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Costa Concordia: What does it mean for you and cruising?

The tragedy of the crashing of the Costa Concordia on the coast of Italy has been front page news for over a week now. This has been perhaps the most deadly cruise disaster since the sinking of the Titanic.

There have been 16 confirmed deaths so far and even one death is one too many. There’s no excuse for the cruise captain’s negligence. I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the disaster and what it will mean for the future of cruising. I answered some of them when I was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times about how the Costa Concordia incident will affect the travel industry, but I wanted to expand upon those answers here.

Q: How will the Costa Concordia incident affect the future of the cruise industry?
A: Although the incident might not deter avid cruisers, other vacationers might avoid cruising for some time. Incidents like this are rare in the industry, and all eyes will be on the cruise liners to see how they handle this and implement changes to improve passenger safety. Officials are reporting that this incident was most likely due to a misjudgment on the part of cruise captain. I predict cruise liners will be closely scrutinizing safety protocols and will be filling any potential gaps they see to ensure the utmost safety of their passengers.

Q: Does Friendly Planet Travel have any travelers booked on the Costa Concordia?
A: Friendly Planet Travel hasn’t sold any trips on Costa Cruises for a few years now. However, we do offer cruises on various cruise lines owned by Costa’s parent company, Carnival Corporation. Among the Carnival-owned cruise lines that we offer are Carnival, NCL, Royal Caribbean Lines, Celebrity, and Azamara.

Q: Should I cancel my cruise booking because of the Costa Concordia?
A: Avoid the urge to cancel a cruise you have booked because of this incident. Cruises are historically safe — safer than driving a car. The U.N.-affiliated International Maritime Organization lists 38 incidents involving passenger ships since 2005 in which more than 60 people died. Compare that to car travel, in which more than 100 people die per day. You have a better chance at getting struck by lightening — about 40 people die every year from lightening strikes, according to the National Weather Service. No one has called Friendly Planet Travel to cancel an existing cruise booking. Right now, Carnival Corporation and nine leading cruise lines around the world have announced a comprehensive audit and review of all safety and emergency response procedures, so they’re taking extra precautions to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Q. What can I do to be a better-prepared cruise passenger?
A: The very best thing that travelers can do is prepare themselves for various scenarios while on a cruise ship. This includes finding out where you should go on the ship in the event of an emergency, determining the location of life boats, and discovering the storage spots of extra life jackets and other supplies. Wendy Perrin, writer of the Perrin Post on Condé Nast Traveler, recently published a comprehensive list of things that travelers can do to prepare themselves while cruising. I suggest that anyone planning to cruise check out Wendy’s tips.

If you have any more questions about cruising, please feel free to leave a comment here and I’ll do my best to answer it for you.

Japan nuclear crisis prompts cancellation of Japan Panorama tours

The complex issues around Japan’s nuclear crisis are not short term. And as a result, Friendly Planet Travel is suspending our Japan Panorama tours.

We always act in the best interest of our travelers, and their safety is our number one priority. So the tour will remain suspended until we are certain our travelers can visit Japan safely.

If you are booked on one of our Japan Panorama departure dates, we’ve already contacted you with this news. You’ll be able to book any one of Friendly Planet Travel’s other tours. Even if it’s sold out, we will work with you to get a tour you want. Or if you don’t wish to do that, you can receive a full refund.

I’m saddened to see Japan suffer like this, and our thoughts go out to everyone in Japan as they deal with the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and now a nuclear crisis. Hopefully Japan will be able to get the nuclear problem under control soon and start the recovery process.

We will certainly reinstate our tours to Japan the moment it looks as though our travelers will be safe. If any news on this situation changes, watch this spot for updates. In the meantime, we are urging everyone who can to donate whatever amount is possible to Doctors without Borders or the International Red Cross. Both agencies are very much engaged in helping the people of Japan recover from the horrific disasters of the past weeks.

Japan update: Travel news and ways you can help

Since my last update on Japan, I’m happy to report that our representatives in Tokyo are safe. We also have been in contact with our airline partners, Singapore Airlines, who have extended the deadline to cancel flights to Japan without penalty from March 20 to April 10.

That means insurance coverage is guaranteed only through April 10. However, I believe this deadline will be pushed back, as the nuclear emergency in Japan has complicated things.

So in order to make sure our travelers don’t suffer unnecessary penalties for canceling their April 19 departure or later for the Japan Panorama tour, which is not yet protected by waivers from suppliers, we’re not making any changes or canceling any tours at this time.

If you’re on our April 19 Japan Panorama departure, we’ve already contacted you with a list of options to choose from at this time, including booking another Friendly Planet Travel destination or a later Japan departure date.

Once we have a better sense of damage to the particular regions visited on the Japan Panorama itinerary, we will be better able to determine how to proceed. I want to assure you that we will act in your best interests. Flip back to my previous post to get more details about this decision.

Amid this disaster that has reshaped Japan physically, it’s clear that the Japanese people are methodical, strong, and united. One journalist I heard this morning on the BBC spoke of spending the night in a standing apartment in a village in the earthquake zone.

The family who lives there has no electricity, water, phone service, and very little food. Despite this, the journalist was welcomed warmly and invited to share whatever meager resources the family had. The journalist was surprised by the lack of hysteria and the stoic, calm attitude of the people she has met.

I’m not surprised. I’ve been working with the Japanese for years and know that they will recover and emerge from this better and stronger than before. That is just how they are as a people. For example, our representatives in Japan expressed their gratitude at having been spared the worst of the earthquake and the tsunami, but are worried about people in the worst impacted areas. Their message to me ended with this stoic line: “We will fight this tragedy together and recover, for sure.”

This is just one of the reasons why people — especially those of us who value independence, strength of character, and the ability to look ahead and work toward a better future — will not cancel, but postpone travel to Japan. And, at the first possible moment, they will make a beeline to be among the first to witness the recovery.

Friendly Planet Travel is looking for the best ways to help the Japanese people at this terrible time. We will get back to you with some suggestions for places to send donations that assure the help gets through quickly and to those who need it the most.

In the meantime, we are recommending Doctors Without Borders as a good place to send donations. They are very active in the Japanese recovery and have indicated they will need special funding to handle the crisis. I’ll continue to post updates to the blog, Facebook, and Twitter about the situation in Japan.

Japan earthquake travel update

This post has been updated here.

I don’t have to tell you about the natural disasters that struck Japan, devastating the country.

I love Japan and am heartbroken to see this beautiful country go through this horrible event. Our hearts go out to everyone effected by this disaster.

Thankfully, Friendly Planet Travel does not have any travelers in the country at this moment. However, we do have a scheduled departure date for our Japan Panorama tour on April 19, which is presently on hold.

For the moment, we have been informed that tickets issued for travel to Japan can be cancelled without penalty only through March 20. After that date, issued tickets can be cancelled, but for a penalty of $100 per person.

Since we have not been able to reach our land agents in Japan yet, we can’t determine if land penalties will be waived for April departures. We believe, however, that all of our suppliers will be lenient under the circumstances.

It is out of the question to even begin to determine the extent of the destruction in Japan at this early hour. In fact, a second earthquake occurred just a short while ago in the Nagano area, and there are likely to be aftershocks in the hours and days ahead.

In order to determine if travel in April will even be possible, we will need to assess the viability of the buildings in the cities where our travelers would stay. In the best case scenario, this will take weeks. The safety of our travelers is always our number one priority.

We will need to wait a few days until we make contact with our representatives on the ground in Japan. From there we’ll determine how cancellations of tours for April will be handled in order to make a final decision about our departure dates.

If you’re one of the travelers booked on our April 19 Japan Panorama tour, we are contacting you right now to give you all the information we have. Once the options are known, we will send them to you without delay. And be assured that no matter what option you choose, we will work with you to ensure you get a trip you are happy with.

The tsunami that hit Japan triggered tsunami alerts in other parts of the world where we do have Friendly Planet Travelers, including the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica. I spoke with our representatives in the Galapagos Islands and they they told me everyone is safe and has been moved to higher ground until the alert expires. Costa Rica was issued a “green alert,” which is considered not threatening.

In events such as these, it’s a good time to remind you of the importance of buying travel insurance. If your trip is cancelled, travel insurance typically covers up to the total trip cost. But there are some caveats.

In this case, travel insurance will cover the trips that are cancelled right now, that is, for departures through March 20. For the moment, airlines are waiving cancellation fees only through March 20 and insurance companies are following suit. It is to be seen how this disaster evolves. If it is not possible to conduct tourism as usual, that March 20 date will be moved back, and the coverage will also be extended.

Please be patient. The situation is still evolving, and it will take a few days to understand the full impact of the earthquake and tsunami. But be assured that we’re working 24/7 and monitoring the situation closely.

I will continue to post updates on the blog, Facebook, and Twitter as news develops. Most importantly, keep everyone in Japan in your thoughts. We will be creating a way you can help the people of Japan. I’ll tell you more about that in a future blog post.

Egypt protests intensify; Friendly Planet travelers in Egypt to depart on Feb. 3

This post has been updated here.

The protests in Egypt intensified with the news that President Hosni Mubarak will step down from power, but not until the end of his term in September. Supporters of Mubarak and anti-government protesters clashed in Tahrir Square Wednesday over the announcement.

But amid this bad news, I have good news to share. Friendly Planet travelers in Egypt will be leaving Cairo on a nonstop, EgyptAir flight for JFK International Airport on Feb. 3. Until then, Friendly Planet travelers will continue to stay in at Fairmont Towers, Heliopolis.

Below is the e-mail I sent to their emergency contacts last night detailing the decision to book the EgyptAir flight and how they will be accommodated until they depart. We worked 24/7 to make these arrangements for our travelers, and I’m so happy that they’ll be back in U.S. within the next day.

I’ll share more updates with you on the situation in Egypt as they unfold on the blog, Twitter, and Facebook. And stay tuned, I’ll tell you what to do about rescheduling or cancelling an upcoming trip to Egypt in my next blog post.


We would like to update you regarding your family and friends still in Egypt. At present, our group remains at the Fairmont Heliopolis. Early this morning (Cairo time) the group was offered three options for leaving Egypt. The options were:

1. A Viking Cruises-organized charter flight from Cairo to Frankfurt.
2. US Government-organized evacuation flights to Malta, Cyprus, Athens and other European locations.
3. Confirmed space on Thursday, Feb. 3 via EgyptAir non-stop service to JFK.

The group unanimously voted to remain in Cairo until Feb. 3, when they could depart via EgyptAir direct to the USA. The other two options were less attractive to the group due to the unknown costs associated with getting from Europe to the USA. The cost of the Viking charter was $600 per person plus the cost of getting from Frankfurt to the USA, plus hotel and meal expenses if overnight accommodations in Frankfurt were necessary. The cost of the US Government flights is unknown, and as with Frankfurt, the cost of getting from the European cities to the USA plus potential hotel expenses also should be considered.

The EgyptAir appeared to be the best option, as the ticket is already covered by the original EgyptAir ticket from our tour, and the extra nights at the Fairmont hotel are being covered from the refund of services our travelers are due. Thus, if all goes well, you will be seeing your loved ones very soon. And in the meantime, our travelers are comfortable at the Fairmont Hotel, with two provided meals daily as well as their hotel accommodations.

Telephone service remains difficult, although the land lines seem to work better than cell phone service. The internet remains a huge problem. We have not been able to communicate via the internet since it was cut last Thursday.

Our Egypt representatives remain with the group at all times, so they have local assistance if needed.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of any assistance to you. In the meantime, we will continue to update you as we receive more information.

Cordially,

Peggy M. Goldman
President
Friendly Planet Travel

What to do if you or a loved one are still in Egypt

This post has been updated here.

Today, protesters in Egypt are trying to rally a million supporters in Tahrir Square to demand that President Hosni Mubarak step down. Friendly Planet travelers are safe at the Fairmont Towers, Heliopolis near the airport awaiting evacuation on either U.S.-organized evacuation flights or via EgyptAir.

If you’re one of the thousands of travelers in Egypt trying to get out, here are a few things you and your loved ones back home can do to make sure you get out as quickly as possible.

Internet traffic has been disrupted and is practically unavailable within Egypt. So, you’ll have to rely on telephone access. Cell phones are working sporadically, so even though the cost to use your U.S.-based cell phone might be astronomical, go for it anyway. It’s worth the money.

If you don’t have access to a cell phone or yours won’t work, find a land line. You can most likely charge your calls to your major credit card. If you’re calling from a hotel, the hotel will add the cost of the call to your bill. Again, it’ll be very expensive, but worth it.

If a travel agent or tour company booked this trip for you and you have not yet been contacted by them, make sure that you contact them without delay and ask for urgent assistance. They should be working around the clock to get you on a plane out of Egypt.

And if you booked this trip yourself, go to the Cairo airport or get to one of the major tourist hotels in Cairo. The U.S. Department of State will be gathering people from both spots for evacuation flights out of the country.

If you can’t get to the airport or a major tourist hotel, stay put and watch the media on TV or listen to the radio. Definitely don’t wander around outside on your own. The U.S. Department of State will be broadcasting instructions on the evacuation processes through the media in Egypt, including the English-speaking media.

Try your best to contact the U.S. Embassy in Cairo by phone at 1-202-501-4444. If you can’t get through, make an international call to the U.S. Department of State at 1-888-407-4747.

And make sure to enlist the help of your family and friends. Ask them to urgently call their congressperson’s office. The congressional staff will transmit your location in Egypt to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, so when they’re organizing evacuations, the embassy will know where to reach you.

Following these few steps will help you get out of Egypt sooner rather than later. I’ll continue to post updates on the evacuation status of our Friendly Planet travelers and the protests in Egypt. Stay tuned to our blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

Egypt update: Friendly Planet travelers awaiting evacuation

This post has been updated here.

When I updated you last night on the situation in Egypt, I told you that the Friendly Planet travelers in Egypt were on the Nile cruise ship en route to Aswan where they would be flown back to the Cairo airport. They flew back to Cairo and are staying at the luxury Fairmont Towers, Heliopolis near the airport awaiting evacuation.

If you have family or friends in Egypt with Friendly Planet Travel and want to get in touch with them, you can reach them at the hotel. Here is the contact information:

Tel: +20 22 267 7730
Fax: +20 22 267 7600
E-mail: heliopolis@fairmont.com

But be patient if you can’t get through right away. Most lines are busy, but if you keep trying you will reach the hotel.

We are working to get everyone on flights out of Egypt, either on U.S.-organized evacuation flights or via EgyptAir, which is once again flying as usual. We are even looking into chartering a plane. Meanwhile, everyone is comfortable at the hotel, still accompanied by bi-lingual staff at all times.

Please be assured that all of us at Friendly Planet Travel, together with everyone at Wings Tours in Egypt, are working 24/7 to maintain the safety of our travelers and to get them home quickly. We will not stop our efforts until every last Friendly Planet traveler has landed in the U.S.

Stay tuned to the blog, Facebook, and Twitter for more updates.

Egypt protests: Updates and photos from a Friendly Planet traveler

This post has been updated here.

As of today, there’s no sign that the protests in Egypt are going to let up. In fact, protesters are calling for a “march of millions” on Tuesday. While we are still not sure how evacuations will proceed, we are hopeful that every Friendly Planet traveler will be out of Egypt today.

One long-time Friendly Planet traveler, Dr. Steven Derfler, just returned from Egypt on Jan. 22. Every January, Dr. Derfler takes a group from the University of Wisconsin on a tour of Egypt, which Friendly Planet Travel has operated for years.

Since Dr. Derfler goes to Egypt so often, he’s made many friends there, including people at the Cairo Museum and members of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Since the protests erupted, he’s been getting updates from his friends.

He sent an e-mail with a few pictures to students and friends that have traveled with him to Egypt in the past. His message contains some updates about the situation in Egypt, including photos. He’s graciously letting us publish his e-mail and photos, but asked that we remove any names of people in Egypt.

I copied and pasted his e-mail and pictures below to give you a first-hand account of what’s going on in Egypt. Thanks Dr. Derfler for letting us share this with our readers. I’ll continue to post updates on the situation in Egypt as soon as I receive more news.


Hello all,

You have all journeyed with me to Egypt over the last couple of years, and I want to give you an update about the situation in Egypt as far as our mutual friends and contacts go. Before internet and cell phone disruption by the government (apparently), the last that I heard on Weds was that [named removed], [name removed] and my boat were all fine and well and staying out of the fray. At that time the situation had not escalated to what we see currently. I have tried to call, email, etc but have not had any luck nor any response. That in itself means nothing given the nature of the communication blackout. I am confident that they are fine and keeping their heads down.

It is a different story regarding the Cairo Museum. Some of you may be aware that the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party is next door to the Cairo Museum, fronting Tahrir Square. The HQ was torched and stormed by the crowd. However, the museum remained untouched. This was in part due to the heroism of everyday Egyptians who made a “human chain” around the museum grounds to prevent looting, vandalism and damage. However, all this changed a bit on Friday/Saturday. I did get an email from a colleague and friend within the Supreme Council of Antiquities with some photos (ATTACHED). Apparently, with allegedly the aid of some NDP members, the museum perimeter was breached and some vandals got in to the museum to wreak havoc before being subdued and the museum secured. THEY WERE NOT, I REPEAT, NOT, A PART OF THE NATURE OF THIS REVOLT AGAINST MUBARAK’s GOVT. They were vandals, street thugs and opportunists taking advantage of a possible Baghdad-like situation. There have been rumors to the extent that 2 mummies in the Royal Mummy Room were “beheaded”, but that could not be confirmed by my friend. The museum is secure now, and protected by the military.

In addition, many of the major archaeological sites have been closed and secured by the military as well, including the Giza Complex.

As far as the south goes, there has not been anywhere near the level of civil protest and disruption of life in either Luxor or Aswan. All is well on the Tulip and with the Wings people in those 2 cities. (Last communication, I told my boat to anchor out in the Nile!!!)

So, the extremely fluid situation remains……. fluid. If you have any questions, feel free to “e”.
( maybe they were so sad to see us leave my boat they protested! )

SD

Update on the Friendly Planet travelers in Egypt

This post has been updated here.

We’re continuing to work aggressively to get every Friendly Planet Traveler out of Egypt as soon as possible. As I told you before, everyone is safe and we contacted our travelers’ emergency contacts to let them know this.

Earlier today I sent the letter below to all of the emergency contacts to tell them our plans to get their family and friends back to the U.S. Read on to get the most recent update on the protests in Egypt.

Stay tuned to the blog. I’ll continue to post updates about our travelers and what’s happening in Egypt on the blog, Facebook, and Twitter.


Update about the Friendly Planet group presently in Egypt.

We sent our first update to you on Friday, before we knew the extent to which the situation in Egypt had begun to deteriorate. In fact, when we sent you our first update, we had just been informed by our Egypt reps that our group would not be touring in Cairo due to the demonstrations, but that they were able to drive out to the Pyramids area, and they were, in fact, able to do some sightseeing there. However, what we didn’t know at that time is that the group was subsequently unable to get back to their Cairo hotel due to the situation in the streets. Instead, we took them to a hotel near the Pyramids, which is close to the Cairo airport. Our representatives decided to fly our group to Luxor, about an hour away from Cairo, where it was felt that the situation would be calmer and our group would be safer than in Cairo.

We have been working through the weekend to arrange transportation out of Egypt for your family and friends who are on our Pyramids and Nile Cruise tour. At present, the group remains on the Nile cruise ship and is en route to Aswan, from which they will be flown back to Cairo Airport. We have secured hotel accommodations at an airport hotel, where the group will be protected by security until we are able to get them out on flights back to the USA. Our guide and operational staff in Egypt is accompanying the group at all times. These bilingual professionals are able to assist our passengers in any way they require.

At present, EgyptAir, the carrier for our tour, is working at approximately 25% capacity, due to curfew restrictions, demand and failure of some crew to appear for work. However, the US authorities are arranging for additional aircraft to repatriate American citizens, and our passengers will be at the airport, ready to board the first available flight. Until such time as they are able to leave Egypt, please be assured that we are doing absolutely everything possible to care for them, give them comfort and protect them from harm. They are in comfortable accommodations on the ship and will be at a good hotel once they arrive at Cairo airport. In this way we will keep them from having to struggle, with the hundreds of other travelers, who are now at the airport fighting for flights home.

As we know more, we will let you know as well. Once we have the return flight information, we will update you immediately. In the meantime, if you need information or have questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us by email or via our emergency phone service. To call us, dial 800-555-5765 and press #6 for the emergency line. Someone will return your call promptly. You may also try to call your family and friends on their cell phones. Service is very spotty, but some travelers are having luck. Your phone calls will be expensive due to roaming charges, etc., but if you get through, you’ll hear for yourselves that everyone is safe, if anxious to leave Egypt. And who can blame them for that!

Sincerely,

Peggy M. Goldman
President

Egypt protests escalate; Travelers being evacuated

This post has been updated here.

As you know, the political protests in Egypt have not slowed down and the U.S. Department of State has issued a travel alert. All Friendly Planet Travel travelers in Egypt are safe and we have representatives with them at all times. But we are working 24/7 to get them out of Egypt as soon as possible. The demand for flights out of Egypt is high, but the U.S. government is sending planes to Egypt to help get our citizens out of the country more quickly.

In fact, Friendly Planet Travel passengers are all onboard two cruise ships on the Nile River. The ships are not docking at the moment, so travelers are far from any protests. The cruises will dock once we are able to safely get them to the airport and on flights out of the country.

This is a great strategy on the part of our representatives in Egypt, who decided early on to get our travelers to the safety of Luxor and Aswan, where no demonstrations were taking place. Below is a letter I sent to all of our travelers explaining this strategy and what we’re doing to get them home.

Cell phone service has returned to Egypt, although lines are busy. So please be patient if you’re trying to reach family and friends in Egypt. Rest assured, we are working aggressively to make arrangements to get everyone out of Egypt. The safety and security of our travelers is our most important priority, and we will not stop working until each one is home. We expect this to happen in the next day or two.

But again, patience is the goal. We are not the only company with travelers in Egypt who need to get out. Everyone is trying as hard as we are, so please give us the opportunity to work the best way possible.

I will continue to update everyone on the blog, Facebook, and Twitter as we get more information.


Dear Friendly Planet Travelers,

I want to personally let you know that we are doing everything possible to evacuate you from Egypt in the safest and most expedient way possible. We have been working on getting you home from the moment it became clear that it was no longer safe to remain in Egypt. We have been trying to reach you by phone since Friday, but because of the very difficult situation and the lack of cell phone and internet access, the land lines have been choked with traffic. Except for a few lucky instances, we have not been able to speak with you directly. However, please be assured that we’ve been very busy. I would like to update you.

1. You were taken to Luxor anticipating that it would be much safer for you and for no other reason. We wanted to be sure our travelers would be out of harm’s way. Luxor was an extremely good option.

2. We are in contact with your family and friends – these are the emergency contacts you gave us – to keep them updated regarding our efforts, your location and any other details we have managed to obtain. Even if you haven’t spoken to anyone at home during this crisis, we have been in touch. They know you are safe.

3. Please do not assume that since we haven’t spoken by phone, you are being held on the ship because we want you to enjoy a cruise or because you’ve already paid for this portion of your trip. Nothing could be further from the truth. You are on the ship in order to be safe while we make arrangements to fly you home. No other reason.

4. At present, we are trying to arrange for you to fly home on Monday. You were scheduled to fly via EgyptAir, but because of a manpower issue and the huge demand on the available seats, EgyptAir is not able to cope immediately. The US government is planning to begin flights out of Egypt to the USA on Monday, and we are in contact with the Embassy to be sure you are included in these flights. You will depart from Egypt on the first flights that become available to us. If EgyptAir comes through first, you’ll depart via EgyptAir. If the US planes come through first, you’ll fly out that way. The important thing is to be assured that we will get you out.

This message was made possible by sending it to our Egypt reps, Wings Tours & Nile Cruises, by fax. We are hopeful that since there are some land lines available through the various Wings offices, it will be received and then delivered to you directly aboard your Nile cruise ship. We will try to send additional messages if possible. In the meantime, please be sure that we will not stop working for a moment until you are all safely home.

Sincerely,

Peggy

Peggy M. Goldman
President

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About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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