Dominican Republic Tourism Hasn't Seen a Hit Over Safety Fears, Travel Industry Experts Say - NBC Chicago
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Dominican Republic Tourism Hasn't Seen a Hit Over Safety Fears, Travel Industry Experts Say

After the recent deaths of several U.S. citizens in the Caribbean country have made headlines internationally, its tourism industry fights to keep thriving

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    Dominican Republic Tourists Concerned After Recent Deaths

    American tourists in the Dominican Republic say they have concerns after recent deaths at a resort. Alberto Pimienta reports. (Published Monday, June 24, 2019)

    The recent deaths of several tourists in the Dominican Republic and the shooting of former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz have raised safety concerns among those planning to visit the island.

    But fallout to the country’s heavy tourism sector so far hasn't led to a slew of canceled trips, according to some industry experts. And a snapshot of the overall impact on tourism in the Dominican Republic won't be clear until the government issues its next report in the fall. 

    Local government authorities have promised they’re working with U.S. authorities to investigate the recent deaths of four U.S. tourists in a resort in La Romana and in Punta Cana, while saying the cases are “unrelated and isolated.”

    But tourism officials are otherwise remaining tight-lipped about the impact of those cases on the country's image abroad. The Ministry of Tourism, contacted several times for a comment on how visits to the island have been affected, said it is not giving interviews "until the investigations conclude." 

    On Wednesday, the tourism ministry released a statement saying, “the FBI is conducting a deeper toxicology analysis and results might take up to 30 days.” 

    In the meantime, Tourism Minister Francisco Javier García last week ordered hotels to install surveillance cameras within 60 days, in a step to make the Dominican Republic safer, he said.

    The measures also follow the beating of a Delaware woman in a Punta Cana resort back in January that made international headlines. She decided to share her experience on Facebook "in the hopes women will be more aware" and prevent what happened to her.

    While some have turned to social media to express their concerns and announce their intentions to cancel their future trips to the country, industry data hasn't shown a shift yet. 

    Online travel insurance companies, like Allianz, which serves 35 million travelers every year, and TravelGuard, are not seeing trip cancellations to the island.

    “While we haven’t received any claims from consumers who want to cancel their trips to the DR, we have received a handful of questions on our social media pages from people who have questions about how travel insurance can help them on their trips,” Daniel Durazo, Allianz’s director of marketing and communications told NBC. 

    A spokesperson from the Wisconsin-based insurance TravelGuard said "we have not noted any inquiries regarding trip cancellation inquiries for DR either."

    Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com, a website for consumers to search, compare and purchase travel insurance, said he's aware of only one family who, on Tuesday, canceled their July trip to the DR "as a result of the news stories coming out."

    Still, through Thursday afternoon, TravelInsurance.com is "pacing to almost double the number of policies sold in June versus the average of the prior three months with DR listed as primary destination," Sandberg said. That's an indicator that interest remains strong. 

    And the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, which represents 30 hotels in the Dominican Republic as well as the country's national hotels association, hasn’t received information about a spike in trip cancellations.

    “We have not seen any impact on travel to the region in recent weeks. The Caribbean is on track in 2019 to experience the highest number of visitors on record,” the organization said in a statement.

    The association said about 30 million people visit the Caribbean annually. From that figure, the Ministry of Tourism in the Dominican Republic claims an average of 6 million people visiting a year.

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    Last year, the Dominican Republic's booming tourism industry grossed $7.6 billion, accounting for more than 17% of its economy, according to the Ministry of Tourism. Americans have much to do with the figure. Of the 6.6 million tourists the Dominican Republic received last year, 2 million flew there from the U.S., who visited particularly during the winter, according to the government agency.

    This week, the Ministry of Tourism cited a report from its central bank that said  99% of U.S. tourists they surveyed said they’d return to the island for vacation.

    Some tourists interviewed by NBC Washington and Telemundo44 last week in Santo Domingo agreed with that assessment. But one woman said she was worried about visiting La Romana with kids and another said she was reconsidering drinking alcohol there. 

    Local business owner Bienvenido Torres said he didn't anticipate a drop in business.   

    “I’m not scared tourists will not come to my store,” Torres said.

    Fear among less experienced travelers is expected, according to Mark Murphy, travel expert and CEO of travAlliancemedia. For Murphy, the problem is that all these recent events, including Ortiz's shooting at a Santo Domingo nightclub, are being unfairly linked. “Everything is conflated," he said.

    That fear might be reflected in flight searches to the country. Kayak, a metasearch travel website that processes over two billion travel queries yearly, said that searches were "trending downward" since last week for flights from the U.S. to the Dominican Republic.

    "Each day for the week of June 4 to June 10, we've seen more than a 12% drop in flight searches when compared to the week prior with the largest drop occurring on Thursday, June 6, when it went down 22%," Kayak said.

    Yet, the summer marks the Dominican Republic's lowest tourism season, which means it may be too soon to say how travel is affected by winter.

    “People who decide to cancel are mostly not travel-experienced," Murphy said. "Someone who has traveled and has visited the DR will probably come again.” 

    Of the two million Americans who visited the Dominican Republic last year, the State Department reported 13 deaths. There were three homicides on the list, just below vehicle accidents and drownings. 

    Since April 15 of this year, the country has been ranked the second lowest safety concern out of four levels on the State Department's trip advisory list. The warning to "exercise increased caution due to crime" is below other categories that warn travelers to reconsider or cancel trips.   

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    “Violent crime, including armed robbery, homicide and sexual assault is a concern throughout the Dominican Republic,” says the advisory. The State Department also recommends tourists be aware of their surroundings and not display signs of wealth, like jewelry.

    For Murphy with travAlliancemedia, the advice “comes down to two words, common sense,” since “these are things you should consider everywhere you go, including home."