On Site: The Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange 2012

Travel Agent arrived Monday for our coverage of the Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange (DATE), which runs through April 19, 2012.

Wednesday we sat in on a press conference hosted by the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism and learned that the destination has had its highest growth from January to March than it has in any other year.

According to Minister of Tourism Francisco Javier Garcia, the Dominican Republic has received roughly 1.7 million tourists from January to March, representing a nine-percent compared to the same period in 2011.

"Our tourism product is more consolidated, it's stronger and it has better energy than ever before," Garica says, noting that tourism growth from the U.S. increased by 14 percent in that same period. "Some factors for the increase are our country's natural features, our gastronomy and the beauty and the second aspect is something I always mentioned. In every case what people liked when we asked them is the way the people treat them, the way Dominicans treat the tourists."

The Ministry of Tourism underscored the country's strategy to develop tourism infrastructure, announcing an investment of more than $12 million into 58 new projects. Other important developments include the Atlantic Boulevard in Puerto Plata that will connect the North Coast to the Samana Peninsula, the revitalization and development of major highways and roads, and new flexible facilities among the destination's eight international airports for receiving major airlines and charter flights.

In addition, the Ministry of Tourism's new territorial ordinances include a five-year plan that will help develop rural tourism throughout the country's 31 provinces. The plan calls for developing friendly guest houses that will have a minimal eco-impact on small villages and towns, but allow visitors to explore the areas' delights. Growing in popularity, rural agri-tourism in the country includes chocolate tours of cocoa plantations and other trips to coffee, tobacco and sugar cane fields that often end with visits to coffee roasters, cigar factories and rum distilleries.

Later we learned that the island of Samana is close to finalizing direct JetBlue Airways flights from North America.

Although Samana hotel association representatives would not say where in North American the possible JetBlue flights would leave from, we were told as part of our coverage of last year's DATE that JetBlue is expected to operate the first direct flights from JFK in New York to the five-year-old Juan Bosch Airport.

"Even though we have nothing official, we can motivate you by saying that we are very advanced in our discussions with JetBlue, which can finally open the door to the North American market," says Fabeth Martinez Fernandez, executive director of Samana's hotel association. "We can offer the news soon, but we can say the negations have advanced."

In resort news, The Grand Palladium Bávaro Resort & Spa unveiled its new Family Friendly room category, which includes specially outfitted accommodations for families. Also, all three of the adjacent resorts, including the Grand Palladium Bávaro Resort & Spa, Grand Palladium Palace Resort Spa & Casino and Grand Palladium Punta Cana Resort & Spa, can utilize the Palladium’s signature age-specific Kids’ Clubs, now expanded and recognized as one of the largest facilities for children in the Caribbean and Mexico.

Clients should ask for the Family Friendly Room (subject to a per person supplement), send in their child’s needs (formula type, diaper size, food allergies, etc.) and upon arrival, the room will be outfitted with age-appropriate welcome packs created especially for children ages 1 – 19.  From formula to video games, all amenities have been included to make certain any child feels at home.

The Family Friendly Rooms are a result of guest feedback and extensive research. The Palladium management team sampled and tested products to ensure that they not only met Palladium standards, but more importantly, exceeded the needs and desires of Palladium guests.

Children are entertained and kept busy with Palladium’s children-centric programming, designed for both fun and education. The Baby Club (ages 1-3) and the Mini Club (ages 4-12) have recently been renovated to offer children more age-specific games, a larger swimming pool, zip-line and a series of cooking classes that teach children about local flavors and ingredients in the region.

Teens can join the Black & White Junior’s Club (ages 13-19) to enjoy a wide variety of sports and entertainment programs. With a teen’s perspective in mind, these facilities provide longer hours in a fun-filled place where they can make new friends – always under the supervision of trained professionals.

During our time at the conference we have been staying at the new, fresher and less confusing Barcelo Bavaro Palace complex. We expect to see a major boost in bookings because of the new look and concept.

Basically, the previous complex that housed five resorts, all with different names and amenities, was pretty confusing not only to consumers but certain travel writers as well.

And now?

The complex reduced from five resorts to two - the Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe, which has roughly 1,600 rooms and the Barcelo Bavaro Beach Resort, which has about 400 rooms and a conference center.

"We have heard nothing but good things about the changes," says Diana Daza, director of sales assistant for Barcelo. "I heard from guests that its so much easier for them. We've gotten a lot of great feedback on Facebook too. Many people have commented that the change was for the better."

As part of the consolidation, several buildings were knocked down while others were repositioned. One of the repositioned buildings is the now Barcelo Beach Resort, which is now an adults-only hotel. For children, the new Barcy Kids Club was built at the Barcelo Bavaro Palace Deluxe as well as a new water park and disco club for teenagers. In total, the renovations to bring the smaller, but more effective, Barcelo complex to life came to about $50 million.

Keep visiting www.travelagentcentral.com for updates from DATE, which runs through April 19.