If a trip to the Caribbean is on your 2024 bucket list, you’re probably looking at Jamaica or the Bahamas. On average, around 5.6 million travelers to The Bahamas and 1.3 Jamaican tourists are from the U.S., making them two of the top tropical vacation spots for Americans looking to escape to the islands.
But, if you dream of spending time in the sun this year, it might be wise to consider alternate travel plans, at least for the present.
Earlier this week, the U.S. State Department issued travel advisories warning Americans against travel to both Jamaica and the Bahamas due to an increase in violent crime.
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What's happening in the Bahamas?
There has been a dramatic uptick in violent crime — 18 murders in Nassau since the first of January 2024. In 2021, the Bahamas recorded 18 murders across the entire year.
The U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas issued a security alert stating the violence “occurred at all hours, including broad daylight on the streets.” Retaliatory gang violence appears to be the main factor, prompting the State Department to raise the Bahamas travel advisory from level 1, “exercise normal precautions,” to level 2, “exercise increased caution.”
The advisory explained that while the spike in murders is confined to specific, non-tourist parts of Nassau and Freeport, “burglaries, armed robberies, and sexual assault occur in both tourist and non-tourist areas.” The advisory recommended using extra caution while staying in vacation rentals that don’t employ the private security generally found on resort properties.
If you’ve already booked travel to the Bahamas, it might be safer not to go sightseeing or leave your resort for the day.
The Bahamian government’s response
The Bahamian Prime Minister is pushing back against the travel advisory. In a statement issued on January 30, 2024, Prime Minister Philip Davis said,” The government of the Bahamas is alert, attentive, and proactive to ensure that the Bahamas remains a safe and welcoming destination.”
In a public address later in the week, the Prime Minister outlined a plan the government hopes will curtail the crime wave, including roadblocks and covert police actions.
What’s happening in Jamaica?
Jamaica is experiencing a similar crime wave, prompting the State Department to issue a level 3 travel advisory, encouraging tourists to reconsider travel to the destination.
Jamaica is traditionally considered the most violent of the Caribbean nations, with an average murder rate of 52.9 per 100,000 residents — the highest of all Latin American countries and Caribbean islands.
In January alone, there were 65 murders reported on the island, and the State Department reported that ”home invasions, armed robberies, sexual assaults, and homicides are common,” with sexual assaults frequently occurring at tourist-heavy all-inclusive resorts.
The U.S. Embassy in Jamaica explained the local police “do not respond effectively to serious criminal incidents,” that hospitals may provide substandard care, and that U.S. government employees are not allowed to use public busses or to travel outside of certain areas of Kingston after dark due to safety concerns.
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The Jamaican government’s response
In response to the change in the travel advisory, the island nation is increasing patrols and hiring more police officers.
“We exceed 1200 police officers joining the force per year,” explained Antony Anderson, Police Commissioner, Jamaica Constabulary Force, in an interview. He also pointed out that homicides had “dropped by 20% compared to January 2023.”
What are travel advisory warnings?
The State Department issues travel advisories for every country in the world to advise American travelers on the relative safety of their intended destinations.
Advisories range from Level 1 to Level 4 and take into consideration things like political unrest, terrorism, natural disasters, crime, public health, and the risk of unlawful detention or kidnapping.
- Level 1 – Exercise Normal Precautions. The overall crime level is low. Be aware of your surroundings as you would be if you went to a mall in your neighborhood.
- Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution. Be cautious when traveling, as there is a higher incidence of petty crime (mugging, robberies) and an increase in violent crimes. Current level 2 countries include the Bahamas, the U.K., the Philippines, and most of Europe, excluding the Balkans and areas involved in the Russia/Ukraine war..
- Level 3 – Reconsider Travel. These destinations offer an increased risk to safety. Current level 3 countries include Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and Jamaica.
- Level 4 – Do Not Travel. Extremely dangerous for travelers and native populations. Level 4 advisories are usually given to war zones. Current level 4 countries include Ukraine, Russia, Sudan, North Korea, and Yemen.
Before traveling, visit the State Department’s Travel Advisory Warnings to see if your destination is safe and enroll for free in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Once enrolled, you’ll receive any current alerts regarding your travel destination. The service also lets you know where your country’s embassy is located should an emergency arise while you’re abroad.
Where to go instead?
If you have your heart set on a Caribbean holiday, there are many island tourist destinations to choose from that don’t have increased travel warnings. Here are five Caribbean islands still at a level 1 threat alert.
Martinique is part of the French West Indies in the Eastern Caribbean Sea, between Barbados and St. Lucia. Originally settled by the French, it’s known as the rum capital of the world. There are beaches, mountains, great food, and fabulous shopping.
It has very little crime and is generally considered safe for solo female travelers. Because it’s a French Territory, Americans will need a passport to enter.
Not too far from Martinique lies the independent island of Barbados. Home to Rihanna, the island is known for its incredible surfing, snorkeling, and other water sports. The vistas are world-famous, and you’ll definitely be able to snap some Instagram-worthy shots of the sugar-white sandy beaches.
Barbados is home to an active arts scene, rum distillery tours, shopping, and a food scene. You can lounge on the beach or enjoy taking in all the local color and history.
The Cayman Islands
The Cayman Islands are a British Territory in the Western Caribbean Sea composed of three separate islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman. Each island is dotted with luxurious resorts, but as one of the most expensive Caribbean destinations, the Caymans may not be for everyone.
All three islands offer stunning beaches and a variety of watersports. You can hike along Grand Cayman’s Mastic Trail, explore botanical gardens, indulge your inner foodie, and check out the vibrant nightlife.
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Sint Maarten/Saint Martin
Like Martinique, Sint Maarten/Saint Martin is part of the French West Indies. The island is governed by France on one side and the Netherlands on the other, so Americans will need their passport to vacation there.
This 37-square-mile island has two different vibes — casinos and nightlife on the Dutch side and a low-key island lifestyle with an excellent restaurant scene on the French side. Both sides enjoy beautiful beaches, and the water is perfect for snorkeling, diving, or fishing.
Aruba is 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela in the southern part of the Caribbean Sea. Compared to the Bahamas, you’ll get more bang for your buck vacationing in Aruba, where hotel costs and restaurant prices are lower. Go windsurfing, snorkeling, lounge on the beach, or check out Aruba’s lively art scene, gorgeous architecture, and casino-infused nightlife.
While the Bahamas and Jamaica are temporarily experiencing a spike in crime, there are still safe places to visit in the Caribbean. When planning a bachelorette party, spring break, or family trip, consider islands like Barbados or Aruba that offer the same fun in the sun.
If you’re not sure which Caribbean island is safe to visit, check out the State Department’s travel advisories before booking flights and hotels. In general, being as aware as possible of all advisories is a good move if you're trying to step up your travel game.
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