Caribbean Dominican Republic tops in Caribbean tourism, and growing By Gay Nagle Myers / May 21, 2014 Share 1 -- Read more• All-inclusives a big enticement for visitors, agents say• America's favorite pastime is a big hit in the D.R., as well There's no mystery about the popularity of the Dominican Republic, the undisputed king of Caribbean tourism and the region's most visited country last year. For starters, its hotel stock stands well above 60,000 rooms in all categories, from budget properties to over-the-top resorts, with more than 2,467 rooms in development by established brands and new arrivals; its seven international airports serve major carriers from numerous gateways in the U.S. and abroad; its topography includes 16 national parks, lush forests and 1,000 miles of beaches; and its 28 golf courses carry designer names and serve as venues for top-rated tournaments. The D.R. has merengue music, more than 40 brands of cigars, smooth rums, amber that can be purchased as souvenirs and ogled in a museums in Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata, top-rated museums, coffee grown from beans in lush mountain regions, indigenous settlements, baseball and a capital city with the first cathedral in the Americas and the newest (and only) subway system in the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic occupies two-thirds of the land mass that makes up the island of Hispaniola, with Haiti occupying the western third of the island. One island is home to two very different countries. Hispaniola, the name given by Christopher Columbus in 1492, is the second-largest island in the Caribbean after Cuba and the most populated island in the Western Hemisphere. It lies southeast of Cuba, west of Puerto Rico near the top of the Lesser Antilles island chain, which curves like a pearl necklace south to Trinidad and Tobago. Haiti, perhaps the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and still struggling to recover from the earthquake that devastated it in January 2010, is slowly making inroads into tourism as it begins to attract some major hotel brands, including Marriott, Best Western, Hilton and Occidental. JetBlue, Delta and American serve Haiti's Toussaint Louvertre Airport in Port-au-Prince from U.S. gateways. Air arrivals in Haiti topped 300,000 in 2013, according to figures from the Caribbean Tourism Organization, and cruise passengers totaled 643,000 last year, the bulk of them disembarking at Labadee, the private resort port in the north that is leased to Royal Caribbean International. But venture east into the Dominican Republic and it's a far different picture. The D.R. welcomed 4.7 million tourists in 2013, trailed by Cuba with 2.8 million visitors and Jamaica with 2 million. It outpaced all islands in the region, continuing an upward trend of several years. D.R. Tourism Minister Francisco Javier Garcia called 2013 "an extraordinary year," adding, "Our visitor numbers grew by 3.6% over 2012, compared with the entire Caribbean region, which grew by only 1%." Year-round, hotel occupancy averaged 87.3%, "one of the highest rates in recent years," according to Garcia. He attributed the high occupancy in part to the recovery of the European economy, especially the German market, which registered a 16% growth in arrivals in 2013. The country has set a target of 10 million annual visitors within the decade, and Garcia predicted an 8% growth in total arrivals by the end of 2014. That prediction could well be met. Tourist arrivals for the first two months of this year were 6% above visitor numbers for the same period in 2012. The U.S. represented the largest source market at 1.6 million visitors, up 9% over 2012, followed by Canada's 685,000 visitors. The North American market generated 56% of all tourists arriving in the D.R. Luis Emilio Rodriguez, president of the D.R.'s National Hotel & Tourism Association (Asonahores), said, "Tourism in the Dominican Republic is at its best moment." At the recent Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange trade event in Punta Cana, he highlighted a tax incentive law that provides a 15-year exemption to companies engaged in tourism development, including hotels, attractions and tourist-related activities. The law also offers tax incentives to existing hotels and resorts that have been in operation for at least five years. A 100% tax exemption is available to existing hotels and resorts that are at least 15 years old and remodel or reconstruct more than 50% of their facilities. "Santo Domingo will be at the top level of Latin American cities in a few short years," Garcia predicted, referring to the major urban renewal project underway within Colonial City, the historic central neighborhood of Santo Domingo and the oldest permanent European settlement of the New World. Part of the growth is the result of significant investments in the country's infrastructure. Santo Domingo now can be reached from Punta Cana in a two-hour drive, thanks to a new highway linking the D.R.'s two most important destinations. The bulk of tourists fly into the east coast beach destinations. As of March, the Punta Cana Airport, the second-busiest in the Caribbean (San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin is No. 1), was reporting a 13% increase in travelers since January. Close to 65% of all visitors arrive via that airport, which handled 2.5 million visitors last year. On the north coast, Puerto Plata has taken steps to identify new cultural attractions and make them available to tourists. Among them will be cruise visitors who will disembark at Carnival Cruise Lines' new $65 million Amber Cove Cruise Center along the Bay of Maimon near Puerto Plata when it opens in 2015. The Santiago bypass, another road project, has cut driving time from Santo Domingo to Puerto Plata by 30 minutes, and work soon will begin on a new connection, shortening the trip even more. "The country is headed in the right direction. There is more work to do, but work is underway," Garcia said. The 2014 marketing campaign, "Dominican Republic Has It All," trumpets the country's tourist centers on the east coast, primarily Punta Cana, and highlights roads less traveled in the interior and along the south coast, west of the capital. Magaly Toribo, marketing adviser to the Ministry of Tourism, described the D.R. as "a diverse destination that prides itself on offering unforgettable trips to travelers of varying interests. The campaign entices first-time visitors as well as return customers to visit a new area of the country, as each region provides an experience like no other." Aside from the marketing spin, a number of benefits are cited for the success of the D.R. as a revenue producer and for the high level of customer satisfaction voiced by tour operators, hoteliers and agents. For Jack Richards, president and CEO of Pleasant Holidays, the Dominican Republic "is an amazing tropical paradise that offers everything travelers want in an idyllic island vacation: beautiful beaches; exciting watersports; gourmet dining; active nightlife; and luxurious, yet affordable hotels that are destinations in themselves." The D.R. also is accessible. A recent expansion at the privately owned Punta Cana Airport has enabled greater airlift, and improved roadways "make getting to the resort areas a breeze," Richards said. The Dominican Republic has been Pleasant Holidays' most popular Caribbean destination in terms of revenue and number of passengers for two years in a row. "We continue to see significant growth in bookings," Richards said. "Significant improvements to the country's infrastructure resonate well with travelers. The destination is large, offering many yet-to-be-discovered regions that could benefit from further development," he said. The D.R. is also No. 1 in activity options, especially golf. The country offers an impressive choice of challenging courses designed by the biggest names in course architecture. Richards cited Casa de Campo's three championship courses designed by Pete Dye, including the infamous Teeth of the Dog, whose coast-hugging greens are as visually stunning as they are difficult. But visitors certainly don't have to play golf to love the destination. What makes the D.R. such a standout among Caribbean islands is that it's a destination for everyone, whatever their interests, ages or budgets. "Our portfolio has properties to suit all travelers' needs," Richards said, "from five-star spa resorts to adults-only properties and all-inclusives that are perfect for destination weddings and romance vacations as well as offering comfortable three-star hotels ideal for families." The company continues to expand its Punta Cana portfolio with the recent additions of Breathless Punta Cana, Sivory Punta Cana Boutique Hotel and the Westin Puntacana Resort & Club. Journese, Pleasant Holidays' luxury brand, added Eden Roc at Cap Cana. AMResorts currently has seven properties in the D.R., including Breathless Punta Cana Resort & Spa, the first resort in its newest brand. AMResorts President Gonzalo del Peon called the D.R. "a key destination for us." "With the addition of this resort, travel agents have five different AMResorts brands in the Dominican Republic to offer their clients," del Peon said. "We are committed to exploring additional expansion opportunities. Our partners have always felt that the country provides a strong investment opportunity, and our guests love its beaches and diverse geography." Jeff Mullen, president of Apple Vacations, claimed that Apple "does more volume to the Dominican Republic than any operator in the world, with 850 Exclusive Vacation Flights per year, including service to La Romana and Samana." Apple's business to the D.R. continues to grow at a rate of up to 14%, year over year. The reason, said Mullen, is that "the destination offers exceptional value with an increasing number of options for affordable luxury." In addition, Expedia reports that the Dominican Republic is its top market in the Caribbean and that Punta Cana is tops among all destinations in the region. Expedia's demand for the D.R. grew 33% in 2013, with the leading source markets continuing to be the U.S., Canada, France, Brazil, Italy and the U.K, according to Expedia's Demetrius Canton, director of market management in the Caribbean. "The growth achieved last year in the D.R. is a testament to Expedia's commitment to working closely with valued lodging partners in the region," Canton said. Follow Gay Nagle Myers on Twitter @gnmtravelweekly. Trip tips• Try kiteboarding at Cabarete and whitewater rafting on the Rio Yaque. • Dig into a platter of sancocho, the national dish of rice and pigeon peas. • Visit the Amber Museum in Puerto Plata or Santo Domingo. • Sip a glass of Bermudez Don Armando rum or head to a local supermercado to buy a bottle to bring home. • U.S. visitors arriving by air need to purchase a tourist card upon entry for $10. Lines can be long, but the card can be obtained in advance online at www.dgii.gov.do/Tturistaweb.• When planning a travel to the D.R., visit the country's official website: www.godominicanrepublic.com.