The Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic has been dealing with vacation cancellations and other fallout
from the deaths of several tourists under unusual circumstances, but the Caribbean destination still remains popular with U.S. travelers, with Punta Cana alone ranking 7th among the top international travel destinations for Americans, according to a new report from AAA Travel.
Concerns that some visitor deaths might be linked to pesticide use or adulterated food and drink has led the country’s tourism ministry to launch an investigation, step up food inspections, and require that emergency contact information be posted in every hotel room. A multilingual emergency center to serve tourists also has been established in the Bavaro beach resort area of Punta Cana.
A toxicology report on three of the most suspicious cases, released by the FBI in October, ruled out alcohol poisoning in the deaths. The U.S. State Department later issued a statement saying that the FBI report was “consistent with the findings of local authorities,” who found no evidence of foul play in the tourist deaths.
Reports over the summer that 10 American tourists had died in a 12-month span has had an undeniable short-term impact on U.S. travel to the Dominican Republic, with an analysis by the flight-tracking firm ForwardKeys finding that air bookings to the country fell more than 74 percent in July/August 2019 — the peak period of media coverage of the deaths — compared to the same period in 2019.
The drop-off came shortly after Dominican Republic officials had announced a 6.2 percent annual increase in tourist visits in 2018. For the period of January to August 2019, by contrast, tourist arrivals ended up basically flat, according to the Tourism Flow Report from the Dominican Central Bank, despite the fact that the same report found a 4 percent rise in arrivals between January and June of this year.
The trend continued into September, when total arrivals increased just 0.1 percent from the same month in 2018, after rising 5.9 percent year-over-year between 2017 and 2018.
Still, flat isn’t falling, and Tourism Minister Francisco Javier García said that the full impact of the controversy — which U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic Robin Bernstein called an “unfounded negative campaign” — won’t be known until final figures are in for the full year.
“June and July were abnormal months because they were affected by information that was taken out of context,” said GarcÌa.
Deputy Minister of Tourism Fausto Fernández told reporters in September that tourism generated more than $4 billion for the Dominican Republic’s economy in August. “We continue to receive the support of all the tour operators and travel agents who still sell the Dominican Republic no matter what the situation, and we are growing,” he said.
Investing in the future
The bad press — which Dominican Republic tourism officials say was unwarranted, even while expressing sympathy for the victims —may have made some American tourists think twice about booking a trip to the island nation. But it hasn’t done much to dent tourism investment, including by American hotel companies.
The Hilton La Romana, for example, opened in August 2019, debuting the adults-only section of the all-inclusive resort ahead of a family friendly enclave opening on Dec. 1. Playa Resorts, which operates the Hilton resorts announced that the Hilton La Romana Family Resort will debut in December 2020. The Hyatt Zilara Cap Cana and the Hyatt Ziva Cap Cana, opening in November, will also offer both adult-only and family-friendly accommodations. And the luxury, 345-room Live Aqua Beach Resort Punta Cana, announced in September, will open in March 2020.
Palace Resorts also announced in July that it would make a major expansion to its forthcoming Moon Palace Punta Cana resort, adding 1,200 more rooms to the planned hotel for a total of 2,150 rooms. The resort, scheduled to open in 2020, will have 20 restaurants; 9 bars; 7 swimming pools and a water park, a Greg Norman Eco Signature Design Golf Course, and a spa, casino, and convention center.
“The Dominican Republic is a safe tourist destination and will continue growing and developing; therefore, Palace Resorts will confidently continue investing in its tourist sector,” said Gibran Chapur, executive vice president of Palace Resorts. Chapur said he felt “no concern whatsoever” regarding the recent safety issues, seeing them “more as a circumstantial situation resulting from the high-volume tourist influx that the country has welcomed in recent years.”