stronger U.S. Dollar Makes for Cheaper Travel Abroad

The Euro is at its lowest point since 2006, putting that dream vacation to Rome a little more in reach.

MONEY Tourism

Why Disneyland Closed its Doors on Christmas

142912_EM_CLOSEDDISNEY
Buddy Mays—Alamy

Disney had to close its flagship parks because they reached maximum capacity. Shareholders are laughing all the way to the bank.

It might have been a rough Christmas for tourists visiting Disney’s THE WALT DISNEY CO. DIS -1.3267% flagship theme parks on both coasts, but that is ultimately welcome news for the family entertainment giant’s shareholders.

Disney had to temporarily close Disneyland in California and Magic Kingdom in Florida on Thursday morning after both theme parks reached their maximum capacity. The two have become popular Christmas attractions, and it only helps that Disney-owned ABC keeps the buzz percolating by airing its annual Christmas morning special showcasing parades at both iconic parks. This year’s installment — Disney Parks Frozen Christmas Celebration – was the 31st annual airing, and the House of Mouse again cashed in on the success of last year’s animated blockbuster Frozen.

Guests arriving too late at Disney’s Ticket and Transportation Center in Florida — the parking lot gateway to the Magic Kingdom — were advised to head to one of the resort’s three other theme parks. Things didn’t get any easier on the West Coast, where resort guests were told to hit up Disney’s California Adventure adjacent to the original theme park.

Those who got in might not necessarily consider themselves the fortunate ones. A couple of hours into the operating day, the wait for the Magic Kingdom’s new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was 180 minutes. Waits for Space Mountain and Peter Pan’s Flight peaked at two hours. It’s no fun being in a crowded theme park as everything from getting around to grabbing a bite to eat become patience-rattling challenges.

Shareholders don’t mind. They’re the ones laughing all the way to the bank. Naysayers who argued that Disney would drive potential guests away by raising prices earlier this year could not have been more wrong. The only question that remains is how much higher Disney’s theme park tickets go during next year’s inevitable hike.

Disney’s theme parks have been on a roll lately. The media behemoth’s theme parks and resorts division’s revenue climbed 7% to $15.1 billion in the fiscal year that ended in September. Given the high fixed costs associated with operating a theme park, it’s no surprise to see the division’s operating profit fare even better with this scalable model, soaring 20% to nearly $2.7 billion in fiscal 2014. If the turnstiles are clicking and folks are spending money at the parks, it’s going to pay off exponentially as you work your way down the income statement.

Then again, the turnstiles don’t click at Disney World anymore. They chime and flash green as guests scan their RFID-backed admission tickets of MagicBand bracelets. Disney has reportedly spent roughly $1 billion on the MyMagic+ and MagicBand technology, in which guests scan bracelets to access reserved ride times and order ride photos, among other goodies. More important, Disney is learning more about the behavior of individual guests, arming it with the ability to better monetize the experience while at the same time eventually offering up more customized and optimized outings for guests.

In that sense, a crowded theme park is like an optimal lab of guinea pigs for Disney to dissect. If a three-hour wait for a family friendly roller coaster or waiting nearly as long for a snapshot with Frozen sisters Anna and Elsa create disgruntled guests, MyMagic+ will steer the theme park leader to offer more tailored itinerary suggestions for guests. The House of Mouse always wins.

TIME animals

Antarctic Tourism Could Expose Penguins to New Diseases, Study Warns

Antarctica, South Orkney Islands, Laurie Island, Gentoo
Getty Images

Scientists sound the alarm after foreign pathogens sweep through penguin colonies

A boom in Antarctic tourism could introduce new, infectious diseases to the continent’s penguin colonies, scientists warned in a new study released Friday.

More than 37,000 tourists trekked out to the frozen continent in 2013, more than quadrupling the number of visitors two decades earlier, according to a report in New Scientist first spotted by The Atlantic.

Researchers warned that these well-intentioned visitors could be the unwitting carriers of foreign pathogens. Avian flu, for instance, has caused deadly outbreaks among photogenic colonies of gentoo penguins, killing hundreds in 2006 and 2008. Researchers say that the origin of the virus remains unknown, and that it could also have been introduced by migratory birds flocking to the region.

“The effects of both a growing tourism industry and research presence will not be without consequences,” Wray Grimaldi of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand told the New Scientist.

MONEY Odd Spending

4 Things to Know About (Legal) Cuban Cigars

A box of large cohiba Cuban cigars.
A box of large cohiba Cuban cigars. David Curtis—agefotostock

For the time being, it still won't be easy to procure legal Cuban cigars.

In 1962, President John Kennedy reportedly stockpiled 1,200 Cuban cigars before signing the decree to cut economic ties with Cuba. Now that President Obama has reestablished diplomatic ties and lifted the outright ban on cigars, you might be eager to build your own stash.

Not so fast. Here’s what the new rules actually mean for you.

1) Cuban cigars are still not legal for sale in the United States.

President Obama reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba. He did not lift the embargo on Cuba—that will take an act of Congress. While the United States will soon ease restrictions on travel and banking, for the time being, the ban on trade remains in place. Which means you won’t be able to buy legal Cuban cigars from American retailers anytime soon.

Current law says the penalty for importing Cuban cigars is up to $250,000 in fines and up to 10 years in prison. Under the new rules, travelers to Cuba can bring back $400 worth of goods, only $100 of which can be cigars and alcohol.

2) Only “licensed travelers” can get them.

If you want legal cigars, you need a license to cross the straits of Florida. The White House says the government will allow Americans to travel to Cuba to visit family, to conduct official government business, to produce journalism, for professional research, for educational activities, for religious activities, for public events, to support the Cuban people, for humanitarian projects, to act on behalf of private foundations, to transmit information materials, and to conduct “certain export transactions.”

That said, the Associated Press reported that 170,000 Americans visited the country legally last year. If you’re thinking of traveling to Cuba now that the United States has restored full relations, here’s what else you should know.

3) Yes, Cuban cigars really do taste different.

Cuban cigars been contraband for half a century. So are they really as good as people say, or does the “forbidden fruit” taste sweeter?

Aaron Sigmond, founding editor of The Cigar Report and Smoke Magazine, says yes: Cuba’s terroir—its soil and climate—does produce different tobacco. “The Dominican Republic and Nicaragua both make exceptional cigars, but nothing is like Cuba,” Sigmond told Bloomberg. “It’s analogous to wines. California, Oregon, Italy all make exceptional vintage wines, but the wines of France reign supreme simply because of the terroir in Burgundy and Bordeaux.”

Researchers agree: One study found judges could distinguish between Cuban and non-Cuban cigars, and judges consistently ranked Cuban cigars higher, Vox reports. That’s significant, since previous studies have found that people struggle to distinguish expensive and inexpensive wines.

But if you’re not a cigar aficionado, you might not be able to tell. Many people are snookered by counterfeits. “Most people are not getting what they think are Cuban cigars,” Roland Boone, tobacconist for the Buckhead Cigar Club in Atlanta, told Bloomberg. “Many are made in Mexico, with a facsimile of a band that appears like a Cuban band.”

4) If you want to try a real Cuban, it’ll probably run you $10 to $20 a cigar—or more.

Real Cubans are expensive. Slate estimates that they start at $10 a pop. Sadly, that means the rules could exclude the best Cuban cigars. Stephen Pulvirent at Bloomberg writes:

“While prices vary greatly—not all Cuban cigars are created equal—the $100 allotment will generally cover no more than a dozen high-end cigars from makers such as Partagás and Cohiba. There are vintage and limited edition cigars for which a single stick will still be too pricey to make it into the U.S.”

READ NEXT: Thinking About a Trip to Cuba? 5 Things You Should Know

TIME Religion

Noah’s Ark Theme Park Won’t Get Tax Breaks

'Ark Encounter' is struggling to stay afloat

A life-size Noah’s Ark theme park planned in northern Kentucky won’t receive $18 million in tax incentives after concerns from the state over its hiring practices.

The state’s tourism secretary wrote a letter Wednesday saying that Answers in Genesis, which is funding the planned Ark Encounter theme park, was requiring “salvation testimony” and a “Creation belief statement” in its job postings, which the state said was discriminating based on religious grounds.

(MORE: Modern-Day Noah: Dutch Man Builds Ark of Biblical Proportions)

“It is readily apparent that the project has evolved from a tourist attraction to an extension of AIG’s ministry that will no longer permit the commonwealth to grant the project tourism development incentives,” wrote Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Bob Stewart.

The Ark Encounter, which would feature a 510-foot wooden replica of Noah’s Ark as described in the Bible, has been underway since 2010, but the $170 million project has run into financial difficulties since getting approval in 2011 from the Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority.

MONEY Leisure

Great Ways to Spend Black Friday Not at the Mall

One of the contraptions. The 16th Annual Friday After Thanksgiving Chain Reaction Event held at MIT, featuring 34 teams and their Rube Goldberg machines.
One of the contraptions. The 16th Annual Friday After Thanksgiving Chain Reaction Event held at MIT, featuring 34 teams and their Rube Goldberg machines. Jonathan Wiggs—Boston Globe via Getty Images

Who says you must go shopping on Black Friday? Here's a roundup of suggestions for fun, worthwhile events that take place on the notoriously crazed shopping day—but don't involve shopping at all.

It’s understandable if you plan to steer clear of the mall on November 28, a.k.a. the day after Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Black Friday. A confusing, contradictory string of consumer polls suggests that “only” 11%, or perhaps as many as 28% of Americans will physically go shopping in stores on the day. Even if the true figure is at the low end of the spectrum, it’ll still mean millions and millions of people clogging shopping centers across the land. The National Retail Federation estimated that 141 individual consumers made shopping purchases last year during the Thanksgiving weekend. The majority of the purchases were made in person (not online), and as expected, Black Friday was the weekend’s biggest day for sales.

The point is that there are literally millions and millions of reasons why you might want to consider not going to the mall on Friday. Add in the fact that deal-tracking experts argue that smart shoppers should probably skip Black Friday because, with the exception of a few amazing-but-limited doorbuster deals, stores don’t have their best prices this day, and we’re left with one overarching but illogical reason why people are compelled to shop on the day: They go not in spite of the crowds and the crazed, competitive atmosphere but because of it. In certain circles, Black Friday is considered the “Super Bowl” of shopping, or a “blood sport” of consumerism if you will, and there are shoppers out there who can’t pass up the action—even if it ruins Thanksgiving because Black Friday now starts on Thursday for most national retailers.

In any event, if you decide to not go shopping on Black Friday, congratulations. You pass the sanity test. But just because you sit Black Friday out in terms of shopping doesn’t mean you have to sit at home the whole day. Here are some suggestions for the day that don’t involve elbowing a desperate mom out of the way to get the last cheap TV or video game console in a store:

Parades and Holiday Lights
Portland (OR), Seattle, Estes Park at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and San Antonio are among the many spots that traditionally host parades on the day after Thanksgiving. The latter is a nighttime floating parade that spectators view from San Antonio’s River Walk (tickets are necessary), and the elaborate floats feature tens of thousands of lights. Black Friday is also the day that the flip is switched on for the season for holiday light displays in places such as Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Coat Exchanges
In honor of Buy Nothing Day, an anti-consumerism event timed to coincide with Black Friday, charity organizers launched a coat exchange years ago on the day in Rhode Island. Nowadays, coats are gathered and given away all over the state on Black Friday, and similar coat exchange programs have popped up in Utah, Kentucky, and Indiana.

Museums (and Drinks!)
Museums around the country give visitors extra reason to absorb some culture and knowledge—both in short supply at the nation’s malls—with special events and discounts on Black Friday. For instance, Miami’s Frost Museum of Science has two-for-one admissions on November 28, while from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. the Oakland Museum of California waives admission for kids and offers half-price entrance and drink specials in the beer garden for those of age. In Milwaukee, the Harley-Davidson Museum is hosting its third annual Black Friday Beerfest, with samples from dozens of craft brewers on hand.

F.A.T. Chain Reaction
Every year, an inventive, entertaining, and admittedly geeky event called the Friday After Thanksgiving (F.A.T.) Chain Reaction takes place in the Boston area at the MIT campus. Teams of kids come with elaborate Rube Goldberg/better mousetrap creations made with any materials of their choosing that, like dominos, set off a wild chain reaction of moving pieces that takes between 30 seconds and three minutes to complete. In the end, each team’s creation is linked together in a giant chain reaction to delight the crowd. Tickets are $5 for children ages 5 to 17, and $15 for adults at the door ($12.50 in advance).

Live Sports
We all know that the NFL is the dominant sport for Thanksgiving Day. The day after, however, has increasingly become a hot day for the other two major pro sports being played right now: A dozen NBA games take place on Black Friday 2014 (including a 1 p.m. tipoff of the Chicago Bulls versus the host Boston Celtics), and three of the 11 NHL games scheduled for Friday get underway during family-friendly afternoon times. Plenty of college football games kick off around the country on Friday, November 28, as well.

 

TIME Culture

These Are the Most Visited Tourist Attractions in the World

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul
Grand Bazaar in Istanbul Michael James O'Brien

Embrace the wisdom of crowds by adding the world’s most-visited tourist attractions to your bucket list

For nearly 500 years, the emperors living within Beijing’s opulent Forbidden City dictated who could enter and leave. Well, the gates have opened, and tourists are pouring in to see it all for themselves. Attendance is up by 2.5 million since 2010.

The Forbidden City is a dream destination for some Americans, but most have never researched a trip to Everland or Lotte World. Yet these South Korean theme parks also rank among the world’s 50 most-visited tourist attractions—beating out the Eiffel Tower (nearly 7 million), the Great Pyramids (4 million), and Stonehenge (1 million). And there are more surprises.

Where we choose to spend our vacation time says a lot about what we value. Despite—or perhaps because of—what the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) calls “global economic challenges,” more travelers are hitting the road than ever. International tourist arrivals increased by 5 percent in 2013, according to the UNWTO. That translates to a record of more than one billion trips. With its population of 1.36 billion, China became the second-largest exporter of tourists. Russia, now the fifth-largest outbound market, increased travel spending by 26 percent.

Like it or not, theme parks clearly have worldwide appeal. France’s Disneyland Park draws about the same number of visitors (10.5 million) as Sacré Coeur, and four of the world’s 20 most-visited tourist attractions are Disney parks.

Many inspiring and iconic places can’t quite keep up. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum narrowly missed the top 50, as did the British Museum in London (6.7 million), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (6.3 million), and the Roman Colosseum and Forum (5.1 million each). The Berlin Wall Memorial Site logged only 500,000 visitors in 2013, though extra crowds are arriving in November 2014 for the 25th anniversary of its fall.

Accessibility can be a factor. It takes extra effort to reach Yellowstone National Park (3.2 million) or the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, China (4.8 million). And Peru’s Machu Picchu has restricted tourism to help maintain the site’s integrity; only 2,500 can enter per day, or 912,500 per year.

So what is the most-visited tourist attraction in the world? And can 91 million people be wrong? Read on to see the results—and an explanation of our methods for calculating it all.

The Methodology: To tally up the world’s most-visited attractions, we gathered the most recent data supplied by the attractions themselves or from government agencies, industry reports, and reputable media outlets. In most cases, it was 2013 data. Attractions that don’t sell tickets gave us estimates as best they could.

We defined “tourist attractions” as cultural and historical sites, natural landmarks, and officially designated spaces. So Boston’s shop-filled Faneuil Hall Marketplace (est. 1742) made the cut, but not Minnesota’s Mall of America, which, with 40 million annual visitors, would otherwise have tied for No. 4. Short walkways and plazas also fit our definition of tourist attractions; that disqualified the Blue Ridge Parkway. We also omitted beaches, bridges, and sites that draw almost exclusively religious pilgrims.

No. 1 Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Annual Visitors: 91,250,000

Hand-painted ceramics, lanterns, intricately patterned carpets, copperware, gold Byzantine-style jewelry, and more eye-catching products vie for your attention within this 15th-century bazaar’s vaulted walkways. It has since expanded and become increasingly touristy, but locals, too, are among the millions of bargain hunters. To haggle like a pro, lowball your starting offer and don’t be afraid to walk away. And if it all gets overwhelming, break for a succulent doner kebab or strong cup of Turkish coffee.

No. 2 The Zócalo, Mexico City

Annual Visitors: 85,000,000

Formally known as the Plaza de la Constitución, the enormous Zócalo thrums with activity. It hosts military parades, cultural and political events, concerts, exhibitions, fairs, and public art installations. Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Palace flank this historic public square, and an imposing Mexican flag, raised and lowered daily, waves over the scene.

No. 3 Times Square, New York City

Annual Visitors: 50,000,000

Tourists flock to New York’s neon heart for the flashing lights, Broadway shows, megastores, and sheer spectacle—including costumed characters eager to pose for photo ops. Pedestrian-only areas with café tables introduced a few years ago have made it easier and more appealing to hang out here. Times Square can even be a convenient, if chaotic, base, thanks to hotels at every price point and easy access to public transportation: subways, rails, buses, and more yellow taxis than you can count.

No. 4 (tie) Central Park, New York City

Annual Visitors: 40,000,000

New York has larger green spaces, but none is more famous than Central Park, which stretches across nearly 850 acres of prime Manhattan real estate—an oasis for both tourists and locals. You can ride in one of the horse-drawn carriages, check out the modest-size zoo, climb to the top of 19th-century Belvedere Castle, or take a break from pounding the pavement to sprawl on the Great Lawn, gazing at the skyscrapers above.

No. 4 (tie) Union Station, Washington, D.C.

Annual Visitors: 40,000,000

Opened in 1907, this busy station shuttles some 12,500 passengers daily in and out of the city. But it also handles millions of tourists who pass through to take in the impeccably mixed architectural styles throughout the colossal building: from Classical to Beaux-Arts to Baroque. More than 70 retail outlets make Union Station a shopping destination, and it’s also a jumping-off point for many D.C. tours.

Read the full list HERE.

More from Travel + Leisure:

MONEY Leisure

How Daylight Saving Time Costs You Money

two women looking in shop windows at dusk
Daylight saving: energy conservation measure or Chamber of Commerce conspiracy? Betsie Van Der Meer—Getty Images

The tradeoff for later sunsets during daylight saving time is that you're more likely to be out and about, dropping cash.

At 2 a.m. on Sunday, November 2, the observation of daylight saving time will end and the clocks will “fall back” to the standard time, 1 a.m. Despite the fact that the shift grants the vast majority of Americans a much-welcomed extra hour of sleep, many would prefer to do away with the twice-annual time change.

Arizona and Hawaii already don’t bother with daylight saving time, and it looks like Utah could be next. In an online survey that collected more than 27,000 responses, two-thirds of Utahns favored staying on Mountain Standard Time year-round, like Arizona does. “Convenience really stood out” as a major reason why folks want to get rid of daylight savings, the leader of a government committee studying the topic explained to the Salt Lake Tribune. “People don’t want to move their clocks forward, backward … They just want to set them and leave them.”

OK, so doing away with daylight savings would make life simpler—but only very slightly so, since our computers and smartphones and other gadgets change their clocks automatically. More important, what’s the argument to keep daylight saving observation in place?

Daylight saving time was first embraced during World War I, when the idea was that the spring shift would help conserve coal because people would need less light and heat since they had more daylight during their waking hours. The concept that daylight saving saved on energy costs persisted for decades but has recently been declared patently false. Later sunsets during the warm months mean a higher likelihood that Americans will spend their evenings driving around and doing stuff, meaning more need for gas and air-conditioning during waking hours.

The ability for Americans to be out and about enjoying the later sunset amounts to an economic stimulus, because odds are we’re spending more money when we’re out. Michael Downing, a Tufts University professor and author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Savings, explained to The Takeaway public radio program that the main beneficiaries of daylight saving include the golfing, tourism, and recreation industries—all of which attract more business when there’s more daylight after the traditional work day is done.

For that matter, all manner of shops and small businesses love what’s perceived to be a longer day, because it pushes consumers outside later into the night. “Since 1915, the principal supporter of daylight saving in the United States has been the Chamber of Commerce on behalf of small business and retailers,” said Downing. “The Chamber understood that if you give workers more sunlight at the end of the day they’ll stop and shop on their way home.”

A Tufts blog post noted that in 2005, daylight saving time was expanded from seven to eight months, including the key step of delaying the “fall back” until the first week of November—a move spurred on thanks to pressure from lobbyists supporting candy manufacturers and convenience stores. Why would they want such a change? Kids would get an extra hour of daylight for trick-or-treating, meaning more candy consumption and more candy purchases. Later sunsets for more of the year also mean more people out on the roads needing to swing by convenience stores to gas up or grab snacks.

As a result of these changes, we somewhat bizarrely now observe daylight saving for the vast majority of the year. “Today we have eight months of daylight saving and only four months of standard time,” Downing said. “Can you tell me which time is the standard?”

To some extent, the autumn return to standard time balances things out. With earlier sunsets, we’re out on the roads less, and therefore there’s less need to gas up the car. So there’s some savings there. Still, for much of the country, people wouldn’t be playing golf or having barbecues or visiting national parks anyway at that time of year because it’s just too cold.

And remember: Daylight saving is eight months of the year, versus only four months for “standard” time. Also: While daylight saving serves as an economic stimulus for two-thirds of the calendar year, standard time has its own epic consumer stimulus, in the form of Black Friday and the ever-expanding holiday shopping season.

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