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Three years after a massive earthquake rattled Haiti, there’s a new storm brewing over the island. A dispute over the safety of Americans travelling to Haiti has swelled into a heated conflict between the US and Haitian governments, one that is casting a dark cloud over tourism to the recovering Caribbean nation.

The kerfuffle began in late 2012 when the US State Department issued a travel advisory warning Americans that murder and kidnappings made Haiti unsafe for travel.

“US citizens have been victims of violent crime, including murder and kidnapping, predominantly in the Port-au-Prince area. No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender, or age,” the 28 December advisory stated.

Haitian officials bristled at the advisory, calling it unwarranted and unfair. Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe struck back with a statement earlier this week.

“Haiti is one of the safest destinations, not only in the Caribbean, but in all of Latin America,” he said at a press conference.

Lamothe complained that the US government’s warnings would undermine the efforts of the earthquake-crippled country to restore its tourism industry and lure foreign investment in order to get back on its feet.

“With the meager resources that the state has, we’re investing in tourism,” he said.

The whole exchange has left travellers confused.  Is Haiti safe, or not?

Though Haiti does have the highest number of kidnappings in the Caribbean ­­– some 162 cases in 2012 ­­– it is well down from its 2005 peak, when six to 12 kidnappings occurred every day in capital, Port-au-Prince. And, in terms of homicides, Haiti is actually safer than many of its Caribbean cousins. Haiti’s 2011 murder rate was 6.9 per 100,000 residents, compared to neighbouring Dominican Republic’s 24.9 and Jamaica’s 40.9.

The data was convincing enough to persuade the US embassy in Haiti to issue its own statement regarding the Caribbean country’s progress on crime. “The government is on the right track and serious about addressing these issues,” said spokesperson Arnaldo Arbesu in a statement last week.

The bottom line seems to be that Haiti is still a safe choice for travellers who go prepared and stay vigilant. Still, there are some additional things travellers can do to stay safe when visiting the island nation, according to the US State Department.

• US travellers can sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a free service provided by the State Department that provides up-to-date security information and keeps a line of contact open between travellers and the US government.  

• Use common sense when dressing, and avoid conspicuous clothes or flashy displays of wealth, like expensive jewellery and watches.

• Don’t keep valuable items, like passports, money and traveller’s cheques, together in one place, such as a handbag or wallet. Separate the items and keep them on your person, in passport pouches, money belts and inside pockets.

• Make and take copies of your passport, driver’s license and other important documents, in case they are stolen.

• Don’t carry large amounts of cash, and be discreet with your money when purchasing souvenirs, gifts or meals.

• When booking hotel rooms, opt for rooms on the second floor or higher, and only keep valuables in the hotel safe, never in the room itself.

• Finally, as in any country, try to learn some local laws and customs, keep track of developments in the country and avoid travelling alone if possible.

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