April 28, 2009

Thousands of holidaymakers are being flown out of Mexico following the effective imposition of a travel ban by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last night.

The advice not to travel unless “essential” was published by the FCO at 11pm following a decision by the World Health Organisation to raise the threat of the flu pandemic to Level 4.

Some 10,000 Britons are estimated to be holidaying in Mexico at the moment.

The decision immediately prompted holiday companies Thomson and First Choice Holidays to begin repatriation of their customers and cancel all forthcoming holidays to Mexico.

The companies, which are under joint ownership of Tui Travel, are the largest of the 140 tour operators that send holidaymakers to Mexico each year. A spokeswoman said they have been inundated with calls from concerned holidaymakers.

The evacuation flights will begin today, and those Thomson and First Choice flights due to depart this morning from Manchester and Gatwick to Cancun have been cancelled.

The news came too late for many holidaymakers, who weren’t told of the cancellations until they arrived at the airport this morning.

“The FCO made its change to the travel advice very late last night and as I’m sure you appreciate, while we would like to have informed our customers earlier and had more information readily available, the timing of the announcement made it very difficult to advise customers before they arrived at the airport,” a spokeswoman said.

Rival tour operator Thomas Cook has cancelled holidays departing to Cancun for the next seven days but stopped short of repatriating its customers. It says that it will try to help anyone wishing to curtail their holiday and return home early. Those customers due to go to Mexico during May are being offered a choice of alternative destinations.

Although there have been no reported cases of swine flu in the Yucatan Peninsula, the FCO has told British holidaymakers and Britons resident in Mexico to consider returning to the UK.

Anyone due to depart for Mexico today with Thomson or First Choice are being offered a full refund, alternative destination or alternative date up to the same value. The operators have yet to make a decision on whether flights to Mexico will resume after today.

Britain is the third largest tourism market for Mexico after the US and Canada.

Some 333,000 Britons visited the country last year according to the Office of National Statistics, up from 243,000 the previous year. April-June is the most popular period for British holidaymakers after the peak summer quarter of July, August and September.

A spokeswoman for the Tourist Board told Times Online that most holidaymakers should receive help from tour operators if they wish to cancel or amend holidays because most visit the country on package holidays.

“The majority to Britons visiting Mexico are still holidaymakers on charter flights to Cancun and the Yucatan peninsula,” she said.

Independent holidaymakers, who have booked their flights and accommodation separately, may struggle to get a full refund according to the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta).

A spokeswoman told Times Online: “If a consumer has booked a package, the tour operator can look after them but if you booked independently it is not that straightforward. If you have booked a hotel independently you will not not get a refund – whether you can get it from your travel insurer will depend on your policy.”

British Airways is continuing to operate flights to Mexico, but those due to travel to Mexico in the next seven days can change dates or opt for an alternative destination without incurring an admin fee.

The FCO has advised British Nationals in Mexico who need consular assistance to call the Embassy on (01 55) 5242 8500. Thos staying in the country are advised to avoid large crowds, shaking hands and kissing people. They are also being told to maintain a distance of at least six feet from other people, to frequently wash hands and consult a doctor immediately if they show signs of flu-like symptoms.