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Reactions Differ to Rising Tide of Caribbean Crime : Safety: The Navy canceled St. Thomas shore leave; most cruise lines issue only informal advice.

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER; <i> Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. </i>

It was the April 10 death of tourist Murray Callan, a vacationing San Diegan shot by a mugger on one of the busiest streets on St. Thomas, that started recent talk of trouble in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But it’s now clear that crimes against visitors and residents had been escalating in the area for many months before the shooting, prompting requests from island officials for law enforcement aid and leading the U.S. Navy last fall to cancel all its port calls to the island.

Despite those developments, several cruise lines serving St. Thomas, one of the most popular ports in the Caribbean, say they have made no substantial changes in the informal, unwritten safety advice they offer to passengers going ashore by day, and don’t expect any changes in the foreseeable future. Cruise ship advice to passengers now often amounts to spoken suggestions that they use common sense. Of the seven major lines contacted last week, none offer passengers printed matter on the subject of shore safety. A spokesman for the Cruise Line International Assn., the leading cruise ship trade organization, said that the group has made no recommendations to its members regarding safety advice to passengers.

“These kind of things tend to be swept under the rug,” said Larry Fishkin, president of The Cruise Line, a Miami-based agency that specializes in matching customers with cruise lines. “If there is a problem, I think their responsibility is to notify passengers to take precautions.”

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One possible response, Fishkin said, would be to follow the lead of rental car agencies in southern Florida where, after the recent spate of crimes against tourists, agencies started handing out detailed brochures advising “what to do and not to do.”

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The U.S. Virgin Islands, which lie just east of Puerto Rico, include St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix, and have for years enjoyed a reputation as sleepy, sun-soaked destinations. But authorities say recent years have brought broad increases in crime and drug problems throughout the Caribbean.

Cruise passengers are shielded from many of these problems because they are almost always on shore by day and back on board ship by nightfall. But authorities agree the best precautions for cruise travelers do fall within most travelers’ definition of “common sense.” In areas where street crime is a concern, tourists should travel in groups, perhaps with a shore excursion organized by the cruise ship. Tourists shouldn’t carry large amounts of cash, or wear flashy jewelry.

The U.S. Navy’s decision to cancel all port calls to St. Thomas came last October, following a 10-month string of 19 port calls to Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas’s capital, marred by 12 violent crimes against sailors: robbery, assault and one murder. Over the same period, records of Atlantic Fleet headquarters in Norfolk, Va., show that Navy personnel paid 40 port calls to Italy’s long-notorious port of Naples, suffering just one violent crime. A Navy spokesman said St. Thomas is the only Caribbean port where the Navy has canceled calls. On March 27, a Virgin Islands police officer died in a hail of 14 shots in an apparent ambush in front of his home. His death prompted the Virgin Islands’ delegate to Congress, Ron de Lugo, to call for FBI aid.

Two weeks later came Murray Callan’s slaying . . . followed on April 13 by a letter from de Lugo to U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, asking Justice Department help in fighting an “escalation of violent crime.” Noting that the islands have seen 11 homicides in the first four months of the year, de Lugo asserted that “the resources of our local law enforcement community cannot cope with this situation and the community is increasingly apprehensive.”

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Talking to cruise lines, however, travelers are unlikely to hear of these details. Cruise officials point out that their passengers have been unaffected by these crimes, that most cruise passengers are ashore only by day, and that, on the whole, the islands face less crime than is found in most big cities. (Local authorities have reported that fewer than 200 of the islands’ 2 million tourists last year were victims of reported crimes.) Two cruise officials noted that their companies have recently abandoned plans for shore calls in the Middle East because of safety concerns.

At Carnival Cruise Lines, whose ships Celebration, Sensation and Festivale call weekly at St. Thomas year-round, spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz said ship representatives “occasionally advise the passengers to simply use common sense, just as they would in a major city, or vacationing at a major resort on land.” She said she expected no policy changes, that Carnival is satisfied St. Thomas officials are responding to concerns about crime.

At Norwegian Cruise Line, whose ships Norway and Starward call weekly at St. Thomas in spring and summer, spokeswoman Fran Sevcik said ship personnel offer “a lot of (spoken) common sense tips--for people not to go off the beaten path, and not to go off with people they don’t know.” Sevcik said she knew of no plans for changes and noted that “our security officers are in constant touch with authorities down there.”

Officials at Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Tall Ship Adventures, Cunard Crown, Holland America and Crystal Cruises offered similar responses.


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