Home / TRAVEL / Fallout from mystery tourist deaths a travel crisis for DR – Travel Weekly

Fallout from mystery tourist deaths a travel crisis for DR – Travel Weekly

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.

Fallout from mystery tourist deaths a travel crisis for DR – Travel Weekly

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