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Taking time off for 'crisis tourism'

Two young women stand in front of riot police guarding the Greek parliament during a protest in Athens.

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Tess Vigeland: Just a few weeks left to fit in a summer vacation. Sigh. And if you've waited 'til the last minute, you are not likely to find lots of great travel deals. Unless you're a certain kind of traveler -- the kind who's willing to spend your hard-earned time off traveling to spots other tourists are abandoning.

Marketplace's Rico Gagliano tells us about the rewards and risks of "crisis tourism."


Rico Gagliano: A few weeks back, I talked to Alexia Shaw. She's a photo archivist living in London, and usually, she takes her summer vacation in Spain.

ALEXIA SHAW: I go there about every year. But the prices are going up there. It's actually not much cheaper than London now.

So this year, she had a different idea.

SHAW: Um, well, I was thinking of going to Greece this summer.

Sounds reasonable enough; beautiful country. Except earlier this summer the news in Greece sounded like this.

Shouting in Greek

Angry street riots over the government's proposed austerity measures. And just this week, Greece's main business association said one in seven stores has closed as a result of the downturn. Doesn't seem like the ideal setting for a relaxing vacation. But Alexia wasn't deterred by the unrest.

SHAW: I think it's mainly only in Athens. And it occurred to me that perhaps it might be a little cheaper now, with the bankruptcy fears.

It's opportunistic, but she's right: Four-star hotels in Greece are up to 25 percent cheaper this summer. And that's to be expected.

Christopher Elliott's the consumer advocate at National Geographic Traveller. He says when a destination gets bad publicity, travel prices drop. The poster child being Mexico. Last year, that country was hit with the twin problems of a swine flu outbreak and drug violence on the border.

CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT: That scared a lot of tourists away. So last spring, we saw some excellent deals. I would say prices were probably 30 to 40 percent lower, because they were just trying to get people to come back.

And Elliott says the dangers had been blown out of proportion. Travelers who did their homework found most Mexican vacation spots were far away from trouble.

ELLIOT: People read very carefully, and they said "You know, this is not going to affect me. I'm not going to one of the major cities, I'm going to Cancun, I'll go," and they saved money.

But who do you trust when you're doing your homework? Your destination's ministry of tourism? Greece's ministry insists vacations won't be disrupted. It's so sure, it announced a guarantee: If you're stranded by a strike, the government will pay for your hotel. But tourism accounts for 15 percent of Greece's GDP -- they need to lure visitors. Experts suggest travelers try a less biased source of information.

MICHELLE BERNIER-TOTH: The U.S. Department of State.

Michelle Bernier-Toth is a director at the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. She says their website lists constantly updated travel alerts and warnings.

BERNIER-TOTH: A travel alert describes a security risk, which we deem short-term. Upcoming elections with the potential for civil unrest or violence, a hurricane. Travel warning, on the other hand, describes chronic risks or threat to U.S. citizens abroad.

I.e. countries that could be unsafe for a long time. All alerts or warnings are not created equal. Some urge travelers to exercise caution. Others suggest avoiding a country entirely, even if it's not politically correct to say so.

BERNIER-TOTH: Countries do let us know of their concerns about the impact of a travel alert on things like tourism. We, uh, we simply issue them anyway.

Crisis travelers are assuming a certain amount of risk. And if you're thinking of mitigating that risk with travel insurance, you might want to think again.

Genevieve Shaw Brown is a senior editor at Travelocity. She says most policies won't reimburse your travel costs in the event of war or civil unrest.

SHAW BROWN: But what they really don't cover is fear, right? And that's really what can make someone cancel their trip: fear of something happening in an area that they're going to.

Which is why she suggests travelers treat this kind of trip like a risky investment.

In Los Angeles, I'm Rico Gagliano for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Rico Gagliano is the host of Dinner Party Download.

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