Dominican Republic tourist deaths spark concern, questions about resorts

Why We Wrote This

Americans flock to the Caribbean for its sandy beaches, sunny skies – and the safety of the resort bubble. When crime brings down walls between resort and host country, questions about justice and equality emerge. 

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A beach resort in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. A spate of highly publicized deaths of U.S. tourists at large resorts has led to a drop in summer vacation bookings on the tourism-dependent Caribbean nation.

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The lure of an all-inclusive resort on a Caribbean beach is a driver of U.S. tourism to the Dominican Republic. But several highly publicized deaths of U.S. tourists have hurt the country’s reputation as a safe destination and led to a sharp drop in summer bookings. The FBI is assisting with three investigations, and D.R. officials insist that there is no cause for wider concern.

For local residents, the U.S. focus on tourist fatalities jars with their everyday realities. Does justice for tourists mean justice for all? The furor has also exposed the somewhat nebulous distinction between life inside and outside all-inclusive beach resorts.

Critics say resort owners have resisted oversight of their operations, even as they advise guests not to venture beyond the walls. All-inclusive hotels “send a message of ‘you’re cut off from the realities of the world,’ which includes safety or risk concerns,” says Lauren Duffy, an expert on tourism and development. 

Dominicans who want improved governance argue that the spotlight on tourist fatalities should lead to a broader overhaul of the country’s justice system. But for those who depend on tourist dollars there is concern that fewer visitors will come. 

Since last year, as many as 10 U.S. tourists have died while staying at all-inclusive resorts in the Dominican Republic. Local officials say these fatalities aren’t linked and are not suspicious; in some cases, however, relatives say guests fell ill after eating or drinking at certain resorts. The bad publicity has led to droves of Americans to cancel summer vacations – flight bookings in July and August are down more than 70% – to a country whose economy is built around tourism.

This includes all-inclusive resorts that attract millions of tourists with the promise of international travel with the security and amenities of home; enclaves of wraparound security in often poor, unstable nations. But the reality is more complicated. International hotel chains, whether in the D.R., Mexico, Vietnam, or Fiji, can’t entirely seal off their facilities from the outside world, creating a clash of expectations that serve as an example of double standards. Does justice for tourists mean justice for all?

“For locals ... it takes twice, or three times the effort to get police attention following a crime,” says Juana Pacheco, who owns a gift shop on a pedestrian street in Santo Domingo. Lately she has felt the need to be extra vigilant after an increase in muggings in the area, and wonders why authorities aren’t investing in public-safety services that benefit everyone.

“I’m not aware of the resources that have gone toward these [tourist] cases, but there are other important things that should be worked on here,” she says.

The D.R. is one of the most visited international destinations by U.S. travelers, who make up nearly one-third of the nation’s 6.5 million annual tourists.

All-inclusive resorts are popular with foreigners as a safe way to experience a Caribbean beach holiday, screened off from local communities. But this isolation can be illusory – and it’s not limited to the D.R. In Mexico, tourists in Cancun have reported being served tainted alcohol, and possibly targeted for robberies on resort grounds after. In other popular tourist destinations there are reports of assaults by hotel staff, mysterious smells in hotel rooms followed by deaths, or poorly cleaned air ducts leading to severe illnesses.

In some of the cases recently documented in the Dominican Republic, families reportedly begged hotel staff to call ambulances and claim that resorts pushed timeshares over the speedy provision of medical care.

All-inclusive hotels “send a message of ‘you’re cut off from the realities of the world,’ which includes safety or risk concerns,” says Lauren Duffy, an associate professor at Clemson University in South Carolina who studies tourism and development.

Guests who stay in D.R. resorts say waitstaff or front-desk agents tell them they’re secure in the resort but that it’s not safe to leave. “It creates this safe-not-safe dynamic between the inside and outside, so [visitors] let their guard down when they go to places like this,” says Dr. Duffy. 

Tatiana Fernandez/AP
Francisco Javier García, Tourism Minister of the Dominican Republic, holds a copy of an online article in a local paper that cites the U.S. State Department suggesting recent reporting on the deaths of U.S. tourists were exaggerated, at the Ministry of Tourism office in Santo Domingo on June 21, 2019.

'We depend on tourism' 

Of course, the reality is less black-and-white. But the Dominican economy is so dependent on the tourism industry that big hotel chains are accused of flouting existing regulations and resisting calls for tighter controls over how they operate. When police are called by resorts to deal with crimes or suspicious deaths, they often respond quickly but their investigations are bound by the limitations of the D.R.’s criminal justice system. 

For many Dominicans, the attention foreign tourists receive – like quick police investigations and a dedicated unit for tourist zones – is simply on a different level than their daily realities.

“If anything happens [to a tourist] they are taken care of immediately,” says José Aníbal Peña, who runs a factory making tropical clothes for gift shops in Punta Cana and La Romana. 

He’s not upset by these efforts to protect tourists – “we depend on tourism,” he says. Some 300,000 Dominicans work in the industry.

Reliable data on crime rates in the D.R. is hard to come by. Dominicans have taken to the streets in past years to protest government corruption, but not specifically against police or the courts, says Carlos Pimentel, who runs a pro-democracy NGO, Participación Ciudadana. “There’s a general lack of citizen confidence in the justice system and police,” he says. “The justice system isn’t the same for everyone here, like the Constitution says it should be.”

A role for the FBI 

For the family members of Americans who have died at resorts over the past year, the government is taking steps to deal with the crisis and douse the public relations fires. The FBI is working alongside Dominican officials to do additional toxin screenings in three cases, including of a couple who died together in their hotel room due to respiratory failure. The tourism ministry said recently it’s working with the National Hotel Association to improve the safety and quality of food and beverages served to visitors.

Dr. Duffy is concerned the government is putting too much emphasis on resolving a public relations crisis, not seeking to overhaul its regulation of the tourism sector. However, Mr. Pimentel sees the spotlight on American fatalities as a wake-up call.

“I don’t think these realities should be hidden,” he says, referring to impunity, government corruption, and crime. “I think that [an unequal focus on foreign tourists] should serve as an incentive for the Dominican state to undertake the big transformations we need to provide true security to Dominicans, not just those who visit us,” he says.

Jorge Ulloa, sitting in a plaza in the colonial zone of Santo Domingo on a recent afternoon, isn’t so sure. He reckons the outcry over tourist deaths will soon blow over, and the Dominican Republic will revert to being just another tourist destination in the eyes of the world, a point he recently made on his Facebook page.

“The product (tourists seek here) isn’t the country, but a service infrastructure based on the natural attractiveness of the coast,” he wrote. “What is sold is an abstract Caribbean that’s indistinguishable to the consumer. The average tourist comes here and it doesn’t matter if it’s Aruba, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic.”

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