Staying Safe In Port

BY Ellen

On July 1, 2004, major national and international initiatives went into effect to heighten the security of ships and ports. What effect have they had on the safety of cruise passengers ashore? The answer, alas, is probably none directly, though there may be a slight increase in safety within the ports themselves, because of the better fencing, increased surveillance and more intense review of identification documents.

But once around the bend from the secured port area, crime stats probably haven’t changed. Depending on whom you ask, people’s responses to the status quo run the gamut between “There’s no difference between the risk abroad and that of any city in the U.S.A.,” and “As an American I wouldn’t travel outside our borders these days under any circumstances.”

Of course, the truth generally lies somewhere in between, and even though we’ve all heard of attacks on American tourists in Jamaica, Aruba, Egypt and even the U.S. Virgin Islands, travel abroad is still a safe endeavor for the vigilant traveler. Still, North Americans need to be extra diligent in their vigilance. Think of preparedness as a three-step program with the acronym “ARM:” Assess the risks; Research the risks; Minimize the risks.

A — Assess the Crime Risks You May Encounter
Some types of crime are prevalent worldwide; others are unique to certain regions or population groups. Violent crime represents only a tiny portion of the total picture; theft represents the vast majority of infractions. Pickpocketing is by far the most oft-reported variety, encountered most often in crowded squares and aboard public transit, especially after dark. Theft of purses and backpacks is also commonplace.

Be particularly cautious of street crime in countries with high levels of political unrest, poverty, and law enforcement corruption or malfeasance. Any combination of one or more of these factors should be a red flag. The prime examples that come to mind for the cruise traveler are Russia (especially St. Petersburg and Moscow), South Africa and Mexico, which have all been the subject of several recent State Department warnings to travelers.

Another broad — and growing — category of risk is crime that specifically targets Americans. Of course, the most obvious example of this Western-specific vulnerability is travel in the Islamic world. Ironically, except for terrorist crime, many of the safest places in the world when it comes to violent crime are the Islamic countries. According to United Nations statistics, for example, Saudi Arabia’s violent crime rate is 0.19 incidents per thousand people; compare that with the U.S. rate of 8.04 per thousand.

Not all crime focusing on Americans is politically motivated. A good deal of it arises out of the generalized perception that all Americans are wealthy and thus excellent targets for theft. As evidence, consider this: According to the the Irish Examiner newspaper, Americans, for the second year running, represent the largest single nationality victimized in crime against tourists in Ireland. According to Dan Mulvenna, formerly with the security unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and now a security consultant to multinational corporations, Americans are more likely to be the victims of street crime in Paris or London than in New York.

Scams specifically targeting tourists are also getting to be a problem. It has come to our attention that con artists have been known to secure such things as crew T-shirts and even cabin stewards’ tunics from various ships in order to fleece passengers ashore from those vessels. For example, while calling in Jamaica, you might be approached by a guy who appears to be a cabin steward on break ashore. He introduces himself, says he takes care of the next block of cabins down from you, tells you he’s on his way to pick up some Blue Mountain Coffee, or rum, and asks if he can pick up some for you and leave it with your cabin steward. He writes down your cabin number, takes your $20, shakes your hand, and when the ship sails leaves you with neither your Blue Mountain Coffee nor your $20.

Lastly, tourists abroad need to beware of organized crime. We’re not talking Mafia here, but about groups that plan and work together to maximize their success at relieving the tourist of his or her property. Pickpockets often work in teams of two or more, one to distract while the other lifts the wallet or purse. Street gangs of youths in St. Petersburg and Moscow overwhelm resistance or escape with pure numbers. But one of the most pervasive of criminal enterprises exists throughout the Mediterranean, especially in Italy, is the proliferation of groups of Gypsy children, who are extremely adept at singling out tourists, pickpocketing them and disappearing into the crowd in the blink of an eye. If you feel that this threat is overblown, consider this: In 2000, former Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson was relieved of his wallet by a group of Gypsy girls in Rome. He gave chase, and, yep, those little girls all outran him!

R — Research the Risks Before Departing
There is much to be gained from checking out your destination(s) prior to departure, including info on current crime trends, areas to avoid, governmental travel warnings issued, and useful addresses and phone numbers should you become the victim of a crime. These resources should be more than enough:

The best starting point is to do a focused Google search. We found the most effective search string to be “crime against American tourists [name of specific country here].” (Quotes and brackets should not be included in the string.) This search should yield several links you can pursue further.

For U.S. State Department updates and warnings, click on travel.state.gov. This is probably the most valuable site on the Web for security-conscious travelers.

Since there is so much concern specifically about Russia, we are including this very useful site from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow: moscow.usembassy.gov

The State Department also operates the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) which, though aimed primarily at U.S. corporations operating abroad, offers a substantial amount of in-depth information on crime and other security concerns. Their website is www.osac.gov.

Lastly, ask your cruise director or shore excursion manager if they are aware of any crime risks for the areas you plan to explore ashore. It is a little-known fact that the courts have ruled (in Carlisle vs. Ulysses Line Ltd.) that cruise lines are legally obligated to inform their passengers of any known dangers “that are associated with places that passengers are reasonably expected to visit.”

M — Minimize the Risks You’re Likely to Encounter
There is protection in numbers. Whenever possible travel in groups of two or more. Never get into a taxi with a passenger already inside, when offered a chance to split the fare. The driver and the “passenger” may be in cahoots.

Lower your profile. Americans — or other affluent tourists, for that matter — are prime targets. So, as much as you may be proud to be an American, the prudent traveler tries to maintain a low profile in this regard. Avoid American logo merchandise, minimize the amount of jewelry and other trappings of wealth you display, and try to converse in public at a volume level that doesn’t alert everyone for hundreds of feet that you’re from the States.

As part of maintaining a low profile, do not carry your valuables in a fanny pack. Time was when this was the recommended choice to foil pickpockets, as it was always in view and the contents were protected by a zipper. Now, according to security consultant Mulvenna, there is a phrase used by thieves to describe fanny packs: “One Stop Shopping.”

Another mistake is to put your valuables where you can’t see them, or where they are too easy for a thief to quickly snatch and run. The worst choice of all is a backpack, which can be opened surreptitiously or slit without any clue to the bearer. Men should not carry their wallet in their back pockets for the same reason. Women should not carry their purses over their shoulders; they should carry them across their chests.

Minimize your loss in the event you are victimized by a thief. Never take more than two credit cards and a minimal amount of cash ashore with you. Unless absolutely unavoidable, never go ashore with your actual passport; bring a photocopy of the data pages. Also, leave a copy of those pages with a friend or relative back in the States, in the event you need to have the info faxed to the U.S. embassy to get an emergency replacement passport.

Carry a “mugger’s wallet.” This is a cheap wallet with a small amount of money, a credit card, business cards, etc. that you give to a robber while keeping your actual funds and important docs concealed. Hand over the “mugger’s wallet,” and immediately hightail it!

Carry a disposable camera ashore, even if you bring your brand-new eight-megapixel digital with you. If you want to have someone take your picture, hand them the disposable, not your good camera.

Taken together this litany of warnings makes tourist travel seem fraught with dangers, but, as we stated at the start of this article, travel abroad is hardly more dangerous than visiting the cities in our homeland. The prudent traveler remains aware of his or her surroundings and acts intelligently and with discretion while overseas. In the final analysis, when it comes to crime, the best defense is common sense.