Review and Survey Results*












Jerome L. McElroy

Professor of Economics

Saint Mary’s College

Notre Dame, IN 46556

(219) 284-4488

FAX: (219) 284-4566














*Paper presented to the Second Caribbean Conference on Crime and Criminal Justice, University of the West Indies, February 14-16, 2001.



They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go- so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.  (Kincaid, 1988:19)


Citizens of the planet celebrated the millennium by traveling.  According to World Tourism Organization Forecaster, total international tourists numbered nearly 700 million and spent $476 billion in 2000, drawn by the Summer Olympics, the European football championships, the Vatican Jubilee and other special events (Canadian Tourism Commission, 2001).  This turn-of-the-century travel peak culminated four decades of steady five percent annual postwar growth that has made global tourism the largest industry in the world economy.  The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that the visitor industry now accounts for 13 percent of global exports, 11 percent of world GDP, 9 percent of capital investments and 8 percent of total employment (WTTC, 2001).

However, the short-run future outlook for global tourism is clouded by a variety of factors.  First and foremost is the sharp slow-down in economic activity emanating from the United States and spreading across major origin markets in Europe and Asia.  A second is the volatile fuel and energy market, always a danger to transport-intensive tourism.  Third, the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack in New York and the expected intensification of political instability in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Middle East will likely dampen visitor demand because of its high sensitivity to issues of safety and security.  In addition to these external vagaries, contemporary tourism must address an endemic problem that has received scant attention.  This is the escalation of tourist harassment in popular destinations across the world, i.e. the badgering of visitors by vendors, hagglers, drug and sex peddlers, and would-be tour guides.


In the theoretical and empirical literature, “tourist harassment” is used in two basically different senses.  In the active meaning, harassment commonly refers to visitors aggressively pursuing hosts for drugs and/or sex.  This mainstream view emphasizes the one-way flow of power from the tourist to the host society.  In the case of affluent Western visitors to less developed destinations, harassment is one dimension of such power that allegedly “produces negative consequences…materialistic consumerism, the commodification of culture, and the one-sided domination and exploitation of members of the visited society by the privileged class” (Cheong and Miller, 2000: 372).  Examples of this active visitor harassment approach abound in the case of drug demand in Greece (Haralambopoulos and Pizam, 1996), the corruption of local women by sex tourism in South Korea (Young-Hee, 1998), Thailand (Hall, 1996), and India (Saad-Goa, 1988), and even guest intrusion in private host space in Malta (Boissevain, 1979).

In the passive or so-called “Foucauldian” view, the approach taken in this essay, the visitor is portrayed as a target of influences exercised by a variety of tourist brokers.  These include travel, transport, and customs agents, hotel employees, and formal and informal guides and vendors touting their wares and services.  In this sense, visitors are considered vulnerable and insecure, operating on unfamiliar cultural and sometimes linguistic turf and often “stripped of many of their cultural and familial ties and protective institutions…” (Cheong and Miller, 2000: 380).  As a result of this ambiguous status, tourists find their comfort levels transgressed and their freedom circumscribed by local custom and commercial behavior.

Although there is no consensus yet on the causes of harassment, certainly the service bias of the tourist industry itself, which depends on close personal host-guest interaction, creates a climate conducive for potential misunderstanding and harassment.  Clearly a destination’s poverty and dependence on tourism is a factor (Pattullo, 1996).  In addition, sharp visitor-resident socio-economic and cultural discontinuities provide another major source of friction (Robinson and Boniface, 1999).  For example, the relatively rich North American tourist may easily take offense at the boisterous and persistent hawking of the relatively poor West Indian vendor, practices considered socially acceptable by Caribbean norms (Burman, 1998).  Whatever the source, tourist harassment has cropped up recently as an industry irritant across the globe.


The present study has five parts.  The first briefly reviews the incidence of harassment around the world.  The second focuses on the Caribbean, the most tourism-dependent region, and site of the most persistent problems.  The third examines the case of Jamaica where harassment has negatively affected the cruise economy.  The fourth and most extensive section details results of multi-year harassment surveys in Barbados to improve understanding of this escalating worldwide phenomenon.  The conclusion presents lessons and policy implications.

At the outset, it should be mentioned that one reason research has lagged is the nature of harassment itself.  In most destinations, harassment is not considered a crime and therefore not statistically tracked.  Second, it is often subjective and hard to quantify objectively.  What is good merchandising to the vendors is badgering behavior to the visitor.  Third, gathering evidence is difficult since perpetrators are often transients, and the burden of proof lies with the short-staying victims who, although bothered, may not feel the discomfort worth reporting.  Finally, although tourism officials may know the general contours of the problem, they may be ineffective in controlling harassment because specific data on hot spots, and the level, nature and impact of harassment are sorely lacking.

A Global Phenomenon

Visitor harassment is ubiquitous in popular destinations across the international tourist economy and involves both official and popular types.  In Indonesia, for example, British visitors and returning residents often have to bride local immigration officials to avoid excessive transit detention, intrusive searches and other forms of harassment.  In the process, they are sometimes subjected to verbal abuse, shouting and character denigration (Jardine, 2001).  In the recent past, tourists of Asian descent have faced similar delays in Vancouver, Canada because they are often suspected of drug smuggling (Wood, 1997).  In Acapulco, U.S. tourists primarily of Mexican descent have been subjected to heavy fines and long interrogations by rogue federal police (AP online, 2000).  Even in the U.S., Louisiana’s sheriff deputies have shaken down out-of-state motorists, stopped for routine traffic offenses, for cash and property (McGinnis, 1997).

However, even more intractable and universal than this type of official harassment is the badgering of tourists by persistent local souvenir hawkers, drug and sex peddlers, would-be tour guides and other hustlers.  In Morocco, for example, the relentless harassment of visitors forced the government to clamp down by deploying special plainclothes police to imprison unlicensed (faux) tour guides and hustlers (Aizenman, 1998).  In Bali, visitor complaints forced the government to restrict informal beach and street vendors to designated areas since their presence was perceived as “…undermining the quality of the tourist product…”  (Cukier, 1998: 301).  The situation has reached crisis proportions on some Kenyan beaches where hotel guards are sometimes needed to rescue tourists from crowds of traders and beach boys (African News Service, 2000).  In one instance, a hotel had to create its own private beach to curb harassment.

Elsewhere other forms of harassment proliferate.  In Turkey the traditional complaint has always been badgering by shopkeepers and restaurateurs.  Kozak (2001) explains this classic clash of cultures this way: “While local shopkeepers see inviting tourists into their shops to buy something as a way to encourage business, Western tourists perceive this as being harassed, because in their culture the customer is expected to make the first move.”  In Palestine, Bowman reports on the sexual badgering and exploitation of female visitors by merchants.  He notes (1996: 92) that in desperation the hassled women “may, for relief, take up with one of them [locals] simply to get the others to leave her alone.”  Apparently the situation is similar in popular tourist areas in Greece (Zinovieff, 1991).  In the Northern Marianas, sexual harassment of visitors has tarnished Saipan’s image as a peaceful and wholesome destination for honeymooners and family travelers and produced a crackdown on blatant solicitation and peddling escort services (Daleno, 2001).

The Caribbean

Nowhere is tourism more important or harassment more visible than in the Caribbean.  Conservatively, tourism accounts for 15-20 percent of regional exports, GDP, capital investment and employment (WTTC, 2001).  Over half of the world capacity of cruise berths plow these waters (Pattullo, 1996: 157).  In addition, the importance of tourism has grown markedly on the heels of a decade of unfavorable macroeconomic shocks.  These include: the widespread loss of manufacturing investment and labor-intensive employment to Mexico because of NAFTA; the decline in traditional export markets through the consolidation of the European Union; the sharp drop in U.S. aid with the fall of Communism; and the recent threat by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to blacklist many island offshore finance centers for allegedly encouraging European firms to escape taxation from their home jurisdictions.

Compounding these external constraints, the Caribbean travel industry itself is plagued by long-standing internal difficulties.  The early postwar infrastructure needs refurbishment but construction costs are 15-30 percent higher than U.S. levels (Economist, 2000).  The islands have never successfully mounted a sustained distinctive region-wide marketing campaign to challenge their competitors (Hokstam, 2001).  The steady deterioration of the euro has blunted the growth of long-staying, high-spending European visitors.  Most of all, the Caribbean has never fully embraced tourism because of an age-old ambivalence perhaps best encapsulated in Trinidad’s Eric Williams’ preference for “black oil rather than white tourists” (Economist, 2000:66).  As a result, without a total regional commitment to integrated tourism policy, John Bell, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel Association, warns, “…we are always going to be at the bottom of the food chain” (Barbados Daily Nation, 2001:2).

As a consequence of those problems, the Caribbean’s worldwide comparative advantage deteriorated in the 1990’s.  The area lost ground to most rival developing regions including the Middle East, Africa, East and South Asia, and the Pacific (WTO, 1999).  Rising crime and harassment also played a role in the region’s competitive decline.  In a survey of major U.S. tour operators, the two most significant factors deflecting visitors away from the Caribbean were fear of crime and harassment (King, 2001).

Such perceptions are not unfounded since harassment by vendors has plagued a number of popular destinations.  Police, augmented by armed plainclothes soldiers, have for years been routinely deployed in Jamaica to control harassment of cruise passengers along the north coast (New York Times, 1999).  In Barbados, with its long history of beach boys’ sexually harassing female tourists, wardens and uniformed police have also been dispatched periodically to beaches and popular nightclubs catering to visitors.  In the recent past, tourist complaints in Grenada became so serious that a major cruise line threatened to pull out (Barbados Advocate, 1994).  Even in Dominica, where cruise traffic growth has been among the most rapid in the region, harassment has become a major problem.  To make visitors feel more comfortable, the legislature voted unanimously to criminalize harassment with fines of nearly $400 and imprisonment up to six months (AP Worldstream, 2001).


Nowhere has harassment been more persistent and damaging than in Jamaica, where tourism accounts for roughly 15 percent of GDP and close to one in four jobs.  Tourist badgering is an age-old problem.  In the early 20th century, for example, Taylor (1993:119) reports that police were sent to patrol the streets of Kingston to protect visitors from “beggars, unofficial tour guides and vendors…and magistrates fined and imprisoned the ‘harassing masses.’”  Harassment has escalated in recent decades with the expansion of the cruise trade alongside flat and volatile performance in the non-tourist sectors.

The problem came to a head in 1997 when four cruise lines threatened to leave.  A survey at the time indicated that 56 percent of the visitors were harassed by vendors to purchase souvenirs and/or drugs, badgered for sex, or pushed into taxis.  Eight percent said the experience spoiled their trip (McDowell, 1998).  The government’s response was a five-fold increase in fines for prostitution, abusive and/or threatening language, indecent exposure, and unlicensed vending; and police arrested a number of pimps, and illegal vendors and taxi drivers (Carroll, 1998).

Over the years, the main private sector response has been to develop “all-inclusive” hotels where guests are protected on private beaches and facilities only accessible to residents through very high tariffs.  Some argue this “closing of the coastline” has deepened local resentment and intensified harassment because it severely limits the income-earning opportunities of off-site (non-inclusive) merchants and service providers (Berman, 1998).  Despite continued official efforts to curb harassment, however, the situation has progressively deteriorated (Davis, 2001).  As a result, in mid-2001 three cruise lines, citing persistent passenger harassment, decided to drop Jamaica from their itinerary and to include ports in Mexico and Puerto Rico instead (Collins, 2001).

Barbados Surveys

Applied Marketing Consultants

            Harassment has long been a feature of the Barbados tourism landscape.  What distinguishes this destination is official efforts to track its incidence and contours.  This section reports results of three visitor surveys that deal with harassment: a study of visitor perceptions of harassment, an extensive four-year analysis of patterns, and recent summary updates of the latter.  In the first case, visitors rated harassment less seriously than local hotel workers and police (Applied Marketing Consultants, 1994).  However, 58 percent of females and 39 percent of males complained primarily of persistent vendors.  Most in the small sample (n=200) were well-traveled visitors to the Caribbean and relatively young (two-thirds under 50 years).

Systems Caribbean Limited

A significantly larger multi-year visitor satisfaction survey was conducted quarterly between 1991-1994 and sampled over 9,000 visitors (Systems Caribbean Limited, 1991-1995).  The detailed results, first recorded in de Albuquerque and McElroy (2001), are worth reporting because they clarify what seem to be the common patterns of harassment around the world.  For example, 59 percent of visitors to Barbados over the four-year survey span indicated experiencing some (“a lot” plus “a little”) harassment.  According to Table 1, British tourists reported the highest incidence (69%) largely because of their long average stay (and exposure) of roughly two weeks.  Caribbean visitors reported the lowest level (24%) undoubtedly because they were often mistaken by vendors for locals similar in color and culture/behavior and hence left alone.

TABLE 1(Placed about here)

Although there were no discernible differences in the level of harassment for male and female visitors (see Table 1), the former were more likely to be pestered by drug peddlers while the latter were more likely to be harassed sexually.  There is also some limited evidence that harassment is age sensitive since younger visitors (20-29 years) were three times more likely to report complaints than those 60 years and over.  This difference largely reflects distinct vacation styles, i.e. adventurous youth visiting several beaches and nightclubs versus older tourists either comfortable in their hotels or only venturing beyond their cocoons under the protection of guided tours.

Repeat visitors to Barbados were much less likely to report harassment (50%) than first-time visitors (64%).  This difference would suggest that experienced visitors had become somewhat acculturated, knew hot spots to avoid, and perhaps had learned polite ways to deflect vendors.  Not surprisingly, the survey also revealed much higher reporting of harassment characteristic of guests at South (61%) and West (64%) coast hotels—where most shopping, nightclubs and attractions are clustered—than of those staying on the East Coast (48%) where tourist infrastructure is quite limited.  There was also a significant difference in recorded harassment by type of interview.  Self-administered respondents reported 61 percent while interviewed respondents reported only 45 percent.  This discrepancy may have been partly due to the natural reluctance of white visitors to complain to local black interviewers.  It also suggests actual harassment may have been higher than recorded levels.

Table 2 (Placed about here)

According to Table 2, most harassment (70+%) occurred at the beach.  The low level for Caribbean visitors (28%) may not only have been due to vendors’ mistaking them for locals, but may have also reflected their preferences for non-beach vacation activities.  Other less popular locations for harassment were on public streets (49%) and while shopping in town (38%).  The comparatively high levels of harassment for Caribbean visitors in these two venues may partly express the importance of shopping to West Indians on holiday.  The uniformly low incidence of harassment at hotels (at 10%) is indicative of the comparative security and protection hotels provide.

Table 3 (Placed about here)

Table 3 records the main types of harassment by visitor country of origin.  Clearly the most common complaint was the persistence of vendors without uniforms, usually on the beach, selling arts, crafts and clothing, coconuts and fruit, and other services (massages, hair braiding).  Among white visitors, Other Europeans appeared to be the most tolerant, perhaps because they are more used to goods/services being offered on the beach at Mediterranean and other warm weather destinations.  Survey data provided some support for this contention since Other Europeans expressed the lowest preference (54% vs. 70+%) for segregating vendors in booths/kiosks on the beaches.  At a distant second, harassment from drug pushers was reported by 28 percent of the sample.  Such hustling is usually focused on young visitors, and peddlers’ insistence can sometimes be frightening.

Visitors were also subjected to verbal abuse especially related to vendor behavior and circumstances surrounding commercial transactions.  An average of 12 percent of North American and British tourists experienced verbal abuse.  The figures were considerably higher for Other European (21%) and Caribbean visitors (19%).  In the former case, some of the abuse may have been due to the frustration vendors, beggars and drug peddlers feel attempting to communicate with non-English speakers.  In the case of the latter, a number of other factors may have come into play.  According to de Albuquerque and McElroy (2001:486):

This is because, as the senior author has observed, they [Caribbean visitors] are more inclined to finger merchandise and bargain, and be less polite than white visitors.  When vendors bristle and take offense, Caribbean visitors are less intimidated or reluctant to retort with a few harsh words of their own.


Almost all incidences of sexual harassment were reported by female respondents.  They ranged from 7 percent of U.S. visitors to 11-12 percent for Canadian and European visitors.  The higher rates reported for these latter two groups might be partly because Barbadian beach boys have traditionally viewed such women as sexually more liberated than their American and British counterparts, and hence more promising (and lucrative) targets (de Albuquerque, 1999a).  Given the ubiquity of beach boys seeking to proposition tourist women on Barbados beaches (de Albuquerque, 1999b), it is possible that sexual harassment was underreported in the survey.  It remains difficult to control since many harassers have legitimate jobs on the beach, and it is difficult to prosecute since tourists often either fail to report or fail to return for trial when perpetrators are apprehended (Price, 1993).

Finally, only 2-3 percent reported experiencing physical abuse (Table 3).  This ranged from simple pushing to more serious assaults involving weapons as in the commission of a robbery.  Unlike other forms of harassment, physical abuse is likely to be a crime and thus much more likely to be reported.  Previous research has indicated that visitors to Barbados are much more likely to be victims of property related crime (theft, larceny, robbery) than of violent crime (murder, rape, serious assault) (de Albuquerque and McElroy, 1999).

Caribbean Tourism Organization

            Since the early surveys reported relatively high levels of harassment, Barbados tourism authorities recommended a number of control measures.  These included the deployment of wardens on popular beaches and regular police patrols at tourist hot spots.  They also encouraged the placing of vendor kiosks and booths in designated beach areas and worked with taxi drivers to organize queues.  They also pushed for police training to better deal with visitor complaints.  Perhaps as a partial result of these initiatives, reported harassment declined from 65 to 54 percent over the four-year 1991-1994 survey period.

            In addition, the industry decided to regularly monitor harassment in its routine Barbados Stayover Visitor Survey conducted by the Caribbean Tourism Organization.  Early results from mid-1996 indicated patterns quite similar to the previous surveys.  For example, close to 60 percent of visitors reported harassment mainly by overzealous vendors (CTO, 1996).  Much lower levels were recorded for drug peddling (27%), verbal abuse (12%), and sexual harassment (9%).  Less than 4 percent of surveyed visitors were victims of crime, primarily the theft of personal property.  As previously, most harassment took place on the beach, and least occurred at hotel properties.  However, somewhat higher levels were recorded for “on the streets” (46%) and in “Bridgetown/shopping” (41%).  As earlier, European visitors reported the most harassment while Caribbean visitors reported the least.

            Since 1996, however, harassment levels have risen somewhat.  For example, average quarterly figures (unweighted) based on data from 1999 and 2000 combined indicate the following.  Of those visitors harassed, 80 percent complained of overzealous vendors, 45 percent were pestered by drug peddlers, over 20 percent experienced verbal abuse, and roughly 16 percent complained of sexual harassment (CTO, 2001: 66-74).  In most cases, these numbers exceed earlier survey figures.  In addition, the percentage of visitors reporting serious harassment—defined as “Harassed A Lot”—rose at lease five points between 1996-2000.  On the other hand, less than four percent of visitors reported being victims of crime, and Barbados continues to be overwhelmingly viewed as a safe/very safe holiday destination.  The beach has remained the most common venue for harassment activity followed by the streets, Bridgetown and other shopping areas, and least of all hotel properties.  On the basis of the 1999-2000 data alone, no seasonal pattern of harassment was discernible.


            The new millennium has been marked by the dominance of international tourism in the world economy both in terms of size and sustained growth.  Presently the industry suffers from the threat of US-induced global recession, rising energy and transport costs, increasing political instability, the potential fallout from terrorist activity, and, partly a victim of its own success, escalating visitor harassment.  Despite its prevalence at popular destinations around the world, the causes of harassment remain understudied.  Casual observation implicates rising visitor densities (and/or overly rapid tourist growth) as well as sharp socio-economic and cultural leavages between affluent guests and poor hosts.  However, the incidence and patterns of harassment are becoming somewhat clearer. 

            The three Barbados survey results presented here suggest that even for popular, successful and safe destinations, harassment poses a continuing problem, one which will likely increase as non-tourist sectors falter and competition intensifies in the globalization of tourism.  According to Jean Holder, Executive Director of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, harassment remains a major long-term threat to regional tourism.

As Caribbean countries become more dependent on tourism, as other economic sectors fail (putting more and more people out of work), as wealth and poverty are brought into greater proximity, the levels of crime due to need or greed, and harassment of visitors by hard-selling vendors, can be expected to increase (Pattullo, 1996: 100).


            The Barbados experience is instructive for other destinations grappling with the problem.  Clearly long-run cooperation among all tourism interests appears preferable to criminalization.  The strategies followed—tracking visitor complaints, stationing wardens to monitor beaches, deploying police to patrol hot spots, providing vendors with kiosks and taxi drivers with designated queue locations, improving police training so officers can deal effectively with problems of sexual harassment and verbal abuse—all seem to have produced modestly favorable outcomes for all stakeholders, i.e. vendors, taxi drivers, hoteliers, and visitors.  Such collaboration will provide the basis for a more sustainable tourism in the future that must create a community consensus around best ways to integrate those at the margin, who make up the brunt of the harassers, into the economic mainstream.


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