Is It Safe to Vacation in Jamaica?
Just recently, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the U.S. State Department have issued travel advisories to U.S. and U.K. citizens who were visiting or planning to visit Jamaica. The travel advisory applied specifically to certain parts of the island that have seen a dramatic spike in gang-related violence in the past year. Still, for many vacationers, it does raise an important concern—is Jamaica a safe place to vacation?
Being a child of Jamaican expats, and having traveled back and forth between Jamaica and the U.S. for many MANY years, I thought it would be helpful to offer my opinion on the topic of crime in Jamaica (backed-up by statistics of course).
This is not the first time travel advisories have been issued for travelers seeking to bask in the Caribbean island's warmth and beauty. Back in the late nineties and as recently as 2012, governments have "responsibly" warned potential travelers of the dangers they may encounter when visiting the destination. These advisories have usually corresponded with spikes in crime over the course of a few weeks or months.
Of course, "criminal activity" in a country runs the gamut of anything from petty crime and larceny to murder. You also have to play close attention to where these incidents are occurring.
Using the above 2010 crime stats as an example, we can see that most crime in Jamaica is motivated by larceny and/or petty theft. Ever since I was a kid, I've heard stories of gangs in Jamaica breaking into people's homes (usually when they weren't there) to steal their valuables; so this is no surprise to me. In fact, I personally was robbed of a small amount of money while traveling to see family members in rural Jamaica (don't worry I wasn't traumatized).
Murder is the most problematic crime in Jamaica of course. And the national murder rate seems to fluctuate every couple of years due to some changes in the political or economic landscape. The most recent spike in the homicide rate seems to stem from an upheaval of gang activity in the major cities by the federal government dating back to 2010 when Christoper "Dudus" Coke, a powerful gang leader (or don) was brought down by joint U.S. and Jamaican special forces. Since then gang-activity has splintered and dispersed into rural areas. You can read more here.
Jamaican authorities will vehemently point out however that the crime rate for the average tourist visiting Jamaica is still a very low 0.05%. This makes complete sense when you think about the Jamaican government's economic priorities.
Tourist Jamaica vs. Real Jamaica
Almost 20% of Jamaica's GDP depends on Tourism/Hospitality and Remittances from abroad. Realizing this, the government spares no expense in not only protecting tourists and visitors from abroad but making sure they want to come back.
First off, if you're a tourist going to one (or many) of the resorts that dot Jamaica's pristine beachfront; you will notice just how much security is devoted to keeping those areas safe. Not only are there conspicuous JDF (Jamaica Defense Force) officers patrolling resort perimeters and travel routes but there are also inconspicuous Jamaican police and security dressed in cabana shorts and polo tees on resort grounds.
The government also makes an effort to tightly control the modes of transportation that tourists take to get around. This is for good reason. Jamaica's public buses are notorious sites for the worst robberies and assaults on the whole island. Gangs are also known to use public buses to scope out their next victim or learn their routine.
In response, the Jamaican government has created an effective system for vetting and identifying licensed tour guides and taxis. They can be identified as those vehicles with red license plates that have white lettering. An example of this can be seen below.
While the aforementioned steps are great for protecting tourists, the sad reality is that it really limits one's ability to go into their interior of the island and enjoy the many honest, down-to-earth and warm-hearted people that make Jamaica a place where wonderful memories are made. As one other tourist once mentioned to me: "It is a real shame cause the best part of vacationing is to immerse yourself in the local culture. Not everyone wants to stay in their resort the whole time."
However, the added security speaks to much larger socioeconomic problems on the island. Unemployment in Jamaica stands at 13%, with many of the unemployed being young men and women. These unemployed young people often turn to lifestyles that promise easy money for a little bit of effort i.e. lottery scams, gang/posse activities, prostitution, etc.
Yet, despite all the problems. I would suggest anyone who was interested to take a guided tour to some of Jamaica's interior locales. There are many eateries, reggae fests, and bashments (local speak for parties) that the resorts simply cannot imitate. At the time of writing this article, it is really Northwest Jamaica near Montego Bay (in the St. James parish) that is experiencing a surge of violent gang-related activity. We are all hoping that it dies down soon.
Below is a video from the president of the Jamaica Manufacturer's Association detailing how the recent crime wave may potentially affect business and employment opportunity on the island.
Safety Tips While Travelling:
Keeping security concerns in mind, traveling in Jamaica is much like travelling anywhere else. It is always a good idea to keep your wits about you and to not bring unnecessary attention to yourself. Below is a list of best practices that will help you stay safe and in good company despite the crime in Jamaica:
- Always, always ask permission to take photographs of anyone who you do not know. It's common courtesy and you avoid taking pictures of illicit activity like crime in Jamaica.
- Make sure your luggage has at the very least your name, phone number on the outside for easy identification if it gets lost or stolen.
- If you are approached by a mugger/thief, hand over whatever they are asking for. No personal property is worth your life or wellbeing.
- Do not go into a deep conversation about wealth or assets that you may have. While the typical thief in Jamaica may see you as a tourist, the degree of wealth that you display (your flashiness) may determine to what extent they try to exploit you.
- Unfortunately, politics in Jamaica can be a violent game. In fact, some of the major Jamaican gangs started out as strong arms of Jamaica's 2 main political parties. Therefore, avoid political demonstrations, civil disruptions, political arguments with strangers.
- Keep in mind that Jamaica's hurricane season is between September and November and thus tourism drops off. Jamaica's police force also use this time to take vacations so security tappers off a bit. Keep this in mind if your planning to vacation during those months.
- Don't wander around dark areas at night. This goes especially for the major townships and cities. Always stay in well-lit areas.
The Good News
Though crime in Jamaica is a problem, I can honestly say from experience that it is localized to a few troubled areas. If you want to know what these areas are ahead of time you can check with nation's state department or department of foreign affairs. Don't let a few bad apples ruin a great travel experience. It is honestly one of the few places on Earth where you can run along pristine beaches, drink, eat and dance the night away. Now for your viewing pleasure, see a video about Jamaica's awesome cultural contributions.