With tourism on rise, nation focuses on guests' needs

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SANTO DOMINGO -- Growth is the name of the game for the Dominican Republic.

Additional airports, hotel rooms and golf courses as well as marina developments are on tap for the island, which played host to the 23rd annual Caribbean Tourism Conference last month.

Diving in Juan Dolio on Santo Domingo's south coast. According to Felix Jimenez, the nation's secretary of tourism, the Dominican Republic has maintained a steady growth in tourism and is aiming to keep up with the needs of visitors.

In the first seven months of 1999, the Dominican Republic reported an increase of 9.6% in arrivals. The resort area of Punta Cana had the top growth rate on the island, with a gain of 18.5% in the number of its visitors. Jimenez said so far this year the island has welcomed more than 1.5 million visitors.

Samana is one of the Dominican Republic's top tourist sites. The tourism surge has resulted in the construction of additional facilities. There are more than 44,000 hotel rooms throughout the island, and by the end of 2000, there will be more than 50,000 rooms, Jimenez said. Within the next three years, there are slated to be an additional 12,000 rooms open.

Jimenez added that 31 properties will open before the end of 2000. Four are set for Puerto Plata, three for the Samana area, 12 for Punta Cana, two for Bayahibe/La Romana, one for Boca Chica/Playa Caribe and nine for other areas.

Improvements are being made to golf and airport facilities, with five significant golf course developments under way, he said.

Two new courses are planned for the Casa de Campo resort in La Romana, and three will open in Punta Cana by next year.

Jimenez said an airport that will accommodate wide-body aircraft will open in La Romana. The airport is set to debut by the end of next year.

A marina project with residential and commercial facilities as well as 300 slips for boats and yachts is on tap for La Romana. Jimenez said it was possible two or three slips would be used for cruise ships.

Catalina Island, near La Romana, currently serves as a port of call for some cruise ships. The Dominican Republic reported 60,000 cruise passengers this year.

Carnival Cruise Lines, Costa Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line are among the lines that call at Santo Domingo and Catalina Island.

Jimenez said he would like to see cruise ships return to Puerto Plata. In the 1980s, there were six or seven ships a week that headed to Puerto Plata, and now there are about two or three a year, he said. According to Jimenez, work is being done at the Puerto Plata port, and by next winter it is expected that five or six vessels will stop there.

He said the Dominican Republic's most ambitious project is a mixed-use development in Samana. It will boast 3,000 rooms with three hotels, villas and private homes, an artificial lake, a marina, a nautical club and sailing and navigation schools.

The complex will open in phases, and by late 2000, most of the construction will be in place. The target completion date is 2001.

The improvement of four airports is another of the nation's major projects. The government signed a deal with a four-nation consortium, Aerodom, to upgrade and add facilities.

The first priority is to renovate the Santo Domingo facility and work on the terminals. Also getting a refurbishment are the Puerta Plata/Sosua, Samana and Barahona airports.

Jimenez said the Samana airport will be able to accommodate jets in the future, and the work will be done in three stages.

The airport improvements are being made to keep pace with the increase in scheduled and charter service.

Apple Vacations increased from two flights a week in 1997 to 20 flights during the 1999-2000 winter season. TWA has scheduled service with one flight daily from New York (Kennedy) to Santo Domingo and one to Puerta Plata. Continental offers daily flights from New York (Newark) to Santo Domingo. Tower Air started with two flights a week from New York (Kennedy) to Santo Domingo. The line will increase its service to five flights next winter.

Other U.S. airlines such as United and Northwest are going through the formalities to start routes to the island, he said. Jimenez added that Aeromar will start Miami-Punta Cana service twice a week this month. The line currently offers Miami-Santo Domingo flights.

A program to renovate and build roads is under way in Boca Chica, Sosua, Santiago, Samana, Puerto Plata and Bavaro. The island is also aiming to educate U.S. agents, and Jimenez said more than 1,000 retailers took its specialist course.

Jimenez shared some tips on what to do and see on the island, especially for first-time visitors.

He recommended the nation's golf facilities and cited Casa de Campo and Playa Grande as having outstanding courses. Other worthwhile endeavors included diving in Monte Cristi and Juan Dolio, surfing in Punta Cana, touring baseball star Sammy Sosa's home town of San Pedro de Macoris and exploring the old city of Santo Domingo.

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