Crime, tourism and plain speaking

Many Caribbean hoteliers attending this year’s Caribbean Market Place in Nassau were taken aback by the opening remarks of the Bahamas Prime Minister, Perry Christie. Instead of speaking as is customary about the challenges the industry faces, or his nation’s development plans, he chose to emphasise the threat that crime posed to regional tourism.

Addressing an audience of tourism industry professionals from the region, North and South America, Mr Christie, said that there was no bigger threat to the future viability of tourism in the region than crime. In noting that the general escalation in robbery, violence and theft within the nations of the region had become a grave concern for governments, he expressed concerned about the ripple effect that this could have on tourism.

The Prime Minister, a former tourism minister, said that crime did not only manifest itself against tourists, but more generally, resulting in the stigmatisation of entire nations and tourism destinations as crime-ridden enclaves. “The combination of travel advisories against certain destinations, coupled with media publicity in the major markets discouraging tourism travel to certain destinations, is a trend that is bound to not only continue, but to accelerate and widen unless we manage to bring criminal activity down, way down, in our respective countries all across the region”, he said.

While the Bahamas Prime Minister’s remarks may have shocked some attendees who prefer to see these issues not spoken about in public Mr Christie had a point that industry professionals need to consider more closely.

While tourists are not a special case and all crime, against residents and visitors is abhorrent, there is a real danger that if not addressed in relation to tourism it can seriously damage Caribbean economic development.

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 tour operators and diplomats reporting has begun to raise red flags about certain destinations in the region; and in the Eastern Caribbean in particular

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 searched 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 3 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 it dissuades visitors from booking a perfectly safe and happy vacation. Despite this, there is a need for a more joined up approach.

Tourism’s continuing ability to prosper free from the threat of crime 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 are few easy answers to the burgeoning problem of crime especially during an economic downturn. While those beyond the region have to do more to reduce demand for the narcotics trafficking that fuels criminality in the Caribbean, the only real long term answer lies in the public demonstration of moral leadership.

There is also a real case for the industry to accept and channel public comment and discussion and not hope that the issue will remain invisible.