Friday, March 27, 2009

Is Mexico safe?

The U.S. media has put a focal point on Mexico recently, focusing on the dangerous and deadly drug-related violence. But should you avoid vacationing in our neighbor to the south? At this point, the answer is no.

The media uproar started February 20 when the U.S. Department of State issued a travel alert for Mexico. When read closely, however, this alert related to incidents in the border towns of Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and the city of Chihuahua. The most popular tourist destinations (Cancun, Rivera Maya, Puerto Vallarta, Riviera Nayarit, Cozumel, Los Cabos, Mazatlan and Acapulco) are more than 600 miles from the affected border towns and remain safe for travel.

The situation reminds me of my own experience back in 1992. I was all set to begin a year as an exchange student in Germany. A few weeks before my departure, a series of bombings by German skinheads targeting immigrants made the news on a nightly basis. One would have thought that the entire country was under siege.

Of course when I arrived I found nothing of the sort. Life continued as normal in the country, and the truth was that the bombings were indeed isolated incidents in one or two cities. Things were fine.

In the same vein, tourist travel to Mexico remains safe.

One of the travel suppliers I work with has helped tens of thousands of travelers visit Mexico over the past couple months. They surveyed 900 people between October and March and 97% said they would return to Mexico for another vacation.

While it pays to be cautious and use common sense even in the best of times, there is no reason not to travel to Mexico’s beautiful beaches and Mayan ruins this year.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cruising the Panama Canal

I haven't done it yet, but seeing - and transiting - the Panama Canal are high on my list of things to do in this lifetime.

Holland America is one of the premier cruise lines to offer sailings through the Panama Canal, and they recently announced that are offering 45 cruises through the canal this year, a significant increase over 2008. The 10- to 28-day cruises will take place on nine different ships departing from five different ports.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

More "First Time in Israel"

The following is further information from fellow travel agent, David Cogswell, who is experiencing Israel for the first time (see Feb. 13 entry) - as I myself did just three months ago. My own reports of some of the things he writes about can be found in entries from November 2008. Here David hits the nail on the head when talking about the value of a good guide to truly paint a picture for you. My own guide, Shalom Langer, was also fantastic.

"Here in Israel, I am learning more in a day than I learned in weeks of classes during my formal education. Tour operators know that a large component of their product is education, though they dare not call it that. They keep any reference to the forbidden word out of their marketing material to avoid evoking their customers’ bad memories of being confined in straight rows of desks and being subjected to sleep-inducing lectures, dull textbooks and homework drudgery.
In fact, learning can be one of the most enjoyable experiences. And there is no better way to learn than travel, which engages all the senses and presents its subjects as parts of a fascinating whole. The things you learn while traveling are deposited in the marrow of your being where no one can take them from you.

I joined two groups of 20 on two motorcoaches, so there was plenty of room for each to have a double seat. The Red Group had its baggage and motorcoach identified with red dots, and the Green Group was identified with green. For some functions we were all together and for others we functioned as separate groups.

I was in the Green group. Our tour guide was Shmuel Hadar, who executed the diverse duties of a tour director admirably, keeping the group organized and entertained as we moved from place to place. As a teacher, he was a jewel. I found myself continually astounded by the range of his knowledge. Many years ago, after his stint in the Israeli military, he taught high school geography for several years. When a recession forced layoffs of the younger teachers, he took a job as a bus driver, which led eventually to a career as a tour guide.

To me, tour guides are the stars of the industry. For tour operators, the tour guide is the face of the company, the person who interacts with customers on the ground at the destination. I have found the standards of their performance to be impressive industry-wide. Shmuel (or “Shmuelly” as he was called) is certainly among the best. He is an effective leader who can rally 20 people together and keep them on schedule, often having to pull them reluctantly from a place they weren’t ready to leave.

He proved to be a spellbinding storyteller and was extremely knowledgeable about history, culture, religion and geology. Born in Egypt, he learned French as a child from his French-speaking mother. He also speaks Hebrew, Arabic and English. He was able to explain the lore of each site from the standpoint of Jews, Christians, Muslims or secularists who may be in any given group. He’s a tremendous asset to Isram and to anyone who wants to visit Israel in order to penetrate through the surfaces of what is flashing by.

On our second full day in Israel we rode up to the Mount of Olives where we could look out over the panorama of Jerusalem. There Shmuel pointed out the layout of the city, including the Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian (Christian) quarters of the Old City; the great golden Dome of the Rock, the sacred mosque of Islam that dominates the skyline; and the seven onion-shaped domes of Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdalena. He gave us an overview of the vast and complex history of the area in relation to its present geography. He also described how the Roman emperor Hadrian leveled the city of Jerusalem in 72 A.D. after a Jewish revolt and combined its provinces of Judea and Philistia (of the Biblical Philistines) and called the combined area Provincia Philistia, which later evolved into the name Palestine.

We also visited the Garden of Gethsemane, the olive garden where Jesus spent the night in such anguish that “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground,” according to the Book of Luke, before he would be betrayed by a kiss from his disciple Judas and arrested by Roman soldiers. We went to the Western Wall, the only remaining portion of the Jewish Second Temple from 500 years B.C., which was razed by the Romans in 70 A.D. after the First Jewish-Roman War. It is considered the most sacred site of the Jewish people. The ruins of the temple now lie under the Islamic Dome of the Rock, which is considered by the Muslims to be the place where Muhammad ascended to heaven.

We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified. It was teeming with visitors, including groups of Islamic schoolchildren, whose religious tradition also reveres Jesus. We went to Mount Zion and saw the Tomb of King David. Witnessing this sweeping panorama of historical and religious sites was dazzling, infusing the mind with so much information that it would take years to reflect upon and assimilate. The experience shattered many of the stereotypes and categorizations I had about Israel. Perhaps the most fascinating and lingering impression was the fact that, in spite of all the turmoil that we hear about in the area, all the various groups that lay claims to Jerusalem do in fact coexist most of the time in remarkable harmony."

Sunday, March 01, 2009

$700 question

I got a call the other day from a family wanting to plan a trip to Disney World in October. After investigating, I boiled it down to two options.

The first is for them to stay at one of Disney's resorts. The benefits of doing this include the continual shuttle service between resorts and theme parks, extra hours at selected parks on selected days, and the opportunity to purchase the Disney Dining Plan - which in this case gives them three meals per day for $32.75 per person.

The other option is to stay at an offsite hotel. While this option comes in $700 less and includes a continental breakfast, the question becomes is that $700 worth the trade offs. First of all, there's only limited shuttle service between the hotel and parks - twice a day. So, you're pretty much confined to that time schedule. Second, can four people eat two meals per day at a theme park for five days for less than $700 ($18 per meal)?

That's the $700 question.