A slew of U.S. tourists deaths have occurred under mysterious circumstances in the Dominican Republic in recent weeks. Three occurred in May at the same chain of resorts, the Bahia Principe, within days of each other. Another two occurred at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana months apart. A sixth occurred in June 2018.
Adding to the panicked news reports, Red Sox player David Ortiz, who is originally from the country, was shot in a Santo Domingo nightclub on Sunday. He was flown to Boston for treatment.
Presented one after the other on cable news, it can all sound extreme. And in a nation that welcomed 3.2 million American tourists in 2018 — accounting for roughly half of the country’s inbound tourist total — there’s certainly a risk factor to all the bad press. There are already reports that some travel agents are already rebooking spooked travelers.
But is all the concern warranted?
The Ministry of Tourism has been quick to point out that the rate of tourist incidences in 2018 was just 1.4 in every 100,000 visitors. It added that it is committed to ensuring the “highest industry standards are met so that all tourists are safe when visiting.”
But understandably, part of the alarm comes from the fact that the incidents appear to have happened suddenly, after several of the victims were said to have consumed alcoholic drinks provided by the resorts. While some news reports are indicating that seven cases have occurred in the last year, one of them, in April, was due to a heart attack, and is not believed to be related.
Last week the U.S. State Department said it has not established any connection between the incidents, though an FBI investigation is ongoing. On Tuesday the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo said in a statement that officials are “actively working with the Government of the Dominican Republic and the private sector at the highest levels” to ensure the safety of U.S. visitors. They’ve said that the results from a toxicology report on the deaths that occurred at Bahia Principe properties will take up to 30 days to process, and asked for patience during the interim. The State Department’s level 2 travel advisory for the region has remained unchanged.
The Bahia Principe resort has issued a series of statements, one correcting the media reports that said the deaths took place at the same property — they reportedly happened at two properties roughly a quarter mile apart — and a more recent one saying the spread of misinformation had caused “great damage to its image and reputation.”
In regards to the information that has been spread by various media outlets and social media, we would like to express: https://t.co/fT2Qj8jR7K
En respuesta a las informaciones que están siendo publicadas por diversos medios de comunicación y redes sociales, manifestamos: pic.twitter.com/BjjJd9mJdd
— BahiaPrincipe (@BahiaPrincipe) June 7, 2019
Meanwhile the ministry of tourism for the Dominican Republic issued a statement on Wednesday saying the “National Police Department, in collaboration with the Ministry, National Hotel Association (ASONAHORES), the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), is following the due process and working diligently to complete the investigations and to keep the public informed as new findings arise.” The ministry is emphasizing patience until the results are finalized.
Government spokesman Roberto Rodriguez Marchena has been using the hashtag #BeFairWithDR on Twitter as a way to highlight that the Caribbean nation has hosted millions of safe trips for tourists. The hashtag was first used in 2015 in response to the country’s immigration policies toward Haitians.
Son de Chicago, USA, y por tercera vez vinieron a República Dominicana a celebrar sus cumpleaños y aniversario de boda.
A los Hollowell les encantan nuestras playas, el servicio y compartir en Punta Cana con gente de New York, Filadelfia y Texas.#RDLoMáMejor #BeFairWithDR pic.twitter.com/zaHsmnscAG
— Rodríguez-Marchena (@RodrigMarchena) June 13, 2019
Jake Kheel is the vice president of the Punta Cana Foundation, a nonprofit in Dominican Republic that works to conserve the region as well as sustainably develop its tourism industry. He worried that if and when these cases are confirmed by officials to be isolated and thus not represent a meaningful threat for visitors, the damage to the nation’s tourism industry may already have been done.
“I wish the media and potential visitors looked a little more closely at each case. The relationship between each one is pretty flimsy, at best. They may or may not have had anything to do with them occurring in the DR,” Kheel wrote in an email to Skift. “Unfortunately the news cycle will most likely have moved on by the time more information comes out and the tourism industry will be left with the consequences.”