Is It Safe to Travel to Mexico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas? from Outside tzemke

I want to go somewhere warm for spring break, but the places I’ve been considering—Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Mexico—either have concerning travel-advisory reports or have been making headlines for recent crimes. I can’t stop thinking about the tourist who was shot and killed in Tulum. Now I’m nervous. Is this just sensationalist news, or should I really avoid traveling to these destinations? —In It for Fun and Sun

Spring break is upon us, and many of Americans’ favorite sunny Caribbean destinations, long considered safe, have been making headlines of late due to crime and safety concerns, so this is a valid question.

On February 9, the boho-chic Mexican beach town of Tulum, on the Yucatán peninsula, made global news when an American tourist was shot and killed in the crossfire of warring drug cartels.

In late January, the U.S. State Department renewed travel warnings to Jamaica and the Bahamas. The agency rates Jamaica a Level 3 (reconsider travel)—one level below its most severe Level 4 warning (do not travel)—citing in its advisory that “violence and shootings occur regularly in many neighborhoods, communities, and parishes in Jamaica,” and “sexual assaults occur frequently, including at all-inclusive resorts.”

The State Department considers the Bahamas a slightly safer destination, with a Level 2 advisory (exercise increased caution), due to crime. The American Embassy there has reported 18 homicides in the capital city of Nassau since the start of 2024, prompting the agency to issue a security warning, cautioning travelers that “murders have occurred at all hours including in broad daylight on the streets.” With such news, it’s understandable that you’re wary of visiting these places.

The Cove at Atlantis, a resort located on the north shore of Paradise Island, is considered one of the best resorts in the Bahamas. It boasts two private beaches and a Michelin-starred restaurant. The State Department warnings haven’t deterred guests from coming. (Photo: Courtesy Steve Roszko)

“Travel advisories are always important to consider,” says Jack Ezon, founder of the travel agency Embark Beyond, in New York City. “We always tell clients to be vigilant, whether traveling abroad or at home. It’s also very important to put things into perspective. Safety conditions in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City are often just as precarious, if not more, but we do not put out warnings about our own cities. You need to be careful anywhere you are.”

One could argue that America is even more dangerous. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 656 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2023.

I encourage travelers to look beyond the scary headlines and blanket advisory levels before deciding on a trip. Because if you read the advisories’ detailed explanations, you often get a different perspective. For example, the State Department also lists sharks and recreational watercraft such as jet skis among its safety concerns in the Bahamas. And while the State Department’s advisory notes that 13 of Jamaica’s 14 parishes are listed as “do not travel,” these warnings are specific to certain neighborhoods.

When pressed on whether State Department advisories accurately reflect the current safety situation in these host countries, a U.S. Embassy official in Kingston, Jamaica, told me that they share any restricted areas for government personnel with American citizens. These rely on historical data and current trends and patterns and are kept up-to-date.

Realizing that most potential tourists won’t do further research than a quick scan of these advisories, local officials in both Jamaica and the Bahamas have pushed back against the recent State Department warnings, hoping to give jittery vacationers peace of mind ahead of the high season for tourism.

Still nervous? I spoke with repeat visitors to these countries, government officials, and travel experts to get a better sense of why these destinations are being flagged as potentially perilous, and the precautions to take if you decide to go.

Is Tulum, Mexico, Safe for Tourists Right Now?

(Illustration: Erin Douglas)

On February 26, the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Mexico warned citizens who plan to travel to Mexico to exercise “increased caution in the downtown areas of popular spring break locations including Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Tulum, especially after dark,” specifically flagging tainted drinks and synthetic drugs in the country.

Violence is another concern. Since August 2023, the State Department’s Level 2 advisory for the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, where Tulum is located, has stated: “While not directed at tourists, shootings between rival gangs have injured innocent bystanders.” The most recent shooting was similar to a spate of incidents that have happened here in the past three years.

In 2021, two tourists eating in a restaurant were killed during a shootout between drug dealers on Tulum’s main strip, and in February 2022, rival drug dealers opened fire at the upscale Art Beach Tulum restaurant, resulting in two deaths. In both cases, officials confirmed that the tourists weren’t targets, but simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The same goes for the woman killed in cartel crossfire in February 2024.

Additionally, the advisory for the state of Quintana Roo added: “U.S. citizens have been the victims of both non-violent and violent crimes in tourist and non-tourist areas.”

I’ve been to Tulum three times, but my last trip was over a decade ago, when the beach town was still considered under-the-radar and attracted a mostly hippie, yogi crowd. Tulum has changed since then, says Zachory Rabinor, founder of travel agency Journey Mexico, whose main office is in Puerto Vallarta. “It’s become a hot spot for nightlife, with all-night DJ parties, recreational drug use, and accompanying risks that this type of behavior brings with it,” he says. Rabinor notes that there have been increased reports of petty crime and isolated cases of more serious crime in Tulum in the past five years.

At least four cartel groups have been identified by authorities as operating around Tulum and Cancún, and local authorities told The New York Times that the latest round of violence is a reaction to the state’s efforts to clamp down on crime.

The State Department has given most of Mexico a Level 2 advisory, due to crime. That’s the same level of caution designated to 70 other countries, including Belize, France, Costa Rica, the UK, Italy, and Germany. Travelers to Quintana Roo, it states, should “maintain a high level of situational awareness, avoid areas where illicit activities occur, and promptly depart from potentially dangerous situations.”

The white-sand shorelines and beach clubs of Tulum are a major draw for tourists. Crowds surge between the high-season months of December and April. (Photo: Courtesy Christopher Keyes)

I called a dozen Tulum hotels, and none reported cancellations as a result of the recent violence, but half reported receiving calls from concerned future travelers. A member of the reservations staff at Be Tulum told me she’s been reminding nervous guests that, with its myriad of wellness offerings and six restaurants, it’s possible to have a great vacation there without leaving the property. And if guests do want to venture off-site, Be Tulum can arrange private transportation for an extra charge.

I also reached out to expat Angelika Pokovba, who is Ukrainian and was raised in the U.S. before moving from New York City to Mexico City and then Tulum, where she has lived for the past four years. Although crime has surged at certain points during her time in her new town, she’s never felt unsafe. “Particularly now, it feels that much of the criminal and narcos chaos has calmed down,” she says, adding that “there is a lot less petty crime here than other places.”

While Pokovba believes that Tulum continues to be welcoming to international travelers, she suggests that visitors attempt to understand local culture and social cues. And speaking Spanish and having street smarts have been key to her experience, she says.

Still feeling uncertain? Mexico is a large country with plenty of other beach escapes to choose from. Journey Mexico created a comprehensive map with a state-by-state analysis to help travelers understand which areas have little to no travel restrictions. For barefoot-chic experiences with a similar vibe to Tulum, Rabinor suggests considering Isla Holbox, Puerto Escondido, Sayulita, and Todos Santos.

Is It Safe for Americans to Visit Jamaica?

Travelers are still flocking to the most visited spots in Jamaica, such as Negril. Like many cities around the world, certain areas are safer than others; to see specific details about which neighborhoods have been flagged by the U.S. State Department as “do not travel,” check out its travel advisory page. (Illustration: Erin Douglas)

Despite a spate of recent news stories flagging risks for travelers headed to Jamaica, the island has been listed at Level 3 since March 2022, said Donovan White, Jamaica’s director of tourism. In fact, the State Department routinely reissues advisories for countries across the globe throughout the year, and on February 7 it subsequently publicly clarified that the January 23 release specific to Jamaica provided an update on health care and medical services that American citizens receive if they are hospitalized there. It was not prompted by a safety issue. However, according to the U.S. Embassy official in Kingston, currently all parishes but two—Saint Mary and Portland, in the northeast—contain areas on the off-limits list for U.S. Embassy personnel.

In a January 25 press release, Jamaica’s minister of foreign affairs, Senator Kamina Johnson Smith, expressed her government’s disappointment that the recent advisory failed to reflect the country’s progress in improving safety. “It is not insignificant that Jamaica has recorded a more than 20 percent decline in serious crimes, along with strong improvements in arrests and prosecution,” she stated in the release.

The media attention around the advisory comes on the heels of a December 2023 Gallup survey that heralded Jamaica as a “beacon of safety,” ranking it as one of the safest locations in Latin America and the Caribbean for visitors. Crime involving visitors is low, just 0.01 percent, says White. The vast majority of crime occurs in non-tourist areas, much like in U.S. cities, says Terry Gallagher, a New York City–based publicist who works with the Jamaica Tourist Board.

In 2023, Jamaica welcomed 4.1 million visitors—a record for the island—3.1 million of whom came from the U.S. Moreover, Jamaica’s repeat visitor rate is the highest in the Caribbean, at 42 percent, which leads one to believe that many travelers feel safe vacationing there.

Some visitors to Caribbean hot spots are opting to stay at resort properties, with the expectation of increased security measures. Jamaica’s all-inclusive Beaches Ocho Rios resort has its own beachfront and is minutes from Ian Fleming International Airport. (Photo: Courtesy Steve Roszko)

Kristin Hostetter, Outside Inc.’s head of sustainability, is one of those repeat visitors. She’s vacationed in the western town of Negril with her family for 20 years, starting when her kids were just eight months and two years old. Most recently they visited in December 2023. And her family hasn’t holed up at the hotel; they’ve gotten out and about to explore the reggae scene, beaches, and culture.

“I’ve never felt threatened or scared,” she told me. “We take precautions if we’re walking on the beach at night, but you’d do that anywhere.” She notes that newcomers might feel threatened by the vendors on the beach. “You’ll likely be propositioned to buy weed ten times a day, but just smile and say, ‘No thanks,’ and they walk away.”

White reiterates that travelers visiting Jamaica should take the same precautions as they would on a trip anywhere, even in their own country. “Be aware of your surroundings, keep abreast of local customs and laws, and keep your belongings secure at all times,” he says.

Are the Bahamas Safe for Tourists?

(Illustration: Erin Douglas)

Similar to Jamaica, the advisory level for the Bahamas was not elevated recently by the State Department. The Level 2 advisory has been in place since 2022 and was reissued in January due to violence in specific neighborhoods rarely frequented by tourists.

Latia Duncombe, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, Investments, and Aviation, says that the Bahamas is working to “counter confusion caused by the advisory, by promoting our milestone growth of nine million visitors in 2023.” That’s more than a 28 percent increase from 2022 visitation numbers.

It’s important to remember that the Bahamas is an archipelago of nearly 700 islands, only 16 of which are tourism hubs, including Eleuthera and Cat Island. According to the State Department advisory, “The majority of crime occurs on New Providence (Nassau) and Grand Bahama (Freeport) islands.” And even on those two islands, it notes only certain specific neighborhoods, such as the Over the Hill area south of Shirley Street in Nassau, where travelers are advised to travel with extra caution.

“Gang-on-gang violence” is “primarily affecting the local population,” says the advisory. Duncombe also assured me in an email response for comment that the Commonwealth of the Bahamas has a plan to address public-safety concerns impacting these specific problem areas, including enhanced police presence to keep residents and visitors alike safe.

The Urban Renewal Youth Band preps for a performance in the Bahamian capital city of Nassau. (Photo: Courtesy Jonathan Beverly)

Crimes against tourists are rare but do occur. In May, two tourists on Exuma were allegedly awakened in their vacation rental by three gunmen and driven to an ATM, where they were forced to withdraw cash.

Margie Hand, a Caribbean specialist with Andavo Travel, based in Salt Lake City, says clients traveling to the Bahamas have reached out recently and opted to book a resort instead of a private villa or home rental, due to the increased security offered at a resort.

Baha Mar, a thousand-acre beachfront resort complex on Nassau, was at peak capacity over Presidents’ Day weekend, and it’s expected to be similarly full throughout the spring-break season, says Baha Mar president Graeme Davis. “While we are aware of and monitoring recent incidents, it’s important to note that none of them happened near Baha Mar or Nassau resort areas,” he says, adding that the property has full-time security and surveillance staff who have direct access to the Royal Bahamas Police Force.

No matter the country, Hand advises travelers to be aware of their surroundings and book reputable group tours versus doing sightseeing on their own. “I also suggest that they leave expensive jewelry at home and to make use of the safes in their rooms,” she says. Further, she recommends that anyone traveling abroad sign up for the State Department’s free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, designed to send U.S. travelers updated information on safety conditions in their destination, which might range from natural disasters to civil unrest.

What Precautions Should You Take if You Go to These Places?

No matter where you travel, Jack Ezon of the Embark Beyond agency tells travelers to adopt these safety tactics:

Buddy up. Travel with a friend, family member, or companion.
Don’t frequent establishments of ill-repute.
Only use official taxis that are ordered through your hotel, restaurant, or other trusted source.
Nothing good ever happens after midnight. If you’re out late, make sure to utilize the buddy system and leave no one behind.

If you’re a solo traveler, like I often am, I always tell my hotel receptionist where I’m heading when I go off property. I don’t accept drinks from strangers, and I limit myself to one alcoholic drink. And if I ever feel uncomfortable in a situation, I leave immediately.

Tragedies are unfortunately inevitable, but reading about a heli-ski accident or an avalanche fatality still hasn’t deterred me from skiing, and news of a shooting in Tulum or a burglary in Jamaica wouldn’t deter my beach holiday. It’s easy to let your guard down when you get into vacation mode, so consider the news and advisories as reminders to stay smart and sharp rather than scare tactics to keep you at home.

The author hanging out in Tulum (Photo: Courtesy Jen Murphy)

Jen Murphy has traveled solo to the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Tulum and has always felt safe in these destinations.

The post Is It Safe to Travel to Mexico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas? appeared first on Outside Online.

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