White sandy beaches, a tropical climate, and a vibrant culture make Barbados a top vacation destination, with U.S. News ranking it #4 of their top 16 “Best Places to Visit in the Caribbean”.
But imagine reading the following headline in the Travel Section of your daily newspaper as you plan your itinerary for an upcoming Caribbean vacation: “Shocking attack in ‘safe’ Barbados.” That exact headline appeared in the UK’s The Telegraph on March 19, 2013, and the article described how, earlier that month, two British tourists were mugged and shot in broad daylight near the harbor of Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. With this attack following another just three months prior in which an intruder stabbed a couple in their holiday villa, chances are, you might think twice about visiting Bridgetown.
When you consider that 13% of Barbados’ GDP directly comes from tourism and travel, and as much as 43% depends on these sectors directly and indirectly, it is clear that tourism is critical to its economic health. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to 122,000 in a country of approximately 285,000 people, Bridgetown receives a large share of the over half a million visitors that come to Barbados every year. A relatively prosperous city, Bridgetown has thus far successfully managed many of the challenges related to its high-volume tourism industry. For example, the city adopted exemplary environmental practices through the Coastal Risk Assessment and Management Program and took measures to address problems like coastal erosion and a scarce water supply.
Although in absolute numbers the crime issue is potentially more manageable in Bridgetown than many other cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, addressing the threat of increasing crime levels is fast becoming one of the city’s priorities. The key to protecting its reputation as a historically safe tourist destination is to understand the underlying causes of rising crime levels. Two main potential sources stand out.
One factor that makes Bridgetown vulnerable is its high unemployment rate, particularly among the demographic most likely to engage in criminal activity. The overall national unemployment rate in the 3rd quarter of 2013 was 11.7%, slightly higher for men than for women. While most recent figures are unavailable, the youth unemployment rate (15–24 year olds) has been more than double the general unemployment rate in the past years because young Barbadians graduate without the skills sought by employers.
#2: Transnational organized crime
After two decades during which Mexico was the dominant smuggling route for drugs, the region’s cartels are establishing or bolstering operations in the Caribbean. On the one hand, they are squeezed by Mexico’s security forces, and on the other, they are taking advantage of the protracted economic downturn and rising unemployment in the region. In the first half of 2013, about 14% of U.S.–bound cocaine was transported through the Caribbean, which is double the share of the previous year. Drug money and increasing gang activity in turn fuel other forms of crime. Given that Barbados is already one of several transshipment points for drugs bound for the United States and Europe, the rise in regional crime is a trend to watch.
It is important to note that educational achievement in Barbados is above average for Latin America and the Caribbean. The country has achieved a high literacy rate (95%), and the government spends 7.5% of GDP on education. Bridgetown—and the nation as a whole—may want to explore more ways to prevent organized crime from spreading, such as devising new strategies to engage its youth in lawful activity. With a median age of 37.3, the population of Barbados is not as young as that of other Caribbean nations, making the task ahead more manageable. Taking a step in the right direction, Jeffrey Bostic, the Member of Parliament representing the city of Bridgetown since 2013, outlined plans to create youth‐focused technical and vocational skills training centers. Hopefully, government actions aimed at reviving the economy and reducing youth unemployment can also help address the problem of crime and preserve Bridgetown’s reputation as a safe vacation destination.
In 2014, the government of Barbados approved the Greater Bridgetown Area’s participation in the Inter-American Development Bank’s Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative (ESCI). The ESCI team will work with the local government to assess these challenges in crime and employment, along with other areas critical to the city’s environmental, fiscal and urban sustainability. With this analysis the team will develop an Action Plan for the city, identifying and targeting priority areas of action to improve quality of life for the city’s residents and ensure a more sustainable future for the city of Bridgetown.
Ksenia Gutsol is a May 2014 graduate of Johns Hopkins SAIS Master’s program, where she focused her studies on Latin America and quantitative methods in economics. During her studies, Ksenia has spent time in São Paulo as a summer intern at the International Finance Corporation. Following graduation, she is joining the Energy team at the Berkeley Research Group.