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Despite riots, Greece still safe for most travelers

Riot police faced off against an angry mob on the steps of Parliament, dodging rocks and firebombs. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

Rioting involving up to 80,000 demonstrators in Athens over the weekend undoubtedly is raising concerns among tourists headed to the popular destination, but travel experts say trips to Greece are safe at present.

The most important thing to realize is that the riots, which led to dozens of looted shops and buildings lit afire, have been located in the downtown core, specifically Syntagma Square, said Rich Sorensen, travel news editor for Europe Through the Back Door in Edmonds, Wash. The riots were touched off by the Greek government’s consideration of tough austerity measures to deal with its ongoing debt crisis. The government approved those measures Monday.

Syntagma Square is bordered by important government buildings, including Parliament, and so it’s a natural magnet for legitimate demonstrators and troublemakers alike, Sorensen said. And that also means it’s a compact area easily avoided by tourists.

“From what I can gather, it’s a fairly typical government unrest situation,” he said. “Almost anywhere in the world, demonstrations focused at governmental policies are going to be focused at government buildings or a main square. You want to be smart and avoid being enmeshed in that type of situation, but 99 percent of the city is safe and nothing is happening.”

Nikos Papaconstantinou, Greece’s press counselor to the mission to the United Nations in New York City, echoed Sorensen. Reasonable common sense, such as staying away from the main square and the places where buildings have been burned or damaged, is the best precaution, he told msnbc.com.

“They should try to avoid these sad sites,” Papaconstantinou said of tourists. “There are other things that can be seen, such as the Acropolis. (Visitors) can even go shopping, which is a great welcome to the local merchants. But basically, for people in big hotels, it doesn’t affect their stay, it doesn’t affect their eating in restaurants or going out. It’s all going back to normal very quickly, aside from the buildings damaged because of the fire. The (rest of) the city is intact and quite spectacular.”

All major archeological sites and museums remain unaffected, he said: “(Visitors) will have a good time,” Papconstantinou said.

The United States embassy in Athens did issue an emergency warning over the weekend, warning “the situation is unpredictable, and we want to remind U.S. citizens that there exists the continued potential for violence during the demonstrations outside Parliament.” Things were much quieter on Monday, however, and no further warning was issued.

But given the ongoing nature of the economic crisis in Greece, it pays to remain cautious, the U.S. embassy said in the warning: “Remember, even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence without warning. Avoid areas of demonstrations and, if you are within the vicinity of any demonstrations, remain vigilant and exercise caution.”

Beside Syntagma Square, demonstrators frequently congregate around the Polytechnic University area; the Exarchia and Omonia Squares in Athens; and Aristotle Square in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, the U.S. State Department warned. University campuses in particular are exploited as refuges by anarchists and those involved in crime, as Greek police are generally prohibited from entering their premises, the state department added.

Sorensen said that the staff at hotels as well as travel guides are invaluable in helping visitors navigate such situations. “Talk to your hotel people and find out what’s going on, what parts of the city to avoid,” he said. “Just be smart and talk to people and ask questions. Things like this don’t have to cause your trip to end early or cause you go on a detour. Don’t overreact. The fact is, you can have a wonderful time in Greece right now.”

Julian Finney / Getty Images

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