Mexico relies on Facebook to kick travel slump

Travel to Mexico got a big ol’ kick in the cojones last year. The global recession spanked airlines and hotels around the world, and since the United States was ground zero for the financial crisis that accelerated the recession, Mexico likely lost some action from its biggest trading partner. And then swine flu came along, bringing much of the Mexican tourism and travel industry to a crawl. When I was in Los Cabos last May, I didn’t lack elbow room. Well, an 82 percent drop in Mexican tourism, according to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, can have that effect.

To kickstart the industry and attract more people to the warm sun south of the border, the Mexican Council for the Promotion of Tourism just completed a combination game and giveaway through Facebook. The Gracias A Ti Vive Mexcio website used Facebook Connect to make 10 people incredibly happy with free trips awarded from December 21, 2009 through the end of the year. The only catch was that you had to live in Mexico and have a Facebook page. Winners were selected by game rankings (more details over at Inside Facebook), and the top scorer got to choose from Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Huatulco – and bring a guest.

With more than 1,300 fans on the Facebook page, it looks like the promotion was a success. And, why wouldn’t it be? Mexico is one of the fastest growing countries in Latin America for Facebook, with 6.67 million users.

Destinations feature highly in top Twitter trends of 2009

It wasn’t explicit, but the top Twitter trends of 2009 have a hint of travel built into them. Sure, it was the elections in Iran that put made “Tehran” and “Iran” among the top 10 news items trending this year, and politics pushed “Gaza” up there, as well. And, we all remember the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic, which has been memorialized in the form of “Swine Flu” and “#swineflu” on the microblogging site. Six of the top 10 new trends on Twitter had implications for travelers.

Twitter exploded this year, entering the public consciousness and drawing enough action to bring its user base close to 60 million. Travel writers spent the year devising new ways to use Twitter to help their readers circle the globe and suggesting interesting and unusual tweet-masters to follow. So, 2009 was for exploration, and 2010 will put Twitter on the mobile devices of even recreational travelers as they look for hotel rooms, hunt for cheap fares and try to get the lay of the land at the destinations on their itineraries.

Beyond tips and tricks, a travel community developed on Twitter, with bloggers and reporters, destinations and publicists and travelers of all types collaborating to help each other get the most out of every jaunt. We learned who has the best info through such practices as #TravelTuesday, which gave everyone recommendations on whom to follow.

Travel didn’t gain enough of a profile to unseat the major newsmakers, top movies and TV shows and major sporting events, but there was plenty of travel intel we were able to pick up from the news trends – especially for those of us with a more adventurous bent – and the action within our own community was certainly enough to prove the value of this tool to jetsetters of all types.

So, peck away at your devices next year, and let’s resolve to contribute to a robust, useful and exciting travel tweet-stream in 2010. Even if we don’t make the top 10 for travel reasons at this time next year, we’ll all have benefitted from the shared experiences of millions of airport-dwellers, business travelers and adventure-seekers. Whether they’re on-the-ground updates on delayed flights or tips on where to get the best hotdog in a strange place, it’s up to us to give each other news we can use.

Italian answer to swine flu–automatic holy water dispensers

Visitors to many Italian churches will see a new addition next to the door–automatic holy water dispensers.

Priests have been noticing that worshipers are reluctant to put their hands in the font containing holy water for fear of catching swine flu. About thirty people have died in Italy from the disease and people are a bit jittery about sharing the same water as hundreds of strangers, however holy it might be.

Some churches have even closed their communal fonts, like Milan’s cathedral, pictured here.

When inventor Luciano Marabese saw what was happening, he got to work. He invented an automatic dispenser that works along the same lines as a soap dispenser in a public bathroom, but has the look of a traditional font. The faithful put their hands under the dispenser where an infrared detector senses them and squirts out some holy water. There’s a video of the dispenser in action here.

Now if we can only get people to wash their hands after going to the bathroom. . .

In Oberammergau: the most “passionate” performance you will ever see

Now you can visit a plague-ridden era and watch history unfold. No, this is not an invitation to get busy with swine flu. Instead, head out to Oberammergau, Bavaria and witness a performance that has been carried out for centuries.

In 1633, Oberammergau’s population was decimated by the Plague. The villagers were brutalized, but their spirit remained strong, and they promised to act out the events of the last days of Jesus Christ, ending in the resurrection, every tenth year. This Passion performance, sans any influence from Mel Gibson, is an extremely local affair. If you weren’t born in the village or haven’t lived there for at least 20 years, the best you can do is watch with the masses. The stage is reserved for the true villagers.

Half the village is engaged to assist, from acting to playing music to creating costumes – in the case of Oberammergau, that’s 2,500 people out of a 5,200-person population. In what seems like a scene from The Greek Passion by Nikos Kazantzakis (who is more famous for his other book, The Last Temptation of Christ), lead roles are sketched out on a chalk board, while all of Oberammergau waits anxiously. The parts are assigned the year before. In the run-up to the performance, the cast grows its hair long and cultivates beards (not the women, of course), as wigs are not permitted.

While you’re in the village, ask around to see if the actors assume the characteristics of their assignments, as they did in the book by Kazantzakis. In the novel, the poor guy assigned to play Judas couldn’t get anyone to hang out with him. But, he took the part for a good cause.

From May 15, 2010 to October 3, 2010, the forty-first Oberammergau Passion will be performed 102 times, with each showing lasting around five hours. It runs from 2:30 PM to 5:00 PM and 8:00 PM to 10:30 PM, with the time in between reserved for dinner. Though the symphony-sized orchestra is protected from the elements, the actors are exposed to the whims of the seasons, much like the figures they depict.

If you’re interested in experiencing this rare event, catch a flight to Munich, and drive the 55 miles to Oberammergau. Packages are available in town for one or two nights. Without a doubt, this is a unique performance, and any travel or theater junkie should absolutely experience it at least once. You could put it off a decade … but why wait?

Here’s a bit from ol’ Mel, in case you need a refresher:

Mexico City offers free health insurance to tourists

After near-hysteria over Mexico’s outbreak of the H1N1 (swine) flu virus crippled the country’s tourism industry and resulted in record low hotel occupancy rates, Mexico City’s tourism is slowly rebounding. To help get tourism back to its pre-“aporkalypse” levels, the Mexico City Tourism Ministry is unveiling a new plan that officials hope will help convince people that it is safe to visit.

Any tourists who stay in one of Mexico City’s hotels will receive free health insurance. Under the plan, tourists are covered for not only treatment of the H1N1 virus, but also for any other disease or accident they suffer from while staying in Mexico City. Prescription drugs, emergency dental care, hospital stays, and ambulance transportation are also covered. There’s even assistance in case of robbery, luggage loss, or the delay or cancellation of a flight.

Mexico City normally welcomes around 7 million (international and domestic) visitors each year. When news of the H1N1 flu broke, tourists began to disappear and hotel occupancy rates plummeted, reaching as low as 5% in April, according to USA Today. Now they are around 59%, but the industry is still feeling the pinch. Officials hope that the offer of free health insurance may help sway those who were considering a trip to Mexico, but were concerned about the risk.

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[via Los Angeles Times]