Cruise-Ship Port Call: Gauging Crime in the Bahamas

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A cruise-ship passenger gets robbed at gunpoint by thugs in the Bahamas, raising the important question, How safe are you while on vacation?

Offending Party: Bahamian criminals

What's at Stake: a few hundred dollars

The Complaint: As reader Carly Milne found out, nothing can ruin a holiday faster than armed robbery. (Though dysentery and street mimes run pretty close behind.) Last November, Milne says, she and 17 other Bahamas cruise-ship passengers were accosted by gun-toting criminals during two separate onshore excursions in Nassau. The passengers, who were traveling aboard Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line ships, were all scooting around the island on Segways (on ship-sponsored tours) when they were robbed of their money, passports and cell phones.

Milne reported the incident to the police and later contacted the Avenger, hoping to get the word out about the rising crime rate in a popular stop for American tourists.

The Outcome: None of the passengers were injured, and all were compensated by the cruise lines. But it seems they are not alone in being victimized in the Bahamas. The national crime rate has been rising there in recent years, alarming the government and its tourist board. The Bahamian murder rate hit record highs during two of the past three years, and the country's crime rate appears to be ascending in 2010. Crime was up 17% in the first quarter of this year, with an 18% jump in armed robberies (to 224, up from 190 in the same period in 2008) and a 17% spike in murders (27, vs. 23 in 2008).

Historically, crime in the Bahamas has generally been confined to residents, outside of episodes of pickpocketing and other petty offenses. But the recent tourist robberies in Nassau may signal a troubling shift, and they have drawn a swift response from the local authorities. Police have stepped up patrols in downtown Nassau, especially in tourist-heavy areas, and installed a network of closed-circuit TV cameras, according to Vernice Walkine, director-general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Aviation. She points out that some 4.6 million visitors — including 3.9 million Americans — dock at the country's ports each year, revealing the crime rate as relatively low. But "none of us would ever suggest that these things don't happen, because they do," Walkine says.

The Bahamian government sent the Avenger statistics detailing crime against tourists in 2009, and they show one murder and 19 instances of armed robbery — 18 of which came in the single November Segway hijacking described by Milne.

If the government statistics are correct, that would mean there was only one other armed robbery of a tourist in all of 2009. But that does not appear to have been the case. In October 2009, local paper the Tribune reported that 11 tourists were robbed in broad daylight at the Queen's Staircase, a popular Nassau tourist attraction. Further, Jim Walker, a Miami-based maritime attorney who represents cruise-ship passengers, says he's heard from "two or three" other travelers who were robbed at gunpoint in the Bahamas in 2009.

Additionally, a report from the U.S. government's Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) notes that in 2009, in addition to the Segway incidents, several other tourist groups were allegedly victims of armed robbery at more remote locations. "You're at far greater risk of being held up in the Caribbean," Walker says. "We don't get these stories from cruise ships going to Alaska and Europe."

According to Dick Hudak, a former FBI agent who was stationed in the Caribbean and now runs Resort Security Consulting Inc., a firm based in southern Florida, the jump in the overall Bahamian crime rate is probably drug-related; the Bahamas have long been favored by illicit drug smugglers. When it comes to crimes against tourists, however, the police are often able to round up perpetrators quickly because of the country's small size. The Ministry of Tourism says arrests have been made in the Segway case, but the investigation is ongoing. "Any crime in the Bahamas affects them. What else do they have besides tourism? Crime is not a friendly thing to report," says Hudak, commenting on the government's apparent underreporting of tourist-related crime.

If you're planning a Caribbean cruise and want to avoid trouble, Hudak says, the best advice is to use common sense. Stay in groups, keep to the more heavily trafficked parts of town, and don't do anything stupid like trying to buy drugs. It also doesn't hurt to research your destinations before you get there. Read newspapers, OSAC's global security reports and State Department travel warnings online.

And do steer clear of Jamaica. Experts agree that it's currently the most dangerous country in the Caribbean.