The truth is that travelers can have a great experience getting out and seeing the "real" Jamaica, but need to be mindful about the legitimate threat of crime where it exists.
Jamaica has one of the world's highest per-capita murder rates, and a 2010 state of emergency threw the harsh glare of publicity on the violent gang and drug culture in the capital, Kingston. Violent crime can be a real problem in Kingston and other parts of the country, but typically such crimes involve attacks by Jamaicans on other Jamaicans and revolve around drugs, gangs, politics, poverty, or revenge.
Most crimes targeting visitors in tourist areas like Montego Bay, Negril and Ocho Rios are property-oriented -- pickpocketing and petty theft, for example. Armed robberies do occasionally involve tourists, and can turn violent if victims resist.
Credit-card skimming is an ongoing problem in Jamaica. Some scammers will make a copy of your credit-card information when you give your card to a restaurant server or shopkeeper. ATMs also may be rigged to steal your card information, or individuals may observe you at the ATM and try to steal your password. Avoid using credit cards or ATMs whenever possible; carry just enough cash for what you need that day. If you do need to use a credit card, keep an eye on the person handling your card. If you need to get cash, use the ATM at your hotel.
Sexual assaults by hotel employees in resort areas on Jamaica's north coast have occurred with some frequency, as well.
Police in Jamaica are generally short on manpower and training. You will see an increased police presence in areas of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios frequented by tourists, but if you are a victim of crime you may find the response of the local police to be lacking -- or nonexistent. Locals generally have little trust in the police, and while visitors are unlikely to be mistreated by police, the Jamaican Constabulary Force is widely viewed as corrupt and ineffectual.
Tourists are advised to avoid traveling in notoriously high-threat areas of Kingston including, but not limited to, Mountain View, Trench Town, Tivoli Gardens, Cassava Piece and Arnett Gardens. In Montego Bay, avoid the areas of Flankers, Canterbury, Norwood, Rose Heights, Clavers Street and Hart Street. Several of the latter neighborhoods are adjacent to Montego Bay's Sangster International Airport.
The north coastal road linking popular tourist destinations such as Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Negril is much improved in recent years. However, most roads are poorly maintained and have poor signage. Smaller roads may not be paved, and often are narrow, winding, and crowded with pedestrians, bicycles, and livestock.
Driving is on the left, and Jamaica's roundabouts (traffic circles) can be confusing for drivers used to driving on the right. Seat-belt use is required and recommended even for taxi passengers, given the hazardous driving conditions.
Use of public transportation is not recommended, since public buses are often overcrowded and can become venues for crime. Take a cab from your hotel or use transportation from vendors that are part of JUTA -- the Jamaica Union of Travelers Association.
Hurricanes and tropical storms can hit Jamaica, sometimes causing significant damage. Earthquakes are a rarer hazard, but also occur.
Kingston and Montego Bay have the only comprehensive medical facilities in Jamaica. The recommended hospital for U.S. citizens in Kingston is the University of the West Indies (UWI) at (876) 927-1620. In Montego Bay, the Cornwall Regional Hospital (876) 952-9100 or the Montego Bay Hope Medical Center (876) 953-3649 are recommended.
For more details, see the Jamaica Crime and Safety Report published annually by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.