Danger In Paradise – How Safe Is Jamaica For Tourists?
Looking at message boards or even reading travel advice on government’s websites – you’ll easy get the image that a trip to this laidback, picturesque country can result in harm and a destroyed vacation.
I’ll start off admitting to you something I today feel quite embarrassed about – I was absolutely terrified of travelling to Jamaica.
Earlier this year I set out on a solo trip, and when I mentioned Jamaica as the highlight of my journey, people got very worried. “It’s one of the most dangerous places you could go to”, “A woman can’t go there on her own, that’s just insane”, “If you go, stay at a popular hotel and only travel in groups with other tourists” were some of the reactions I got. All was well meant, but as I read the same thing in travel guides it added to my fear of going, to a point where I thought about skipping it entirely.
So how is it, is Jamaica really that dangerous?
Well let’s say this: this white, blonde Swedish woman in her late 20’s went there alone, ventured way off the beaten path, used public transportation to travel the entire island, spent most time with locals and not just survived, but had one of the most amazing times of her life. I can only speak for myself and the brief time I spent there, but don’t worry – we have heaps of travellers in our community who share my experiences.
Travel local style
It is true, Jamaica suffers from criminality and has one of the highest murder rates in the world – an unfortunate consequence of poverty, gangs, drugs and politics. Visitors are occasionally the victims of crime, mostly pick pocketing, theft and robbery, but cases of eg. kidnapping and rape has also occurred. Still, the majority of crimes take place between Jamaicans. As terrible as that is, it does calm a lot of first-time-visitors to find out they’re not a main target.
Even so, Jamaica’s notorious reputation lives on and a majority of tourists see the all-inclusive hotels and popular resorts as their only option to visit. Is this a problem? Yes, we at Real Jamaica think so. There are definitely reasons to travel this way too, but it shouldn’t be presented as the only safe alternative – especially since this type of tourism isn’t always sustainable.
So how did the Jamaican trip turn out?
To ease my worries I made myself a deal: stay my first night in the tourist hub Montego Bay, at a local guesthouse. Then if I didn’t feel safe, I would go all in as a real tourist and spend the rest of my time at a resort. Do you know what the funny thing is? The places where I felt the most comfortable and enjoyed myself the most was in the ‘real’ Jamaica, far from the tourist crowds. And never was I in a situation where I felt threatened or unsafe.
Awesome outdoor kitchen at a local guesthouse
There were times when I got fed up with some hustlers. Harassment is one of the discomforts tourists mostly complain about when visiting Jamaica and it can get intense, especially in tourist dense areas. It chased off the good vibes I was looking for, but even so I don’t blame them – it’s simply one of the detrimental effects of unsustainable tourism, and people trying to make a living.
As a woman I could feel frustrated with the constant male attention. There’s no escaping catcalls and flirting – frequent, but harmless. You may also encounter occasional proposals to buy sexual services (an effect of the sex tourism). Visiting women may react to the blunt way Jamaicans have of going about what they want (in general, tiptoeing is not a Jamaican trait – something I came to love). But you just need to respond the same way– simply be respectful, firm and stand your ground (and if you’re also being as smart mouthed as the Jamaicans, you’ll end up sharing some laughs). After all my worries, this was the only unease I felt during my visit. I (mostly) travelled smart – you know, didn’t wander off alone at night or to very remote areas, look lost or insecure, flash valuables or share too much personal information. But I still walked alone at beaches, along roads and through towns. I drank rum with reggae artists at a beach without another tourist in sight. I was even chaperoned by a friendly rasta through dark stretches of woods to my guesthouse.
Enjoy an empty beach with no other tourist in sight
And if I ever doubted that Jamaicans would ultimately treat me with respect, this one night cleared all doubts. Me and two girls from my guesthouse decided to stop by a nearby beach for a skinny dip (I know, this definitely goes under the “Don’t do”-section in Travel Guides). Just as we’re wading into the dark water we notice beams of light on us, so we turn around in panic only to see a group of men with flashlights, standing at the cliff above us. With their backs turned against us, lighting our way and telling us to watch out for the sharp rocks. They don’t move until we are done with our bath and dressed again, and as we start walking back, one of them follows behind us, lighting the way until we reach the main road where he wishes us a good night.
Jamaica’s rumours have caused a lot of fears and any tourist-related bad news that happen keeps them alive. Jamaica’s situation is complex and so is the solution, but we do believe that sustainable tourism is one very important piece of it. If you want to go to Jamaica and are curious to see more than resorts and other tourists, do it! Join our community, learn the tricks, travel smart. And of course, carry with you the most essential travel buddy of all times – your gut feeling. If it says something feels off, it probably is. If it says something feels good, it probably is. And really, there’s no better place to learn how to recognize dem good vibes than Jamaica.
If you are interested in this feature, please contact the Real Jamaica team!
I’m a freelance writer, social changemaker and world traveler.