Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Crime threatening Caribbean tourism

                  Financial pressure in area's nations not easing

                  FREEPORT, Bahamas (Reuters) -- Crime and the scruffy surroundings of
                  resort areas are hampering Caribbean tourist officials' efforts to make
                  more money in hard times by enticing visitors out of their hotels.

                  The problem, say local politicians, is not confined to the violent island of Jamaica,
                  which has one of the highest murder rates in the world, but is evident across the
                  Caribbean, a popular winter vacation destination for Americans and Europeans.

                  Officials say minor crimes like pick-pocketing, and harassment of visitors can have a
                  devastating effect on tourism throughout the region. They cite harassment on
                  beaches for the Bahamas losing its edge over other destinations.

                  "Why would a visitor want to leave a clean, safe, all-inclusive resort to be exposed to
                  filth and rip-offs? How many times have we seen dead animals in the streets on the
                  way to resorts?" Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie said at this week's
                  Caribbean Tourism Conference.

                  "A band of no-good young fellows does not have the right in our countries to cause
                  the nationals to suffer," he said. "A priority must be placed on stamping out criminal

                  For much of the Caribbean, tourism accounts for more than 50 percent of the
                  economy, and up to 90 percent on smaller islands. It is the largest foreign exchange
                  earner for the region and the largest employer, with more than 1 million Caribbean
                  people working in the sector.

                  But the islands have been hammered by economic weakness that began in 2001
                  and the severe drop in travel after that year's September 11 attacks on the United
                  States. The financial pressure has so far shown no sign of easing, with soft hotel
                  bookings and flight reservations ahead of the important winter travel season.

                  It has also left some tourism ministers and travel agents worrying quiet ly about
                  rising crime.

                  Crime statistics are often hard to come by, as many of the region's governments do
                  not readily disclose figures. Anecdotal evidence highlights incidents during 2001
                  such as a series of rapes in St. Lucia and a shooting in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin
                  Islands, that left a U.S. teen-ager paralyzed.

                  This year, Guyana has fallen prey to a spate of shootouts and murders while
                  Barbados has seen an upsurge in break-ins.

                  Country's crime hurts region's tourism

                  Economic sluggishness and rising unemployment has often been linked to
                  increases in crime, which in turn discourages tourists from visiting not only the
                  country in question but the whole region.

                  "In the context of people traveling globally, they are not distinguishing in any great
                  detail between a country here and a country there in this region," Christie said.

                  Violence and crime rates are indeed a consideration for tourists when choosing
                  destinations, agents said.

                  A business study from the Karma Center for Knowledge and Research in Marketing
                  at Canada's McGill University found the rate of crime was the main concern for
                  tourists considering Caribbean destinations. And that research was done in 1998 --
                  a robust period for the Caribbean travel industry with strong bookings, high
                  occupancy rates and frequent flights.

                  Some travel agents played down the problem.

                  "There's no question it's been an issue," said Richard Kahn, a New York travel agent
                  attending the conference. "When it happens, the impact is on that destination and
                  then it trickles down throughout the Caribbean as well. Thankfully, it's not an issue
                  right now."

                  Other agents echoed Kahn, saying violent crime is not now a high-level concern for
                  Caribbean destinations. They also brushed off a string of murders in Jamaica before
                  the election earlier this month, saying they did not affect tourist areas.

                  Tourism officials are more focused on pick-pocketing and general harassment, said
                  Bahamas Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe.

                  St. Vincent and the Grenadines has set up a special police unit to patrol the hotel

                  "We do not pretend that we don't have a problem with harassment and crime," said
                  Vera Ann Berreton, director of tourism at the country's tourism and culture ministry.

                  Copyright 2002 Reuters.