SAN JUAN -- That the Dominican Republic is a hot destination these days was made abundantly clear at the Caribbean Hotel Association's (CHA) Caribbean Marketplace 2003, held here last month.

Rafael Subveri Bonilla, minister of tourism for the Dominican Republic, manned the destination's booth on the trade show floor.

He held numerous appointments with suppliers, negotiating additional charter airlift into the country for this summer and fall as well as for the next winter season.

Bonilla reported that the level of activity at the booth confirmed that "more travelers want to visit the destination than there is airlift available. We have seen a surge of interest in recent months, and the activity at this conference speaks volumes."

The minister said that additional charter flights had been signed from U.S. gateways including Cleveland; Detroit; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Miami; and New York as well as from San Juan to Punta Cana, Puerto Plata and other resort areas.

In between appointments, Bonilla announced that the Dominican Republic soon will launch a $20 million advertising and promotional campaign in the U.S., targeting a variety of markets.

"This will be an aggressive campaign," he said. "It will join the public and private sectors in a cooperative venture so we can capitalize on our upward trend in tourism."

Close to $12 million also has been allocated for a similar program in Europe, primarily in England and France.

Bonilla said that the campaign "will focus on niche markets, such as weddings, golf, culture and history, adventure sports and meetings."

One thrust will target the destination's arts, crafts and indigenous products.

"We want the Dominican Republic to become a focal point for shopping with commercial duty-free zones in various hotels, ports and cities so our visitors can benefit from tax-free purchases," Bonilla said.

The minister, who thanked the tour operators "who have believed in us," said that "there is still a lot to be done" in the Dominican Republic, referring specifically to programs to sustain beaches and "freshen the faces of some resort areas."

Upcoming developments include a new homeport area at Puerto Plata with a convention center, golf course, 400-slip marina and a dolphin park.

Hans Dannenberg Castellanos, executive director of the Puerto Plata Hotel Association, said he was pleased "with the recuperation of the Dominican Republic in the travel arena."

Two more international airports soon will open in the Dominican Republic, bringing the total airport count to nine.

Castellanos said the CHA will host its annual industry conference in Punta Cana in June.

"This is an excellent opportunity for us to showcase not only Punta Cana but also the destination as a whole," he said.

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