By Orville Williams
Despite a recent spate in gunpoint robberies and other criminal incidents, the government says no special security treatment will be afforded to tourists over the local population.
The country is preparing to welcome an influx of tourists over the coming weeks and months – including both stayover visitors and cruise passengers – as part of sustained efforts to revitalise a battered economy.
The increased risk of new Covid-19 infections is not the only issue that could derail those efforts, as the recent crime spate poses another immediate threat.
Late last month, the police resorted to offering a $25,000 reward to members of the public for information leading to the arrest of persons involved in robbery and shooting incidents which, fortunately, were not fatal.
A supermarket, jewellery store and a service station were some of the victims of these robberies and robbery attempts, while a man had to receive medical treatment in hospital after being shot during a home break-in.
The frequency and brazenness of these incidents – most occurred during broad daylight – was met with consternation by many in the country, given Antigua and Barbuda is viewed as a relatively safe country to live and to visit.
Many believe the motives behind these incidents are the economic and psychological struggles caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The lack of ‘freedom’ due to lockdowns, curfews and restrictions on social activity, coupled with the uncertainty of livelihoods due to job losses and dwindled income-generating opportunities, are problems that the government has repeatedly chalked up to the impact of the pandemic.
These problems are certainly not unique to Antigua and Barbuda, as many countries around the world are facing social ills also caused by the pandemic, but the threat to tourists could definitely increase as a result.
Tourists could draw the ire of the criminal-minded, as they may be perceived to have certain freedoms during their time on island that locals are not afforded. Similarly, the visitors may be perceived to be in better financial standing than these criminals, who may be struggling to make ends meet given the current economic situation in the country.
However, Chief of Staff in the Office of the Prime Minister, Lionel Hurst, believes that the threat to tourists is no more significant than the threat to the local population, and for that reason, he says equity will be the name of the game as far as security is concerned.
“We are not providing greater protection for the tourists than we are for our own residents and nationals here in Antigua and Barbuda. What the police will be doing is keeping an eye, a very present eye, on all those people who are vulnerable.
“Among the vulnerable will be the visiting tourists of course, but also places that deal directly in cash. We’ve found that supermarkets, restaurants and other kinds of places dealing in cash are also very vulnerable.”
That vigilance Hurst spoke of will be in the form of increased police presence in St John’s, with more officers physically in the city and more stop-and-search activities being performed to weed out those persons carrying illegal firearms.
He said these improvements should provide a safer environment for locals and allow the tourism sector the safe space to continue to rebound.
“Of course, we want our tourism to thrive as it had been before Covid and we know that one of the ways to ensure that [the sector] does thrive is to ensure that there is police presence everywhere.
“The expectation is that the overwhelming presence of the police everywhere – whether on bicycles, in cars that have their beacons going, or by patrol on foot – will act as deterrents, preventing or discouraging the perpetrators from inflicting wounds on our already-harmed tourist market, but also on commerce and business in [the country],” he added.