Do you mean in Ocho Rios? It is safe in the immediate area - to include the Taj Mahal shopping plaza and Island Village, which are just a brief walk away from the pier. The worst you will encounter are some panhandlers and taxi drivers but they are not allowed inside the above two places and I just say no thanks and keep walking when these guys approach. The port police have cleared out the zone by the pier and it is pretty much a no-man's land until you get to the main street, and by then you are just a few feet from the shopping plazas.
Montego Bay is another story. I wouldn't walk away from the pier area there.
Island Village is nice, although not especially Jamaican. That is where Margaritaville is located.
On most western carib itins there are better shopping values at other ports than you'll find in Jamaica for most items. I'm not a big fan of Jamaica, as Dave says the locals tend to hassle you more there than at any other port I've been to and I've been to most of them.
If your cruise also includes Mexico ports (Cancun or Cozumel), the touristy souvenier stuff (tshirts, costume jewelry, etc.) is normally priced better there. I don't know about liqour, I don't usually buy it at the ports. I hear they have great coffee available in Jamaica though.
To add to what Dave and Neil said, for Montego Bay, there is shoppig within the enclosed pier area that the locals are not allowed into. However, as Neil says, there are better shopping opportunities on most cruises that include Jamaica. Since the shops ARE kept from the locals, the prices are higher since they know you are only shopping there to avoid going outside. I wouldn't waste my time.
Even at the Montego Bay enclosed shopping area at the port the shop keepers wait outside for you to pass and then start yelling, and even in one case grabbed my arm to get me to go into the shop to buy something. Jamaica is not my favorite place. I will stay aboard the ship next time.
I know a couple of guys who love Jamaica. One of them owns two condos in Ocho and spends lots of time there. I just don't understand their love of the place. I guess it is different if the locals know you are a "regular". Personally I don't care to leave the ship again if it happens to stop in Jamaica. The place has no interest to me.
That is the real shame of it. The locals don't realize that they are making people not want to visit which is what helps keep them poor. Maybe its just a vicious circle. They are poor so they practically mug you trying to get you to buy crap and that makes people not want to visit which in turn makes them poor.
I agree it is a beautiful place, but I'm with Dave and Cruz... no need to get off the ship
Thanks for all your advice. The ship will be in Montego Bay. I'll pass the information to my friend. I think she was wanting to do something since she wasn't going on an excursion and didn't want to miss not doing something since this is the first cruise.
Well if she is not doing an excursion, there is a Margaritaville in Montego Bay, (maybe a mile to a mile and a half from the port) But she will need to take a taxi to get there. I'm not sure I would recommend doing that alone being female. (If she tries tell her to look for a female taxi driver.)
There is not much she can do "on her own" in Monego Bay and I would suggest that she take a ship tour (despite the cost) if she wants to see some of the island. Some of the "beach break" or catamaran tours are not very pricey and that at least gets her off the boat safely. Just make sure she can answer with a firm "No Thank You" a million times without caving. I always will remember the 60 year old man with short gray hair coming back onto the ship with cornrow braids... obviously a guy who either lost a bet, or just got tired of saying "no"