Crime & Personal Safety
A guide to crime, security and personal safety on Tobago
Asking if it was safe to leave things in the Jeep, the rental agent replied “just put everything in the foot well and cover it with a blanket. They’re too lazy to put any effort into stealing it and just won’t bother.” Although a terrible slight on the lovely people of Tobago (of which he was one), we know exactly what he meant and his comment did rather sum up attitudes on Tobago.
The issue comes down to common sense. Security is no more of a problem in Tobago than anywhere else – in fact, compared to most of our European/North American cities it’s a playground. One of the beauties of Tobago is the fact that you are still able to wander off the ‘main’ routes and down any lane or street, into the smallest village, anywhere on the island, without ever feeling at risk - provided that you take common sense precautions for your own safety. It is quite astonishing how many tourists leave their brains at home when they go on holiday and behave in manners that they would never consider at home.
Beggars and hawkers are considerably less of a problem than almost anywhere else in the Caribbean – and 99% of the time are reasonably polite, friendly and willing to take ‘no’ without rancour. Of course there's always the exception, but that's just what they are - the exception.
With exceptions in mind, you should be careful of people who approach and start rubbing you down with aloe vera leaves, or serenade you and then charge for the pleasure. A strong but polite "NO" before they start is normally enough to stop them. We receive regular reports of an aloe vera lady on Turtle beach and a guitar-playing man, Mr Blue, who rely on the fact that most tourists will pay up rather than face the embarrassment of a scene. Stopping them before they start!
- Don't stop your car if you are flagged down along the road by young men - they are invariably hustlers and can be a nuisance at the least, and intimidating at the worst. Simply blow your horn and keep going. Obviously this does not apply to women and children in rural areas, who are usually genuinely in need of a lift and will appreciate your kindness if you stop for them. We always stop and give lifts in country areas.
- It is best to only visit the rain forest with a reputable guide. Only visit waterfalls and other visitor attractions in groups with reputable local guides and/or tour parties, and never outside normal hours when it is quiet.
- Don't leave valuables in your car or on deserted beaches whilst having a swim.
- Don't walk at night down dark, lonely roads.
- Don't carry large amounts of cash or jewellery.
- Single women should be wary of men who will undoubtedly approach them on the beaches and elsewhere. In short - apply common sense.
- Never tell anyone you don't know well where you are staying and ensure that you do not carry bags or camera cases, etc. with your local address. Similarly, avoid carrying hotel/villa keys with name tags.
A final word. I am sure that many readers will join me in condemning the deplorable practice of hotels who warn guests that Tobago is dangerous and encourage guests to only use taxi's and tour operators approved by the hotel and not to wander about on their own. These warnings are patently untrue. Such advice is mainly motivated by greed and intended to force you to spend your money in the hotel's gift shops or through their own commission-paying outlets.
Foreign Office Advice about Tobago
Current British Foreign Office advice (click here to check latest) as at 1 March 2013 states as follows. Sections of the advisory relating directly to Trinidad, rather than Tobago, have been removed from the text for brevity and relevance:
Crime - Tobago
Most visits to Tobago are trouble free, but tourists (including British nationals) have been robbed. The inability of the authorities to catch and prosecute offenders remains a concern.
You should maintain at least the same level of security awareness as you would in the UK and make sure your living accommodation is secure. Don’t carry large amounts of cash or wear eye-catching jewellery. Use a hotel safe to store valuables, money and passports. Petty theft from cars is common.
Villas, particularly those in isolated areas, should have adequate security, including external security lighting, grilles and overnight security guards.
Don’t walk alone in deserted areas even in daylight. This includes beaches like Englishman's Bay and King Peter's bay unless you are in an organised group. Consult your tour operator if in doubt.
Be vigilant at all times and carry a mobile phone with roaming capability for use in emergency.
There has been a disturbing increase in crime in recent years. All too often it has been blamed on Trinidadians coming over on crime sprees. It is increasingly accepted that it is also down to young Tobagonians who travel to Trinidad in search of work, mix with the wrong people, and return to Tobago with different values.
Trinidad is a totally different society and crime there is very high. The authorities on Tobago have been guilty of complacency, thinking that the problems of Trinidad could never occur on Tobago. Recent events and negative Foreign & Commonwealth Office advisories have really rattled the cage and woke them up. Realising that warnings like this could kill tourism to the island, they have instituted a number of measures to combat the situation.
Although there is considerable room for improvement in police forensic and detection methods, visitors should have no doubt about how seriously the authorities view crime, and particularly crime against tourists, on the island. Even stealing a few dollars from a visitor can result in several months in jail with hard labour. This is little consolation to those affected, but the vital thing to remember is that most incidents of crime against tourists could have been avoided if the visitor had applied the same commonsense precautions that they would have adhered to at home. Taking prostitutes/gigolos back to your apartment or villa, or walking around late at night with flash jewellery and wads of cash are not sensible actions anywhere in the world.
Tobago Security Contact
If anyone has any particular concerns with personal safety on Tobago they might like to contact the government department responsible for Tourist oriented crime. Sadly, all reports indicate that none of the local government departments respond to email.
Another possible source of security information or concerns is the Protection & Security Committee which includes representatives from various agencies, such as the Tobago Hotel & Tourism Association, Division of Tourism & Transportation, THA and Police etc. They can be contacted on email@example.com.
Security Check List
Never wear flash jewellery when out and about, in fact leave it at home.
- If you have an expensive watch for example, consider buying a cheap one from the market before you go and leave the good one at home.
- Never have more money with you than you need when out and about and ensure the remainder is safely locked in a hotel safe deposit box.
- Never leave valuables, cameras etc on the beach when swimming. Never leave anything of value on show in a car - always lock them away.
- Awful to say but treat everyone with some degree of suspicion, particularly younger people or people in pairs or small groups who approach you.
- Wear a money belt.
- Never carry your passport and travel documents with you when out and about unless it is absolutely necessary.
- Don't wear designer gear - keep your clothing understated and 'dress down'.
- Think about taking a personal attack alarm with you or a whistle to attract attention - particularly if you are unfortunate to get attacked or robbed and for some reason cannot summon assistance easily.
- Always take travellers cheques and never large amounts of cash.
- Divide your belongings up into 2 suitcases - that way if one is stolen or lost , one of you isn't nude for the whole holiday!
- Keep your wits about you whilst you are relaxing on holiday paying particular attention to your wallets, purses and cameras.
Our thanks to reader Colin Fairburn for this useful and sensible list.