Although relative crime levels are low in Cayman compared to other Caribbean destinations, any incident is bound to attract attention.
In these days of social media and the spread of information – accurate or otherwise – is wider and faster than ever before. One of the chief ways that people tend to find this information is through TripAdvisor forums, now often the first stop for travellers who research a potential destination online.
In February, 2011, two tourists were targeted by opportunistic thieves in the Barefoot Beach area. The thieves were armed with baseball bats and brass knuckles and the tourists lost $20 and an underwater camera.
Needless to say, the incident, which was reported both in the press and by the victim himself on an online blog, reached TripAdvisor’s forums almost instantly.
Responses ranged from ‘I’m stunned’ to shock that such a thing should happen in Cayman, previously considered to be as safe as it gets in the Caribbean.
A poster by the name of Pigsterz summed it up:
“Oh man has it gotten to this point in the island? Very sad to hear this. We’ve been saying how safe we always felt in Grand Cayman compared to other islands and now this… sigh. We went to Barefoot Beach a couple of times to try and snorkel there and had planned on going back there on our next trip. This will definitely put it on the avoid list. Such a shame.”
Another poster, with the alias TRH-53, was a little more forthright in his views.
“As (former) visitor to Cayman and other Caribbean places, we have decided never to return. I read the daily news feeds, and have come to the conclusion that the Caribbean is unsafe and only getting worse.
“As the intelligent and prosperous tourists decline, these countries will eventually recede into the same squalor you see in places like Haiti.”
When the perpetrators of the crime were caught by the police service, that information also was posted on the TripAdvisor thread.
Harry Lalli, president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, which represents over 200 tourism related businesses on-island, explained that the industry is very aware of the perception of a destination.
“Social media, and media in general, with today’s technology – when something happens the word is all over within four or five minutes. It plays a big role in reporting of crime. The reporting of crime stories tends to hit fast and occasionally might get blown up via the Marl Road compared to what actually happened. People can exaggerate and we end up with [what appears to be] a huge crime compared to what actually happened.
“Social media definitely has put awareness of criminal activity more to the forefront than four or five years ago. For example, [the case may be that in fact] crime may be down, but social media reports it and people tend to jump on reading it quickly and feel that crime is up.”
In general, the Cayman Islands has long been considered a destination that has a reputation for being safe. If crime levels rose substantially, it could have a major impact on the industry, continued Mr. Lalli.
Crime could be very detrimental to tourism, if it did get completely out of hand. Every island has a beach, has the sun, the sand and the surf just like Cayman does but one of our biggest selling points always was that it was a safe destination. You can come here with your family, you can walk down the beach at night… it had never been an issue.
“We are a destination that’s safe and family-friendly. We never want to lose that, because then we’ve lost our biggest selling-point compared to all the other destinations.”
Police and thieves
The tourism association recently floated the idea of a special ‘tourism police’, to be stationed around particular areas where tourists congregate, explained the association president.
“It’s to try and make tourists feel more safe with a dedicated force around Seven Mile Beach. Presence and visibility of police can put people at ease.
“Most of the other crimes in tourist areas have been break-ins and so on. It is important to make tourists aware that the days are gone when you could just leave your purse unattended on a beach chair, or keep your patio door unlocked. It’s common sense. There are opportunist thieves out there.”
In the same way that police are looking to assist nightclubs in sharing information about misbehaving customers, the same would apply with hotels and properties sharing information on any incidents. The proposal is at a very early stage and meetings will be taking place with the police service to discuss what may be feasible, he said.
Another way in which the association is active is seeking support from private bodies and the membership for the Prison, Me – No Way scheme. It’s a school-based education programme, which may need funding as it might require a dedicated police officer to go round schools and act as programme coordinator.
“We think that would be a good programme; at the end of the day it seems, especially when it came to the violent crimes, the age group was younger. Trying to show them that going to prison isn’t ‘cool’ and to understand that staying out of prison is preferable is an initiative that the association would like to put across.” Raising awareness that job opportunities exist in the tourism sector is also important, with positions available everywhere from boat drivers, divers and hotel positions at all levels.
“There is tons of opportunity on the culinary side, too, so it’s all a matter of getting the word out that there is opportunity if you are academic or not. We, as a community, need to get that word out to them. Parenting is also very important.”
Ultimately, there is a constant need to keep crime under control because Cayman, and the tourism industry, has a reputation that can be lost a lot quicker than the decades it has taken to build such a good name.
“Cayman is still, I believe, one of the safest islands to visit in the Caribbean. But from CITA’s point of view, we want it to stay that way. We have had a few incidents aimed at tourists such as the couple which was robbed at East End, but I commend the police for making arrests and hopefully bringing those people to justice.
“Overall, crime for the tourism area is controlled. We don’t want to see any more headlines of tourists being robbed and right now we are trying to be proactive. I wish people would cooperate more with the police service; to me it appears that there’s still maybe a gap in the way some of the local people perceive the police. It would be great if people could help the police because at the end of the day they are the ones who will put the criminals away so we will have a safe Cayman Islands at all times. But sometimes if the police are arresting people and they manage to get out on bail or the charge doesn’t go through, maybe some changes are needed there in the future so we can keep crime under control.”