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Responses to the Problem of Crimes Against Tourists

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to the problem.

The following response strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police problem-solving efforts; several of them may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do; give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.

Unfortunately, there are few careful evaluations of tourist crime interventions. Much of what is recommended here is based on informed judgments about what is likely to be effective. More rigorous evaluations are needed.

General Considerations for an Effective Strategy

1. Working with the tourism industry to identify and address crime-related concerns. Police representatives should participate on tourism boards and work with hotel/motel, convention, and visitors' bureaus to understand tourism-related problems and concerns, and to develop joint crime prevention programs.20 Police should provide ongoing information about local crime to tourism officials.

2. Training police and private security staff to recognize and address tourist-related safety concerns. Police and private security staff should know what particular crime risks tourists face, what resources are available, and how to access those resources (e.g., visitors' bureaus, emergency and social services, health departments).21 They should also be prepared to help tourists access emergency shelters, transportation systems, and foreign embassies, and help them navigate the various criminal justice processes.

To deal with crimes against tourists, the New Orleans and Orlando, Fla., police departments have created special units with selected personnel specifically to protect tourists. Both agencies require that officers be highly trained in tourism issues, as well as visible to and gregarious with tourists; work closely with related local associations and bureaus; advise rental property employees regarding crime prevention techniques; and recommend that tourist-industry employees (especially those in the security field) undergo thorough background checks—and be heavily punished if found guilty of committing tourist crimes.22

Specific Responses to Reduce Crimes Against Tourists

3. Facilitating tourist victims' testimony in criminal cases. Tourist victims usually will not return to their vacation spots to give testimony, as it is costly and time-consuming: Hawaii has enacted, and other states have considered, statutes allowing crime victims to testify from their home via teleconferencing.23 The Dade County ( Fla.) State Attorney's Office also has a Victim Fly-Back Program to help victims return to testify.24

The goal of the Newark (N.J.) Downtown District (NDD) is to create a safer, cleaner, well-managed area for people to conduct business and live in. The NDD—a nonprofit, special-improvement business district composed of 425 commercial properties—contracts with a single company to operate and manage the Holiday Safety Ambassador Program for three months per year, to supplement basic services already provided. The duties of the uniformed "safety ambassadors" include being the eyes and ears of the police, including serving as a police witness and filling out police reports when necessary; offering information and directions to pedestrians; reporting misconduct or suspicious incidents to the police; responding appropriately to crises; being familiar with all events and tourist attractions; and periodically checking new, closed, or relocated businesses.25 
4. Imposing additional taxes in tourist areas to support special security measures. In some tourist areas, property owners pay a special fee to support security and other services that increase the areas appeal and reduce safety risks to tourists.
5. Encouraging hotels and motels to adopt practices that will reduce guest victimization. Among the practices you should encourage are
  • Requiring that guests show identification before reentering the building
  • Installing electronic room locks that are changed after each guest checks out
  • Providing safety deposit boxes
  • Installing surveillance cameras
  • Employing full-time security officers.26, †

† See Disorder at Budget Motels in this series, for further information about preventing crime and disorder in motels.

You might also encourage hotels and motels to provide safety tips on their website or in-house cable TV channel.

6. Offering rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those who commit serious crimes against tourists. The tourism industry may be willing to help finance reward programs. In Miami, the local government developed such a program, in conjunction with Crime Stoppers and the tourist industry.27

The early 1990s saw a plague of violent crimes against tourists in Dade County, Fla. Several murders of foreign tourists brought worldwide media attention, and both the county and the greater Miami area were portrayed as dangerous places to visit. Miami International Airport was the focal point of such crimes, including "smash and grab," "driveway," and "highway" robberies, in which criminals preyed on people leaving the airport in easily identifiable rental cars. Other rental-car drivers became victims after getting lost once they left the airport. To address the problem, the Metro-Dade Police Department† (1) increased visible uniform patrols, (2) adopted a problem-oriented approach to improve the area and generate support from local businesses and other government agencies, and (3) implemented a tourist safety program, to provide safety information. In addition, the Florida legislature passed a law requiring that regular license plates be issued to replace the easily identifiable ones on rental vehicles, the county required that maps and directions be provided with every rented vehicle, and identifying stickers were removed from rental vehicles. Over 500 directional signs were installed, many in the airport area, and a tourism safety video was shown on many inbound international flights. Officers were trained to contact lost or confused motorists, and give them an escort if necessary. They were also equipped with cell phones, maps, brochures, and other information in a variety of languages, to distribute as necessary. The police devoted four to five times the normal level of resources to the airport area, using several special responses (for example, using decoy parked police cars, conducting undercover operations targeting "hot spots," and deploying motorcycle patrols during peak times). They also established a tourist hotline, started a newsletter, and set up a 24-hour information counter in the airport. In the two years following the initiative, crimes against visitors dropped in the area: robberies decreased by 50 percent, and auto thefts by 79 percent.30

† The police department is now called the Miami-Dade Police Department. 

7.  Educating tourists to reduce their risk of victimization. Police in tourist areas should develop an array of methods for educating tourists about crime prevention.28 Among those you might consider are the following:

  • Creating a website with a dedicated tourist menu that (1) provides safety tips on such topics as rental and use of cars, and use of automated teller machines (ATMs),† credit cards, and other financial instruments; (2) lists emergency telephone numbers; (3) has regularly updated tourist crime bulletins; and (4) provides information about any specialized tourist police or auxiliary patrols.‡
  • Equipping tourism officers with a cellular phone so they can quickly access information, translation services, or other assistance for tourists
  • Establishing a 24-hour police information counter, installing "tourist telephones" (those specifically designated for tourists needing information and providing safety tips) and broadcasting precautionary messages at airports
  • Establishing a tourist hotline for reporting crimes and related problems
  • Encouraging positive media contacts regarding the tourist police program and tourist safety, including having tourist officers take journalists on "ride-alongs"
  • Producing a video that provides information about the tourist area, the tourist police program, travel safety tips, and how to get around the area, for showing on inbound aircraft and in airports
  • Providing information to foreign consulates and embassies, so they can educate their citizens about travel to your area
  • Developing a means to inform travelers of the safest places to stay (for example, some cities have a crime-free hotel/motel certification program that allows hotels/motels to qualify for special advertising based on their safety record).

† See Robbery at Automated Teller Machines, Guide No. 8 in this series, for information about crime prevention at ATMs.

‡ See the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's website, at www.lvmpd.com, for an example of tourist safety information. 

The following are some common safety tips that particularly pertain to tourists:

  • Use maps to plan routes before venturing out in a rental car.
  • Avoid traveling in vehicles that are obviously rented.
  • Avoid appearing to be a tourist.
  • Be aware of surroundings and avoid suspicious characters.
  • Travel with companions.
  • Remove valuables from cars.
  • Lock windows and doors in rooms when leaving.29

All tourist information should be available in the languages most commonly spoken by visitors to the area.

8. Increasing uniform patrols in tourist areas. Highly visible police patrols can discourage offenders who target tourists and increase tourists' sense of safety, but obviously, they are labor-intensive and therefore costly.

Problems arose with rental car burglaries in parking lots near the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Honolulu (for example, thieves used binoculars to spot tourists putting valuables in their car trunks). In response, surveillance cameras were added to complement foot patrols, a rental storage unit was installed for tourists' belongings, and car- rental-company bumper stickers were removed.31 Similarly, thefts from tourists' vehicles at Honolulu recreation areas posed a serious problem in the mid-1990s. The offenders knew the best approach and escape routes, quickly and efficiently broke into locked cars, and typically were drug abusers with prior records for related types of crimes. The police addressed the problem by using high-visibility patrols (including bicycle and all-terrain vehicle units) in high-crime areas, providing information to tourists, gathering intelligence and investigating known suspects, and using bait cars. Thefts from vehicles declined from a high of 188 reported cases in January 1997, to a low of four cases in December 1997.32 
9. Deploying citizen patrols to supplement police patrols. Unpaid or paid citizen patrols during peak tourist seasons can supplement police presence. They can help inform tourists and discourage offenders. They should be conspicuously dressed, well informed about matters of concern to tourists, and have ready communication with police.†

† The city of Wellington, New Zealand, runs a program called Walkwise that deploys trained civilian safety officers at all times in the citys central business district. The officers act as ambassadors and work closely with police, intervening in low-level disorder problems and reporting more-serious offending.

10. Conducting surveillance at high-risk locations. Surveillance should be based on local intelligence about problem areas and times. In general, surveillance is time-consuming and costly, and is effective at reducing crime only if it results in the apprehension of especially prolific offenders.

The cities of Orlando and Miami have erected special highway signs that provide directions for visitors. The signs are placed along airport expressways near car rental companies. The "Follow the Sun" project has involved the strategic placement of 400 new road signs bearing a tourist-friendly sunburst logo to help non-English-speaking visitors find their way. 
11. Changing the physical environment to reduce opportunities for tourist crimes. Such measures might include putting up appropriate signs for tourists at key locations (e.g., near airports) to prevent their becoming lost or a traffic hazard, or inadvertently going into high-risk areas.†

† For an excellent discussion of various ways to safely move and handle large crowds of visitors through environmental design, see Shearing and Stenning (1997). [Full text]

When visitors enter Disney World in Orlando, they are greeted by a series of smiling young people who, with the aid of clearly visible road markings, direct them to the parking lot, remind them to lock their car and to remember its location, and direct them to wait for the train that will take them to the amusements area. At the boarding location, they are directed to stand safely behind guardrails and to board in an orderly fashion, and once on the train, they receive additional safety instructions and are informed of how they will be transported around the park during the day. Virtually every pool, fountain, and flower garden serves both as a visual attraction and a means to direct visitors away from, or toward, particular locations. Such order is presented as being in the visitors' best interests; thus it is consensual—with the visitors' willing cooperation.33
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