La Romana and Casa de Campo are sweet spots in D.R. tourism

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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 charm of the Dominican Republic is reflected in its fishing villages, beaches, offshore islands, luxury resorts, world-class golf courses and people. The resort has proven popular with golfers as well as cruise passengers, who spend their time ashore playing golf and riding horses.

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 cliff.

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 be beat.

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 day.

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 island.

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.

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