There’s trouble in paradise. A string of suspicious deaths in the Dominican Republic is raising serious safety concerns about traveling to this popular Caribbean island, and with the news of yet another American traveler dying there while on vacation, travelers are skittish. Their fears are being compounded by other highly publicized incidents, including the assault of a female traveler and a subsequent attack on a male traveler at the same resort, the shooting of a former Boston Red Sox player and a multitude of reports about mysterious illnesses in the Dominican Republic, including that of Melissa Rycroft, a former contestant on “The Bachelor” who got sick after a vacation with her family in early June.
The Dominican Republic’s minister of tourism insists that the country — which attracts 2.7 million American tourists a year — is safe. “The Dominican Republic is a safe country,” Francisco Javier García told reporters on June 21. “There is no such thing as mysterious deaths in the Dominican Republic,” he said. “There is not an avalanche of deaths.”
According to García, the number of recent deaths is not unusual and is actually lower than in some previous years like 2011 and 2015, when — through June — 15 tourists had died in the Dominican Republic. “We want the truth to prevail,” said García, who attributes all the deaths to natural causes. “There is nothing to hide here.”
García also pointed out that the U.S. State Department has not raised the threat level for the country, which was issued in April 2019 and remains at a two (“exercise increased caution”), the same level of countries like Spain and France. “Violent crime, including armed robbery, homicide and sexual assault, is a concern throughout the Dominican Republic,” reads the advisory, which has not been revised to include health warnings.
But Ronn Torossian, CEO of 5W Public Relations and crisis management expert, tells ForbesWomen this is the wrong response. “Officials from the Dominican Republic have not addressed the issues and events in a constructive way. They have been very combative and defensive with their response,” says Torossian. “These incidents have placed a dark cloud over the island. People are worried and have chosen to express their worries and concerns over social media, which spreads like wildfire. To dismiss these accounts as ‘fake news’ is a huge mistake — and they are ignoring the real problem. Multiple dead vacationers is about as serious as it gets.”
Many travelers are not taking chances. According to ForwardKeys, which analyzes airline data, cancellations by U.S. travelers taking flights to the Dominican Republic have increased by 45% between June 1-17, and bookings to the island for traveling during the upcoming months (July and August) have decreased by 59%, compared to a year ago at the same time. The American Society of Travel Advisors has reported that 60% of its members have canceled trips to the Dominican Republic planned by U.S. travelers. And Kayak is reporting that flights searches for the Dominican Republic have decreased by 19% since the beginning of the month.
Even travelers who are continuing with their plans are taking preventative measures. According to a new report from InsureMyTrip, search queries related to travel insurance for trips to the Dominican Republic are up 600% compared to the same time last year. “We are monitoring the situation and urging travelers to talk with their licensed travel insurance agent about their options,” Erin Gavin, travel insurance analyst at InsureMyTrip, tells ForbesWomen.
TravelInsurance.com, the fastest-growing online comparison site for consumers to search for, compare and purchase travel insurance, has also seen a marked increase in inquiries to their customer support lines. “Policies with DR as primary destination purchased year to date are up almost 60% over the same period last year,” says Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com. “In particular, this month, policies sold with DR as the primary destination are pacing to more than double (115%) the average of the prior three months.”
The country’s troubles began in May when a female traveler, Tammy Lawrence-Daley of Wilmington, Delaware, revealed on Facebook that she had allegedly been brutally assaulted at the Majestic Elegance resort in Punta Cana. It continued to get worse. In late May, Miranda Schaup-Werner from Pennsylvania died at the Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville in La Romana immediately after having a drink from her minibar. Less than a week later, Maryland couple Edward Nathaniel Holmes and Cynthia Ann Day were found dead at the Grand Bahia Principe hotel, part of the same resort complex in La Romana. This was followed in June by the deaths of Joseph Allen of New Jersey and Leyla Cox of Staten Island, New York, both of whom were found in their hotel rooms; Vittorio Caruso of Glen Cove, New York, who died on June 17 while staying at the Boca Chica Resort in Santo Domingo; and Susan Simoneaux of Louisiana, who died on June 18, a week after returning from her honeymoon in Punta Cana.
The State Department told ABC News that it has “not seen an uptick in the number of U.S. citizen deaths.” But since those deaths were revealed, many other families have come forward to report that they have lost loved ones in the destination this year, including Robert Bell Wallace, who died in April after having a drink from the minibar in his room at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino resort in Punta Cana, and Thomas Jerome “Jerry” Curran from Ohio, who died in January 2019. And that’s not all. In total, as many as 11 deaths have been reported from 2019 and there have been reports of other suspicious deaths from 2018.
Besides the deaths, there have been thousands of reports of tourists with food-borne illnesses in the Dominican Republic, according to the website IWasPoisoned.com. Many of the people had stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana, which recently announced that it is removing liquor dispensers from the minibars in its guestrooms. Adding to the country’s woes: a number of other highly publicized incidents like a group of Jimmy Buffett fans who became seriously ill while staying at the Hotel Riu Palace Macao in Punta Cana, a flight that was full of sick passengers and a group of Oklahoma high school students and their parents who became sick after a trip to the island. Another couple has filed a $1 million lawsuit against The Grand Bahia Principe La Romana resort over possible pesticide poisoning in 2018.
In response to the situation, the FBI is investigating. And the country is working hard to repair its reputation. Dominican Republic authorities have hired a team of “crisis management” specialists to help with the public relations nightmare. And the government has launched a #BeFairWithDR social media hashtag.
But Torossian of 5W Public Relations thinks it’s not enough. “Tourism to the Dominican Republic is likely to suffer for a very long time,” he says. “Who in their right mind would possibly want to visit there? The Dominican Republic needs to reassure the public that officials are doing everything in their power to keep vacationers safe and they have only just begun to feel the repercussions of not acting in a timely and constructive manner. If there’s any risk of danger, why visit the Dominican Republic rather than Aruba, Anguilla — or just staying home?”
Torossian points out that canceled trips aren’t only affecting the country, they’re also impacting multiple service industries. “The hotel industry gets affected, the airline industry, the hospitality market takes a hit – it all trickles down,” he says. “This is a very serious matter and from a crisis-PR perspective should be taken as a code-red emergency.”
So what should travelers do if they’re traveling to the Dominican Republic? Travel insurance is one option, though Sandberg of TravelInsurance.com points out: “It’s important to keep in mind, however, that while travel insurance does cover trip cancellation and interruption for a wide range of covered reasons, from unexpected illness to hurricanes, it will not provide trip cancellation protection for travelers having second thoughts about their DR trips due to the fear of the recent deaths and illnesses.”
But there are still options. According to TravelInsurance.com, travelers who booked their travel within the last 7-21 days may be able to purchase a travel insurance plan with an optional “Cancel for Any Reason” upgrade, which would allow one to cancel 48 hours or more prior to their departure date for a partial reimbursement. This is not available for residents of the state of New York, and there can be additional requirements. However, for some having second thoughts, it could be a good option.
Many airlines, including Delta, Southwest, United and American, have said that they will consider requests to cancel or change flights to the Dominican Republic “on a case-by-case basis.” Some hotel chains, like Marriott, are taking a similar approach.
For tourists who continue with their Dominican Republic travel plans, there are other safety precautions to take. InsureMyTrip shared the following recommendations from the U.S. State Department for those who decide to travel to the Dominican Republic:
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Do not physically resist any robbery attempt.
- Do not display signs of wealth, such as wearing expensive watches or jewelry.
- Follow the advice of resort and tour operators regarding local safety and security concerns.
- Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency.
- Follow the Department of State on Facebook and Twitter.
- Review the Crime and Safety Report for the Dominican Republic.
- U.S. citizens who travel abroad should always have a contingency plan for emergency situations. Review the Traveler’s Checklist.
When it comes to hotel safety, TripAdvisor is another resource. The site recently updated hotel reviews to include safety concerns reported by guests.