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
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
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
"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
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
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