Recent visitor bloodshed is casting a long shadow over the travel industry in Belize.
On May 1, the search for Francesca Matus, 52, of Toronto, and Drew DeVoursney, 36, from Georgia, became a homicide investigation after their strangled bodies were found in the country's northern Corozal district, home to several popular Caribbean beaches, Mayan ruins, duty-free shopping and tropical wildlife sanctuaries.
The terrible news adds to a spate of violent deaths – including that of Canadian filmmaker Matthiew Klinck, who was stabbed at his Belize vacation home in early 2016 – and is fuelling traveller fears. But are these fears justified? If you're considering, or reconsidering, a trip to Belize, here's what you need to know about safety:
Is Belize a safe country?
While Ottawa has yet to issue a nationwide advisory, the Global Affairs Canada recommends exercising "a high degree of caution" owing to "a high rate of violent crime throughout the country.… Criminal activity, including armed robbery, mugging and sexual assault, is a significant problem."
This "risk level" is no exaggeration: Belize has the world's third-highest murder rate at 44.7 per 100,000 of the population, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. This is about 25 times Canada's rate. Belize also has an extremely high general crime rate, the U.S.-based Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) reports, with burglaries and theft comprising most of the offences.
But is it safer for travellers?
It would appear as though it is. According to the OSAC, violent crime has remained relatively low in popular tourist areas, which include Ambergris Caye (Belize's largest island), the area around Belize City and the inland Cayo District's many Mayan archeological sites.
The latter includes the vast ruins of Caracol, which have been specifically called out by Ottawa for armed robberies that "occasionally occur near the western border with Guatemala."
"There is no indication that foreigners are broadly targeted, although tourists can be easy targets when not displaying situational awareness," the OSAC states in its Belize 2017 Crime & Safety Report. "Over the past several years, there has been a shift in major crimes from being concentrated mostly in the population centre in Belize City to districts in the north, west and south of Belize."
Like Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, which share the same "risk level" as Belize, the country is popular with Canadians despite being rife with crime. More than one million international visitors entered in 2016, according to the Belize Tourism Board, with about 25,000 of them coming from Canada and the vast majority travelling without incident.
"Belize is one of the very first destinations we started offering tours to over 20 years ago, and we've never had a safety issue," said Timothy Chan, a spokesman for Toronto-based G Adventures.
That said, Chan added that the tour operator "always recommends that travellers consult the government travel advisories and purchase travel insurance."
What can travellers do to stay safe?
Ottawa's current risk level for Belize means that "travellers should be alert and vigilant to their surroundings." Other safety recommendations include:
- Avoiding isolated areas, including unsupervised beaches, especially at night.
- Travelling in groups, ensuring that personal belongings and documents are secure and avoiding displays of affluence.
- Using a reputable, experienced tour guide when visiting archeological sites or trekking.
- Never leaving food or drinks unattended or in the care of strangers, and being wary of accepting snacks, beverages, gum or cigarettes from new acquaintances, as they may contain drugs used in sexual assaults.
- Using taxis after dark instead of walking and only using registered taxis with green licence plates.
- Registering with the Canadian consulate in Belize City or Canadian embassy in Guatemala by calling (502) 2363-4348 or visiting guatemala.gc.ca.
What else should travellers watch out for?
Ottawa adds that there are "identifiable security concerns" beyond the aforementioned criminal activities. These include:
- Demonstrations and large gatherings that can turn violent. Travellers are advised to follow the advice of local authorities and media in this regard.
- Poorly maintained and illuminated roads, with traffic accidents occurring “regularly.” Avoid driving after dark, especially on unpaved rural roads, and be careful crossing bridges, as many only have one lane. Be sure to have a full tank of gas in remote areas, as service stations are scarce and usually close for holidays. There are no emergency road services, and stopping to offer assistance to others is not advised.