tragic shooting death of a young Carnival Victory passenger on St. Thomas, Cruise Critic readers have grieved for the family. Many also expressed shock at learning that the island, often dubbed "America's paradise," has a crime problem. Still others posed the question: When a ship visits a port of call where crime is a known issue, are the cruise line and its staff responsible for warning passengers?(1:10 p.m. EDT) -- In the days following Monday's
That's exactly what we asked you in a poll on our message boards yesterday. The outcome? Though many respondents felt that cruise lines, as well as travel agents and sites like ours, should be forthcoming about crime risks, at press time, the majority of respondents -- 56 percent -- said travelers should be doing their own research about the places they're visiting. Member Travelcat2 sums it up: "Basically, when you walk out of your front door, the responsibility for safety lies with you."
But the next logical question, of course, is: How and where do I find out if my port is safe -- and, when it comes to travel, what does "safe" even mean? We'll help you get started....
Finding Travel Safety Tips
It makes sense to start by checking with travelers who've been there before you. Cruise Critic members' port reviews and destination forums offer a wealth of knowledge. You can also check out our individual, professionally written port profiles -- look for the Watch Out For section -- for safety tips and other practical advice.
But your research needn't stop there. More official are government advisories, issued to let citizens know about safety issues that could impact their travel plans abroad. The U.S. Department of State, for example, provides information and advice to Americans; residents of the U.K. can refer to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Here's what's interesting about St. Thomas in particular, though -- it's not listed on the U.S. State Department's Web site in the section for travel information by country. A call to the Department of State confirmed that because the U.S. Virgin Islands are an American territory, travel there is considered domestic and is not covered (also not addressed is the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico). And Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not give specific advice for any of the U.S. Virgin Islands either, providing instead a page for the United States as a whole.
Canada's Foreign Affairs and International Trade site, meanwhile, does have a separate entry on St. Thomas -- which places the island under its lowest advisory level: "Exercise normal security precautions" (subsequent levels include "exercise high degree of caution," "avoid non-essential travel" and "avoid all travel"). The notice further reads, "Canadians rarely encounter security or safety problems, although normal safety precautions should be taken. Petty crime exists. Ensure your personal belongings are secure at all times." Just for comparison's sake, its Jamaica entry is in the "exercise high degree of caution" stage, and references recent political unrest and gang activity.
Bottom line: If you can't find what you need from your nation's office, check out another country's -- chances are, information being dispensed to residents of say, Australia, is of use to others, too. (We've included a list of links to several countries' sites at the bottom of this story.) Another resource: The CIA's World Factbook offers basic facts on destinations around the globe, including international disputes and drug issues.
Evaluating a Travel Advisory
But don't hole yourself up in your cramped cruise cabin just yet. Just because a government has issued a warning or alert for a country or island doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't consider going ashore. In the past few years, the governments of the U.S., Canada or the U.K. have published advisories for Thailand, Mexico, China, India and the United States -- all of which offer worthwhile travel opportunities.
Sarah Schlichter, editor of Cruise Critic's sister site, IndependentTraveler.com, tells us that not all travel warnings are created equal, and that you should ask yourself a few questions before deciding how seriously to take a particular advisory, such as "is the entire country affected?" and "what's the danger?" If something unsettling is happening hundreds of miles away from where your ship will dock, there's likely much less of a risk involved for cruisers. Many governments also make a distinction between long- and short-term travel advisories. Unrest surrounding a current political election, for example, might be long subsided by the time you actually cruise in six months.
Read this article on Travel Warnings and Advisories for more information on evaluating government-issued advisories and protecting yourself while traveling abroad.
Where to Start Your Research
As promised, here's a list of links to a few nations' travel advisory departments.
United States -- covers all non U.S. travel destinations
New Zealand -- offers separate pages on all Caribbean destinations, including the U.S. Virgin Islands
--by Melissa Paloti, Managing Editor
Is My Cruise Port Safe? Research 101
July 16, 2010