Fallout from mystery tourist deaths a travel crisis for D.R.

Fallout from mystery tourist deaths a travel crisis for D.R.
Photo Credit: Preto Perola/Shutterstock.com

Travelers' confidence in the safety of the Dominican Republic appears to be waning as news continues to break about the deaths of American tourists in the country.

At least seven Americans reportedly died in Dominican resorts this year, and the travel industry was beginning to feel the ripple effect as the consumer media highlighted the incidents.

Travel advisors said they were juggling clients' concerns and, in some cases, canceling their trips or changing their destinations. Packagers, too, were scrambling to accommodate booking changes, and evidence showed flight searches to the country were, atypically, swiftly declining.

"With news reports continuing to mount, travelers are expressing greater concern regarding the safety of vacationing in the Dominican Republic," said Amy Terada, vice president of marketing for Pleasant Holidays. "Our call volume has escalated overnight, with travel advisors requesting to alter the plans of nearly 100 bookings with reservations to the Dominican Republic."

While heart issues have been ruled the official cause of at least several of the deaths, the Washington Post reported that the circumstances surrounding them remain mysterious. In at least several cases, the victims reportedly took drinks from minibars before quickly falling ill and later dying. 

According to CBS News, the deaths occurred at the Dreams Resort in Punta Cana, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana, the Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville, the Grand Bahia Principe La Romana, the Excellence Punta Cana and the Terra Linda Resort in Sosua.

Other incidents not resulting in deaths, including alleged assaults and illnesses, have occurred at several other resorts.

In addition, the country's reputation for safety took another hit on June 9 when former Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz was shot in the back on the patio of a Santo Domingo nightspot. That case was still unfolding at press time.

In a June 12 statement, the minister of tourism said the country is working with authorities, including the FBI, to investigate the tourist deaths.

"We are confident that we can provide a definitive answer as soon as possible," Francisco Javier Garcia said. "You can also be sure that the necessary measures will be taken to make the country even safer for all visitors."

According to the ministry, the country had 6.6 million visitors in 2018, including 3.2 million from the U.S. and Canada. In 2017, the rate of tourist incidents was 1.6 per 100,000 visitors, dropping in 2018 to 1.4 per 100,000 visitors. Caribbean Tourism Organization data shows the country is the top Caribbean destination for Americans: 2.2 million in 2018.

In a June 11 statement, the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo said it was working with the local government to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens on the island. The embassy urged patience, as toxicology test results could take up to 30 days.

Bahia Principe said in an early June statement that had not been updated last week that it was "collaborating completely with the authorities" but accused the media and other platforms of spreading "inaccurate and false information," negatively impacting the brand.

Hard Rock issued a statement saying it awaited official reports about the deaths. It implemented beverage protocols such as purchasing sealed, unopened products from licensed, reputable vendors. The company also inspects products served throughout the hotel and in rooms daily.

Excellence said it has a "stringent set of operating procedures to ensure our guests can travel with peace of mind." The company also provided a forensics report stating that the tourist who died there had a heart attack and died of natural causes. It said it is cooperating with local and U.S. authorities.

Other resorts, like AMResorts and Casa de Campo Resort & Villas, said they were monitoring the situation. In a letter to advisors, Casa de Campo asked for support in sending clients to the property.

"It's fair to say that the headlines as of late are not the norm for the D.R.," the letter states. "And, of course, we can understand how this is giving travelers a reason to pause and reconsider. Please know we have not had any related incidents here at Casa de Campo Resort & Villas. ... However, we understand that being in the same destination casts somewhat of a shadow on us as a result. This is where you come in as our valued partners."

Terra Linda did not respond to requests for comment.

Data from the airfare price predicting and booking platform Hopper indicates that Americans are reconsidering travel to the Dominican Republic. 

As a share of all international searches, those seeking airfares for travel to the country dropped by 52% between May and June, Hopper said. While a drop in searches is typical following spring break, this year's is outsized, Hopper said. Last year's drop of 3% was more typical.

Hopper said in a statement, "Until late spring, the Dominican Republic had been a trending destination on Hopper, with search demand growing compared with 2018 and low prices available for budget-savvy travelers. Although great deals remain available for trips to the D.R., overall search demand for the island destination has softened more than expected in the last one to two months."

Travel advisors are also feeling the effects as news of the tourist deaths mounts. Clients have been expressing concerns and in some cases requesting cancellations or alternate destinations. For Margie Hand, an affiliate of Andavo Travel based in Birmingham, Ala., that included moving a 100-person wedding from Punta Cana to Jamaica.

Pleasant Holidays' Terada said most advisors calling the tour operator are opting to change destinations to all-inclusives in Cancun. Pleasant Holidays is waiving change fees for travelers who want to shift reservations to other destinations.

Lindsey Epperly, founder of Atlanta-based Epperly Travel, said a number of clients are calling her agency with concerns, especially if they already have trips booked to the Dominican Republic, one of Epperly Travel's top destinations.

"It's never a fun thing to see your destination in the headlines day after day," Epperly said. "Everyone very much is concerned, and it's completely understandable."

As with past incidents, travelers still interested in the Dominican Republic tend to be well-traveled, Epperly said.

She and her agents use the State Department's information page about the Dominican Republic to share facts with clients about the destination. Currently, the country's travel advisory is Level 2 on a four-tier scale, urging travelers to "exercise increased caution" due to crime. Epperly pointed out that the Dominican Republic's level is similar to that of many other destinations, including in the Caribbean and Europe.

"Something that I teach my agency is we don't need to have opinions here," Epperly said. "We don't need to have recommendations for yes, go, or do not go. I feel like that's a very strong stance to take. I feel like our job is to express the facts, to be an authority figure. That's our role as advisors. I think you put yourself at risk if you say one way or another. It's really not your decision to make. It's the client's."

Robert Silk and Christina Jelski contributed to this report.


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