Why is everyone going to the Dominican Republic?
By Heather Murphy
Some had come for the beach, some had come for the sun, others had picked it because, at the time, the COVID numbers seemed reasonable. Many had chosen it over resort destinations because getting there seemed easy. Still others liked the idea of not having to take a test to enter the country.
Together, they made up around 25 of the mostly American, Canadian and British guests enjoying the “Preferred Club” adults-only pool at Dreams Palm Beach Punta Cana on a recent weekend, even as omicron drove coronavirus cases to record highs in the Dominican Republic.
The pool, which is roughly 10 lounge chairs wide, offered a peaceful retreat from the boisterous main pool, which snakes out from the buffet to the sandy stretch of coastline the resort shares with around 90 other all-inclusives.
In the Preferred area, a teacher from Chicago quietly read a book as new resort friends from Michigan and Ontario chatted about whether the woman hanging out on her room’s private terrace about three lounge chairs away, was quarantining. They were pretty certain she was, given that she had not left her room for days. This was a bummer. So, too, was the fact that at least three other Preferred guests had tested positive since they’d arrived.
Still, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
They, along with all the other visitors who filled the majority of Punta Cana’s roughly 42,000 hotel rooms that January weekend, were part of what many consider a rare pandemic tourism success story. In December the Dominican Republic drew 700,000 visitors from abroad, more than it had attracted not only before the pandemic, but in any single month ever, according to the Ministry of Tourism. That pushed 2021 totals to nearly 5 million visitors, more than any other country in the Caribbean. In December, some financial analysts calculated that the country was having its best year economically in 30 years.
And Punta Cana isn’t the only getaway that’s booming in the Dominican Republic. Las Terrenas, a small seaside town that tends to attract a crowd that despises all-inclusives, has exploded in popularity during the pandemic.
The Dominican Republic’s visitor figures have to do, in part, with its unconventional strategy for gaining a competitive advantage. Unlike most Caribbean beach destinations, the country doesn’t require proof of vaccination, a COVID test or quarantine for most incoming travelers. Instead, authorities have chosen to manage COVID by pushing vaccination and mask wearing among those who interact with tourists. Nearly 100% of the 174,000 people who work in the tourism sector are vaccinated, according to the Ministry of Tourism. And though all-inclusive resorts require only a reservation to enter, many banks, government institutions and some shopping malls require proof of vaccination or a recent PCR test.
“We knew it was a risk and we wanted to take it,” Jacqueline Mora, the deputy minister of tourism, said in a recent phone interview. The strategy has worked, she added, noting that the country estimates that it earned around $5.7 billion from tourism last year while maintaining a COVID death rate lower not only than Mexico, the other major beach destination to take a similarly lax approach to entry, but also many far more restrictive countries, including the United States.
Until recently, few pushed back. But as omicron has driven COVID rates up by several hundred percent in the Dominican Republic (now categorized as Level 4, or “very high” risk, on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rating system), infecting many vaccinated people, long-simmering resentments about letting tourists get away with so much have surfaced among some doctors, politicians and resort employees.
In early January, more than a dozen lawmakers endorsed a proposal, supported by the president of the Colegio Médico, the Dominican Republic’s largest association of doctors, urging President Luis Abinader to require recent tests and proof of vaccination from visitors. The resolution calls the current policy “discriminatory,” given that “Dominican residents have to carry a vaccination card or recent negative PCR test, while visitors don’t face the same requirements to enter Dominican territory.” On Jan. 31, the government is requiring banks, shopping centers, restaurants and other public transport to ask for proof that customers have been boosted. Airports and all-inclusive resorts will not be affected.
In Punta Cana, off with the masks
Australia had been their first pick, but the borders there were still closed to visitors, said Michael Rogers, 28, an event planner from London, who was celebrating a belated honeymoon in Punta Cana.
“We’re the guinea pigs for our family. If we don’t get it,” he said, referring to omicron, “they’ll all go on holidays.”
Behind him, people were checking into Dreams Palm Beach Punta Cana. In 2021, nearly half of the foreign tourists who went to the Dominican Republic stayed in Punta Cana, at places like Dreams or the Iberostar Grand Bávaro on popular Playa Bávaro. Each one of the area’s 90 or so all-inclusive resorts is a bit different: Some are fratty party hubs, others are minimalist wonders. Some serve stale rolls. Some serve towers of fresh ceviche. Some cater to Americans, who made up nearly 60% of all visitors to the Dominican Republic last year. Others court Europeans, Latin Americans and Canadians who made up most of the other 40%.
The 500-room Dreams Palm Beach Punta Cana falls somewhere in the middle in terms of price and TripAdvisor ratings. On a recent Friday, staff members scanned visitors’ temperatures upon arrival and offered spritzes of hand sanitizer along with a glass of Champagne. By check-in, many guests were no longer wearing their plane masks, but it was nearly impossible to find a staff member who was letting their nose peek out. This was the first hint that guests and employees follow different rules.
This generally works for the guests.
“We’ve been dealing with it for two years straight and sometimes you just want to throw in the towel and live a little,” said Cara McQueeney, 27, a mental health worker from Concord, New Hampshire, as she and her boyfriend awaited their final beachside dinner. She was not trying to be careless; she’d been avoiding buffets. But she was glad that she didn’t have to wear a mask.
A challenging time
The arrival of the virus had come at a terrible time for the Dominican Republic’s tourism industry. In March 2020, when the World Health Organization upgraded the epidemic to a pandemic, the country had just recovered from a different crisis. In 2019, 10 American tourists had died there, several mysteriously passing away in their sleep. Ultimately, the FBI deemed that the incidents weren’t connected, but it was not good publicity. Visitor numbers fell by 9%, according to Mora. And then, just as they bounced back, the pandemic shuttered its borders.
For the 174,000 people who work directly in the tourism sector it was a challenging time. Though the government gave them money, a number of workers, including a maid, butler, server and concierge, calculated that they took home one-quarter to one-half of what they normally made.
When the country opened back up to tourists in July 2020, authorities briefly required visitors to show the results of a recent test. Then in August, Abinader, who has a long history in the tourism industry, took office. The strategy began to revolve around making entry as easy as possible. Through last April, the country offered to cover the costs of medical care, lodging and flight changes, should guests fall sick with COVID. The airport did continue testing some visitors randomly, a policy that continues, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
To this day, most other Caribbean nations require proof of vaccination, test results and, in some cases, quarantine, and they also may restrict hotel bookings to 30% or 50% capacity to mitigate viral spread, according to Michael Lowery, the executive vice president of consumer business for Apple Leisure Group, which owns Dreams resorts and CheapCaribbean.com, a vacation booking platform used by millions. He said that the Dominican Republic has been one of the two most popular destinations for his company during the pandemic — behind Mexico — because travelers don’t want to deal with restrictions and because resorts fill up their rooms, keeping prices reasonable.
“They’ve done a good job of keeping their borders open and allowing 100% occupancy in all the resorts,” he said.
Large groups, even bigger than before, began to flock to the Dominican Republic, said TJ Murray, the owner of Punta Cana Tours, a booking site.
Couples who might not have considered the Dominican Republic previously for a destination wedding began to see it as a sure thing for guests traveling from across the world, said Jennifer Collado, the owner of a wedding and events agency based in Punta Cana.
By August 2021, about a year after the Dominican Republic reopened to tourism, you might have noticed something intriguing if you happened to be looking at Kayak.com’s flight trends. For more than a month, destinations in just one country consistently displayed green, meaning they had generated more search interest than they had two years earlier: the Dominican Republic.
September, November and December were good months for the country. Tourism numbers surpassed pre-pandemic levels, and coronavirus case counts stayed low, typically hovering between 100 and 300 daily. But then omicron hit. On Jan. 12, a record 7,439 people tested positive in the Dominican Republic, far more than any other day during the pandemic. On Dec. 29, the country also reported eight COVID-related deaths, more than it had seen in a single day in months.
“The hospitals are full; children, old people, everyone, sick with COVID,” said Dr. Senén Caba, the president of the Colegio Médico.
He blamed the government’s lax entry policy for the suffering. Though people who work in the tourism sector may be largely young, healthy and vaccinated, they can still transmit the virus to family members and others. (Only 54% of the population overall is fully vaccinated.)
According to the tourism ministry the spike is not a reason to adjust the country’s approach.
“Omicron is everywhere,” and testing requirements offer countries little more than the illusion of security, Mora said. Willie Walsh, the director-general of the International Air Transport Association, a trade organization representing nearly 300 airlines, echoed this argument in a recent statement.
Asked if interacting with potentially contagious visitors all day made him nervous, Maiken Mercedes, a server at Dreams Palm Beach Punta Cana, said, “What gives me fear is not the virus, it’s not making money for my family.”
Other employees in the hospitality industry also expressed concerns that more restrictions would mean fewer guests.
But there has to be a way to encourage responsible tourism, said Ivan Lorenzo, a senator for the Dominican province of Elías Piña, which shares a border with Haiti.
“We cannot rationalize the human losses with what we generate economically,” he said.
Neither he nor several hospitality workers interviewed were convinced that requiring tests would derail the country’s growth. In fact, some found the suggestion that the lax policy is what’s drawing people to the Dominican Republic insulting.
The dreaded end-of-vacation test
No matter how much they try not to think about the coronavirus, at the end of the day, visitors have to think about it because the United States, Canada and many other countries require a test to reenter.
For Kelly Lynn Gasper, 57, a behavioral health nurse from Oakley, Michigan, the possibility was particularly nerve-wracking because early in her one-week visit with her 18-year-old daughter to Punta Cana, she’d started to feel like she was coming down with something. She took two rapid tests she’d brought and tested positive twice, she said.
Gasper was conflicted about how to proceed, but ultimately opted not to spend her whole vacation in her room, instead upping her mask wearing and avoiding indoor spaces. As her daughter, Caitlyn Gasper, who’d already had omicron back home, pointed out, other people were probably positive around her, but didn’t know it, so why should she be penalized for testing positive?
Much to her relief, Kelly Lynn Gasper tested negative that morning at the resort clinic. The results had come so fast — within a couple of minutes, instead of the 15 that is more typical — she had wondered about their accuracy.
Kris Milavec, 59, of Concord Township, Ohio, did not share Gasper’s skepticism, because earlier that day her husband and one other member of her group of nearly 20 had quickly tested positive and were now stuck in their rooms.
As to whether it was worth it, given that her husband, an anesthesiologist who was expected back at the hospital, was apparently stuck abroad, Milavec paused.
“I don’t think it was worth it,” she said as the rest of the group posed for poolside photos in their matching white outfits.
Enzo Conte, the owner of a software company in Quebec, would also prefer not to get omicron. But if he’s going to get it, he said, it might as well be while he’s staying at a beachside villa in the Dominican Republic. Since early December, he has been alternately vacationing and working remotely from Las Terrenas.
Should he test positive, he said, “I’ll just stay a little longer.”