Island republic treats guests right

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PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic -- Not even war, disease scares, terrorism threats and a bad economy -- conspiring on a global scale -- can keep a good island down.

At least when that island -- or half of one -- is the Dominican Republic, concluded many delegates to the Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange 2003 (DATE) trade show here.

Held at the Barcelo Bavaro Convention Center outside Punta Cana from April 10 to 12, DATE 2003 attracted more than 200 representatives from 60 travel providers from the Americas and Europe.

The delegates -- some 70% of whom hailed from the U.S. and Canada -- hobnobbed and struck deals with representatives from some 55 local hoteliers and other suppliers; the Dominican National Hotel and Restaurant Association (Asonahores) reported 285,000 new bookings by local hoteliers.

That brisk business confirmed what many attendees already knew: The Dominican Republic has become a star performer in the Caribbean.

For example, Gogo Worldwide Vacations has seen bookings to Punta Cana jump 80% and those to Puerto Plata rise 50% for the first two quarters of this year compared with 2002, said Robert Lawrence, vice president of Caribbean marketing.

"It's been a very challenging year for tourism in general, and the Caribbean is no exception," he said. "But I see the Dominican Republic, which has been one of our strongest destinations, as the oasis in the desert."

Greg Thorne, vice president of Moonachie, N.J.-based Inter-Island Tours, said other islands are "almost in an envious state."

The Dominican Republic is a star performer in Caribbean tourism, said delegates to the Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange 2003 show at the Barcelo Bavaro Beach Resort, above, in Punta Cana. "The D.R. is the strongest charter-driven market in the Caribbean, and the hotels have very high occupancies," he added. "It shows how price-conscious people are today."

Queries to hoteliers in attendance backed up his assertion: Coral Hotels and Resorts, now reflagged Coral by Hilton, boasted 90% occupancies since November, while AMResorts' Dominican holdings -- Secrets Excellence Punta Cana, Sunscape Punta Cana Grand and Sunscape Beach Punta Cana -- have been 95% full for months.

And things look bright going into the traditionally slower late spring and summer season; AMResorts expects a 75% occupancy rate in May, said Matthew Mullen, director.

While official figures showed only 3.8% growth from the U.S. last year, Simon Suarez, executive vice president of Coral by Hilton and president of the Caribbean Hotel Association (CHA), said Americans now account for a third of the 30%-plus jump in arrivals to the D.R. each month since November.

"For the last two years, we've been consistent in investing money in U.S. promotions, and this is the result," Suarez said. "Before, we weren't in the

market, period."

Although Europeans dominate Dominican tourism, recent promotional campaigns, more airlift and the debut of well-known U.S. hotel brands are spurring visits from the U.S., said Edmundo Aja, president of Hodelpa Hotels and Resorts.

"You still go to many parts of the U.S. today and people don't know where the Dominican Republic is," Aja said. "But that may be good, because it shows there's more untapped potential out there."

So, in a region chock full of sunny destinations, what's so appealing about the Dominican Republic? Apart from standard island charms, it's price, accessibility and quality.

All-inclusive resorts reign over the accommodations landscape and, given the low cost of goods, services and labor, they deliver value for money.

"The D.R. is quick, easy and affordable," said Inter-Island's Thorne. "If you're looking for the basic nice hotel, beautiful beach and consistent weather, you can get it here."

Gogo's Lawrence said "the product, services and food quality have come a long way."

"But the island still affords a vacation experience for budget-oriented vacationers," he said.

Still, Dominican tourism looks set to expand beyond the all-inclusive and charter markets, with more higher-end hoteliers and special-interest operators in attendance at DATE 2003.

First-time delegate Shari Klein of Swift Golf Vacations, Scottsdale, Ariz., said the Dominican Republic -- with 23 golf courses, the most in the Caribbean -- is a hole in one.

"No one has tapped the D.R. as a golf destination," she said. "But you could send clients here for great golf in guaranteed weather, not far from the U.S."

And EMI Resorts promoted its luxury -- and pricey -- all-inclusive Sun Village Beach Resort near Puerto Plata.

"Everyone's aware of the value of the dollar here," said Jeff Atley, vice president of marketing at EMI Resorts. "Opening our product in another destination would make it four times as expensive."

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