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Jamaica - Crime and Tourism

(Oct 27/2011) - The crime rate in Jamaica has decreased, somewhat, since the Dudus Coke - Tivoli Garderns affair (which recently caused the demise of the former Prime Minister, Bruce Golding). Nevertheless, what follows still applies.

(May 24/2009) - A line that seems to have been particularly offensive to female readers of this page has been removed (it had to do with the body-type, race, and age of women hiring rent-a-dreads, which, although accurate, was overly sarcastic). One can only take so much scolding.

With regard to traffic, the page is currently getting about 100-120 views per day - somewhat under 10% of our total html hits. It also generates regular emails to the author, many positive, some very much not. All of them are read, and as many as possible are answered.

A recent news item that demonstrates what can happen if one goes astray can be found here.

(Sep 3/2007) - The author of this page, RS Stewart, would like to again make it clear that the following advisory is based on personal opinion, rooted in the context of our occasional tourism activity, and does not represent the official position of the JCO caving membership. All who read it, and object to it, should direct their anger toward Mr Stewart ( and not the JCO generally.

(Jul 23/2006) - This page is addressed to visitors to Jamaica. Residents will already be very familiar with much of what is discussed (and do not need to be told again), but for the sake of those who are less familiar, we're going to be appropriately honest. If any Jamaican nationals take offence, so it goes.

We have kept the internal links to this page limited on the website since it was first posted in November of 2005, and as of July 23, 2006, there are no internal links to it whatsoever (just from the footnotes, which are only linked-to from this page). That is, you cannot get here from the home page of this site. If you have found it, it's by way of a search engine, and it's because you're concerned about Jamaican crime. Accordingly, we do not consider ourselves responsible for helping to promote a negative image of the country - people will not be reading this unless there is some degree of worry in the first place.

The reason why we have posted this advisory is that we believe that visitors to Jamaica (including those who might hire JCO guides) have the right to know what they're getting into. It's entirely possible for tourists to have a splendid time in Jamaica without being a prisoner of an all-inclusive resort, but this will only happen if there's a heads-up on what can be expected. The following advisory is the heads-up.

Crime and Tourism - The Statistics:

It is often said by Jamaican government sources that Jamaica has one of the lowest crime rates for tourists in the Caribbean. This is arguable, but not entirely wrong. It is true that there are few reported crimes committed against tourists in Jamaica. However, the reasons for this are often obscured. The factors follow below.

Most visitors to Jamaica seldom leave the resorts, and when they do, it is in buses supplied by the resorts, with guides supplied by the resorts, with visits restricted to one of the few Jamaican "tourist attractions". These are usually Dunn's River Falls, Martha Brae River Rafting, Fern Gully, Green Grotto Caves, etc. Otherwise, few tourists take it upon themselves to hire a car and explore on their own (this kind of activity is discouraged by the resorts, with warnings of various possible dangers).

Many of the visitors to Jamaica who are included in the statistics are arriving on cruise ships (an ever increasing percentage of recorded tourist arrivals). They visit Jamaica for a few hours, and then return to the boat. The only parts of Montego Bay, Runaway Bay, etc, that they visit are tightly controlled by the police.

The few tourists who venture into the hills and valleys of the island are very experienced, and know what to be on guard against.

The reality is that there are few crimes committed against tourists in Jamaica because most of them never venture beyond the tourist compound, or Dunn's River Falls, or the craft-markets located close to where the boat is docked. Those few, thick-skinned, brave souls who do are very careful. There is an exception to this scenario - Negril.

Negril acquired a reputation several decades ago of being a very laid-back, peaceful part of the island. This was before the coast road was put in from Lucea, when it was relatively isolated. It has changed greatly since then. Nevertheless, for those who are after cocaine, ganja, or rent-a-dreads, this is the place to be. There are few actual "compounds" - the beach is public and most of the hotels front directly on it. Meeting or buying your entertainment of choice involves an easy walk of 50 metres from the buffet to a patio chair. Lots of tourists like it, and if that's your idea of a vacation, go for it. But don't expect it to be problem free - Negril has one of the highest rates of crimes against tourists in Jamaica, some of them violent [1], [2], [3]. Of course, there are many old-hands who have been visiting Negril for years and managed to survive, so if you keep your wits about you, it's entirely possible to have a good time.

At any rate, the crimes that most tourists are likely to be victims of are not violent in nature (although this does happen), but thefts. Of course, if you report this, it won't make it into the statistics anyway, so it won't alter what is claimed by the Ja government about crime against tourists.

Crime and Tourism - The Reality:

The threats to tourists in Jamaica follow in ascending order of importance:

Harassment: Outside of the resorts, regular harassment can be expected to varying degrees. If you are white, and driving around, expect to hear regular yells of "White man!", "White bwoy!", "Joe!", "Jakes!", etc, in most districts, whether urban or rural (this does not apply to Kingston and the corporate area, where the population is more mixed - it primarily applies to the western half of the island). Ignore all of this and keep on driving - you'll get used to hearing it eventually, and it will then be less irritating. When walking or bicycling (and we do not recommend this), things can be more intense. You will be approached by people who are very insistent that you stop and talk with them. If you do not, you will be accused of disrespecting them, and berated in an intimidating way. If you do stop, tremendous pressure will be put on you to give them something (money). You cannot win either way. Keep in mind that they are unlikely to chop you, so don't fear for your life, but it's not particularly enjoyable having to put up with that crap. Bottom-line: don't walk - drive.

Theft: In Jamaica, if it is not locked-up, or nailed-down, it is liable to be stolen. This does not just apply to tourists and their touristy things, but to farmers, shop-keepers, and environmental NGO's. It is a rare person, whether tourist or resident, who has not had something stolen in Jamaica (having your car broken into is a given, unless you, or an employee, keep a close eye on it). You must always be on guard for this. Even if you are very careful, the thieves will get to you eventually. When it does happen, don't blame yourself for having slipped-up - consider it as inevitable.

Road-blockages: Obstructing roads with debris, burning tyres, etc, has become a popular pastime in Jamaica over the last few years. This can happen for almost any reason, from an increase in electricity rates to a local case of food poisoning. It is unpredictable and can often happen on main roads (such as Mount Rosser). If you run into one of these, it is important to know an alternate route.

Stray bullets: Jamaica has many people running around with guns who have no problem using them. The murder rate in Jamaica is currently jockeying for top position with Colombia and South Africa, with Jamaica pulling ahead. In past years, the gunfire primarily occurred in Kingston and Spanish Town, but it's now spreading out. St James (Montego Bay parish) has seen increasing levels of violent crime (murder), as well as all other parishes. At this time, the chance that you will catch a stray bullet (meant for someone else) while standing on a main street in many of the tourist centres of Jamaica is not zero. Fortunately, there are fewer gunmen in the bush than in urban areas, so the further you get from town in Jamaica, the better.

Homophobia: If you are gay, don't even consider stepping foot on the island. Not only is it illegal to be homosexual in Jamaica, some Jamaicans believe that gays should be killed. The primary musical genre, Dancehall, is replete with songs that encourage this [4], [5], [6]. This belief is often acted upon, such as with the recent murder of Steve Harvey.

Rape: There are many single female visitors who come to Jamaica for sex, using the hired services of the many rent-a-dreads who congregate around the resort areas. Unfortunately, because of this, most single white women who come to the island are now regarded as being there only for that reason, and will be harassed accordingly. In Jamaica, "No means no" is not recognized amongst some segments of the male population and harassment can lead to worse things. If you are a single female, be very careful about whom you let become your friend, no matter how good the patter. [For those women who are hiring the male prostitutes, it must be noted that the island has a very high incidence of HIV, and as you already know, condoms are not popular in Jamaica.]

Murder: As noted above, Jamaica is one of the most murderous countries on the planet. Tourists are not generally exposed to this risk (much of it is tribal politics in Kingston), but it cannot be disregarded. To be clear on this: Your chance of being intentionally murdered while being a tourist in Jamaica is relatively low, but not as low as visiting Cuba, or Costa Rica, or a hundred other countries. If personal safety is the main concern with regard to your vacation, go somewhere else.

Crime and Tourism - What to do:

It's possible to visit Jamaica successfully, without being cooped-up in a resort, if you're an experienced traveller, have your wits about you, are cognizant of the risks, and can tolerate the harassment. However, if you're a generally naive sort of person, and head out into the hills alone expecting to travel through paradise, harsh cold reality may soon intervene. If you can handle it, no problem. If you're not sure, forget about it.

Those who don't entirely trust their own abilities to deal with the real Jamaica can still get off the beaten track by linking with the right people, such as Accompong Town, Miss Lilly in Coxheath, et al.

The Jamaican Caves Organization