This article provides a critical realist perspective on the juncture between tourism and crime in a city in Far Northern Queensland, Australia. The results of empirical studies into alcohol-related assault and sexual assault are presented and a micro-level study of the responses of the public safety community to assaults involving backpacker tourists in Cairns is reported. Backpacker motivations and values, the hidden sensitivities of tourism stakeholders to the projection of negative destination images, and the turn to a crime prevention framework are found as enduring tendencies in the data. Retroduction is applied to derive underlying mechanisms that offer an explanation of the public safety network responses in Cairns to assaults involving backpacker tourists. The mechanisms are 'un-reconciled tensions', 'acquiescence of transgression', and 'collusion of denial'. We summarize our realist explanations and consider their implications for other backpacker contexts. © 2013 Elsevier Ltd.