Jamaica is often viewed warily by travelers who read about the country's high crime and murder rates and wonder if it's a safe place to go. Of course, millions of tourists visit Jamaica each year without incident, but many also hole up at all-inclusive resorts for the duration of their trip due to safety concerns.
The truth, however, is that travelers can have a great experience getting out and seeing the "real" Jamaica, but need to be mindful of the legitimate threat of crime where it exists.
Crime in Jamaica
Jamaica has one of the world's highest per-capita murder rates, and a 2010 state of emergency threw the harsh glare of publicity on the violent gang and drug culture in the capital, Kingston. Violent crime can be a real problem in Kingston, Montego Bay, and other parts of the country, but typically such crimes involve attacks by Jamaicans on other Jamaicans and revolve around drugs, gangs, politics, poverty, or revenge.
Most crimes targeting visitors in tourist areas like Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios are property-oriented -- pickpocketing and petty theft, for example. Armed robberies do occasionally involve tourists, and can turn violent if victims resist. Special tourist police have been employed in these areas in an attempt to control crime: you can spot them by their uniform of white hats, white shirts, and black pants.
Tourists in Jamaica have been robbed as they slept in their hotel rooms, so be sure to lock all doors and windows at night and keep valuables in a safe and secure location, such as the in-room safe.
Credit-card skimming is an ongoing problem in Jamaica. Some scammers will make a copy of your credit card information when you give your card to a restaurant server or shopkeeper. ATMs also may be rigged to steal your card information, or individuals may observe you at the ATM and try to steal your password. Avoid using credit cards or ATMs whenever possible; carry just enough cash for what you need that day. If you do need to use a credit card, keep an eye on the person handling your card. If you need to get cash, use the ATM at your hotel.
Sexual assaults by hotel employees in resort areas on Jamaica's north coast have occurred with some frequency, as well. Male prostitutes offering their services to white women ("rent-a-dreads") is a problem relatively unique to Jamaica, and the demand by some female tourists for such services can spill over in negative ways on other visiting women, who may be viewed as "easy" by some local men.
Police Presence and Areas to Avoid
For emergency police response, dial 119. Police in Jamaica are generally short on manpower and training. You will see an increased police presence in areas of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios frequented by tourists, but if you are a victim of crime you may find the response of the local police to be lacking -- or nonexistent. Locals generally have little trust in the police, and while visitors are unlikely to be mistreated by police, the Jamaican Constabulary Force is widely viewed as corrupt and ineffectual.
Tourists are advised to avoid traveling in notoriously high-threat areas of Kingston including, but not limited to, Mountain View, Trench Town, Tivoli Gardens, Cassava Piece, and Arnett Gardens. In Montego Bay, avoid the areas of Flankers, Canterbury, Norwood, Rose Heights, Clavers Street, and Hart Street. Several of the latter neighborhoods are adjacent to Montego Bay's Sangster International Airport.
Gay and Lesbian Travelers
Homophobia is unfortunately widespread in Jamaica, and gay and lesbian visitors may be subjected to harassment at a minimum and violence at worst. Gay sex is illegal and can result in prison terms. Until this aspect of Jamaican culture changes, gay and lesbian travelers should seriously consider the risks before planning a trip to Jamaica.
Harassment of Tourists
Harassment of tourists, while not necessarily a crime per se, is a problem acknowledged at even the highest levels of Jamaican government. This can range from harmless pitches on the street, beach, or shopping area to buy souvenirs, marijuana, or services like hair-braiding, to bogus offers of tourist-guide services, to racial slurs aimed at white visitors and sexual harassment of women.
Despite a concerted, decades-long effort to address the problem, one in three visitors to Jamaica still reports being on the receiving end of some time of harassment (that is down from the 60 percent who reported being harassed in the mid-1990s).
Most Jamaicans are friendly and helpful to visitors, however, and guests to the country can improve the atmosphere by not seeking out paid sex or drugs during their visit. To the extent possible, be respectful but firm when confronted by someone offering something you don't want -- it's a combination that can go a long way toward avoiding further problems.
The north coastal road linking popular tourist destinations such as Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Negril is much improved in recent years. However, most roads are poorly maintained and have poor signage. Smaller roads may not be paved, and often are narrow, winding, and crowded with pedestrians, bicycles, and livestock.
Driving is on the left, and Jamaica's roundabouts (traffic circles) can be confusing for drivers used to driving on the right. Seat-belt use is required and recommended especially for taxi passengers, given the hazardous driving conditions.
If you rent a car, avoid parking on the street if possible: look for a spot inside a residential compound, in a parking lot with an attendant, or within your view. When shopping, park as close as possible to the store entrance and away from dumpsters, bushes, or large vehicles. Lock all doors, close the windows, and hide valuables in the trunk.
Use of public transportation is not recommended since public buses are often overcrowded and can become venues for crime. Take a cab from your hotel or use transportation from vendors that are part of JUTA -- the Jamaica Union of Travelers Association.
Hurricanes and tropical storms can hit Jamaica, sometimes causing significant damage. Earthquakes are a rarer hazard, but also occur.
Nightclubs can be overcrowded and often are not in compliance with fire-safety standards.
Jet ski accidents in resort areas are uncomfortably common, so use caution whether operating a personal watercraft or enjoying recreational activities in waters where jet skis are present.
Kingston and Montego Bay have the only comprehensive medical facilities in Jamaica. The recommended hospital for U.S. citizens in Kingston is the University of the West Indies (UWI). In Montego Bay, the Cornwall Regional Hospital or the Montego Bay Hope Medical Center are recommended.
For more details, see the Jamaica Crime and Safety Report published annually by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.