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Woman’s Disappearance in Jamaica Is a Cautionary Tale for Vacationers

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

It’s been more than a year since Claudia Kirschhoch, a travel guidebook editor from New York, was last seen as she walked along the beach in Negril, on the west coast of Jamaica.

I have not forgotten her, and I hope all women travelers will keep her in their hearts and minds too.

Claudia, who was 29 when she disappeared on May 27, 2000, was part of a group of travel writers and editors on a trip to Cuba.

Three days earlier, on a stop in Jamaica, the group had learned it could not get visas to Cuba and that flights to the U.S. were full for the next few days. The travelers were offered a stay until the next available flight at a Jamaican resort owned by Sandals, the company that had sponsored the derailed Cuba junket.

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Together with Club Med, Sandals pioneered the concept of all-inclusive resorts, where vacationers pay one price, in advance, for accommodations, meals and entertainment, just as one does on a cruise ship. The northern and western coasts of Jamaica are home to 10 all-inclusive Sandals resorts and others with such provocative names as Couples and Hedonism. Nearly half of all visitors stay at such places, according to the Jamaica Tourist Board.

On a lark, my mother and I went to an all-inclusive place called the Plantation Inn (now another Sandals) near the north coast town of Ocho Rios about four years ago. But we weren’t impressed by the all-inclusive resort idea. Even though such places cater to your every whim, they offer almost no incentive to venture outside the security gates except on an organized tour. This breeds distance between tourists and locals, which some may haplessly try to bridge.

Alas, the resorts need their security gates. In Jamaica, an island nation of 2.6 million where the average income is $3,350, the per capita murder rate is one of the highest in the world, according to Amnesty International.

The resorts have guards on their beaches, said John Lynch, a vice president of Sandals. Police foot patrols were added in resort areas about five years ago, said James Forbes, deputy superintendent of the Jamaica police. “It’s the same as putting the lock on the door to your house,” Forbes said.

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I wonder how much of this Claudia Kirschhoch knew when she took a room at the Sandals Beaches resort in Negril. She had traveled for her employer, Frommer’s Travel Guides, only twice, once to Seattle and once to Florida. Even if she had prepared for the third junket, she would have been preparing for Cuba. Her layover at Negril was unplanned.

When she didn’t return to the U.S. on June 1 as expected, authorities found her clothing, passport and wallet in her room but no trace of her.

“Claudia would have hated an all-inclusive resort,” her father, Fred Kirschhoch of Morristown, N.J., told me in a recent phone interview. “She would have wanted to get outside.”

He and his wife, Mary Ann, have established a Web site and toll-free phone number to help find her. Through them, people who were at the resort when Claudia was there have contacted her father to report that they saw her watching a New York Knicks game at the bar and chatting with the friendly young bartender. In interviews and polygraph tests administered by the FBI (which was called on by Jamaican police to assist) late last summer, the bartender said he took her to a Negril reggae club on May 26.

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The bartender is not a suspect in Claudia’s disappearance, Jamaican police said. “There is no evidence that he had any contact with her thereafter,” deputy superintendent Forbes said.

Claudia’s parents have distributed posters and fliers in Jamaica announcing the $50,000 reward that has been offered by Sandals, Frommer’s and the Kirschhochs for information on Claudia’s disappearance. Police continue to check out Claudia sightings around the island. Fred Kirschhoch thinks she would have contacted him if she were still alive. “We really feel, and have heard from people who’ve contacted us, that Claudia was given a drug by someone, maybe put in a drink, and that she died,” he said.

Say Pickersgill, director of the Jamaica Tourist Board, said that crime against visitors is minimal and that resort areas in the north and west are “very safe.” There have been 603 slayings in Jamaica since the beginning of the year, only three of which involved tourists, according to the police. “But young women must be sensitive,” Pickersgill said. “Otherwise they just might find the one person who would lead them astray.”

Claudia’s father puts it more strongly: “It’s really unhealthy for women to travel alone on and off the resorts in Jamaica.”

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U.S. Consul General Don Wells agrees with Pickersgill about the relative safety of the main tourist areas. Wells said he knew of only two deaths of Americans in Jamaica in the past year, both accidental.

Michael Spring, publisher of Frommer’s Travel Guides, said that new and reissued guidebooks to Jamaica and the Caribbean would include updated security alerts and information on Claudia’s disappearance.

But it isn’t always easy for a woman to gauge what’s safe and what’s risky, particularly on vacation. Susan Riseling, chief of police at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said that when women go on vacation, they tend to say, “The heck with it.” They eat desserts. They imbibe. Maybe they go clubbing with friendly bartenders. “So many do it with no problem,” she said. “But I fall back on the idea of making conscientious choices instead of letting things develop circumstantially.”

If Claudia is dead, as her father suspects, I hope she rests in peace somewhere on that troubled, beautiful blue island.

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If you know anything about Claudia Kirschhoch’s whereabouts, call (888) 967-9300 or visit her family’s Web site, https://www.findclaudia.homestead.com.


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