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Crimes Against Tourists

Guide No.26 (2004)

by Ronald W. Glensor & Kenneth J. Peak

The Problem of Crimes Against Tourists

This guide addresses tourist crime, beginning by describing the problem and reviewing the factors that contribute to it. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it provides a number of measures your agency can take to address the problem and to evaluate responses. The guide addresses tourist crimes committed in the United States, although the information provided here will no doubt benefit those readers dealing with the problem abroad.

Related Problems

There are several problems related to crimes against tourists that may call for separate analyses and responses. These problems, which are beyond the scope of this guide, include

Factors Contributing to Crimes Against Tourists

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Tourism is an interactive relationship among tourists, local businesses, and host governments and communities.1 It is the United States’ second largest service industry (after health care), and directly or indirectly supporting 204 million jobs,2 producing more than $100 billion in revenues,3 and drawing 57.2 million visitors to the nation each year.4 Growth in tourism, however, has also led to increased opportunities for, and incidences of, crime. Indeed, a long-established relationship exists between increases in crime and tourism; major economic crimes (e.g., robbery, burglary) in some highly popular tourism venues have a “similar season to tourism,”5 for several reasons. First, tourists are lucrative targets, since they typically carry large sums of money and other valuables. Second, tourists are vulnerable because they are more likely to be relaxed and off guard—and sometimes careless—while on vacation. Finally, tourists are often less likely to report crimes or to testify against suspects, wishing to avoid problems or a return trip.6 Tourist crimes generally involve one of several scenarios:

Tourists as Offenders

It is worth noting that tourists may be the perpetrators, as well as the victims, of crime. The “tourist culture” can lessen tourists’ sense of responsibility. They may riot at sporting events, for example, or cause disturbances on aircraft. They may also solicit prostitutes, buy illegal drugs, or smuggle goods out of the country. Furthermore, terrorists may pretend to be tourists (to target legitimate ones).15

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of the problem of crimes against tourists. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem will help you design a more effective response strategy.

Asking the Right Questions  

Your agency’s capacity to identify tourist-related incidents in its records management system is a major factor in being able to ask the right questions and develop proper responses. It would be helpful if a standard, international definition specified who a tourist is, what constitutes a crime against a tourist, and how tourist crime records should be kept.16 Then police departments in tourist areas could record and analyze tourist crimes separately, and thus better understand victimization patterns.17 You should review your agency’s records management system to ensure there are uniform methods for reporting and classifying tourist crimes.18

Many tourist areas closely guard tourist crime data.19 To get an accurate picture of the problem, you may need to (1) thoroughly review offense reports to identity tourist-related crimes (computer-aided dispatching systems may be coded to tabulate such crimes); (2) conduct tourist surveys (e.g., through the local police, Chamber of Commerce, or hotels/motels) to determine the actual number of offenses; or (3) encourage businesses—including hotels and motels—to report crimes or other problems concerning tourists to the police.

† See Disorder at Budget Motels in this series, for a discussion regarding motel reporting practices. [Full text]





Current Responses

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. Measurement will likely involve both quantitative (statistical) and qualitative (anecdotal) information. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

You should be alert to the possibility that your responses to tourist crime might displace it, either geographically, to other types of crime, or to non-tourist victims. You should also be aware that your responses to tourist crime might reduce non-tourist-related crime, as well.

Responses to the Problem of Crimes Against Tourists

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to the problem.

The following response strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police problem-solving efforts; several of them may apply to your community’s problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do; give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.

Unfortunately, there are few careful evaluations of tourist crime interventions. Much of what is recommended here is based on informed judgments about what is likely to be effective. More rigorous evaluations are needed.

General Considerations for an Effective Strategy

  1. Working with the tourism industry to identify and address crime-related concerns. Police representatives should participate on tourism boards and work with hotel/motel, convention, and visitors’ bureaus to understand tourism-related problems and concerns, and to develop joint crime prevention programs.20 Police should provide ongoing information about local crime to tourism officials.
  2. Training police and private security staff to recognize and address tourist-related safety concerns. Police and private security staff should know what particular crime risks tourists face, what resources are available, and how to access those resources (e.g., visitors’ bureaus, emergency and social services, health departments).†21 They should also be prepared to help tourists access emergency shelters, transportation systems, and foreign embassies, and help them navigate the various criminal justice processes.

    † See “Overcoming Language Barriers: Solutions for Law Enforcement” PDF

    To deal with crimes against tourists, the New Orleans and Orlando, Fla., police departments have created special units with selected personnel specifically to protect tourists. Both agencies require that officers be highly trained in tourism issues, as well as visible to and gregarious with tourists; work closely with related local associations and bureaus; advise rental property employees regarding crime prevention techniques; and recommend that tourist-industry employees (especially those in the security field) undergo thorough background checks—and be heavily punished if found guilty of committing tourist crimes.22

Specific Responses to Reduce Crimes Against Tourists

  1. Facilitating tourist victims’ testimony in criminal cases. Tourist victims usually will not return to their vacation spots to give testimony, as it is costly and time-consuming: Hawaii has enacted, and other states have considered, statutes allowing crime victims to testify from their home via teleconferencing.23 The Dade County ( Fla.) State Attorney’s Office also has a Victim Fly-Back Program to help victims return to testify.24
  2. Imposing additional taxes in tourist areas to support special security measures. In some tourist areas, property owners pay a special fee to support security and other services that increase the area’s appeal and reduce safety risks to tourists.
    The goal of the Newark (N.J.) Downtown District (NDD) is to create a safer, cleaner, well-managed area for people to conduct business and live in. The NDD—a nonprofit, special-improvement business district composed of 425 commercial properties—contracts with a single company to operate and manage the Holiday Safety Ambassador Program for three months per year, to supplement basic services already provided. The duties of the uniformed “safety ambassadors” include being the eyes and ears of the police, including serving as a police witness and filling out police reports when necessary; offering information and directions to pedestrians; reporting misconduct or suspicious incidents to the police; responding appropriately to crises; being familiar with all events and tourist attractions; and periodically checking new, closed, or relocated businesses.25
  3. Encouraging hotels and motels to adopt practices that will reduce guest victimization. Among the practices you should encourage are
    • requiring that guests show identification before reentering the building,
    • installing electronic room locks that are changed after each guest checks out,
    • providing safety deposit boxes,
    • installing surveillance cameras, and
    • employing full-time security officers.26 ,

      † See Disorder at Budget Motels in this series, for further information about preventing crime and disorder in motels. [Full text]

    • You might also encourage hotels and motels to provide safety tips on their website or in-house cable TV channel.

  4. Offering rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those who commit serious crimes against tourists. The tourism industry may be willing to help finance reward programs. In Miami, the local government developed such a program, in conjunction with Crime Stoppers and the tourist industry.27
    The early 1990s saw a plague of violent crimes against tourists in Dade County, Fla. Several murders of foreign tourists brought worldwide media attention, and both the county and the greater Miami area were portrayed as dangerous places to visit. Miami International Airport was the focal point of such crimes, including “smash and grab,” “driveway,” and “highway” robberies, in which criminals preyed on people leaving the airport in easily identifiable rental cars. Other rental-car drivers became victims after getting lost once they left the airport. To address the problem, the Metro-Dade Police Department (1) increased visible uniform patrols, (2) adopted a problem-oriented approach to improve the area and generate support from local businesses and other government agencies, and (3) implemented a tourist safety program, to provide safety information. In addition, the Florida legislature passed a law requiring that regular license plates be issued to replace the easily identifiable ones on rental vehicles, the county required that maps and directions be provided with every rented vehicle, and identifying stickers were removed from rental vehicles. Over 500 directional signs were installed, many in the airport area, and a tourism safety video was shown on many inbound international flights. Officers were trained to contact lost or confused motorists, and give them an escort if necessary. They were also equipped with cell phones, maps, brochures, and other information in a variety of languages, to distribute as necessary. The police devoted four to five times the normal level of resources to the airport area, using several special responses (for example, using decoy parked police cars, conducting undercover operations targeting “hot spots,” and deploying motorcycle patrols during peak times). They also established a tourist hotline, started a newsletter, and set up a 24-hour information counter in the airport. In the two years following the initiative, crimes against visitors dropped in the area: robberies decreased by 50 percent, and auto thefts by 79 percent.30

    † The police department is now called the Miami-Dade Police Department.

  5. Educating tourists to reduce their risk of victimization. Police in tourist areas should develop an array of methods for educating tourists about crime prevention.28 Among those you might consider are the following:
      • creating a website with a dedicated tourist menu that (1) provides safety tips on such topics as rental and use of cars, and use of automated teller machines (ATMs), credit cards, and other financial instruments; (2) lists emergency telephone numbers; (3) has regularly updated tourist crime bulletins; and (4) provides information about any specialized tourist police or auxiliary patrols;

        † See Robbery at Automated Teller Machines, Guide No. 8 in this series, for information about crime prevention at ATMs. [Full text ]

        † † See the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s website, at www.lvmpd.com, for an example of tourist safety information.

      • equipping tourism officers with a cellular phone so they can quickly access information, translation services, or other assistance for tourists;
      • establishing a 24-hour police information counter, installing “tourist telephones” (those specifically designated for tourists needing information and providing safety tips) and broadcasting precautionary messages at airports;
      • establishing a tourist hotline for reporting crimes and related problems;
      • encouraging positive media contacts regarding the tourist police program and tourist safety, including having tourist officers take journalists on “ride-alongs”;
      • producing a video that provides information about the tourist area, the tourist police program, travel safety tips, and how to get around the area, for showing on inbound aircraft and in airports;
      • providing information to foreign consulates and embassies, so they can educate their citizens about travel to your area; and
      • developing a means to inform travelers of the safest places to stay (for example, some cities have a crimefree hotel/motel certification program that allows hotels/motels to qualify for special advertising based on their safety record).
      • The following are some common safety tips that particularly pertain to tourists:

        • Use maps to plan routes before venturing out in a rental car.
        • Avoid traveling in vehicles that are obviously rented.
        • Avoid appearing to be a tourist.
        • Be aware of surroundings and avoid suspicious characters.
        • Travel with companions.
        • Remove valuables from cars.
        • Lock windows and doors in rooms when leaving.29

        All tourist information should be available in the languages most commonly spoken by visitors to the area.

  6. Increasing uniform patrols in tourist areas. Highly visible police patrols can discourage offenders who target tourists and increase tourists’ sense of safety, but obviously, they are labor-intensive and therefore costly.
    Problems arose with rental car burglaries in parking lots near the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Honolulu (for example, thieves used binoculars to spot tourists putting valuables in their car trunks). In response, surveillance cameras were added to complement foot patrols, a rental storage unit was installed for tourists’ belongings, and car- rental-company bumper stickers were removed.31 Similarly, thefts from tourists’ vehicles at Honolulu recreation areas posed a serious problem in the mid-1990s. The offenders knew the best approach and escape routes, quickly and efficiently broke into locked cars, and typically were drug abusers with prior records for related types of crimes. The police addressed the problem by using high-visibility patrols (including bicycle and all-terrain vehicle units) in high-crime areas, providing information to tourists, gathering intelligence and investigating known suspects, and using bait cars. Thefts from vehicles declined from a high of 188 reported cases in January 1997, to a low of four cases in December 1997.32
  7. Deploying citizen patrols to supplement police patrols. Unpaid or paid citizen patrols during peak tourist seasons can supplement police presence. They can help inform tourists and discourage offenders. They should be conspicuously dressed, well informed about matters of concern to tourists, and have ready communication with police.

    † The city of Wellington, New Zealand, runs a program called Walkwise that deploys trained civilian safety officers at all times in the city’s central business district. The officers act as ambassadors and work closely with police, intervening in low-level disorder problems and reporting more-serious offending.

  8. Conducting surveillance at high-risk locations. Surveillance should be based on local intelligence about problem areas and times. In general, surveillance is time-consuming and costly, and is effective at reducing crime only if it results in the apprehension of especially prolific offenders.
    The cities of Orlando and Miami have erected special highway signs that provide directions for visitors. The signs are placed along airport expressways near car rental companies. The “Follow the Sun” project has involved the strategic placement of 400 new road signs bearing a tourist-friendly sunburst logo to help non-English-speaking visitors find their way.
  9. Changing the physical environment to reduce opportunities for tourist crimes. Such measures might include putting up appropriate signs for tourists at key locations (e.g., near airports) to prevent their becoming lost or a traffic hazard, or inadvertently going into high-risk areas.

    † For an excellent discussion of various ways to safely move and handle large crowds of visitors through environmental design, see Shearing and Stenning (1997). [Full text]

    When visitors enter Disney World in Orlando, they are greeted by a series of smiling young people who, with the aid of clearly visible road markings, direct them to the parking lot, remind them to lock their car and to remember its location, and direct them to wait for the train that will take them to the amusements area. At the boarding location, they are directed to stand safely behind guardrails and to board in an orderly fashion, and once on the train, they receive additional safety instructions and are informed of how they will be transported around the park during the day. Virtually every pool, fountain, and flower garden serves both as a visual attraction and a means to direct visitors away from, or toward, particular locations. Such order is presented as being in the visitors’ best interests; thus it is consensual —with the visitors’ willing cooperation.33
  10. Summary of Responses

    The table below summarizes the responses to crimes against tourists, the mechanism by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they ought to work best, and some factors you should consider before implementing a particular response. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.

    General Considerations for an Effective Strategy
    # Response How It Works Works Best If... Considerations
    1 Working with the tourism industry to identify and address crime-related concerns Increases the likelihood of tourist crime prevention by combining police and industry efforts …the police know and can inform others about good safety practices used locally and elsewhere Should promote good practice by police, tourism officials, and private business owners who cater to tourists; should not be limited to directing extra police patrols
    2 Training police and private security staff to recognize and address tourist-related safety concerns Enhances the ability of, and the confidence in, personnel to address the problem …high-quality training programs are used, based on established, successful curricula Costs to police agencies or local governments to develop/administer training
    Specific Responses to Reduce Crimes Against Tourists
    # Response How It Works Works Best If... Considerations
    3 Facilitating tourist victims’ testimony in criminal cases Increases the likelihood of convicting offenders, and thus may deter potential offenders …legislation provides funding for victims’ travel expenses, or for equipment for them to testify via teleconferencing Increases costs to the local jurisdiction; may or may not result in conviction
    4 Imposing additional taxes in tourist areas to support special security measures Provides funding for enhanced security measures in tourist areas …local government leaders and business owners are willing to pay the cost to improve the area and reduce tourist risks Taxpayers may be reluctant to pay extra taxes if they believe police should assume the sole responsibility for safeguarding tourists
    5 Encouraging hotels and motels to adopt practices that will reduce guest victimization Reduces opportunities for tourists to be victimized in the first instance …hotels/motels have a strong motivation to prevent crimes, and use knowledgeable personnel to determine needs and to install equipment Implementation costs can be high; hotel/motel managers may be reluctant to raise concerns among guests about the potential for crime victimization
    6 Offering rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those who commit serious crimes against tourists Increases the likelihood of convicting offenders, and thus may deter potential offenders …offers of reward money are well publicized and sufficiently high to encourage those with information to come forward Costs to fund the program (reward money, administrative costs, etc.)
    7 Educating tourists to reduce their risk of victimization Promotes safe practices among tourists …tourist information is available in different languages Costs of producing and disseminating the information
    8 Increasing uniform patrols in tourist areas Potentially deters offenders, and increases the likelihood that tourist crimes will be interrupted …officers patrol high-risk locations Requires a substantial commitment of personnel and other justice system resources
    9 Deploying citizen patrols to supplement police patrols Potentially deters offenders, and increases the likelihood that tourist crimes will be interrupted …volunteers are properly trained, have instant communication access to police, and are conspicuously dressed Costs of employing, training, and equipping citizen patrols
    10 Conducting surveillance at high-risk locations Enhances the ability of police to identify offenders, and potentially deters offenders …cameras and/or officers surveil high-risk areas Labor-intensive and costly to conduct; electronic surveillance equipment must be vigilantly monitored
    11 Changing the physical environment to reduce opportunities for tourist crimes Increases the difficulty of committing offenses …the changes are tailored to the immediate environment’s particular risks Requires a sophisticated understanding of the principles and methods of crime prevention through environmental design


    [1] McIntosh and Goeldner (1986).

    [2] Brunt and Hambly (1999).

    [3] Pelfrey (1998). [Full text]

    [4] Smith (1999).

    [5] See, for example, Harper (2001)[Full text]; Chesney-Lind and Lind (1986)[Full text]; McPheters and Stronge (1974).

    [6] Fujii and Mak (1979).

    [7] DeAlbuquerque and McElroy (1999). [Full text]

    [8] Ferreira and Harmse (2000). [Full text]

    [9] Harper (2001).[Full text]

    [10] Ferreira and Harmse (2000). [Full text]

    [11] Pizam and Mansfeld (1996).

    [12] World Tourism Organization (1996).

    [13] Flynn (1998).

    [14] Schiebler, Crotts, and Hollinger, in Pizam and Mansfeld (1996), pp. 37–50. [Full text]

    [15] Brunt and Hambly (1999).

    [16] Pizam, Tarlow, and Bloom (1997).

    [17] DeAlbuquerque and McElroy (1999). [Full text]

    [18] Pizam and Mansfeld (1996).

    [19] Pizam and Mansfeld (1996).

    [20] Pizam, Tarlow, and Bloom (1997).

    [21] Pizam, Tarlow, and Bloom (1997).

    [22] Pizam, Tarlow, and Bloom (1997).

    [23] Ruppel (n.d.).

    [24] Florida Department of Law Enforcement (1996). [Full text]

    [25] http://www.downtownnewark.com

    [26] DeAlbuquerque and McElroy (1999). [Full text]

    [27] Florida Department of Law Enforcement (1996). [Full text]

    [28] Crotts (1996). [Full text]

    [29] Crotts (1996). [Full text]

    [30] Metro-Dade Police Department (1996). [Full text]

    [31] Ishikawa (2002).

    [32] Honolulu Police Department (1998). [Full text]

    [33] Shearing and Stenning (1997). [Full text]


    Barker, M., S. Page, and D. Meyer (2002). “Modeling Tourism Crime: The 2000 America’s Cup.” Annals of Tourism Research 29(3):762–782. [Full text]

    Brunt, P., and Z. Hambly (1999). “Tourism and Crime: A Research Agenda.” Crime Prevention and Community Safety: An International Journal 1(2):25–36.

    Chesney-Lind, M., and I. Lind (1986). “Visitors as Victims: Crimes Against Tourists in Hawaii.” Annals of Tourism Research 13:167–191. [Full text]

    Crotts, J. (1996). “Theoretical Perspectives on Tourist Criminal Victimization.” Journal of Tourism Studies 7(1):2–9. [Full text]

    DeAlbuquerque, K., and J. McElroy (1999). “Tourism and Crime in the Caribbean.” Annals of Tourism Research 26(1):968–984. [Full text]

    Ferreira, S., and A. Harmse (2000). “Crime and Tourism in South Africa: International Tourists’ Perception and Risk.” South African Geographical Journal 82(2):80–85. [Full text]

    Florida Department of Law Enforcement (1996). Visitor Crime in Florida: The Perception vs. the Reality. Tallahassee: Florida Department of Law Enforcement. [Full text]

    Flynn, D. (1998). Defining the “Community” in Community Policing. Washington, D.C.: Police Executive Research Forum.

    Fujii, E., and J. Mak (1980). “Tourism and Crime: Implications for Regional Development Policy.” Regional Studies 14:27–36.

    Harper, D. (2001). “Comparing Tourists Crime Victimization.” Annals of Tourism Research 28(4):1053–1056. [Full text]

    Honolulu Police Department (1998). “Herman Goldstein Award Nomination: District 4.” Submission to the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing. [Full text]

    Ishikawa, S. (2002). “Theft Poses Challenge for Hawaii’s Tourism.”Honolulu Advertiser, November 18.

    McIntosh, R., and C. Goeldner (1986). Tourism Principles, Practices, Philosophies. New York: Wiley.

    McPheters, L., and W. Stronge (1974). “Crime as an Environmental Externality of Tourism: Miami, Florida.” Land Economics 50(2):288–292.

    Metro-Dade Police Department (1996). “Tourist-Oriented Police Program.” Submission for the Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing. [Full text]

    Pelfrey, W. (1998). “Tourism and Crime: A Preliminary Assessment of the Relationship of Crime to the Number of Visitors at Selected Sites.” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice 22(2):293–304. [Full text]

    Pizam, A., and Y. Mansfeld (eds.) (1996). Tourism, Crime, and International Security Issues. Chichester, England; New York: Wiley. [Full text of chapter 14]

    Pizam, A., P. E. Tarlow, and J. Bloom (1997). “Making Tourists Feel Safe: Whose Responsibility Is It?” Journal of Travel Research (Summer): 23-28.

    Ruppel, G. (n.d.). “States Streamline Thief Prosecution.” http://more.abcnews.go.com/sections/2020/2020/2020friday_001103_touristscams_feature.html#sidebar

    Shearing, C., and P. Stenning (1997). “From the Panopticon to Disney World: The Development of Discipline.” In R. Clarke (ed.), Situational Crime Prevention: Successful Case Studies (2nd ed.). Guilderland, N.Y.: Harrow and Heston. [Full text]

    Sherman, L., P. Gardin, and M. Buerger (1989). “Hot Spots of Predatory Crime: Routine Activities and the Criminology of Place.” Criminology 27(1):27–55.

    Smith, G. (1999). “Toward a United States Policy on Traveler Safety and Security: 1980–2000.” Journal of Travel Research 38(1):62–65.

    World Tourism Organization (1996). Tourist Safety and Security: Practical Measures for Destinations. Madrid, Spain: World Tourism Organization.

    Related POP Projects


    The quality and focus of these submissions vary considerably. With the exception of those submissions selected as winners or finalists, these documents are unedited and are reproduced in the condition in which they were submitted. They may nevertheless contain useful information or may report innovative projects.

    Airport District Tourist Oriented Police Department, Metro-Dade Police Department (Metro-Dade, FL, US), 1996

    District 4 Thefts from Rental Vehicles, Honolulu Police Department, 1998

    Operation Safe Streets, Honolulu Police Department, 1998

    Policing Boise's Downtown Entertainment District, Boise Police Department, 2008

    Project Centurion [Goldstein Award Winner], Isle of Man Constabulary (British Isles, UK), 2005

    Reclaiming the 'Street of Shame': A Problem Oriented Solution to Vancouver's Entertainment District, Vancouver Police Department, 2009

    Safer Swansea: Call Time on Violent Crime, South Wales Police (South Wales, UK), 2008

    TOPS: Tourist Oriented Policing, Jackson Police Department, 2007

    Tourist Victimization Prevention Project, Honolulu Police Department, 1998