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Is Jamaica a Safe Place to Visit?

Is Jamaica a safe place to visit? It’s the question I’m asked over and over. Sometimes, I reply flippantly that it’s probably safer for visitors than for residents. It’s true.

To protect the lucrative tourist market, the Jamaican government relies on the Tourism Courtesy Corps, uniformed guards, that is deployed in major tourist areas. These guards are like insulation: their presence tells locals to keep away and the visitor, that someone’s watching over them.

All-inclusive hotels provide their own layer of protection. Upon arrival, guests are bused directly to the hotels. Once on property, every conceivable amenity and experience you could desire is on offer. They’ll even bring in craft vendors (for a fee) on special days, and have “Jamaican Nights,” where traditional food and entertainment are provided. So unless you really want to,  you don’t have to leave their premises.

The entrance to most hotels are manned by guards. As a resident, I can’t just casually turn up at one of these hotels, especially those in popular tourist towns like Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, for dinner or drinks. In fact, I was turned back twice from Secrets Montego Bay when I tried to visit friends who were guests there. And when I attended a wedding at the Riu Hotel recently, I had to purchase a US$75 day pass just to be on the property.

Tourism Courtesy Officers in Falmouth Jamaica

Female Tourism Courtesy Officers

It’s not just hotels that put a cordon around their visitors. Some cruise lines have shopping areas adjacent to port so if their passengers don’t want to, they don’t have to venture beyond the security gates.

They have reason to be cautious. Over the years, visitors have been targets of robberies, some have been killed. And lately, with the economy teetering, begging has become more than an aggravation.

But it’s the stranglehold of violent crime, one that successive governments seem powerless to break, that has prompted several countries to issue travel advisories cautioning their citizens to be on the alert in Jamaica. It’s also what worries Jamaicans at home and abroad.

With a potent mix of chronic unemployment (rates have been hovering over 12% for the last two years), high underemployment, low wages (the World Bank reports the average annual income at just under $5,000), crushing public debt (the fourth largest in the world on a per capita basis), widespread corruption, ineffective policing, and gang-related violence attributable to the lucrative drug trade (Jamaica, and other Caribbean islands, are major transshipment points for drugs heading to North American), the island was catapulted, eight years ago, to the unenviable position of having the highest murder rate in the world. And despite the reported continuing reduction in major crime, the country has not recovered from that black eye.

Crime interrupts the normal enjoyment of life, stunts growth, and according to a report by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), costs Jamaica over $529 million a year in badly needed revenue.

Jamaica Constabulary officers on duty

Jamaican police

So, is Jamaica a safe place to visit? 

Yes, and no. Speaking as someone who’s had a brush with violent crime and worried about it before I moved here, I say despite the statistics and the reports, yes, it is. But you have to be your own judge.

I know several people who come to Jamaica year after year and have never run into trouble. Just last week, I met a woman from Washington, DC who’s been coming here, sometimes 3 or 4 times a year since the 1980s and has never had a problem.

Speaking again as someone who’s had a brush with violent crime, I’d say no. Some people are too quick to resort to violence to solve problems and sometimes, innocent people get caught in the crossfire as reportedly was the case in this weekend’s tragic shooting death of a little British girl, Imani Green, who was visiting relatives in Trelawny.

In fairness, the majority of Jamaicans are law abiding and hardworking people who have the same hopes and dreams as everyone: that of a better life for themselves and their families. The majority are friendly and welcoming to visitors. But there’s a stubborn minority who prey upon the unsuspecting visitor, and resident alike, and give all of us a bad name.

Staying Safe in Jamaica

  1. Do your research. It’s a popular misconception that drugs are legal in Jamaica. Not true. We might have the best marijuana in the world but don’t even think of taking any back with you. If you are caught, you will be arrested and thrown in jail and believe me, you don’t want to land in a Jamaican jail. Most, if not all, are overcrowded and were built for punishment, not comfort. Land in jail and you could wait many unpleasant months before you get your day in court.
  2. Alert your country’s embassy or consulate where you’ll be staying and for how long.
  3. Leave your itinerary, including flight number/s, and hotel name and phone number with at least one friend and family member.
  4. Have copies of your passport and IDs in case either is lost or stolen.
  5. Don’t take valuables, including expensive jewelry, on trips. Leave them in the hotel safe. Better yet, leave them at home.
  6. Keep your eyes on your luggage at all times.
  7. If you decide to venture off on your own, ask the concierge, or the staff if you’re staying in a villa, to recommend a taxi service and/or reputable driver.
  8. If you’re staying in a private villa or someone’s home, ask whether there’s security on the premises.
  9. Take only the cash you need for the day and don’t flash it around.
  10. Leave expensive gadgets, like smart phones and iPads, at the hotel.
  11. Be aware of your surroundings at all times. If something doesn’t feel right, make your way back to safety.
  12. People here can be friendly but before you wander off to someplace unfamiliar with someone you’ve just met, tell a friend where you’re going, with whom and when you plan to return. And do it in the person’s presence. You’d be surprised how often visitors, especially young women, go off with guys they know little about. I met one last year. She left Negril and had traveled cross-country to Kingston with a guy she met on the beach. Luckily for her, he was on the up and up, but what if he wasn’t?

In Jamaica, as anywhere, beauty and danger live side by side. Exercise caution. Don’t abandon your commonsense because you’re on vacation. If you wouldn’t do something risky at home, chances are, you shouldn’t do it here.

 

Comments

  1. It’s something I hadn’t thought of. We don’t hear much about Jamaica over here. We have seen coverage on the television of the problems in Trinidad and Tobago and that looks bad.

    But then, there are frequent reports of tourists dying in Australia, from dehydration whilst bushwalking in 40 degrees celsius or alcohol fuelled violence.

    Your advice is sound for any destination!
    Hakea recently posted..2/52My Profile

    • Thanks, Narelle.
      Interesting that you don’t hear about Jamaica but maybe that’s good news cause usually, it’s the bad stuff that gets int’l attention.

  2. Marcia, What an informative post. Dear me, I do hope that idea of day-passes at hotels doesn’t catch on! I am posting this one on TravelnWrite’s FB page in hopes of getting even more readers to see it.
    Jackie Smith recently posted..Travel Tuesday: (Trip) Shopping at Costco, Part 2My Profile

  3. Excellent post, Marcia! I was in Jamaica in the mid-1990s. We stayed at a resort in Montego Bay, but took a couple of day trips to Negril and a side trip that was intended for Port Antonio, but we got totally lost. I admit that I was very apprehensive on that Port Antonio excursion since there had been news of violence against tourists in the past and we went into extremely remote areas. If we had taken your advice, we would have been better prepared before we set out. I’d like to visit beautiful Jamaica again — taking into account the good advice in this post.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Some of My Best Travel 2012My Profile

    • Thanks, Cathy. It’s easy to get lost, especially because a lot of the minor roads are not marked or marked clearly.
      Sorry you didn’t make it to Port Antonio — I think you’d have loved it.
      Hope you visit again and this time, I’ll make sure you don’t get lost!

  4. This is a great rundown of your country.
    My sister- in-law has visited repeatedly – for work and pleasure and loves the place. It’s the first question out of my husband John’s mouth – when it came up as a place for a wedding venue. I find it interesting that unemployment – at 12% has been the cause of so many problems. It does make me wonder how the youth of much of Europe will cope to with levels in their age group of unemployment over 20%. But I digress.

    Sometimes it’s just plain bad luck that you run into problems but you’ve made some great points. I wouldn’t be flashing anything around that resembled electronics or money.
    Leigh recently posted..Luminous Landscapes: Entranced by Light in Bryce Canyon NPMy Profile

    • You’re welcome, Leigh. It’s something I think about often as I write about Jamaica and tout it’s beauty.
      You’re right though, sometimes is just plain bad luck.
      Good point about the European youth — it’s a tough thing, unemployment – and it can lead to all kinds of ills.

  5. I have an artist friend who goes to Jamiaca every year around Christmas. He’s been doing it for years but from what his lady friend describes, he stays in a shack-like kinda abode and lives alongside the folk there. He’s a photographer and painter and really gets to mingling like it’s the most natural thing in the world. He won’t even give up going to spend the holiday with his family and lady friend but if it suits them, who am I? Anyhow, I’d say it was safe there. We have guards here but we don’t take them seriously. Plus, most of them are old.

    Good tip, n. 12. You just can’t go off high and mighty, especially women.
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    • Hahaha, old guards? Girl, where are you?
      Re tip – Maybe it’s youth or just plain stupidity. I’d never go off with some stranger, especially in a new place where I don’t know the lay of the land.

  6. Great tips…it seems that as with anything, its all about being smart and knowing where to go and when. I’ve been to Jamaica several times and never had a problem, but as you said, I was comfortably in the tourist zones…

  7. Like anywhere in the world, you need to be street smart and not be naive. Jamaica is a beautiful country and an excellent place to visit. Don’t be stupid and listen to your “spidey” senses and you should have a good time.
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