Cruise ships docked in the Bahamas, one of the most popular — and, some say, troubled, Caribbean destinations. (Photo: Roger W/Flickr)
According to an email obtained by the The Nassau Guardian, an executive with Carnival Cruise Line reportedly warned a Bahamas tourism official that Carnival is so worried about crime in Nassau, it’s considering issuing crime warnings to the passengers it brings there.
Meanwhile, in an interview published last week by The Saint Lucia Times, the president of the Saint Lucia Venders Association publicly accused the Minister of Tourism of ignoring the island nation’s crime problem. He said crime in Saint Lucia has gotten so bad, cruise lines might consider dropping that popular Caribbean port stop from their itineraries, as Norwegian Cruise Line did in the 2010-2012 season because of reported crimes against passengers.
When reached by Yahoo Travel, Carnival declined comment on the Nassau Guardian story. About its future in Saint Lucia, Norwegian told Yahoo Travel in a statement: “Norwegian has been calling on St. Lucia for the past several years and is scheduled to call the island this year and in 2016. As with all destinations we visit, we continuously monitor any events and may make future itinerary adjustments should the need warrant.”
Caribbean Cruising: A Serious Crime Risk?
Passengers from the Celebrity Eclipse were the victims of a notably brazen robbery in Saint Lucia in 2013. (Photo: Stephen Rees/Flickr)
True or not, the reports have renewed debate about crime in the Caribbean, and how it affects the millions of cruise ship passengers and other American tourists who visit there each year. Some countries in particular have seen their share of troubling developments.
In the Bahamas, the U.S. State Department warns of a spike in crime that’s affected American visitors. Those crimes include armed robberies in downtown Nassau and the cruise ship docks, “snatch-and-grab” robberies and sexual assaults (the U.S. Embassy says last year, there were four reported sexual assaults of U.S. citizens, including minors, by jet-ski operators).
In Saint Lucia, the State Department warns that crime is rising, with tourists being “targeted often” for petty crime. In one unusually brazen 2013 crime, 55 passengers from the Celebrity Eclipse were robbed at gunpoint during a St. Lucia excursion. No one was hurt.
Unlike its cautionary notes for the Bahamas and Saint Lucia, the State Department has gone a step farther with Honduras; that nation is under a full-blown Travel Warning, where U.S. officials say you should “consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all. “The level of crime and violence in Honduras remains critically high,” says the warning. While popular Honduran cruise destinations in the Bay Islands, such as Roatan, do have lower crime rate than mainland Honduras, the State Department warns that “thefts, break-ins, assaults, and murders do occur.”
Travelers heading to the Bahamas might be putting themselves at risk for robberies and sexual assaults. (Photo: Laurie Chamberlain/Corbis)
Miami attorney Jim Walker, who has represented a number of former passengers in lawsuits against the cruise industry, has warned of escalating crime in many popular Caribbean cruise stops, especially in places like the Bahamas, Saint Lucia, and others. “Every week we get a call of some sort from a Caribbean island,” Walker tells Yahoo Travel. “There’s been a sexual assault of a minor in a place that otherwise seemed safe. Or someone’s been robbed. Or someone’s been sexually assaulted.”
He singles out the Bahamas, which he’s called the most dangerous cruise destination in the world. “If someone came to me and said, ‘I’m going [on a cruise] from Spain to Italy, or a cruise from Seattle to Ketchikan [Alaska] or I’m going to go to Nassau,’ I’d say, 'Please, don’t go to Nassau.’” he says. “I see it as a hotspot. It’s just a place that we hear about quite quite often.”
In addition to the Bahamas, Saint Lucia and Roatan, Walker also points to destinations like Antigua, St. Kitts and Guatemala as problematic for cruise ship passengers. “I don’t think the cruise industry does a very good job of warning passengers about the realities in these ports,” says Walker. “Most people don’t know what they’re getting into. They think it’s better in the Bahamas. They think they’re going on a tropical getaway and they get themselves into real danger.”
WATCH: Cruise Safety
Is the Caribbean crime hype overblown?
As even a noted cruising skeptic like Walker must (and does) admit, the vast majority of cruise passengers who visit the Caribbean do have a good time — one reason the region remains, by far, the world’s most popular cruise destination. Visits to the Caribbean and the Bahamas account for more than a third of the 22-million-passenger industry’s global deployment capacity. Most of those Caribbean cruise passengers have fun, incident-free vacations. And the cruise industry points to passenger satisfaction ratings that approach 90 percent. As a former president of the cruise industry trade group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) said during a congressional hearing on cruise ship crimes: “We must be doing some things right to have these types of ratings.”
“People are going to be able to go to any of the ports of call in the Caribbean, whether it’s Nassau or Roatan or the U.S. Virgin Islands or St. Thomas, and chances are you’re not going to be killed or robbed or anything,” Walker says. In fact, while Nassau has a relatively high murder overall murder rate — 30 per 100,000 people (the U.S. homicide rate is around five per 100,000 people) — it is comparable to or better than a few U.S. cities, including Miami and Baltimore, the home ports of numerous Caribbean-bound cruises.
“Like any big city, there are issues,” cruise industry expert Stewart Chiron, a.k.a. “The Cruise Guy,” tells Yahoo Travel about crime in the Caribbean. But he accuses critics of playing up years-old and isolated, horror stories. And he disagrees with claims that cruise lines aren’t doing enough to warn passengers of the potential dangers that do exist. “Cruise lines do everything possible to ensure passenger ship safety and make adjustments where necessary,” he says. “Cruise lines like Carnival do inform passengers, in writing, to be vigilant while visiting Nassau.”
Cruise lines agree. “The safety and security of passengers is the top priority for cruise lines,” CLIA said in a statement to Yahoo Travel. “All cruise lines are in regular contact with local and international authorities regarding security in the areas in which they sail. As appropriate, itineraries can be adjusted to avoid potential areas of risk.”
How can I protect myself?
A moonlit stroll on the beach might seem enticing, but walking alone at night in an isolated area could be dangerous. (Photo: Macduff Everton/Corbis)
While chances are that you’ll have a crime-free trip to the Caribbean, there are still things you can do to protect yourself when you cruise to this or any other region. U.S. officials recommend exercising caution when discussing travel plans in public. Don’t walk on isolated beaches and areas, especially at night, and book excursions only with reputable tour companies. Don’t let your guard down or drink too much; criminals tend to target those who appear drunk or unaware.
Walkers recommends cruisers read up on crime reports for the cruise destinations, either by searching advisories by the State Department or even reading their destinations’ local newspapers online. Once your cruise vacation begins, keep an eye on your children (especially young teenagers). “Don’t leave the tourist areas,” he says. “Don’t go sightseeing by yourself or anything like that. If it looks dangerous, it’s probably more dangerous than you think. You can always go back to the ship.”
Should I go?
St. Maarten, Cayman Islands, and Barbados are all beautiful and safe cruising destinations. (Photo: Getty Images)
The fact is, with its blue waters, sunny beaches, and well-earned reputation for relaxation, the Caribbean remains the most popular cruising spot for a reason: the vast majority of people who visit there have a great time. Walker concedes that while he personally would tell people to avoid Nassau, there are some Caribbean locations — specifically the Cayman Islands, St. Maarten, and Barbados — that he likes. “I wouldn’t write off all of the Caribbean,” he says. “But I would be very selective and I would certainly make a point of not just reading the cruise ship advertisements or the tourism images and really read about where I want to go.”
So is a Caribbean cruise safe? It’s a classic risk/reward scenario: the risk of becoming one of the few horror stories, versus the reward of being one of the millions of happy cruisers who safely, and repeatedly, go to the Caribbean. “I’m aware that most people are going to have a good time [on their Caribbean cruises],” Walker says. “I’ve just met too many people who haven’t.”