The governments of Jamaica and The Bahamas are responding to a recent advisory by the U.S. State Department warning Americans visiting both places to be aware of violent crimes — including a wave of recent murders — insist that crime against tourists remains very unusual in the island nations.
Caribbean nations have previously complained that they are swamped with guns and ammunition imported from the USA, and Mexico is currently trying to sue US gunmakers for exporting tens of thousands of guns that end up in the hands of criminals.
The US has not stated how many of its citizens are receiving consular services as victims of crime in Jamaica and Barbados.
“Not withstanding the advisory, Jamaica remains not only a desirable destination but a safe and secure destination for international visitors,” Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett told the Miami Herald. “Sometimes, the unintended consequences of policies is they cause great harm and damage to the stability and safety of other countries.”
The State Department issued updated travel advisories for both countries last month. Though the risk levels did not change, the update came amid a killing spree in The Bahamas, where there were 18 killings since the start of the year. Jamaica had 33 homicides in the first 13 days of this year. The risk level remains at 3 for Jamaica — “Reconsider Travel” — and Level 2, “Exercise Increased Caution,” for The Bahamas. The highest risk level is 4, “Do Not Travel.”
Both travel advisories have language warning visitors that sexual assaults, armed robberies and other violent crimes are common.
“Similar to The Bahamas, we are aware of instances regarding U.S. citizen victims of violent crime, but are unable to comment on this further due to privacy considerations,” the spokesperson said about Jamaica.
The Jamaica Constabulary Force later said that despite the double-digit killings, homicides in Jamaica were actually trending down compared to the same time last year.
The Jamaica Tourist Board said the crime rate against visitors to Jamaica remains extremely low at 0.01%, while Bartlett noted that 42% of the island’s visitors are returning tourists. “We have a 42 percent repeat business, which tells you that of the 4.1 million who visited last year, 42 percent have been to Jamaica before.”
He acknowledged, however, that there are “imperfections” in the country, which is struggling to build a strong economic base to enable its citizens to enjoy a higher standard of living while also marketing itself as a premier Caribbean destination.
The travel alert for Jamaica has been at Level 3 since March 14, 2022. Before that it was Level 4 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was previously set at Level 2 on December 13, 2021.
“We are committed to working on our areas of imperfection and to ensure that where we see weaknesses like in some of the areas indicated, as our economy improves, and our resources allow, we will solve all our health and social problems,” Bartlett said.
On Jan. 24, a day after the State Department reissued its Jamaica travel alert, the U.S. Embassy in Nassau also issued a security warning for American travelers.
U.S. citizens considering visiting the Bahamas were advised to be aware that “18 murders have occurred in Nassau since the beginning of 2024. Murders have occurred at all hours including in broad daylight on the streets. Retaliatory gang violence has been the primary motive in 2024 murders.”
The day after the alert, The Bahamas tourism minister and deputy prime minister, Isaac Chester Cooper, visited Tallahassee to pitch the archipelago as a destination to the leadership of the Florida Federation of Alpha Chapters’ “Alpha Day on the Hill.” Alpha Phi Alpha is a historically Black Fraternity.
Since the travel alert was reissued for The Bahamas, there have been two more homicides, including a woman who was killed during a triple shooting on Ragged Island Street in Nassau on Thursday evening. The Nassau Guardian reported that the killing happened just as members of the House of Assembly were debated amendments to the Bail Act in an effort to tackle this year’s soaring murder rate, which Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis said led to a “tragic start” to 2024.
Separately, police are investigating two separate complaints of sexual assaults against two people visiting The Bahamas, a 30-year-old Mexican woman and an 81-year-old Canadian woman. The incidents occurred on Paradise Island after the U.S. alert.
Davis has blamed the outbreak of violence on a series of gang retaliations. Despite this, he said in a statement that “the incidents described in the January 2024 U.S. embassy crime alert do not reflect general safety in The Bahamas, a country of 16 tourism destinations, and many more islands.”
The Bahamas, which had 9 million visitors last year, is taking steps to address the increase in crime, he said, and the government remains “alert, attentive and proactive to ensure that The Bahamas remains a safe and welcoming destination.” Davis said the country’s rating remains at a Level 2 “alongside most tourism destinations.”
A State Department spokesperson confirmed that its Level 2 advisory for The Bahamas hasn’t changed since the country was temporarily placed at Level 3 during the COVID pandemic. However, language was included in the new update about water safety. In both December and January, visiting U.S. tourists were attacked by sharks.
“We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” the spokesperson said. “We take seriously our commitment to provide U.S. citizens with clear, timely, and reliable information so they can make informed travel decisions.”
In both The Bahamas and Jamaica travel advisories, the State Department notes that the high homicide rate is primarily affecting the local population. It has listed several Jamaican neighborhoods as high risk.
Caribbean islands are increasingly becoming battlegrounds for gangs armed by an influx of illegal weapons. Lacking training and equipment for their police forces, tourism-dependent islands often find themselves outgunned.
In response, governments have sought to pass tougher gun legislation and have asked the U.S. and Canada for help. Some island governments have looked for assistance regionally. After a wave of fatal shootings in the Turks and Caicos, the British overseas territory called on the neighboring Bahamas and others to deploy police officers to assist its small force. On Thursday, the Royal Turks and Caicos Police confirmed that two men were shot dead at a popular plaza on Leeward Highway.
In a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Keith Rowley, whose oil-rich country is also struggling to control violence, said there’s a need for better regional security cooperation along with a crackdown on firearms trafficking. Rowley also raised the issues in a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.