How to stay safe in the Caribbean (Video: Yahoo Travel)
For many, a Caribbean vacation remains the stuff of fantasy — especially as the winter sets in and snow and freezing temperatures loom. But now, an eyebrow-raising number of crime warnings has some rethinking that fantasy and asking the question, “Is the Caribbean safe?”
We got another such warning this week. The U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas issued a crime warning Tuesday concerning operators of personal watercraft or jet skis after following the sexual assault of a U.S. tourist by a man on a watercraft on Cabbage Beach, according to the Associated Press. There have been five sexual assaults of U.S. citizens by jet-ski operators in Nassau since July, reports the AP. The embassy urges travelers to avoid using jet-ski rental companies.
In November, the Canadian government updated its security advisory for citizens traveling to Barbados. The advisory noted that while “most visits to Barbados are trouble-free,” there are “incidents of crime, including armed robbery and sexual assault.” Most common are “petty crime and crimes of opportunity.” The warning highlights the potential of being robbed while driving and suggests tourists “keep your car doors locked, windows rolled up, and personal belongings, including handbags, safely stored at traffic lights, where you could be a target for thieves.”
The Caribbean has a dark side. (Photo: iStock)
The U.S. and Canada’s updated advisories are the latest in a string of recent headlines highlighting concerns about crime in the region. In September, a Nassau newspaper reported that Carnival Cruise Lines was considering issuing crime warnings to passengers traveling to the Bahamas. And a Saint Lucia venders association official accused local leaders of ignoring the island’s crime problem.
Such headlines — and the increasingly dire warnings about popular destinations such as the Bahamas — might lead one to believe that crime is increasing in the region, a potential concern for the roughly 26 million people who visit Caribbean destinations each year.
“Generally speaking, we have seen a slight increase in crime across the region,” Justin Kersey, regional manager for the Americas at international risk management firm iJET, tells Yahoo Travel. “From Barbados to Trinidad to the Dominican Republic, we have seen a little bit of an uptick.” He says the crime increase stems from a regional economic downturn.
But Kersey warns against painting the Caribbean with too broad a brush. “The islands are pretty diverse, so [the crime situation] is varied,” he says. He adds that visitors to these nations tend to be safe as long as they stay in the tourist areas, which he says tend to be well patrolled by local police whose job it is to protect tourists — and the millions of dollars they bring to the region.
Judging from crime statistics, travel warnings from U.S. officials, and iJet’s own nation-by-nation security assessments, it’s clear that while the vast majority of tourists have trouble-free vacations in the Caribbean, some of the destinations warrant more concern than others. Here are some of the most worrisome Caribbean destinations (in no particular order). No one’s suggesting you avoid them entirely, but it might be a good idea to exercise caution when visiting:
The Bahamas has some of the more alarming crime warnings in the region. (Photo: iStock)
In addition to the most recent warning, “We’ve noted that crime is increasing in the Bahamas,” says Kersey. “We’ve noted robbery and murder in residential areas and several incidents of robbery and assault in some of the touristy areas.” In recent months, the warnings about the Bahamas have become hard to ignore. “Armed robbery remains a major criminal threat facing U.S. citizens in the Bahamas,” says the State Department in its warning about the nation. “The U.S. Embassy has received multiple reports of tourists robbed at gunpoint or knifepoint in tourist locations in the downtown areas of Nassau, to include the cruise ship docks and the Cable Beach commerce areas; several of these incidents occurred during daylight hours.” State also warns of burglaries, larcenies, and “snatch-and-grab” crimes in Nassau, as well as assaults (including sexual assaults) in casinos, outside hotels, on cruise ships, and when using personal watercraft or water ski rentals. The U.N. says the Bahamas has the highest occurrence of rape in the entire Caribbean region.
Trinidad and Tobago
Concerns about Trinidad and Tobago have spiked recently. (Photo: iStock)
“Trinidad and Tobago has a particular problem with security services,” says Kersey. “The police are very unreliable.” The U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) rates the island nation’s crime situation as Critical. “American citizens have been victims of pickpocketing, assault, theft/robbery, fraud, and murder,” reads OSAC’s safety report on Trinidad and Tobago. It cites theft from hotel rooms and the occasional daylight robberies. “There is no evidence to indicate that foreigners, specifically expatriates, are targeted in particular,” reads the OSAC report, “but crimes — robbery, break-ins/burglary, vehicular break-ins, home invasions, and assaults (including sexual assaults) – do occur in areas frequented by tourists and in which the expatriate community lives.” (Just last month, an elderly British couple who’d lived on the island for 16 years were robbed and murdered in their home). And in an especially disturbing postscript, the OSAC report ads, “The use of incapacitating drugs is not uncommon in thefts and other crimes.”
Jamaican crime tends not to affect tourists, but there have been exceptions. (Photo: iStock)
While Jamaica is known for having one of the world’s highest homicide rates, OSAC notes that “most criminal activity is ‘Jamaican on Jamaican’ violence, often involving organized criminal elements and gangs.” Last year, OSAC says there were five U.S. citizens murdered in Jamaica, as well as 36 reports of robbery, three reports of rape and/or sexual assault, and 14 reports of aggravated assault. Plus, credit card skimming has emerged as another major crime issue. Kersey of iJet warns that American tourists generally need to be concerned about street crime, especially outside the main tourist areas. The State Department advises U.S. citizens to avoid traveling into notoriously high-threat areas of Kingston including, but not limited to, Mountain View, Trench Town, Tivoli Gardens, Cassava Piece, and Arnett Gardens. It also warns about the Montego Bay areas such as Flankers, Canterbury, Norwood, Rose Heights, Clavers Street, and Hart Street.
Resisting a robbery is especially dangerous in the Dominican Republic. (Photo: iStock)
Kersey has some personal experience on the issue of crime in the Dominican Republic. “I was held up at gunpoint,” he says, although he adds he was outside a tourist area. “Once you get outside of the touristy areas it can get dangerous at night,” he warns. The OSAC report on the Dominican Republic details drive-by robberies committed by assailants on motorcycles, scooters, or bicycles who will snatch purses, phones, or necklaces. The report also notes an uptick in crimes against tourists during the November to January holiday season and especially during carnival in February. But OSAC reports that crime “is generally not violent if the victim cooperates; however, an assailant will not hesitate to use violence if it appears that the victim will resist.”
Grenada is being watched for its crime issues. (Photo: iStock)
“We’ve ranked Grenada as a Caribbean island to keep an eye on in terms of crime and security,” says Kersey. The State Department warns that “tourists have been the victims of robbery, especially in isolated areas, and thieves frequently steal credit cards, jewelry, cameras, U.S. passports, and money.” American tourists are also warned that muggings, purse snatchings, and other robberies “may occur in areas near hotels, beaches, and restaurants, particularly after dark.” But there is a bright spot: The State Department says St. George’s main market square and the Grand Anse area known as Wall Street have reduced their crime rate, thanks to increased security cooperation among vendors.
Robbery is the issue in Puerto Rico. (Photo: iStock)
“Puerto Rico is on our list of most dangerous islands,” says Kersey. The U.S. territory has a significantly higher robbery rate than the U.S. mainland (145.7 per 100,000 people in 2014. The national U.S. average was 102.2). However, it does have a lower rate of violent crime — 236.2 vs. 365.5.
So what are some of the low-crime spots in the Caribbean? Kersey lists his picks:
- Cayman Islands
- British Virgin Islands
- St. Martin — St. Maarten
- Turks and Caicos
It should be noted that even in the less dangerous Caribbean destinations, U.S. officials recommend tourists take normal precautions, especially when in unfamiliar surroundings, where petty crimes do occur.
And regardless of where you travel in the Caribbean, there are still some safety precautions tourists should take. Again, Kersey stresses, this is not the region to go off exploring on your own. “Generally speaking, tourists that stick to well-known areas that are in the tourist districts generally are fine,” he says. But it’s the wanderers who get in trouble. “People are on a cruise ship,” he says. “They’re visiting for the first time, they wander outside the tourist areas, go into places that aren’t as well policed, it may be late at night, they may have had something to drink — those are the factors that lead to problems.”
Throughout the region, tourists generally are safe if they remain in the touristy areas in the daytime. (Photo: iStock)
Kersey has another suggestion to avoid being targeted. “When visiting the Caribbean it’s important not to go out with anything you don’t want to lose,” he says. “Don’t flash expensive jewelry or smartphones. Make sure all valuables are secured and locked away in your cruise ship or hotel room.”
And Kersey has another warning. “If you are being robbed, don’t resist,” he says. “Generally speaking, these robbers are happy to take your stuff and not harm you. Resistance is generally met with some kind of force.”
Still, Kersey says the alarmist headlines we get from the region are sometimes overblown. Remember: The vast majority of the region’s 26 million visitors vacation there without incident. “On most tourist islands in the Caribbean, people will be fine and safe as long as they exercise good judgment.”
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