U.S. Warns Spring Breakers Headed to Mexico, Jamaica or the Bahamas

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Don’t wander off the resort after dark. Keep the flashy clothing and jewelry to a minimum. Stay aware of your surroundings. Those are some of the travel rules that Ginger Moore, a retired logistics analyst from Panama City, Fla., adheres to on her solo trips throughout the Caribbean.

Ms. Moore, 75, has always felt safe during her stays in Jamaica, where she’s returning for the fourth time on Wednesday. But this year, while she’s still happy to take a trip, a travel advisory for Jamaica, reissued in January by the U.S. State Department, has elevated her concerns.

“I’m sure there are parts, just like the United States, that you can go into that are not recommended,” said Ms. Moore. Nonetheless, she has taken new precautions for her upcoming trip, like packing additional health supplies and purchasing a security bar for the sliding balcony door of her hotel room.

In recent weeks, the State Department and U.S. Embassies have issued new and updated advisories urging travelers to Mexico, Jamaica and the Bahamas — some of the busiest international spring break destinations — to exercise extra caution after recent violent events, some in tourist areas. Security experts suggest that the advice is largely consistent with advisories of previous years.

Caroline Hammer, a global security analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, said tourists should interpret the advisories as warnings to exercise caution and avoid specific hot spots for crime, but not as a blanket rule to restrict their travel anywhere in the region.

Warnings about spring break travel to certain parts of Mexico came in recent days, while the security alerts and updated travel advisories for Jamaica and the Bahamas were issued in late January.

The State Department has classified Jamaica at Level 3 since 2022, recommending visitors “reconsider travel” because of episodes of violent crime. The agency reissued the travel advisory in January to also alert tourists about access to medical services, and warned that “sexual assaults occur frequently, including at all-inclusive resorts.”

Kamina Johnson Smith, Jamaica’s foreign affairs and foreign trade minister, said in a statement published two days later that the country made “serious improvements” in responding to crime and in its health care infrastructure and disagreed with the scope of the advisory.

“The government of Jamaica is disappointed that the language used does not reflect our country’s significant progress,” she said.

Data from the Jamaican national police force shows that as of March 1, several crime categories, including murders, break-ins and rapes, had declined compared with the same period in 2023, though shootings and assault had risen.

In the Bahamas, gang violence and a number of murders prompted U.S. officials to urge tourists to “exercise increased caution,” especially in the cities of Nassau and Freeport. Recreational boat tours, jet ski rentals and other water activities are unevenly regulated, the advisory additionally notes, and have led to injuries and deaths.

In early February, two female travelers said their drinks had been spiked during a cruise stop in the Bahamas and accused resort staff of sexually assaulting them.

Last week, in a statement specifically discussing spring break travel, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico reiterated precautions outlined in a State Department travel advisory, last updated over the summer, issued because of crime and kidnappings. It reminded tourists to be cautious when visiting the downtown areas of Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, all in Quintana Roo State.

The advisory also recommends travel by toll road in daytime hours, and to remain near major cities, which have a heightened police presence and other emergency services.

Organized crime groups in Mexico have largely kept violent activity outside resorts to avoid hurting the tourism industry, said Ms. Hammer, of RANE. The cartels, she said, depend on tourists themselves, by selling drugs to visitors and extorting local businesses, and it would generate a heightened response from the Mexican government.

In 2023, tourists spent close to $3.1 billion in Mexico, up 10 percent over 2022, according to data from the tourism ministry, with many travelers Cancún-bound.

A handful of violent episodes last year included the kidnappings of two Americans who had crossed the border near Brownsville, Texas, and were found dead, as well as heated disputes between rival taxi and Uber drivers in Cancún. The violence came on the heels of a number of gunfights and assassinations in late 2021 and early 2022 that rattled tourists along the Riviera Maya.

“The good news is that those incidents that have been reported inside of resorts are extremely, extremely rare,” Ms. Hammer said.

In its latest advisory, the State Department warns that shootings by rival gangs, “while not directed at tourists,” have caught some in the crossfire, even on resorts. Last month, an American woman was killed during a drug-related shooting in a beach club in Tulum. Prosecutors in Quintana Roo said she was a bystander.

Despite these incidents, the security picture in Mexico has generally remained unchanged, said Zachary Rabinor, the founder and president of Journey Mexico, a luxury travel company.

“A lot of this is kind of general, stereotypical fears,” he said, adding that tourists shouldn’t interpret violent episodes as sweeping events, especially in resort destinations most popular with visitors.

“There are definitely still areas that are troublesome, but in general, they are not where tourists are going,” Mr. Rabinor said.

In January, the Bahamian president, Philip Davis, shared his government’s plan to tamp down criminal activity after a spate of murders, mostly gang-related.

“If you choose crime, you will face the full weight and might of the law,” Mr. Davis said during a national address on Jan. 24. The admonishing tone was a sharp turn from a celebratory moment just a month earlier, when the Bahamian tourism ministry announced the country had hit a record of eight million travelers in 2023.

While the police grapple with crime off resorts, the Bahamian foreign affairs ministry said, in a statement published shortly after the U.S. Embassy alert, that the country does not believe that tourists are under any new “elevated or increased security risk.”

Effective safety measures can be as simple as remaining vigilant, and planning ahead by purchasing travel insurance and updating emergency contact lists. Other general steps recommended in the advisories include avoiding walking or driving off the resort areas at night, avoiding public transit and heeding local laws.

High traveler volumes around spring break may make tourism police forces, in places where they have them, slower to respond to emergency calls, Ms. Hammer of RANE Network warned.

Arranging transportation through a travel company or a resort for excursions or trips to the airport is highly recommended, said Scott Stewart, the vice president for intelligence at the security firm TorchStone Global.

“A lot of times, there’s not a lot of a gap between criminals and taxi drivers in many countries, so using a trusted transportation provider is huge,” said Mr. Stewart.

He also recommends “traveling gray,” a term used in security circles for keeping a low profile, such as by not displaying luxury items that might draw the attention of criminals.

The State Department’s reissued warning raised concerns for Ms. Moore, the traveler heading to Jamaica, but it hasn’t deterred her from making the trip.

“In the tourist areas, I just feel very comfortable,” she said. “I’ve just never had any bad experiences, knock on wood, and I love Jamaica. That’s why I keep going back.”

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