Early last month, representatives of the Palladium Hotel Group invited me to check out a few of their properties in the Dominican Republic. It was about a month after reports began to surface that several U.S. tourists had died at resorts around the country, under what some media outlets characterized as mysterious circumstances.
"We would love to help shed a positive light on the destination," said the email from the Palladium rep.
Although none of the reported deaths occurred at Palladium properties, it was pretty clear why the Spain-based resort operator and the Dominican Republic's tourism industry in general might be in need of a little positivity: In the weeks following those initial reports, air bookings to the country plummeted as concerned clients were canceling their D.R. vacations.
But it didn't take long before the first signs of recovery began to surface: Around the time Palladium's invite reached my inbox, ForwardKeys reported that air bookings were down 72.5% from June 26 to July 2 -- not good news by any means but a clear improvement over the 143% decline in bookings from the previous week.
By the first week of August, when my Palladium media trip took place, the coverage had subsided somewhat, and I wondered how heavily the specter of those tourist tragedies might still weigh on visitors, or on resort staff.
My morning flight from Newark to Punta Cana was about two-thirds full; that left far more space in the overhead bins than I've seen lately, but the cabin didn't feel empty, either. The customs and immigration lines were short but not unusually so; I had certainly breezed through those lines on past Punta Cana trips. The usual chaos of persistent cabbies and overwhelmed tourists prevailed at the pickup area.
We spent two nights at Palladium's TRS Turquesa Hotel in Punta Cana. Again, nothing unusual to report here. Perhaps Palladium's international mix of clientele benefited this 372-room property's occupancy levels (menus were in English, French, German, Russian and Spanish). Also, the fact that it's part of a complex that also includes the Grand Palladium Bavaro Suites Resort & Spa, Grand Palladium Palace Resort Spa & Casino and Grand Palladium Punta Cana Resort & Spa means that the properties' shared facilities were drawing from a much larger guest pool.
Regardless, the hotel seemed fairly bustling. Restaurant tables were filled, poolside chairs were occupied and bartenders were kept busy pouring beer and mixing cocktails.
We also spent a night at the 115-room TRS Cap Cana Hotel, about a half-hour south, and this property was undeniably quiet. At midafternoon, I spotted a handful of guests seated at one of the hotel's pools, but their conversations were more than drowned out by the reggae being played on the P.A. In the evening, my group ate dinner at Izakaya, the property's Japanese venue, and there were only a couple of other diners.
Sargassum chokes the shore line of the TRS Cap Cana. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya
In fact, the area where I probably saw the most activity was the property's beach and marina, but it wasn't because of guests. Rather, it was staffers faced with the Sisyphean task of managing sargassum. A small earthmover and a few shovels weren't nearly enough to clear out the brown seaweed that choked the resort's shores and guests' nostrils and rendered the property's beach all but off limits.
Of course, the sargassum problem isn't unique to the Dominican Republic, but its timing is undoubtedly another setback amid an already challenging situation.
I wondered what sort of effect the double whammy of low occupancy and sargassum might be having on the morale of the TRS Cap Cana's staff. But I can't say I noticed anything that I would consider a lapse in service. My spacious suite was tidy upon check-in, and bartenders and servers were friendly and attentive.
Faced with circumstances beyond their control, it seems that for the employees of Palladium, positivity is the way forward.