As dry as statistics are, they do tell a
story. Case in point: The visitor figures for the Dominican
Republic from January through June are up 8.1% over the same period
from a year ago, to 1.7 million tourists. From boutique retreats to
megaresorts, the pace of construction in the Dominican Republic
appears to match the occupancy figures of its hotels. Yet, who
benefits from all this -- besides the hoteliers -- and what is
tourisms impact on the islands 8.8 million residents?
To find out,
Travel Weeklys Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers and senior editor
Ken Kiesnoski sat down with two experts on two sides of the tourism
fence: Frank Rainieri, president and CEO of Grupo Punta Cana and a
tourism pioneer in the Dominican Republic; and Greg Thorne,
president of Inter Island Tours, which accounts for at least 12,000
visitors per year to the D.R.
Weekly:Where is tourism headed in the D. R., which is
still a developing nation with the inherent problems that come with
emerging destinations? What are the tourism
Rainieri: For many years, the D.R. was
practically unknown to the U.S. market. The Europeans discovered us
in the early 1990s, but it was just recently that the American
market discovered us as a safe, close place with beautiful beaches
and warm people.
Why? Security and
location. Americans look at Dominicans and they recognize the faces
of baseball player Sammy Sosa and designer Oscar de la
Renta. Were also only two hours from
Miami, three from New York and four from Chicago. Our hotels are
new facilities built to American standards of comfort. We have
20,600 rooms in Punta Cana, and 80% have been built in the last 10
Thorne: The D.R. is a resort- driven
destination, unlike St. Thomas, where visitors stay at resorts but
tour the island and shop in its stores. Thats the challenge,
especially for the U.S. market. U.S. travelers like to spend money
on vacation, and they want to bring home more than T-shirts. Its
hard to do that in the D.R. There are no big shopping areas near
There is poverty
in the D.R., and there are two distinct classes. As a destination,
the hotels encourage guests to stay within the complex. The
off-site excursions are well-organized and keep the guests happy,
but whats missing is the segment that allows visitors to explore on
their own. Very few visitors, for example, rent cars.
The D.R. pushes all other
destinations. Its an impulse market that travelers can visit on a
whim very easily from major U.S. gateways.
TW:The D.R. is lacking a bit on the
infrastructure front. For example, blackouts are frequent and some
roads are not up to par. Is tourism in the D.R. hampered by a
Rainieri: The problems with electricity
are in the cities. The tourist destinations -- Puerto Plata, Punta
Cana, La Romana, etc. -- have their own utility companies, so there
are no water or electric shortages in the resort areas.
TW:The D.R. is known as being less
expensive than other destinations. As it grows, will increased
costs erode its pricing advantage?
Thorne: Other islands will never be able
to follow the price levels offered in the D.R. All-inclusive
packages fly off the hook here, and I cant get enough of them fast
We do business
with 26 resorts in Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, Juan Dolio-Boca Chica
and La Romana. All these resort areas have a great future, provided
nothing drastic changes. Their room rates remain pretty much the
same from year to year because price really is the driving force
Wages for hotel
workers are modest, and that helps maintain the price point. And
the airline industry likes the D.R. We can fill those
Rainieri: I dont think we should talk
about less expensive. Instead, its about better value for the
money. Its not what it costs but what a visitor gets for the
For example, the
winter rate at the Punta Cana Resort and Club is $240 per night,
double, with breakfast and dinner. On other islands, you cant get a
room for that price, yet our rooms are better and bigger and our
guests are more pampered.
TW:How does tourism benefit the local
Rainieri: We have grown in 15 years from
generating less than 5% of the foreign exchange to 50% today, with
Punta Cana alone accounting for 27% of the total. But most
importantly, in the region around Punta Cana, there is no
We have the
highest per capita income in the D.R. This area already is booming,
and by 2010 -- when we will have more than 30,000 rooms -- we will
provide some 50% more income.
TW:Do you find that Dominicans
welcome and appreciate tourists from abroad?
Thorne: The Dominicans are very
hospitable. They are good workers, but staffing is hard. They have
to bring in staff from other parts of the island. Good employees
are in demand.
Rainieri: The hotel associations and
others in the private sector in Puerto Plata and Punta Cana work
with local people to train them and help them understand the
benefits of the tourism industry.
TW:The D.R. has a new president,
Leonel Fernandez. Has the government been a partner for your
industry historically, and what are your hopes for the new
Rainieri: New government, old government
-- none has been my partner. In the 35 years Ive been in Punta
Cana, total government investment in the area has been $5 million.
Everything thats been developed here, from water companies to the
hotel plant, has been built by the private sector.
But for the first
time we have a president who understands that the only industry in
which the D.R. has proved it can effectively compete is tourism.
And that must be one of the key elements of development.
The new tourism
minister, Feliz Jimenez, previously served from 1996 to 2000. He
returns with more knowledge of the industry. Were working together
on a four-year tourism agenda.
Thorne: Jimenez is not coming in with
blinders on. He is one of the better choices for the tourism post,
and he has travel in his blood.
TW:What roles do ecotourism and
environmental preservation play in the development of the D.R.s
Thorne: I would like to see ecotourism and
the environment on the national level. Its up to each hotel to put
these policies into practice.
Rainieri: If we dont protect our most
important assets -- sea, sand and sun -- well lose the Caribbean.
Its common sense and good business practice.
reporters Gay Nagle Myers or Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail togmy[email protected]or [email protected].