Tourism, crime and the Caribbean economy

Published: Sunday | October 21, 2012 Comments 0

David Jessop, Contributor

One of the most sensitive subjects for the travel industry is the issue of security. Whether it relates to visitors' personal safety or to the safekeeping of personal information, it is an issue that most in the industry want to say as little about as possible.

Despite this, because of the industry's economic centrality to Caribbean prosperity, it is a subject on which an appropriate, if private, regional forum needs to be created.

The first point to make about security and tourism is that the Caribbean is very safe.

Even in countries that have growing national crime rates, the likelihood of a visitor being attacked or in some way having a crime committed against them is minimal when compared to the large numbers of visitors the islands' receive.

This is particularly so in nations where high national levels of crime have, in part, contributed to the rise of all-inclusive hotels and visitor facilities and beaches that are not locally accessible.

The second is that tourists are not a special case. All crime is abhorrent and, in much of the Caribbean, it is the region's people who particularly suffer its effects whether directly or through the challenge criminal activity poses to economic development.

Third, the Caribbean is not exceptional. Harassment and opportunistic theft go hand in hand with tourism almost everywhere in the world and form the basis for the majority of reported crimes committed against visitors.

Fourth, it is the case that Caribbean police commissioners and the police in recent years have dedicated greater resources to tourism; but despite this, there remain a number of cases where it has had to be made clear to the police that it is not the visitor who has committed the crime.

Then there are other much less recognised and newer forms of crime that touch visitors.

There are emerging and largely unrecorded cyber crimes that, for the most part, the industry and visitors think little about or are quietly absorbed.

These relate to security failures or lax security on the part of hotels, tour operators and travel agent's web sites that do not do enough to protect the information provided when bookings are made, or when guests check into or out of a hotel.

In recent months, there has been globally and in the region a number of examples of large hotel chains failing to protect credit card or personal details and such information subsequently being hijacked or sold globally to those involved in organised crime.

Visitors not blameless

And lastly, visitors themselves are not blameless. For instance, recent statistics from the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office noted that the number of Britons arrested overseas rose by six per cent in the past year, with some 70 per cent of those from the UK who were arrested in Jamaica being held for narcotics related offences.

Having said this, there is a much darker and hidden side of Caribbean crime against visitors that largely goes unreported.

This involves incidents of sexual assault, violence, robbery, homophobia, and in rare instances, murder.

With the exception of the latter, few of these cases are ever publicly reported and in certain cases not even recorded.

Instead when such crimes do occur, tourist boards, governments, the relevant embassy or high commission, as well as tour operators or cruise lines, usually work quietly to address the issue and repatriate or care for the visitors concerned.

In some tourism dependent nations, there also seems to be between the media, the police and those concerned with the industry and its economic well being, an understanding that ensures that only the worst cases or those first reported in the foreign press ever reach into print or onto the airwaves.

What is worrying, in talking to tour operators and diplomats, is that in some Caribbean countries not often thought of as having serious problems, the level of violent crime against visitors appears to be increasing to the extent that their internal company and consular reporting has begun to raise red flags about certain destinations in the region.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published a report on Caribbean Human Development.

The document explored in detail crime in the Caribbean and its social and economic implications and considered in passing, the economic impact of criminality on tourism.

It noted that the region's now heavy dependence on tourism had created new vulnerabilities. Potential tourists, it suggested, were alienated by perceptions of violence and criminal activity and have been searching for other locations where there was no threat to personal safety.

It noted too, that in some nations sex tourism has emerged, and that this was associated with increased levels of people trafficking and crimes against children.

Referring to an earlier academic study, the UNDP hinted at a hidden iceberg of economic damage when it quoted figures that suggest that youth crime alone is costing Caricom nations in lost tourism, on average a little over three per cent of GDP annually.

Addressing the issue of crime and tourism is not easy, as there is always the danger that by drawing attention to a problem one dissuades visitors from booking a perfectly safe and happy vacation.

Despite this, there is a need for a more joined-up approach.

Long-term defence

Tourism's continuing ability to prosper free from the threat of crime, terrorism or cyber threat should be seen to represent a key component in the region's long-term defence of its economic security.

Without the industry, already weak, tourism-dependent economies could, at worst, become unstable.

There is at the very least a case for the Caribbean Tourism Organisation and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association establishing with interested regional agencies and external parties in the industry, a low-key but functional committee to discuss regularly with police commissioners and others, crime and tourism in a more holistic way.

David Jessop is director of the Caribbean Council.david.jessop@caribbean-council.org

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