It’s been a tough year for the Dominican Republic, but there are signs that the destination is beginning to rebound, Travel Impressions executives said during the organization’s Best of the Best conference. The event, which took place November 21 – 23, honored 153 top-performing travel agencies at the Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera Cancun.
The Dominican Republic has seen its tourism sector suffer this year after a series of stories in the consumer media on so-called mysterious deaths caused heavy damage to its public perception. Despite the fact that a recent FBI report found no wrongdoing in the deaths — confirming the results of an earlier investigation by Dominican authorities — travel to the destination dropped significantly this year. According to the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), 58 percent of the organization’s members saw trip cancellations or postponements to the Dominican Republic due to the negative coverage.
“It was pretty dire for most of the year, with bookings down as much as 70 percent,” Travel Impressions President Scott Wiseman tells Travel Agent. “But in just the last eight weeks it’s been coming back – this past week it’s been off only 20 percent year-over-year. All things considered, we think that’s a good sign.”
Wiseman says that travelers shying away from the Dominican Republic have been switching to a variety of other destinations. “Early on we were seeing the other islands – Aruba, Jamaica – but as time went on it seemed to be that Europe was really the key winner,” Wiseman says. “It was a good value with the valuation of the currency and with our expanded inventory it gave people a lot of choices.” (Travel Impressions has expanded its Europe portfolio by 23 percent as part of a push to diversify its product offerings.)
Along with its parent company Apple Leisure Group (ALG), Travel Impressions has been making a promotional push to help the destination recover and to help counteract the negative media coverage it has received.
“We’re going grassroots with this, because with the sensationalized media coverage we’re finding it difficult to compete with CNN,” says Wendy Hoekwater, senior vice president marketing, vacations at ALG.
Travel Impressions has partnered with 65 suppliers on a promotional campaign for the Dominican Republic, and the company has also invested in a significant amount of training for travel agents to help them overcome the objections of clients who may have been concerned about the negative reports. The company has also sent agents on over 500 individual fam trips, which provided opportunities for them to share their experiences with their respective communities on social media.
“It’s about how can we empower them, how can we enable them to feel confident about it,” Hoekwater says.
The campaign has shown some success: In a pair of surveys Travel Impressions commissioned, prior to agents going on the fam trips, they had a 50 to 55 percent confidence level in the Dominican Republic, but after they returned, that shot up to approximately 95 percent. Dominican Republic bookings increased as well.
“We’re also working with the destination, so that we’re fighting this with the Minister of Tourism,” Hoekwater says.
In other positive signs, the Dominican Republic was named the most popular international destination for Thanksgiving travel by a recent Allianz Global Assistance study, which analyzed more than 2.4 million flight itineraries. According to the report, the number of Americans traveling internationally to the Dominican Republic for Thanksgiving has nearly quadrupled in size since last year, knocking longtime number-one destination Cancun out of the top spot.