The Dominican Republic Struggles With Tourism Crisis

Thom Weidlich 06.27.19


The Dominican Republic, or rather its large tourist industry, is struggling with a crisis you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. The situation shows how hard it is to respond when you can’t know all the facts — including what’s causing the crisis.

For the past few weeks, the Caribbean nation has been hit with massive coverage of deaths of American tourists at far-flung all-inclusive resorts. While it doesn’t seem possible the fatalities could be related, panic is setting in; the New York Post reported yesterday that bookings have plummeted and cancellations have soared.

At least 10 Americans have been reported dead in the past year. There are also reports of tourists otherwise getting sick and being assaulted. And then on June 9, famed ex-Boston Red Sox player David “Big Papi” Ortiz  was shot in a Santo Domingo bar. That didn’t make anyone less skittish.

You can see how vulnerable tourism-dependent countries are to a crisis like this.

— Clemson University professor Lauren Duffy

Autopsy reports have shown these victims to have had heart attacks, septic shock, organ failure, respiratory issues, and pneumonia. So it’s hard to generalize about this. But, obviously, it’s not something an economy so reliant on tourism can ignore.

More than 2 million Americans visit the Dominican Republic each year, and the number of deaths is not unusual, according to officials. That’s what makes the crisis communications so difficult. The story has gripped American news watchers, and it would be a huge mistake for D.R. officials to try to downplay the problem (and, really, they haven’t).


“You can see how vulnerable tourism-dependent countries are to a crisis like this, and I’m calling it a crisis because they’re starting to roll out the media campaign and the crisis response,” Clemson University professor Lauren Duffy told The New York Times for a June 23 article.

Yet, official statements have been few and far between. The Ministry of Tourism released one on its Facebook page June 12. Oddly, the 308-word statement never mentions “death,” but is otherwise effective. The ministry says it regrets the “tragic situations” and extends condolences to the families. It stresses its commitment to safety. “Today, our sole focus is providing definitive answers to families that have been affected by recent events,” it says.

It mentions that the National Police are on the case, that the U.S. FBI is conducting toxicology analysis that might take 30 days, and that, to the best of its knowledge, each hotel complied with “established protocols and processes” whenever a problem arose.

It ends with a quote from the minister:

“‘We are confident that we can provide a definitive answer as soon as possible,’ Minister of Tourism Francisco Javier García said. ‘You can also be sure that the necessary measures will be taken to make the country even safer for all visitors.’”

Social Media

Wisely, the tourism agency has otherwise ceased all social-media promotional efforts. It had last tweeted on June 5, when it publicized something called #POPFunhouse, and posted nothing else since then, including on Facebook (it typically had tweeted about twice a day).

On June 10, the government launched a #BeFairWithDR campaign on social media to try to gain support; a main use of it has been to push back at late-night host Jimmy Kimmel for asking a guest who admitted he had recently gone to the DR, “Was there no availability in Syria?”

The spotlight has shone especially harshly on the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Punta Cana (pictured), where two Americans have died. The all-inclusive resort boasts minibars with regular-sized bottles dispensing booze.

At least one of the guests died when drinking whiskey from the minibar. The Hard Rock wisely announced it is removing the liquor dispensers.

That’s called crisis response.

Photo Credit: gg-foto/Shutterstock

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