By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday pledged to put US crime warnings on “a continued downward trend of severity” that will lead to The Bahamas being rated among the world’s safest nations.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism, told Tribune Business that the language used in the US State Department’s latest travel advisory remained “far too severe” despite giving The Bahamas credit for improvements made to visitor security.
Pledging to “work harder” with the US Embassy and ensure this nation is upgraded to “Level One”, the safest designation that the State Department awards foreign countries, Mr D’Aguilar acknowledged: “We have our work cut out for us.”
He admitted that he was especially concerned about the widespread media coverage that the travel advisory has received in the US, the source market for around percent of The Bahamas’ total visitors, where it has been featured on local TV stations, websites and print media.
A Tampa TV station, Fox 13, even carried quotes from a soon-to-be-visitor to The Bahamas on its website about how she may change her itinerary in response. While not deterred from her vacation, Terris Ross said she was “definitely going to take heed of the warning. And maybe be more aware of my surroundings”. Jet skiing, part of her original plans, was likely to be out.
Mr D’Aguilar, arguing that it was impossible to measure the impact of such advisories on Americans’ willingness to come to The Bahamas and their plans once they get here, reiterated that “99.99 percent” of the six million visitors that come to The Bahamas enjoy a crime and incident-free vacation.
Echoing Ed Fields, the Downtown Nassau Partnership (DNP) managing director and Atlantis spokesman, the minister of tourism said such travel advisories and warnings of crime needed to be set in that context and reflect the reality on the ground in The Bahamas.
“Naturally it’s concerning,” Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business of the elevated level of US media coverage. “It’s surprising that it got as much traction as it did given that certain sections of the verbiage was better this year than it was last year.
“I contend that the verbiage is still too strong, and we’re going to work diligently in softening the verbiage... These travel advisories are very important, and show we must work harder and closer with the US Embassy to ensure that, over time, there’s a continued downward trend in the security of the warnings.
“Our goal should be to go from ‘Level two’ to ‘Level one’. What do we have to do to do that, given that we have so many tourists. That’s what we will do. We have our work cut out for us, and it involves a number of ministries, not just the minister of tourism and Ministry of Tourism.
“There are a number of other ministries involved in getting to this goal. I can’t wait to get back and get on with it.” So-called “Level one” nations are those where the US State Department says Americans can “exercise normal precautions” when travelling. The Bahamas, though, is currently “Level two”, meaning Americans should “exercise increased caution”.
Mr D’Aguilar yesterday said he was particularly vexed by the “very strong words” employed in the latest advisory’s opening sentence, where it said: “Violent crime, such as burglaries, armed robberies, and sexual assault, is common, even during the day and in tourist areas.”
This, he argued, created the impression that such crimes were relatively common occurrences even though evidence such as crime statistics did not bear this out. “It seems a bit harsh to me,” he told Tribune Business. “I don’t think that’s true. I’m sure there are isolated incidents, but that comment was made with such ferocity.”
Mr Fields, in yesterday’s Insight column in The Tribune, said the 43 offences recorded against visitors to The Bahamas in 2018 showed there was a 0.00000717 percent chance of tourists becoming a victim of crime.
Elements of the US travel advisory are outdated, as it refers to a shooting incident at the Sand Trap bar on West Bay Street in 2016, which no longer exists. And The Bahamas’ was given a grudging improvement, with Americans now urged to “exercise caution” at the Arawak Cay Fish Fry and in Over-the-Hill areas “especially at night”, rather than avoid them altogether as previous advisories had recommended.
However, the US travel advisories seem to set the tone for other countries and tourism industry players, with both Canada and the cruise lines seemingly basing their own warnings on the State Department’s missive.
Mr D’Aguilar said the cruise industry had informed him they will no longer quote from, or refer, to the US travel advisories in its messages to passengers, and will only direct them to it if asked.
“These travel advisories seem to take on a short-term life,” he said, adding that the US embassy had blamed Bahamian media coverage for why the advisory had been picked up back home and was attracting so much attention there.
Suggesting that the US state department was covering itself against the possibility Americans might blame their government for becoming victims of crime overseas if there were no advance warnings, Mr D’Aguilar added that “99.99 percent of tourists that come to The Bahamas experience no crime and leave unscathed.
“That’s not to say we can’t do better,” he said. “There are certain areas where we are weak and need to improve, but that can be said about any destination.”
The Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA), in a statement issued to Tribune Business yesterday, said it “fully appreciates the impact a crime warning has on any jurisdiction” and will continue to work with private and public sector agencies - including the US embassy - “to address any concerns”.
“The BHTA recognises the fact that our ability to provide and promote a safe, clean and enjoyable environment for visitors and locals is key to attracting guests to our destination and to delivering an ambiance where locals and visitors can fully appreciate the unique beauty, culture and history of the country, and to enjoy the genuine warmth and hospitable nature of Bahamians,” it said.
“We further recognise The Bahamas is not alone in its efforts to protect its citizenry and transient guests, and that safety and security remains a high priority for all countries including, but not limited to, the United States of America, Canada, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean.
“The BHTA applauds the efforts of the private and public sector - the Royal Bahamas Police Force (RBPF); tourism businesses; and the individuals within these organisations - who work diligently to provide the best possible experience for visitors,” the BHTA continued.
“We acknowledge the fact that any incident which threatens the safety of visitors and/or locals is ‘one too many’, and are pleased to see reports that incidents of serious crime, which largely impacts our local population, is on the decline, while crimes against visitors are minimal given the number of annual visitors to our islands.
“We fully appreciate the impact a crime warning has on any jurisdiction, and will continue to engage with partners in both the private and public sector, the Ministry of Tourism and US officials - including the US Embassy - to address issues of concern.”
The BHTA said a “collective approach to common issues”, similar to that used to deal with past hurricanes, “will see a mitigation, if not elimination, of public communications such as that which was recently released by the US Embassy”.