Carnival Conquest passenger Jeff Smith, his wife and three daughters were in Roatan on January 2 when a masked gunman jumped out of the bushes on a beach access road on the northeast side of the island and began shooting at the rental car Smith was driving.
"My immediate reaction was to put the car in reverse and try to back down the gravel/dirt access road to distance my family from the gunman," Smith told Cruise Critic.
Instead, he wrecked the car, and the gunman who had pursued the family on foot robbed them of their cash, iPhones and a camera, all while pointing his gun at either Smith or his daughters, ages 15, 14 and 8.
The encounter lasted three minutes, but Smith said it is not easily forgotten, nor should it be.
"This was a very dangerous encounter for my family," Smith said. "Having a masked gunman fire directly at your from a relatively close range with no warning and no regard to whom he is firing at… We learned a valuable lesson from this."
Though Smith, who told Cruise Critic he travels to Central and South America several times a month for work, had researched Honduras in general and seen the State Department's warning, he said he let his guard down and did not do any Roatan-specific research. "I knew Honduras was dangerous, but I did not realize Roatan had such a violent side also. I took it for granted the fact that if Carnival and other cruise lines invest so much money and effort to establish Roatan as a cruise destination, it must be safe."
Local police are investigating the incident, Smith said, adding Carnival was very helpful after the fact, providing comfort to his family.
"The security officers on board Conquest interviewed me and took a written statement. … The following day they informed me that word of our encounter had made it to the Carnival executive V.P. level. The staff offered medical treatment or counseling for my family, but we declined. They allowed us unlimited telephone and Internet access so we could make arrangements (cancel the stolen credit card, work with AT&T to report the lost phones, etc.). The captain bought us a bottle of wine and invited our family for a bridge tour."
Smith and his family were not on a ship-sponsored excursion but had rented a car, something he said might have made him a target.
"Use extreme caution when off the main path, especially when in a highly noticeable rental car," he advised on Cruise Critic's message boards.
He also said he doesn't necessarily believe a cruise-sponsored excursion would be any safer. "I'm not sure if being on a cruise-provided excursion would provide adequate safety or actually shielded us from an encounter like this."
But Mario Aguirre, a spokesman for the Honduras Tourist Board, said cruise-sponsored excursions are safer because they visit the most popular sites on the island, all of which have beefed up security.
Most of the 800,000 cruise tourists that visit Roatan stick to the West side of the island or join organized dolphin encounter tours or canopy adventures.
The encounter with the masked gunman, he said, was on the north side of the island, on an unpaved road on the way to a beach that is not commonly visited by tourists and therefore has no extra security. Smith told Cruise Critic the beach was on the property of the Palm Beach Resort.
"There is enhanced security in areas where tourists normally visit, on the West end of the island where there's more traffic," he said, adding the roads to those areas also have an increased police presence.
He added that the Honduras Tourist Board regularly tells island-based tour operators which areas to avoid and has contacted the operators, cruise lines and car rental companies to alert them to the incident so they can advise their customers to stay away from the area.
A representative from Carnival said cruise directors integrate general warnings about port calls into their shore talks but does not print the warning on shore excursion documentation.
This is not the first time passengers have been robbed at gunpoint during a port of call. In April 2013, 55 passengers off of Celebrity Eclipse were robbed during a ship-sponsored tour in St. Lucia. And, in February 2012, 22 passengers from Carnival Splendor were robbed during a ship-sponsored tour in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
--by Dori Saltzman, News Editor