Dominican Republic looks to make its mark in luxury market

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PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic -- At last months Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange, news centered around infrastructure improvements taking place on the island and a bulging room count.

The Dominican Republic has 61,000 hotel rooms. By the end of 2006, it will have 65,000. Many of the new rooms will be at luxury resorts.

One of the newcomers, Paradisus Palma Real, hosted DATE in conjunction with its grand opening. The 554-suite resort is the flagship of Sol Melias luxury, all-inclusive brand. Paradisus Palma Real has 12,447 square feet of meetings space and seven restaurants.

But destined to lead the pack in size and grandeur in the D.R. is 30,000-acre Cap Cana, which is under development south of Punta Cana and is scheduled to be completed this year. The $1.5 billion development runs along 3.5 miles of beach and includes golf courses, condominiums, villages, a marina, residences and several hotels.

Closest to completion at Cap Cana is Villas Caleton, where several of the thatched-roof cottages are already available for rent. A clubhouse with restaurant and pool serves cottage guests and golfers playing the surrounding course.

Jack Nicklaus designed another of the developments golf courses and also lent his nickname to the lodge that will adjoin it: the Golden Bear Lodge.

In the boutique market is Tortuga Bay Hotel, a private enclave of 15 villas that opened on Dec. 15 and is nestled within the Punta Cana Resort & Club. The hotels decor was supervised by fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, who resides nearby.

Marinas are making their mark on new developments here, as well. There are four full-service marinas in the D.R., and work is in progress on eight more.

Ocean World Marina, located at Cofresi in the Puerto Plata area, opened when only 80% completed because of high demand. It has 83 wet slips and port-of-entry facilities.

The popular Casa de Campo Marina and Yacht Club recently expanded to 350 slips, with 167 of those devoted to large yachts. It also added 10 stores, a restaurant and a piano bar.

When Cap Canas marina village is completed, it will house more than 500 boats and a shopping complex of luxury boutiques, with guests ferried to and from yachts by Venice-style vaporettos, or water taxis.

Referring to the islands upscale tourism trend, D.R. Vice Minister of Tourism Magaly Toribio advised DATE attendees that more work is necessary in terms of personnel training and infrastructure development before high-end products can be marketed fully. Meanwhile, tourism officials plan to launch a modest promotional campaign in cooperation with the private sector.

Tourism Minister Felix Jimenez stressed that despite the growth of the luxury segment in the D.R., the island will continue to pursue travelers of various means.

Although we see the luxury market as a positive development, we still consider our destination as having something for everyone, he said. Much like the airlines, we have first class, business class and coach.

The D.R. welcomed 3.7 million stayover visitors in 2005, an increase of 7% over 2004. One million of those visitors were from the U.S., an 8% increase.

We expect a 15% increase from the U.S. for all of 2006 because of better [airlift], Toribio said. Tour operators here at DATE tell us the new Delta service from Atlanta to Punta Cana and Santo Domingo has already increased their business. They predict a 25% to 30% sales growth based on their first three months this year.

Toribio said she and her colleagues are pursuing even more airlift out of the U.S.

Jimenez gave attendees an overview of the islands recent tourism development. He said that the D.R.s bread and butter has always been budget-conscious tourists and all-inclusive resorts. Now, the tendency is shifting to a higher standard of quality, with investments of more than $200,000 per hotel room.

To keep pace, a vast road-building effort is under way in two regions. Punta Cana is gaining a four-lane boulevard running 40 miles along the coast, linking communities without driving through them.

The so-called Coral Corridor is the second such arterial undertaking, designed to cut driving times considerably between Santo Domingo and the La Romana-Punta Cana area.

The road will enable visitors to enjoy the coastal beaches and Santo Domingo in one vacation.

Within three years, 20 golf courses -- 19 by the sea and all by renowned course designers -- will occupy this stretch.

The Dominican government spends a fifth of its annual budget on tourism-related expenses, according to Jimenez.

This forced the government to change its attitude toward economic development. In this year alone, we were originally given $22 million for tourism, and the president last month added $5 million, allowing us to spend $27 million in advertising and promotion. This is an acknowledgement by the government of the importance of tourism to the Dominican Republic.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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