What to Know About the Tourist Deaths in the Dominican Republic

In the past calendar year, six tourists from the United States have died under similar circumstances in the Dominican Republic, and it’s causing concern among travelers. The island’s reputation took another hit recently when former Major League Baseball All Star David Ortiz was shot at a nightclub in his hometown of Santo Domingo. Here’s what we know so far.

What Incidents Have Occurred—and When?

Last year, according to The New York Times, two tourists died (in June and July): Yvette Monique Sport, 51, and David Harrison, 45, both of whom died of a heart attack. The former was staying at a Bahia Principe in Punta Cana; the latter was staying at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana.

This year, in April, Robert Wallace, 67, became sick at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana and died. Miranda Schaup-Werner, 41, died at the Luxury Bahia Príncipe Bouganville, in May, also of a heart attack. A few days later, Nathaniel Edward Holmes, 63, and Cynthia Ann Day, 49, were found dead in their room at the Grand Bahia Príncipe La Romana.

Autopsies from three of the tourists showed they died from pulmonary edema and respiratory failure; family members of two of the visitors said they became ill after drinking from their in-room minibar.

Last week, former MLB star David Ortiz was shot at a club in his hometown of Santo Domingo. Originally reported as a robbery, a video from the event showed no signs of an attempted robbery; a man has since been arrested and charged as an accomplice in attempted murder.

What Does the Ministry of Tourism Have to Say?

In an official release, the Ministry of Tourism of the Dominican Republic said it expressed its sincerest condolences to the families and friends of those affected in the tragic events that have been reported over the last few weeks, adding that it is working closely with the appropriate authorities to solve these cases as quickly as possible.

“All visitors are very important to us,” Minister of Tourism Francisco Javier Garcia said. “The Ministry’s most important responsibilities are to ensure that the highest industry standards are met so that all tourists are safe when visiting. At the same time, it must also work to provide a definitive answer to the afflicted families.”

The United States Embassy in Santo Domingo said today that they are “actively working in collaboration with Dominican authorities and the private sector to ensure that all U.S. citizens are and feel safe while in the country.” The Embassy also confirmed that the FBI is conducting a deeper toxicology analysis and that results might take up to 30 days, asking for patience during this process.

What Are the Hotels Doing?

“In regards to the two unfortunate events that took place in the Dominican Republic, and after inaccurate and false information has been spread or circulated by various media, digital platforms and social networks, Bahia Principe Hotels & Resorts would like to express our deep respect to the authorities and the ongoing investigations,” a statement said. “We reiterate our firm commitment to collaborating completely with the authorities and hope for a prompt resolution of their inquiries and actions and will not be making any further statements that may interfere with them.”

For 24 years, Bahia Principe Hotels & Resorts has operated in the Dominican Republic, with 14 hotels in its collection, comprising more than 7,100 rooms, which makes it the largest hotel brand in total number of hotel beds in the country. Bahia Principe welcomes approximately 700,000 guests each year.

The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana said in a statement to Travel Agent, “The safety and wellness of our guests at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Punta Cana is now, and has always been our highest priority. We are confident that all operational protocols were followed to ensure the safety of our guests. While we are deeply saddened by these incidents, and our thoughts go out to all of those affected, we, along with the general public, will be monitoring the facts as they unfold surrounding these events.”

Is it Safe to Visit?

Unfortunately, these events are getting a lot of play in consumer media, which has given travelers apprehension about visiting the destination. We recently returned from Travel Leaders' EDGE Conference where advisors, as well, showed concern and noted they were receiving queries from their clients who are booked to visit the DR. The good news is, while the timing has made these events seem linked, there is no evidence showing that yet; additionally, stats show the Dominican Republic to remain a safe destination.

The U.S. State Department has not updated its travel advisory for the Dominican Republic, where it remains Level 2: Exercise Increase Caution, due to crime.

The advisory states, “Violent crime, including armed robbery, homicide and sexual assault is a concern throughout the Dominican Republic. The development of a professional tourist police corps, institution of a 911 system in many parts of the country, and a concentration of resources in resort areas means these tend to be better policed than urban areas like Santo Domingo. The wide availability of weapons, the use and trade of illicit drugs, and a weak criminal justice system contribute to the high level of criminality on the broader scale.” 

One advisor we spoke with who sells destination weddings to the Dominican Republic said she would “go there on vacation and take my family without hesitation.”

“The media is reporting like judge and jury is done and the destination is at fault,” the advisor added. “There is no mention of statistics: How many millions of Americans travel there every year with very low incidence at the resorts. There is no comparison to other destinations' statistics. And the investigations into some of the new arising stories have not been validated.”

To that point, the Ministry of Tourism released the following statistics in the wake of the recent events:

  • In 2018, 6.6 million tourists visited the Dominican Republic, of which 3.2 million came from the United States and Canada
  • Almost 30 million tourists in total have visited the Dominican Republic in the last five years
  • Ninety-nine percent of tourists from the U.S. said they would return to the DR on vacation and 94 percent evaluated the tourism services as excellent (from Canada, those numbers were 94 and 97 percent, respectively)
  • In 2017, the rate of tourist incidents was 1.6 per 100,000 visitors; in 2018, that rate dropped to 1.4 per 100,000 visitors

The same advisor mentioned how Mexico came under attack in 2017 for “tainted alcohol.” Then, the U.S. State Department issued a security update for Mexico warning travelers of allegations of tainted alcohol at all-inclusive resorts; however, a test by the government of Mexico found no indication of tainted alcohol at the Iberostar Paraiso del Mar, where an incident occurred.

Another advisor said he would continue to sell the Dominican Republic, adding, however, that he doesn’t sell any of the properties where the events took place.

For updates, visit www.godominicanrepublic.com.

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