COVID-19 and Tourism in the Dominican Republic: What Does This Mean for the Industry and the Local Economy?
In early March, the Dominican Republic reported their first case of COVID-19. Dominican health officials publicly declared that the virus had arrived due to a tourist visiting the country from Italy, where the virus had been running rampant. For months, the Dominican Republic, like other countries all over the world, entered an indefinite state of pause: people were required to stay home and avoid crowding, local businesses closed temporarily, and the Dominican Republic’s world renowned beachfront tourist locations closed their doors.
The tourism sector in the Dominican Republic contributes vastly to their national economy. It’s a gateway for foreign exchange incomes, and creates jobs and revenue in the coastal regions of the country that are secluded from the more bustling areas surrounding the capital city. In 2018 alone, the Dominican Republic reached unprecedented milestones regarding tourism, that in return solidified their status as an esteemed tourist destination and provided justification for furthering the expansion of resort facilities and attractions on the coast. The Dominican Republic welcomed 6.5 million tourists from all over the world in 2018. They added over four thousand hotel rooms, and reached a hotel occupancy rate totaling 77 percent. Punta Cana Airport, the airport closest to the populous resort region welcomed nearly four million visitors.
The amounting pressure for tourism officials to kickstart the re-opening of resort facilities in the Dominican Republic comes after a tumultuous year for the industry following the publicizing of ten Americans who died while visiting resort spots. The media coverage surrounding these mysterious occurrences gave rise to an FBI investigation into the causes of these deaths, prompting many would-be visitors to rescind their traveling plans. In a study done by FowardKeys, a travel analytics company, booked flights to the Dominican Republic in July and August of 2019 were shown to have dropped nearly 74 percent. Minister of Tourism in the Dominican Republic, Francisco Javier Garcia, condemned the American media for their coverage of what happened to these fallen Americans, calling it an “exaggeration” and emphasizing that it is rare for tourists to be harmed in the Dominican Republic. An FBI investigation looking into the deaths that occurred in Dominican resorts was called upon. After claims that the tourists had died due to counterfeit alcohol, the FBI conducted thorough toxicology screenings whose results supported previous Dominican examinations: no foul play was involved.
Now, as the Dominican Republic begins to re-imagine what their country looks like in a COVID-19 world, they are met with the challenge of re-opening their tourism sector which poses the risk of another outbreak caused by the influx of travelers from around the globe. ASONAHORES, or the Association of Hotels and Tourism of the Dominican Republic is one of the leading entities within the tourism sector in the country, and along with the Minister of Tourism they have been revising regulations so that resorts can safely re-open. The date for the reopening of the country to tourists has been set for July 1st by the Minister of Economy, Planning, and Development of the Dominican Republic. This means that international airports will be restarting their operations, and hotels and restaurants will now be open to tourists and operating at the capacity that is demanded. Resorts, on the other hand, still have the jurisdiction to decide when will be the right time to open their doors again. The solidified date of July 1st now gives many potential visitors a clear answer regarding the fate of their already booked travel plans to the Dominican Republic. It is also important to note that while the Dominican officials have set this date and continue to exercise great caution and consideration to revive their tourism sector, their success is still reliant on the re-opening of other countries who have implemented strict travel related policies due to COVID-19.
Many of the talks being had within the tourism industry includes ways in which resorts and hotels can implement new safety protocols and guidelines that would ensure the safety of visitors and prevent possible COVID-19 breakouts from re-emerging. While the plans remain in the works, they offer an opportunity for potential tourists to see what could lie ahead if they choose to travel to the Dominican Republic. For individuals traveling by air, the beginning of a beach getaway may first include rapid COVID-19 tests, thermal cameras, required sworn health statements, and a thorough baggage disinfection process. Experiences for employees are also subject to change in order to remain up to speed with the demands of a global pandemic. They will have to follow strict biosecurity measures that will ensure that they are not being exposed to COVID-19 and then spreading it at their respective job locations, and will have to play a large role in continuing to enforce social distancing at pools, beaches, and resort facilities.
These drastic changes are part of a larger effort on behalf of tourism officials to do damage control. Within less than a year, the tourism sector in the Dominican Republic was hit by two crises—unwanted American press and COVID-19—which compelled officials to focus on promoting a different tourist experience that does not only involve all inclusive beach resorts, but a nation’s commitment to ensuring the safety and well-being of all travelers entering the country. It is undeniable that the plans to reopen resorts in the midst of a global pandemic are motivated by the need for economic alleviation—the Dominican Republic did, in fact, bring in about 50.6 billion USD through the tourism industry from 2012-2019 through the tourism sector. But this is also about reputation.
Tourism minister Garcia is vastly confident that tourism in the Dominican Republic will be revitalized, even considering the global health state, saying that they will position the country to be the best option for tourists to visit. The extensive safety and health measures that are being taken to combat the likelihood of a potential outbreak in resorts along with a widespread diversification of tourist offerings are very likely to position the tourism industry on a path towards economic relief. However, it is important to note that despite the efforts being taken to revive the resorts, hotels, restaurants, and excursions that contribute to the popularity of the Dominican Republic’s tourist regions, the local economy in the country still faces a unique struggle.
When I visited the Dominican Republic in 2016, my family and I stayed in my mom’s hometown, a small city named Piedra Blanca, in Bonao. I spent mornings in the Caribbean’s scorching sun, sitting on the porch of my mom’s childhood home eating guayabas that people from the neighborhood sold, and hanging out with the group of girls whose mother owned a clothing store in front of the hospital. Afternoons were usually marked by a visit to Margarita’s house—she was one of Piedra Blanca’s oldest residents who had turned her one story house into a dine-in restaurant. On some days, I would cross the bridge on the Juan Pablo Duarte highway and head into the other side of town where I would buy fresh juices and pan sobao with my cousins. In the evenings, people from all over the neighborhood gathered at Angela’s pica pollo stand. They would play cards, dance to merengue, and catch up on their days.
I was much younger during my previous visits to the Dominican Republic, only ever wanting to go because, like many, I loved the beach and endless piña coladas. This trip was different, however. For the first time in my life, I had realized that my profound love for the Dominican Republic is found in the people and what they do.
The Dominican people are vibrant with a rich cultural history. The allure of our tropical climate and pristine white sand beaches is what puts the Dominican Republic on the front covers of travel magazines, but the real beauty of our country is rooted in the traditional practices of locals that help preserve our culture and create an indelible sense of community that transcends any physical barrier. Our artwork, jewelry making, music, and edible delicacies, are not only cultural practices but for many they are a livelihood.
The tourism industry in the Dominican Republic is a privatized sector, so it is highly unlikely that the profit they bring in through their different outlets is being funneled into local communities, like Piedra Blanca. In making money and investing it back into itself the industry is able to create jobs, and better the infrastructure but only in their specific resort locations. Artisans, artists, vendors, and small business owners who live in the cities or countryside, hours away from the coastal resort regions, rarely get to reap the benefits of being the most popular tourist destination in the Caribbean.
For the month I stayed in the Dominican Republic in 2016, I bore witness to the labor, passion, and money that the locals invested into their work, and the ways in which community members rallied behind their peers and supported their endeavors in any way they could. I spent this month, however, surrounded by the same group of people. This was never a bad thing, for the people I met who became aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and friends to me encouraged me to rekindle a newer understanding of my identity and a deeper love for my ethnic home. However, I remember seeing the vast groups of tourists arriving at the same airport I did in Santiago, but never once saw a single tourist in Piedra Blanca.
“I appreciate those tourists…who come and buy our merchandise so that we can support our families”, said the local artisan woman in the video, Dinora Lara, who practices traditional guano weaving. Guano weaving is a delicate art that involves using the leaves of guano palms to weave into items like rugs, bookbags, and hats. Her story is one that applies to many people living in the Dominican Republic. An immense amount of work goes into creating locally produced items that are representative of our culture, and many people depend on sales of them to sustain their households and to continue being able to create. Tourism is an opportunity for visitors to help strengthen smaller communities, especially during a time like this when there have been disproportionate economic impacts to the local economies due to COVID-19.
If you travel to the Dominican Republic at any point in your life, I suggest that you strongly consider investing your money into the local economy where it will be able to have a direct impact on the people. Take a trip away from the comfort of your hotel room and visit a flea market to purchase some artwork or larimar jewelry, a stone that is endemic to the Dominican Republic. Stop by a colmado, a grocery store/bar/karaoke club/domino tournament location/WiFI hotspot/integral part of Dominican society, and stock up on an abundance of Dominican snacks and sweets that you will most likely never encounter again unless you find yourself in “Uptown”, NYC. Allow yourself to explore an authentic version of Dominican culture that cannot be found within resort grounds, whilst being open-minded, respectful, and generous. Regardless of where you decide to go, where you buy souvenirs to bring back home to commemorate your trip, or where you purchase Dominican treats that you hide in your luggage and smuggle back home because they’re so delicious (hypothetically speaking, of course), I hope that you always go local.
Jeysa Martinez | Pomona College
Jeysa is a rising sophomore at Pomona College where she is double majoring in Gender and Women’s Studies and Africana Studies. Jeysa was born and raised in The Bronx in New York City, to two immigrants from the Dominican Republic who from early on helped her become enamored with her Caribbean identity. As a Latin American Correspondent, Jeysa anticipates to highlight the lives and struggles of Latinx individuals in the Caribbean, particularly Afro-Latinx individuals, who face immense erasure within our community. In doing so, she hopes to challenge the flawed concept that is known as “Latinidad”, and bring more awareness to the social issues impacting our most vulnerable communities in Latin America. Jeysa is incredibly excited for the opportunity to make these important contributions to Latina Republic and to engage in non-profit work through her love of writing.