(this is a copy of something I wrote for a previous thread on safety - since I'm hoping this will become a FAQ thread for future reference, I wanted to include it here. Again, it is just my opinion - I'm not claiming a corner on truth and I hope additional opinions will be added.)
I will attempt to summarize what I've gleaned from the TA community over the years regarding safety on Roatan for the typical tourist - and include my personal opinions.
First of all... those State Department and other governmental warning about Honduras need to be read with an understanding that Roatan is removed by geography and culture and travel status from the rest of Honduras. Mainland Honduras has not developed a tourist infrastructure as is found in many countries. Only a few places on the mainland are frequented by international tourists looking for relaxing vacation time - it is more oriented toward adventure/backpacker type travel. Don't get me wrong - I've loved my time in mainland Honduras... Copan, for example, was a great visit. The tourism on the mainland is simply quite different from tourism on Roatan.
Roatan is an island with an English-speaking tradition and has often been ignored by the mainland government. Long beloved by divers, the word slowly spread among savvy travelers that one could find a beautiful island paradise at prices well below those in more developed Caribbean tourist islands in the Bay Islands. Slowly hotel and condominium complexes and private vacation homes for rent by owners, plus restaurants and destination activities have developed to meet the increasing tourist trade. Package travel from Canada helped establish a steady flow of tourists staying on the island for a week or more. More recently the cruise ship trade has multiplied the number of day tourists to staggering numbers.
As demand has grown, so has tourist capacity. The island is no longer a hidden gem - we are well past the "discovery" stage. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the island.
And most of them never experience any crime.
Am I saying Roatan is completely safe? Absolutely not.
As Roatan tourism has developed, so has the need for manpower. The "native" population... old time island families of various cultural heritages... Spanish, English, Garifuna... just can't supply all the help needed to run tourist infrastructure. Behind the scenes, the tourist experience is driven by maids and cooks and security guards and all the rest of the low-wage jobs that allow tourists with dollars to live the happy island life for a few days each year.
Though wages are low, they are still attractive to mainland folks who find little occupational opportunity there. The result is the development of some very poor communities of "internal immigrants" - people coming to the island looking for work and living in colonias under very difficult conditions, often with the most rudimentary access to housing, clean water, medical care, etc.
As is found anywhere in the world where "those who have" spend time in contact with "those who have not" - there will always be some crime. The crime that affects tourists on Roatan is primarily property crime. Something like an i-pod, a computer, a camera... that is a casual entertainment device to a tourist... might look like an easy source for cash to one willing to steal.
This is not to justify crime - but it might help understand it. When one works full time as a maid or a guard and still can't earn enough to feed one's kids properly, there is a lot of motivation to steal.
I phrase this carefully. I've been a poor person and I was not a criminal. The huge majority of people on Roatan are delightful, friendly folks. Being poor isn't criminal and doesn’t make one a criminal. But a few poor folks do turn to crime for cash. (Actually, crime isn't limited to those few poor folks... a few not poor folks on the island continue the long traditions of graft and bribes to enrich themselves as well - but this kind of crime is unlikely to affect the tourist experience directly, while burglary and petty theft by low-level thieves is more likely to impinge on tourists.)
Mainland Honduras has earned the moniker "Murder Capital of the World" due the extremely high per capita murder rate. This is primarily driven by the international drug production/transport business. Roatan has not been immune to this – for example, there are drug storage houses in the remote areas and there has been some drug-related violence. I know of at least one killing last year when police stormed a drug house in a remote part of the island. Again, this event did not impact typical tourist activities.
There is occasional violent crime on Roatan. It is most often drug-related... either the drug trade, or people damaged by drug use. Anyone familiar with meth use will understand this reference immediately.
It is impossible to get any accurate reporting because of a lack of credible journalism on the island combined with a rampant rumor mill and rampant corruption. Nobody can accurately compare the murder rates for Roatan withToronto, Paris, and Los Angeles.
We know there have been several killings lately. Only one involved a tourist, a Canadian who engaged in distinctly unsafe behavior for a tourist and, very unfortunately, suffered the ultimate price. The other killings involve day-to-day life for islanders in places and at times unlikely to affect the typical tourist on Roatan.
Though tragic, these isolated incidents do not reflect anything like the wonderful, relaxing experiences of hundreds of thousands of visitors.
The more typical crime against tourists on Roatan will be property crime – theft of money and portable goods. This should not be overplayed, however. Most tourists, using normal traveler procedures, will not experience or even hear about a theft. The reports are scattered and hard to verify. There have undoubtedly been some burglaries. The same qualities that make a cabana attractive to someone building or renting an escape – no crowds, a beach to one’s self, a feeling of remote island paradise – also provide an attractive target for those looking to steal portable goods.
One of the facts that leads to a heightened sense of concern among tourist is that the legal system on Roatan does not resemble the one most of us rely on in our home areas. The police do not investigate enthusiastically. Tourists come and go – the police and judges and lawyers have to live with their island compatriots, so there is the persistent sense that bribes and graft drive a lot of the local law enforcement (and lack of it) and that tourists are unlikely to get a fair shake if an incident occurs. Again, this is common around the world. In the unlikely event that a tourist does experience a crime, they should report it and follow all the procedures – but it is unlikely they will see their IPod again…
I would not consider taking anything I couldn’t afford to lose when I vacation – not on Roatan, not when I go to Des Moines, Iowa. I never travel with my wallet in a pocket that does not zip or seal in some fashion. I won’t carry a bag with an open top with easy to steal valuable items like cameras and smart phones in it. These are just plain, simple protections I take any time I travel.
In some resort rooms, a safe is available. It only makes sense to use it for passports, cash, and expensive electronics when you are leaving. Other places one might use the resort’s safe. It makes sense not to leave expensive toys and cash laying around in the room. We generally stay in cabanas with no safes – we hide key stuff to make it unlikely that a quick break in would result in finding it.
In any unfamiliar place, it makes sense for a traveler to be aware of place and circumstances and play by local rules. Most folks feel comfortable walking the more actively touristed beaches… West Bay, West End, and parts of Sandy Bay… in the daytime with no more protection than they’d use at home. Most folks are comfortable walking to dinner along West Bay Beach and in West End in the evening after dark.
I don’t know anybody who recommends that tourists walk any remote areas on the island after dark. Most of us would recommend against a tourist being in Coxen Hole at night. If drinking in bars, it is best that it be with known companions, not last into the wee hours and that a known taxi and driver be engaged for safe transport door-to-door.
Even ignoring these precautions, most folks would probably be fine, but there is really no point in even taking the minor risk of running into a bad guy in the dark. I don’t go out a lot at night in Roatan, and if I do I only take taxis and call drivers I know. I leave valuables at home and carry only the cash I need.
This year and for 2013, we chose a place on Sandy Bay. We felt extremely safe there, with a combination of owners and renters who tend to keep a little bit of an eye on each other and their community. They also have a security guard. Many places on the island have them, so those wishing a heightened sense of security might want to be sure this is part of their rental package.
Bottom line – I’ve traveled pretty extensively on five continents and I consider Roatan a pretty safe place for tourists. I take more precautions in Florence, Italy or Lima, Peru or San Antonio, Texas than I do on a typical day on Roatan. On a scale of one to ten, with one being perfectly safe, eight being a place I only feel comfortable if I have a firearm, and ten being an active war zone… I put Roatan at a 2 or 3.
For comparison, I put most American city-centers in the 4-7 range and on some of my RV trips in the US I spend the night in 8 rating locations – I take advantage of my “permit to carry” and I typically have a loaded pistol within reach when I sleep. I take no such protections in Roatan. I know some who are a little less comfortable and bring pepper spray. If you carry it on the street at night at home, you might be more comfortable carrying it on Roatan as well.
It would be irresponsible to tell people Roatan is perfectly safe. Anyone who travels to unfamiliar locations should be aware of basic travel common sense. A lapse in sensible protections – leaving a door unlocked, valuables in an unattended vehicle, unattended bags on the beach – drastically increase the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime. And “stuff” happens, anywhere tourists go.
But, on the other hand, I think less “stuff” happens on Roatan that many places tourists travel. I would not hesitate to invite people any age, any background, to visit the lovely island of Roatan. Be sensible, yes… but don’t be driven away by fear or let the fear-mongering keep you from enjoying your vacation. It is my belief that Roatan is one of the safer tourist destinations available.