For as long as Jamaica has been a popular vacation spot, the island's reputation for crime and violence has preceded it, often overshadowing the many wonderful aspects Jamaica has to offer its visitors.
While the U.S. State Department has issued travel advisories about crime rates, particularly in Kingston, and Jamaica's own board of tourism offers tips and warnings for keeping you safe while traveling, it's important to keep things in perspective. Jamaica is considered one of the more potentially dangerous places in the Caribbean region, but the region still has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
As the Jamaican Tourist Board stresses, you are more likely to be mugged in New York than in Montego Bay, so you should not let the reputation deter you from experiencing all the island has to offer. Jamaica is a beautiful island full of friendly, charismatic, and fun-loving people. It has been a favorite vacation spot for years, attracting more than 2 million visitors in 2003, many of whom were repeat visitors who had fallen in love with Jamaica and come back time and again. Simple common sense can make all the difference in ensuring a safe and enjoyable trip, and the precautions suggested for traveling safely in Jamaica are the same that you would take when visiting any large city in the U.S. or Europe.
Jamaicans are extremely passionate about social and political issues and, in the most populous areas these passions can sometimes find destructive outlets. A majority of the violent crimes that occur in Jamaica's metropolitan areas, especially Kingston, is associated with gangs and politics. Impromptu demonstrations have been known to occur and can block roads and interrupt daily business. Sometimes these protests can escalate into riots or shootings and, as a result, curfews and police searches are occasionally conducted in some inner-city neighborhoods. Remember that like any large city, certain areas have worse reputations than others.
It is always advisable to be aware of any current political or social issues that may be a problem at the time of your visit, and travelers to Kingston should check with local Jamaican authorities or the local U.S. Embassy for the most current information available before departing for your trip.
That said, Kingston is still rich with things to see and do. Paul Martin, Executive Editor for National Geographic Traveler Magazine, published a feature article entitled "High on Jamaica" after spending 3 weeks on the island, and wrote, "Today Jamaica's political parties seldom settle their differences Wild West fashion, and, while Kingston has more than its share of big city woes, travelers who bypass the capital miss out on a lot."
The 2010 Jamaica Crime and Safety Report, conducted by the Overseas Advisory Security Council, recorded that violent crimes including murder, shootings, carnal abuse, and robbery are up compared to previous years. The UN stresses, however, that, "Crime statistics are often better indicators of prevalence of law enforcement and willingness to report crime, than actual prevalence."
While travelers can still find headlines of violence in Kingston, vacationing travelers in Jamaica rarely come in contact with these types of crime. Outside the inner-city areas, theft and other petty crimes are the most prevalent concerns. In most cases, major resorts have plenty of security measures to protect the grounds, so visitors to any of the large-scale resorts have nothing to worry about. If staying in smaller accommodations, or just traveling about on your own, safety is more of a concern, but not so much that seeing Jamaica for yourself isn't warranted or worth the trip. In fact, there's so much to do all over the island of Jamaica that you can't afford not to strike out and see it for yourself.
The U.S. State Department has published a pamphlet called "Tips for Traveling Abroad" for U.S. Citizens planning on traveling outside the country, which is full of useful advice for citizens of any nation planning international travel. It is available by mail fromThe Superintendent of DocumentsU.S. Government Printing OfficeWashington, D.C. 20402
or try the Bureau of Consular Affairs home page at http://travel.state.gov.
A few of the most significant tips to be found in it are:
Make sure you have a signed, valid passport and visa, if required. Make sure that you also fill in the emergency information page of your passport;
Familiarize yourself with the local laws and customs of the countries to which you are traveling. Remember, the U.S. Constitution does not follow you beyond American borders. While in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws;
Make two copies of your passport identification page. This will serve as a replacement if your passport is lost or stolen. Leave one copy at home with friends or relatives. Carry the other with you in a separate place from your passport;
Leave a copy of your itinerary with family or friends at home so that you can be contacted in case of emergency;
Do not leave your luggage unattended in public areas. Do not accept packages from strangers;
Prior to departure, you should register with the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate (or embassy of your home nation, if not a U.S. Citizen). For U.S. Citizens, this can be done through the State Department's travel registration website. Registration will make your presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an emergency.
There are also a few precautions to consider specifically for traveling to Jamaica, as vacationers in any city can make popular targets for certain types of crime. Petty theft and pick pocketing can be common in crowded areas. It is particularly a concern on inner-city bus systems and street markets, which can be crowded and jostling. Being particularly careful and aware of your surroundings can help to deter such activity. Holding purses close to your body, keeping wallets in front pockets, and handling large sums of cash discretely are a few simple precautions every traveler can take. Avoid dressing in conspicuously expensive clothes or wearing eye-catching jewelry as well.
If you plan on renting a car, be aware of locals offering to "guard" your car against vandalism in exchange for money. If you encounter that situation, try to find somewhere else to park because the supposed guard can even become your vandal if you refuse their services. Further, only travel in taxis that are clearly marked and beware any drivers offering to show you the "real Jamaica."
Beware of anyone trying to sell you "ganja" (marijuana) because, although it is extremely common, it is still illegal. Being caught with it is a crime that incurs harsh penalties, but not nearly as harsh as if you get caught trying to take it out of the country. There are drug sniffing dogs at the airports and harbors, and if you get imprisoned in Jamaica, you're likely out of reach of U.S., or your home country's, assistance. While Kingston's death tolls will always make headlines, the vast majority of crimes are categorized by petty theft and hustling, which can be avoided with proper precautions. The most vital precaution to remember is simply to use common sense and be aware of your surroundings. You wouldn't leave your bags on a bench in Chicago or Los Angeles, so don't do it in Jamaica.
The most common problem you are likely to encounter in Jamaica isn't actually a crime or danger at all, but rather considered by some to be an inconvenience. Street vendors can be quite persistent, and while some travelers thrill at the exciting and fast-paced experience of bargaining with vendors, others can consider their manner intrusive and uncomfortable. It is important to be firm and, in most cases, you will be left to go on your way. Don't let Jamaica's reputation discolor the fact that it is filled with friendly and helpful people who are eager to help make your trip the best it can be. Of this, Martin wrote:
"Everywhere I went during the three weeks I spent traveling around this Connecticut-size island, I met Jamaicans eager to point out sights that I shouldn't miss. And if I was directed to more than one 'prettiest spot in the country,' well, that was understandable. Any number of places might qualify."
His words also help us not to forget that while Jamaica, as many places, has crime, it is important to remember that crime isn't what makes Jamaica, or Jamaicans themselves, for that matter:
"For me, Jamaica is a fragment of Bob Marley heard through the open window of a passing car, and the clean, delicate scent of ginger blossoms after a rain. It's the morning sun boiling up out of the Caribbean like a bright red lobster hoisted dripping from its pot, and a chorus of tree frogs tuning up as another long, slow, velvety night settles in."
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