Is it Safe to Travel to the Dominican Republic?By Andrea Sachs June 12 Washington Post Travel
The reports on six deaths, one high-profile shooting, an assault and a fatal car accident over the course of a year have darkened the Dominican Republic’s typically sunny skies. The Caribbean country had been experiencing an upswing before the full brunt of the tragedies hit: Nearly 605,000 tourists visited in the first two months of the year, an 8 percent rise over last year. The spate of incidents could trigger a rush of cancellations, but experts are advising travelers to consider the larger picture before abandoning their beach plans.
Without a doubt, the events are upsetting and alarming, especially with so many unanswered questions swirling around the deaths. Organizations including the FBI, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are investigating several of the cases. However, people in the travel industry and medical and security fields are urging travelers to not dismiss the entire country.
“Yes, bad stuff happens to tourists, whether it’s a bus crash or a death,” said Eddie Lloyd, an expert on Caribbean travel. “Is it indicative of the destination falling apart? No.”
The Dominican Republic has more than 80,200 hotel rooms and attracts more than 6 million annual visitors. The deaths were reported at three properties, the Grand Bahia Principe La Romana, the Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville in San Pedro de Macoris and the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Punta Cana. Reynold A. Panettieri, a professor of medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said concerned travelers should focus on the hotels where the deaths happened, not the country.
“It would be quite rare to recommend that people avoid the Dominican Republic,” he said.
Panettieri said incidents of this type are not unique to the Dominican Republic. Last month, a Texas couple grew gravely ill soon after arriving in Fiji. They died a few days later. The country’s Ministry of Health is investigating the cause of death, and the CDC will test tissue samples sent to its Atlanta headquarters. In 2015, a Delaware family of four nearly died while vacationing on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Investigators uncovered a pesticide in their rental unit that the Environmental Protection Agency had banned for indoor use. A Terminix employee was found guilty for using methyl bromide in several lodgings.
Based on similarities in the Dominican Republic cases, Panettieri, who is a toxicologist and lung specialist, said the travelers could have been exposed to a pesticide, poison or other toxicant. “The Caribbean islands have bugs, and bugs aren’t popular,” he said. “The Caribbean is fairly lenient on pesticides.”
Panettieri also considered other potential causes, such as an infectious disease. However, he said that for a virus to kill that swiftly, it would have to be incredibly aggressive. Plus, it would have affected a larger swath of people. A few of the victims reportedly consumed a beverage from a minibar before dying. Panettieri said that it’s possible for the drink to have accidentally contained a toxin.
“We have to put these deaths in perspective,” said Robert Quigley, senior vice president and regional medical director of International SOS and MedAire, which assists travelers with security issues and medical emergencies. Quigley said MedAire receives about 140 calls a day from commercial and private planes experiencing flight emergencies, such as sick or deceased passengers or flight crew members. He said the cruise-ship industry also has critical incidents. “I am not going to ignore what happened,” he said, “but deaths do happen, even in the Dominican Republic.”
Travelers willing to stick with their DR plans should follow certain precautions. To avoid the risk of dangerous chemicals, Panettieri encourages visitors to stay at a reputable hotel with stringent policies and a high level of accountability. He recommends a U.S. hotel chain, such as Hilton or Marriott, or a top-end boutique property. Eco-lodges also invest in materials that are environmentally sound. In addition, Panettieri warns against hermetically sealed environments that can trap toxic fumes. Travelers should the let fresh air into their rooms, even if it is steamy, tropical air.
“If you keep the window open, you can mitigate exposure,” he said.
To protect yourself when consuming beverages, always check the seal on the bottle. This rule applies to the guest room minibar and the hotel gift shop or pantry. At bars and restaurants, on the resort grounds and off, watch the bartender mix your drink and never leave your glass unattended. Bring it with you or ask a friend to keep an eye on it.
Of course, crime is a concern in the DR, as it is in many Caribbean destinations. In April, the State Department issued a Level 2 advisory: “Exercise increased caution in the Dominican Republic due to crime. Violent crime, including armed robbery, homicide and sexual assault is a concern throughout the Dominican Republic.”
The agency said some resort districts are safer than urban areas, thanks to a tourist police unit and an extensive 911 system. Earlier this week, former Boston Red Sox baseball player David Ortiz was shot in a bar in Santo Domingo. In its advisory, the State Department cited the capital as an example of a city with a lower level of security.
“Shootings and murders happen in tourist destinations,” Quigley said. “We would not have heard about the shooting of Ortiz if the person had not been so high profile.” Quigley reminds travelers to thoroughly research their destination — hotels, restaurants and bars, neighborhoods — before arriving. They should stay on high alert, even within the confines of the resort.
“When people go the Dominican Republic,” he said, “they need to have a heightened sense of awareness.” Added Lloyd: “You can’t take a vacation from common sense.”
For example, don’t drive in the Dominican Republic. According to a 2015 World Health Organization study, the country has the highest estimated rate of road deaths in the Americas and the 15th most worldwide. Lloyd advises travelers to use the hotel shuttle service or hire a driver with bona fides.
Of course, if the idea of vacation in the Dominican Republic is more stressful than relaxing, consider canceling. Airlines are not waiving change fees, so you will have to pay the surcharge plus any difference in fare for a new flight. Hotel cancellation policies vary by property. If you missed the deadline, call the hotel and hope for a sympathetic reservation agent or manager. If you purchased insurance with the “Cancel for Any Reason” benefit, you can recover up to 75 percent of your trip costs.
“As there is no official government warning or evacuation at the location at this time,” said Jenna Hummer, a spokeswoman for SquareMouth, which compares travel insurance policies. “CFAR is really the only option for travelers looking to cancel their trips and recoup most of their costs.”
Andrea Sachs Andrea Sachs has written for Travel since 2000. She has reported from nearby places such as Ellicott City, Md., and the Jersey Shore, and from far-flung locations, including Burma, Namibia and Russia.