As evidence mounted last week that travelers were opting to avoid the Dominican Republic and go elsewhere in the Caribbean, the industry continued to feel the impact of at least nine highly publicized tourist deaths on the island so far this year.
At the same time, reports in the consumer media are increasingly focusing on data indicating that the Dominican Republic is not an unsafe destination, a trend that suggests that the country's tourism industry will recover.
The Dominican Republic has been under scrutiny for the past month as multiple media outlets have highlighted tourist deaths at resorts there.
Travel advisors are feeling the effects.
An ASTA survey of some 300 agents found that nearly 60% said clients are canceling or postponing trips to the Dominican Republic. Eighty-seven percent said their clients were either "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about traveling there.
Francisco Javier Garcia, the Dominican Republic's minister of tourism, has maintained that the country is safe. His last statement, issued June 22, asserted, "We have unequivocally shown that there is not an avalanche of deaths of American tourists in the country, and it is not true that there are mysterious deaths."
A U.S. State Department official said that of the U.S. citizens who travel to the Dominican Republic every year, the "overwhelming majority travel without incident." The department is monitoring the ongoing investigations of the tourist deaths, the official said.
The department publishes statistics on the number of U.S. citizens who die of unnatural causes while abroad each year but does not release data on how many die of natural causes abroad (at least some of the recent Dominican Republic deaths have been attributed to natural causes). The official did say, though, that "speaking generally, we have not seen an uptick in the number of U.S. citizen deaths reported to the department."
State Department data reveals that in the past five years, 97 tourists have died of unnatural causes in the Dominican Republic. Thirteen of those deaths occurred in 2018, which was the lowest number of tourist deaths in the past five years. The highest was 30 in 2015. The most common causes of death were vehicle accidents, drownings and homicides.
According to the Caribbean Tourism Organization, 2.2 million Americans visited the Dominican Republic in 2018, up 7.9% from the prior year. It is the most popular destination in the Caribbean for U.S. travelers, followed by Jamaica, which saw 1.6 million U.S. visitors in 2018, up 7.8%.
While Jamaica has fewer American visitors than the Dominican Republic, the number dying of unnatural causes there in the past five years is nearly the same: 98. On the high end, 27 died in 2016, while 2014 saw the fewest, at 13. Last year, 17 died of unnatural causes, according to the State Department. Again, drownings, homicides and traffic accidents were the most common causes.
Travelers shy away from D.R.
The news of tourist deaths does appear to be affecting travelers' plans. ARC last week found that from June 1 to 23, airline ticket purchases in the U.S. for travel to the Dominican Republic decreased 10% year over year, and refunds for air ticket purchases soared 127% in the first half of 2019.
Similarly, ForwardKeys reported that from June 1 to 19, bookings for July and August flights from the U.S. to the Dominican Republic fell 74.3% year over year, while cancellations increased 51.2%.
However, bookings to other destinations in the Caribbean are on the uptick. ForwardKeys pointed to Jamaica, the Bahamas and Aruba as examples. ARC said St. Maarten, St. Barts, St. Vincent, St. Lucia and the Bahamas have seen the most significant increases.
As of last week, both Delta and JetBlue were enabling customers to change or cancel Dominican Republic flights for free.
Packagers are also reporting dips in travel to the Dominican Republic.
While Delta Vacations said most of its customers with upcoming plans to visit the Dominican Republic aren't changing those plans, those who are choosing to can change destinations without change fees.
Apple Vacations, on the other hand, has seen "steep cancellations" of trips to the Dominican Republic and has put special change and cancellation policies in place through July 5. The company expressed the hope that with more positive stories in the consumer media, the situation would soon reverse. There have been several more positive articles, including an NBC News article headlined "No, the Dominican Republic hasn't suddenly become more dangerous."
In a statement, Apple said, "We are encouraged that recent media coverage has started to present a more accurate, data-oriented picture, noting that the number of traveler issues in the Dominican Republic is not unusual given the number of tourists and is actually well below many other areas, including some in the U.S., like Las Vegas, that are considered safe."
Robert Silk contributed to this report.