Something To Declare: Mexico; Estonia; Athens; Gatwick shuttle
Saturday 03 July 2010
Warning of the week: Mexico
Travellers to Britain's favourite Latin American nation ( in terms of visitor numbers) face a multitude of threats, according to the Foreign Office and US State Department. The latest State Department bulletin says that problems begin at the airport in Mexico City, where "theft of items such as briefcases and laptops occur frequently". Anyone needing local currency should use "the exchange counters or ATMs in the arrival/departure gate area, where access is restricted, rather than changing money after passing through customs, where they can be observed by criminals".
Robberies are frequent on Mexico City's Metro (underground), which should be avoided "during busy commuting hours in the morning or afternoon". And if you choose to take a cab instead, be warned that "robberies and assaults on passengers in taxis are frequent and violent in Mexico City, with passengers subjected to beating, shooting, and sexual assault".
Outside the capital, violent crime is thought to be a high risk in Tijuana (an average of two drug-related murders a day), Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo and Acapulco. The first three are US border towns, but the last is a popular seaside resort.
The State Department highlights risks in Cancún, the most popular resort for British visitors (and a destination for BA from Gatwick starting in November). Bars and nightclubs "can be havens for drug dealers and petty criminals", and "some establishments may contaminate or drug drinks".
When travelling overland, the Foreign Office warns that "Although most first-class bus companies perform security checks when passengers board buses, armed robberies of entire bus loads of passengers still occur."
Prison inmates use smuggled mobile phones to target visitors, particularly business travellers according to the State Department. "It is increasingly common for extortionists to call prospective victims on the telephone, often posing as law enforcement or other officials, to demand payments in return for the release of an arrested family member or to forestall a kidnapping."
What the State Department calls "virtual" kidnapping is flourishing in Mexico: "Callers typically speak in a distraught voice in a ploy to elicit information about a potential victim and then use this knowledge to demand ransom for the release of the supposed victim. In the event of such a call, it is important to stay calm, as the vast majority of the calls are hoaxes. Do not reveal any personal information; try to speak with the victim to corroborate his/her identity; and contact the local police."
Don't expect miracles from the police: "Criminals, armed with an impressive array of weapons, know there is little chance they will be caught and punished," according to the State Department.
The Foreign Office stresses that "Most visits to Mexico are trouble-free," and some operators are reporting an increase in business to the country.
Rafe Stone, product manager for Mexico for Journey Latin America, said "If I were a backpacker at the moment I'd stick to the Yucatá*and the Southern States. There is very little to see in the areas of the northern states where most of the drug related violence has occurred. The safest way to experience Mexico City is to stay in a reputable hotel, used licensed taxis and take organised day trips."
If the criminals don't get you, the tricky coastal waters may. "In Cancún, there is often a very strong undertow along the beach from the Hyatt Regency all the way south to Club Med," warns the State Department. Serious risks exist on the east coast of the island of Cozumel. There were two fatal shark attacks along the Pacific coast in 2008, one involving a foreign tourist. "Caution should be taken in these coastal areas, particularly when surfing," says the State Department.
Destination of the week: Estonia
Like every country in Europe, the smallest component of the former USSR has been hit by recession. But in the new, sixth edition of Bradt's Estonia guidebook, out this week (£14.99), author Neil Taylor contends that the economic downturn has brought benefits to visitors to the Baltic republic: "The tourism product has become more professional and much cheaper," he says.
The improvements start in the capital, Tallinn, previously the preserve of well-heeled visitors. Mr Taylor says: "Hotels complain that they have to offer 2003 prices to remain competitive but they do not complain about builders meeting completion dates and the choice of recruits they have when whenever a vacancy arises."
Even museums steeped in Soviet practices "are opening every day in summer to compensate for the reduction in government funding". Best of all, there has been a welcome "drop in the number of stag groups plaguing the Old Town" in Tallinn.
Bargain of the week: Athens
"Greece at the moment is quite a difficult sell," concedes Manny Fontenla-Novoa, the chief executive of Thomas Cook. This week, another public-transport strike took place across the country. As a result of such unrest, demand for both holiday resorts and cities appears to have dwindled.
Fares to the Greek capital usually soar in summer, but this year they are well below the £200 mark. For example, easyJet has availability for £193 flying from Gatwick to Athens on 20 July, back six days later.
BA has flights from Heathrow on 27 July, returning 11 August, for £208. On the same route, Olympic Air has seats for a range of dates in August for about £210 return.
Through Opodo.co.uk , a one-week city break in Athens, including flights from Manchester via Paris/Amsterdam on Air France/KLM costs just £352 per person based on two sharing a room in a two-star hotel in Athens and departing 15 July.
The tourism minister, Pavlos Geroulanos, has said the country will meet the expenses of any tourists caught up in strikes while in Greece.
You can download our most recent 48 Hours in Athens at independent.co.uk/athens . In the print version published on 19 June there were discrepancies between the text and map. The online version is correct.
Tip of the week: Shuttle back at Gatwick
For the past 10 months, travellers arriving at Gatwick Airport's South Terminal railway station but flying on British Airways, Thomson and Emirates have faced a long walk followed by a bus connection to the North Terminal. The reason: the monorail shuttle link between the terminals has been closed for rebuilding. However, the shuttle reopened on Thursday, ahead of schedule and in time for the summer rush.
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