PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic -- What accounts for the rosy picture painted by tourism officials here regarding the current state of the Dominican Republic's tourism industry?
It's a combination of several factors that came into play concurrently, as I learned during the recent Dominican Annual Travel Exchange (DATE) conference here. I'm fairly sure that the story is the envy of other destinations in the Caribbean.
The Dominican Republic’s annual travel conference took place at the Bavaro Convention Center in Punta Cana May 3 to 5. Photo Credit: Gay Nagle Myers
Start with visitor figures, which topped a record 5.9 million in 2016, 6.7% ahead of 2015. "And we are aiming for 10 million by 2020," according to Radhames Martinez Aponte, vice minister of tourism.
Add in airlift. JetBlue, now the largest carrier to the D.R., serves five cities in the country with up to 36 daily flights in peak season from New York Kennedy, Boston, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and San Juan. "We carry between 2.3 million and 2.5 million passengers a year," said Elizabeth Ninomiya, JetBlue's communications manager for the Caribbean and Latin America.
So far this year, Delta Vacations' Karen Kammer, director of product development, reported a double-digit percentage increase in vacation bookings. She attributed the increase to upticks in groups and the honeymoon segments, growing interest among leisure travelers for the destination's varied offerings, the pace of hotel and resort development and the growth of many hotel brands.
"Punta Cana is our top market, and 2016 was our best year ever," she said. "We added service from Boston to Punta Cana last year, and we're very happy with the results. We are committed to the Dominican Republic and are optimistic about the pace of business, as we know it will help us better serve our travel agents and customers.
The capital city of Santo Domingo has increased its culinary offerings. It renovated the city's colonial zone. A new convention center opened in the Malecon (seafront) district, and five hotels are scheduled to open there in the next two years. The city hopes to host DATE 2018, according to Roberto Henriquez, president of the Santo Domingo Hotel Association.
The D.R. could have more than 80,000 hotel rooms by the end of the year, according to minister of tourism Francisco Javier Garcia (current inventory stands at approximately 75,000 rooms). In 2016 alone, 5,470 new rooms entered the market, most of which are in Punta Cana.
While at DATE, I attended the official ribbon-cutting ceremony that marked the grand opening of the 475-room Secrets Cap Cana, an event presided over by Dominican Republic president Danilo Medina.
He told attendees that "tourism is our country's strongest industry and an economic engine for job creation and well being."
On the trade show floor, Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers met with the president of the Dominican Republic Danillo Medina, center, and joel Santos Echavarria, president of the Hotels & Tourism Association of the Dominican Republic.
Blue Diamond Resorts is on the move in the D.R., where earlier this year it broke ground on the 730-room Royalton Bavaro in Punta Cana, slated to open next winter. At the same time, the company will debut the 168-suite, adults-only Hideaway at Royalton Punta Cana adjacent to the existing Royalton Punta Cana. "There's a lot of demand for the Royalton collection of resorts in Punta Cana," said Jordi Pelfort, managing director of Blue Diamond Resorts.
In March, AlSol Hotels & Resorts, with four properties in Cap Cana, opened Sanctuary Town, a restaurant and entertainment center resembling a Mediterranean coastal village.
Eden Roc at Cap Cana recently completed 26 two-bedroom beachfront suites, increasing the resort's overall inventory to 60 all-suite rooms.
"Our occupancy rates are very successful for the luxury segment, above 80% in the first four months of this year," said Juliana Cordones Sabala, sales and marketing manager.
(Inventory will remain at 60, according to Cordones Sabala. "If we go above 60 suites, we lose the charm of this boutique resort," she said.)
Riu Hotels & Resorts is renovating and expanding its Riu Bambu Hotel in Punta Cana with three new restaurants, a teens' club and another pool with a swim-up bar.
A new guestroom wing will open this winter at the Riu Republica in Punta Cana.
In looking at the rise in visitor numbers, airlift and hotel development and investment, vice tourism minister Aponte pointed out that the human factor is one of the D.R.'s strongest assets.
"The innate friendliness of our people is one of our greatest strengths, but we do not take this for granted," he said. "We believe in the importance of ongoing training and education for those in the hospitality sector. These are the people who are the stewards and the ambassadors of our tourism product."