Anyone who’s read the news or watched TV lately has seen enough coverage about incidents affecting tourists to wonder, “Is it safe to travel to the Dominican Republic?”
Note: This information does not reflect current safety conditions resulting from COVID-19.
While all the facts are not in, the answer appears to be a guarded “yes.”
2020 Update: That “yes” is a little less guarded as the new year begins. Tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic were actually lower in 2019 than in previous years, and investigations into the highest-profile deaths found no trace of foul play.
As USA TODAY notes, “It would be a shame if travelers were scared off travel to the Dominican Republic altogether.”
Dominican Republic Travel Safety Is Making Headlines
The Dominican Republic is the Caribbean’s most popular destination. More than 5 million tourists visited the country in 2017, including 2.7 million Americans.
However, the Dominican Republic made headlines recently for the wrong reasons.
In the past year, as many as 11 Americans died under mysterious circumstances in the Dominican Republic, and IWasPoisoned.com chronicled thousands of reports of American visitors to the Dominican Republic coming down with foodborne illnesses.
Among the higher-profile incidents:
- A group of Jimmy Buffett fans who got sick at the Hotel Riu Palace Macao in Punta Cana
- A flight full of passengers who returned from Punta Cana, all with the same flu-like symptoms
- A group of Oklahoma high school students and their parents who got sick on a school trip
- A former “Bachelor” contestant who got sick at a resort
That’s not all the bad press for the Dominican Republic. There were additional reports of assaults and pesticide poisonings, and former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz was shot in a Santo Domingo casino in what appears to be a hit gone awry.
The FBI has even been brought in to investigate some of these incidents.
Officials Say The Dominican Republic Is Safe
In response to these incidents, the Dominican Republic government is assuring travelers that the country is safe.
“There is no such thing as mysterious deaths in the Dominican Republic,” tourism director Francisco Javier García said in a press briefing on June 21, 2019.
García added – accurately – that the number of deaths is lower than in other years. He also stated correctly that the tourist-death rate through June is in line with past averages.
According to State Department data, here are the 10 Caribbean countries with the highest number of American tourist deaths from 2014-2018:
“There is nothing to hide here,” added Garcia – a position later confirmed by the U.S. State Department when it told ABC News that it has "not seen an uptick in the number of U.S. citizen deaths."
Probably more telling, the State Department has not raised the threat level for the country. It remains at a two ("exercise increased caution"), the same level as the United Kingdom, Israel, and France.
However, mainly to combat ongoing public perceptions that the Dominican Republic is unsafe, the tourism ministry in July ordered a number of security enhancements, including:
- More frequent hotel inspections
- More monitoring measures of medical facilities located inside hotels
- Beefed-up requirements on the posting of emergency contact information in every guest room
- The establishment of an emergency tourist center
Travelers Question The Dominican Republic’s Safety
Understandably, some potential visitors were concerned – and travelers who were unconvinced by official statements either changed their travel plans or looked into changing their plans.
- There was a 45% increase in flight cancellations from U.S. travelers to the Dominican Republic in 2019, according to travel-analytics firm ForwardKeys, and bookings for July and August trips have decreased 59% year-over-year.
- The American Society of Travel Advisors reported that 60% of its members had a customer cancel a trip to the Dominican Republic.
- Kayak reported that flight searches for the Dominican Republic are down 19%.
- InsureMyTrip noted that search queries related to travel insurance for trips to the Dominican Republic were up 600% compared to the same time last year.
How to Stay Safe In The Dominican Republic
While last year's incidents do not appear to be part of a larger trend, here’s what you can do to make sure your trip to the Dominican Republic is relaxing and safe.
Stay abreast of conditions at your specific destination
Know – or ask – about the safe parts of town, the safest ways of getting around, and which clubs are okay.
Talk to local resources you trust – such as your hotel concierge – about areas to avoid when you’re walking alone.
“If you go out and explore, it may be wise to proceed cautiously,” says Cat Zuniga, an award-winning travel advisor at Tarverdi Travel. “Proper research is important.”
Check hotel safety ratings on TripAdvisor, or have your travel professional research safe areas and resorts before booking.
Keep your antennae up
“People on vacation just need to be more alert. They’re doing things they wouldn’t do outside of their own homes, let alone their own country,” Zuniga says.
Check your room before unpacking, especially windows and doors. Make sure the locks work and nothing has been tampered with.
In addition, Sharyn Alden, travel writer, recommends you:
- Make three copies of your passport. Keep one with you separate from your wallet and passport. Keep a copy at home, and give one to family or friends.
- Be judicious about the valuables you pack in your bags. And keep the bag itself conservative. Don’t carry around glittery luggage that looks like part of a circus act.
- Dress to blend in, not stand out.
- Before taking cabs or other transportation, read comments on TripAdvisor and other sites about safety and reliability issues. Ask your resort for advice on local transportation.
- When using cash machines, withdraw cash during the day, and not at night.
When it comes to alcohol, it’s everywhere at many Caribbean resorts, Zuniga notes, and it’s easy to overindulge.
Many Dominican resorts have complimentary, fully stocked in-room minibars. Check seals on bottles before taking a drink from a minibar bottle.
If you leave your resort, be especially careful of accepting a drink from a stranger.
Moderation and care are the best ways to approach alcohol consumption in the Dominican Republic.
Sign up for STEP
The State Department recommends signing up for its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which registers your trip with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
STEP can send you alerts about safety developments in the Dominican Republic, and help locate you in case of emergency.
In addition, you should:
- Follow the State Department on Facebook and Twitter.
- Review the Safety and Security report for the Dominican Republic.
- Review the State Department’s Traveler's Checklist.
Add an app
We recommend travel apps that can enhance your safety and security no matter where you travel. Among our safety picks:
- Geosure (Android) (iOS), which uses aggregated data and machine learning to give neighborhoods proprietary GeoSafeScores, and includes unique women’s and LGBTQ safety scores.
- TripWhistle Global (iOS), which lets you call emergency numbers directly from the app and shows your exact location, with latitude, longitude, map, and street address.
- bSafe (Android) (iOS), which shares your movements with loved ones, and sends out an alarm if you need help.
- NoonLight (Android) (iOS), a safe-button app that can automatically alert authorities and send them your location if you don’t enter a preset security code.
- FoneTrac (Android) (iOS) an app that lets you check in as safe—or send a panic alert—with the press of a button.
“Travelers want to be informed, confident and engaged with a rapid understanding of safety, granular to the neighborhood level,” says GeoSure’s Michael Becker. The right app can make that happen.
Cancel as a last resort
If you've booked your trip and are dead-set on cancelling, check your hotel's cancellation policy. Even if you bought your trip “on sale” or as part of a package, it never hurts to ask for a refund.
Just remember that cancellation policies vary and there may not be any obligation to offer you a refund.
In addition, Delta, Southwest, United and American have said they will consider flight change or cancellation requests for the Dominican Republic on a case-by-case basis. Some hotel chains, like Marriott, are doing the same.
If you think cancelling your trip might even be a possibility, read the fine print on airline and hotel cancellation policies before you book.
Get travel insurance
Travel insurance is always a good idea when you’re traveling overseas, but it’s a particularly good idea to buy travel insurance when heading to the Dominican Republic.
Look for a plan with robust emergency medical coverage, as well as emergency medical evacuation coverage in case you have to be airlifted for care, either on the island or stateside.
Along with that, choose coverage with medical emergencies as one of the covered reasons for trip interruption.
Travel insurance can provide peace of mind, but remember than most plans, including those offered by Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, don’t include fear that something might happen among their covered reasons for cancellation.
There are some great reasons why the Dominican Republic is the favorite Caribbean destination of so many travelers. The beaches are spectacular, the weather is amazing, the people are friendly, and the properties are outstanding.
The Dominican Republic can be a safe destination, too. All it takes is a little prudent caution.
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