Travel Agent spoke with several Caribbean travel advisors following the recent State of Public Emergency declared in St. James Parish, Jamaica, which includes Montego Bay, and learned that many are telling clients that the popular tourist destination is still a safe place to vacation.
“The customers that are calling in are not canceling plans that we booked for them to Montego Bay,” says Stephen Scott of Travel Hub 365. “The world is always in fluctuation, and it should not slow us, but prepare us just as we would be if we go in or around bad neighborhoods in big cities here in the U.S.”
On Friday, Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness declared a state of emergency in St. James Parish as a result of an increase in murders and shootings in the area.
“Jamaica’s recent [State of Public Emergency] announcement has not had a negative effect on my agency’s Jamaica bookings so far,” says Edouard Jean of Massive Travels, Inc. “As a matter of fact, I just had two inquiries for Jamaica this morning; one for a destination wedding and the other for a family vacation. And so far, none of my Jamaica-bound clients have called to cancel and I am not recommending that they do."
According to the Jamaica Observer, several sections of the crime-infested parish of St James are now occupied with members of the Jamaica Defence Force, as they search properties and people. Last year, some 335 murders were recorded in St. James and at least four people have been murdered in that western parish since the start of the year, according to the Jamaica Observer report.
“I believe the increased security is not only good for the locals, but also for tourists,” says Tom Varghese of Travel Tom. “All of the recent issues involve locals only. Jamaica is a wonderful and very safe destination. All packages we arrange for our clients include meet-and-greet services at the airport with a Travel Tom rep and roundtrip airport transfers.
“Also, all tours are arranged from the lobby of the hotel - so, any and all experiences off the properties are ‘hand held’. We continue to love and support this destination and our clients do as well.”
Edmund Bartlett, minister of tourism for Jamaica, released a statement explaining the need for the State of Public Emergency.
“No doubt you have received questions regarding the current state of public emergency for the parish of St. James, implemented by Government,” said Bartlett. “A State of Public Emergency is a tool to ensure enhanced security for all persons entering and leaving a particular geographic area. It does not require any modification of movement as restrictions in the stated areas should not adversely impact law abiding persons. All business activities will function as normal including all airports, cruise ports, hotels and attractions.”
Katie Rahr Kapel, owner of Mode Travel Agency, Inc., told Travel Agent she had clients in Ocho Rios traveling back to Montego Bay the day after the State of Public Emergency, and that they were notified there were military checkpoints on the highway.
“I have had many concerns and inquiries regarding travel to Jamaica this week, and after researching have been advising my clients that I understand their concerns,” says Kapel. “Some have insurance, and I want them to know they have options, but have also advised them my honest opinion and that in the end they need to make the decisions.”
But what would her decision be?
“I have advised that I would still go, and definitely even bring my family with me,” says Kapel.
On January 10, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 2 travel advisory urging travelers to “exercise increased caution in Jamaica due to crime.” The advisory comes as part of an update to how the State Department shares travel safety information for all destinations.
“Allow me to reassure you, our valued travel partner, that Jamaica remains open for business,” said Bartlett. “The enhanced security measures in St. James have been put into action to ensure the continued safety of our residents and visitors. I am pleased to report that individuals and groups have been enjoying their daily activities throughout the various resort regions, without issue.”
According to the advisory, "Violence and shootings occur regularly in some areas of Montego Bay. U.S. government personnel are prohibited from traveling to the following areas: Flankers, Canterbury, Norwood, Rose Heights, Clavers Street and Hart Street."
"We are in constant communications with our local suppliers in the Jamaica," says Mitch Toren of TripGuy Travel. "Kids are going to school. Businesses are all open. Life is the same as it always has, just with some increased police presence in areas that need it."
But although advisors are confident that Montego Bay is safe enough for travelers, agents like Hannah Schremp of Frosch Travel are still advising clients to exercise caution.
“I have a family traveling to Jamaica for spring break in March. I received a frantic email from the concerned mother asking if they should be worried and for my advice,” says Schremp. “I assured her that, at this time, tourists have not been affected.
“I recommend not going off the resort at night, as I would regardless of the travel advisory, and they should be just fine," she continued. "However, nothing in life is guaranteed and maybe it would be a good time to reconsider purchasing travel insurance to ease her nerves and know that her investment in this trip is protected.”