Spring is upon us. In late February, thousands of tourists began descending on Florida to fulfill their warm-weather fantasies. Between now and April, many of them will make pit stops in Miami and Fort Lauderdale before heading to the Caribbean.
For visitors who are Bahamas-bound, though, there's some bad news. Homicides and drug-related gang activity have plagued the island country. And last week, U.S. officials put out a strict travel warning in hopes of protecting American travelers.
The advisory, issued by the U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council, warns visitors to avoid walking by themselves at night or being alone with strangers like taxi drivers. The report also advises tourists of the risk of sexual assault at bars and clubs.
"Visitors found alone or incapacitated have been victims of sexual assault, robbery, and physical assault," the memo says. "Intoxicated young women may be targeted for drugging and sexual assault."
More surprising, the report says tourists should avoid patronizing Jet Ski and scooter rental operations.
"Jet Ski operators continue to commit sexual assaults and other crimes against tourists," officials warn. "Unlicensed scooter operators and rental services have been linked to assaults, including sexual assaults."
In fact, the Bahamas has had a string of such crimes in recent years. In one case, a victim says she was taken to an island just off the beach where eight employees of a Jet Ski operation tried to force her to perform oral sex. Last January, a 26-year-old Jet Ski operator was arrested in connection with the rape of another American visitor.
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Overall, the warnings come as crime has increased on the country's two largest islands: Grand Bahama (home to Freeport) and New Providence Island (where Nassau is located). The U.S. State Department says it is aware of numerous reports of tourists being robbed at gunpoint or knifepoint in Nassau and points out that the Bahamas has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the Caribbean. Local media outlets also report there have been 32 homicides so far this year.
Cruise line execs are already worried about the potential threat to their business. Michael Bayley, the CEO of the Miami-based Royal Caribbean, said this week he was concerned about the Bahamas' growing crime rate. Roughly 1.7 million Royal Caribbean passengers travel to the Bahamas each year, according to the cruise line.
"Obviously, we want our guests and our customers to be very safe; otherwise, they won't come on vacation," Bayley told the Tribune , a Nassau-based newspaper.
To be clear, the State Department isn't telling anyone to cancel their vacation quite yet. But before packing your bags, it's not a bad idea to read the advisory.