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Crimes Against Tourists

Guide No.26 (2004)

by Ronald W. Glensor & Kenneth J. Peak

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The Problem of Crimes Against Tourists

This guide addresses tourist crime, beginning by describing the problem and reviewing the factors that contribute to it. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it provides a number of measures your agency can take to address the problem and to evaluate responses. The guide addresses tourist crimes committed in the United States, although the information provided here will no doubt benefit those readers dealing with the problem abroad.

Related Problems

There are several problems related to crimes against tourists that may call for separate analyses and responses. These problems, which are beyond the scope of this guide, include

  • Prostitution†
  • Pickpocketing
  • Confidence schemes (fraud)
  • Fencing of stolen property
  • Organized crime and gang activities
  • Offenses relating to casino gambling
  • Crimes involving the elderly‡
  • Burglary of holiday homes†††
  • Robberies at bars and other businesses††††
  • Terrorism against tourists
  • Mass-transit crimes (e.g., at bus or airport terminals; on subways or trains).

† See the POP Guide on Street Prostitution.

‡  See the POP Guide on Financial Crimes Against the Elderly.

††† See the POP Guide on Burglary of Single-Family Houses.

†††† See the POP Guide on Robbery at Automated Teller Machines.

Factors Contributing to Crimes Against Tourists

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Tourism is an interactive relationship among tourists, local businesses, and host governments and communities.1 It is the United States' second largest service industry (after health care), and directly or indirectly supporting 204 million jobs,2 producing more than $100 billion in revenues,3 and drawing 57.2 million visitors to the nation each year.4 Growth in tourism, however, has also led to increased opportunities for, and incidences of, crime. Indeed, a long-established relationship exists between increases in crime and tourism; major economic crimes (e.g., robbery, burglary) in some highly popular tourism venues have a "similar season to tourism,"5 for several reasons. First, tourists are lucrative targets, since they typically carry large sums of money and other valuables. Second, tourists are vulnerable because they are more likely to be relaxed and off guard—and sometimes careless—while on vacation. Finally, tourists are often less likely to report crimes or to testify against suspects, wishing to avoid problems or a return trip.6 Tourist crimes generally involve one of several scenarios:

  • The tourist is an accidental victim, in the wrong place at the wrong time, targeted as an easy mark.
  • The location is conducive to crime, due to its nightlife, hedonistic culture, and myriad potential victims.
  • The industry itself provides victims, as tourists are more prone to taking risks while on vacation, and less likely to observe safety precautions. Furthermore, as tourists' numbers grow, so too can local hostility toward tourists, thereby increasing the chances that they will be cheated, robbed, or assaulted.
  • Terrorist or other groups may specifically target tourists, singling them out for hostage-taking or even murder.7
  • Crimes against tourists can impede tourism by significantly damaging a location's image. Therefore, the most important prerequisite for a successful tourist industry is a reputation for having crime under control and guaranteeing tourists′ safety.8 Furthermore, media coverage of crimes against tourists often tends to be out of proportion to the actual risk, having a profound effect on public perception of safety at particular locations.
  • Although theft is the most common crime against tourists,9 they are vulnerable to other crimes as well, including physical and sexual assault, credit card fraud, and scams (e.g., being sold "bargain basement" antiques or imitations of expensive watches). In areas with many adult entertainment venues, tourists tend to congregate and be disproportionately targeted by offenders.10 Furthermore, crimes against tourists tend to occur in areas with higher overall crime rates.11
Tourists may unwittingly contribute to the problem through excesses and dangerous practices in sport and leisure activities, driving, gaming, and drinking—some of which is routine "vacation behavior." They may also contribute to their victimization by
  • Carrying and flashing large sums of money
  • Visiting dangerous locations, or walking in isolated areas or dark alleys, especially at night
  • Leaving valuable items in public view
  • Looking like a tourist (e.g., driving a rental car, carrying a backpack, carrying a camera, consulting a map, appearing lost).12
As mentioned, tourists cluster in particular locations. Hotels, motels, downtown centers, shopping malls, bars, restaurants, tourist attractions, beaches, and airports are all potential points of encounter for victims and offenders. (Some communities have determined that the greatest number of tourist crimes occur when tourists leave airports and major highways, becoming lost in inner-city neighborhoods.13) Venues such as bars and nightclubs can encourage heavy drinking and a sense of freedom from normal constraints.† Because tourists often are obvious by their dress, carry items easily disposed of once stolen, and are temporary visitors (and thus unable to put much pressure on police to act against criminals, or unlikely to appear as a prosecution witness), tourist zones allow pickpockets, swindlers, thieves, gang members, and robbers to commit crimes they might not otherwise attempt or be able to accomplish. Tourist clustering also affords terrorists opportunities to commit acts against large numbers of people. Some tourist areas are also popular retirement areas, so the potential for crimes against the elderly increases significantly.
† See Assaults in and Around Bars, Guide No. 1 in this series.
The physical characteristics of tourist locations may also contribute to crime. For example, a visitor staying in an older motel with a dimly lit parking lot, and no private security officers or video monitoring, might be at risk. Moreover, tourist areas are characterized by anonymity and a high turnover of population, allowing offenders to conceal themselves, particularly when the police have to deal with massive increases in traffic volume and other routine work unrelated to crime. In addition, many popular tourist locations are renowned for their scenic, isolated nature, inviting adventuresome tourists to explore remote surroundings.

Tourists as Offenders

It is worth noting that tourists may be the perpetrators, as well as the victims, of crime. The "tourist culture" can lessen tourists' sense of responsibility. They may riot at sporting events, for example, or cause disturbances on aircraft. They may also solicit prostitutes, buy illegal drugs, or smuggle goods out of the country. Furthermore, terrorists may pretend to be tourists (to target legitimate ones).15

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