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.
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.
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
- 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.
- Alert your country’s embassy or consulate where you’ll be staying and for how long.
- Leave your itinerary, including flight number/s, and hotel name and phone number with at least one friend and family member.
- Have copies of your passport and IDs in case either is lost or stolen.
- Don’t take valuables, including expensive jewelry, on trips. Leave them in the hotel safe. Better yet, leave them at home.
- Keep your eyes on your luggage at all times.
- 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.
- If you’re staying in a private villa or someone’s home, ask whether there’s security on the premises.
- Take only the cash you need for the day and don’t flash it around.
- Leave expensive gadgets, like smart phones and iPads, at the hotel.
- Be aware of your surroundings at all times. If something doesn’t feel right, make your way back to safety.
- 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.