fter a brief visit to the resort area
surrounding the city of La Romana at the southeastern tip of the
Dominican Republic, I can understand why the destination is a
rising star among visitors and tourism officials.
Last year, the area welcomed more than 47,000 U.S. visitors at
La Romana Airport, according to the Dominican Republic Tourism
Board. Many of these visitors came to play golf at Casa de Campo,
the luxury resort located east of La Romana.
Boasting world-class courses, the property is a mecca for
golfers and their families, according to Michelle Jaquez, a tourist
board representative based in New York.
Casa de Campo is the country's most complete resort, Jaquez
said. Its newest facilities include a $30 million marina and yacht
club, which opened last November.
The resort complex -- and much of the area's tourism
infrastructure -- was built, in a manner of speaking, by sugar.
In the 1970s, the local sugar refinery, then owned by Gulf &
Western Industries, developed Casa de Campo and its designer golf
courses, and a second major industry was born.
The resort has proven popular with golfers as well as cruise
passengers, who spend their time ashore playing golf and riding
Cruise ships from Miami began calling at La Romana in 1992, the
same time other resort developments, such as Viva Resorts, Amhsa
and Coral Hotels, got under way.
Casa de Campo's two golf courses, called Teeth of the Dog and
the Links, will be joined by a third course in 2003. The new Pete
Dye-designed course will be the first to use salt water for
irrigation, according to the resort.
Casa de Campo also is favored by celebrities, such as baseball
player and native Dominican Sammy Sosa, who owns a villa there, and
opera star Luciano Pavorotti, who was a recent guest.
One of the main off-site attractions for resort guests, a
deceptively authentic-looking Romanesque village perched high above
the Chavon River, appears as though it has stood for ages on its
Actually, Altos de Chavon was laid out by a Paramount movie set
designer and developed in the late 1970s by Gulf & Western as a
tourist attraction to complement Casa de Campo.
"Cobblestone streets, stone carvings, several old European-style
fountains and Spanish architecture convey the feeling that the
place is centuries old," Jaquez said.
Altos de Chavon contains several restaurants and shops, a church
consecrated by Pope John Paul II and a school affiliated with the
Parsons School of Design in New York.
The village's open-air amphitheater, its most ancient-looking
venue, was inaugurated in 1982 by Frank Sinatra.
There local schoolchildren took photos of one another and posed
willingly for our cameras, as well, while a trio of musicians in
traditional dress sang and played Dominican songs. Our guide,
Antonio, joined in on the dancing.
Another popular activity for area resort guests is to charter a
boat for lunch on Saona Island, part of East National Park. Saona
Island's beach is coarse underfoot, but the peace and quiet can't
Palm trees line the beach, and comfort items, such as contoured
lounge chairs and picnic table huts, await visitors.
After lunch on Saona Island, my group donned snorkeling gear and
observed the rich reef life that attracts divers to the area.
Another popular area attraction is the smaller Catalina Island,
which our boat captain declined to visit because of rough seas that
Jaquez described Catalina as "a great diving site because of its
clear waters, excellent visibility and colorful reef life."
Despite all the new resorts since Caso de Campo, sugar remains
this area's foremost industry. The faint smoke from the mill can be
seen on the open water.
Central Romana Corp., which has owned Casa de Campo and the
area's sugar industry since 1984, is said to be the largest private
employer in the Dominican Republic, with about 25,000 workers.
The cane fields, our guide told us, are worked by Haitian
laborers, who do what
they can to survive with 77% unemployment on their side of the
Dominicans must often work two jobs to get by and face tough
competition for the best-paying tourism jobs, our guide said, but
have relatively low unemployment and low crime.
The newest tourism infrastructure built by the sugar company is
the airport here, which opened in December 2000.
The airport is served by daily flights from San Juan on American
Eagle and from Miami on American Airlines.