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Friday, February 17, 2012

Record year expected for tourism in Dominican Republic

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Bond defaults, jitters about a double-dip recession, 9.1 percent unemployment — all the unrelenting talk of the tattered global economy doesn’t seem to compare to the draw of a few days on a Caribbean beach.

The Dominican Republic, the Caribbean’s top tourism destination, expects record numbers of tourists this year and next. It’s on pace to receive nearly 5 million visitors in 2011, topping the record set last year.

“The global economy is clearly having an effect on tourism, but the Dominican Republic is trending higher. It’s a growing and developing destination,” said Scott Sperling, senior economist at Pennsylvania-based Tourism Economics, which forecasts travel patterns around the world.

Tourism Economics recently revised its global tourism forecast downward. While tourist travel will grow, it will only increase by 2.5 percent this year, Sperling said.

But economic struggles appear to be working in the Dominican Republic’s favor.

“We are attracting the [U.S.] tourists who are not going to Europe because it’s far and more expensive,” said Humberto Ozoria, spokesman for the Dominican Ministry of Tourism.

Sperling said the total number of visitors to the country — arriving by airplane and cruise ship — is expected to increase by 4.7 percent this year and grow by a robust 5.7 percent in 2012.

“Because of the economic situation, Americans that used to travel to long-haul destinations have shifted their preferences to traveling to closer destinations,” the ministry said.

The country, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti, is less than two hours from Miami on a direct flight, and the government is trying to cash in on that proximity with the advertising slogan “Closer than you think.”

One of its television spots shows a woman bundled in a coat and scarf in a busy city peering into a vehicle’s side-view-mirror, which reads “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” She and her family are suddenly transported to a palm-lined beach and sights such as Santo Domingo’s colonial quarter and a golf course appear.

Motivated by a cheap hotel rate in an online advertisement, Maria Bruno, a waitress, caught a flight from northern New Jersey and was on a Dominican beach a few hours later.

“It’s easy. You don’t have to plan much. You get here and it’s taken care of,” said Bruno as she sifted through crafts and artwork at a gift shop in Santo Domingo, the capital. “Even with the economy the way it is, you still want to get away, especially before the winter.”

U.S. travelers like Bruno are focusing both on shorter trips and attractive prices, said Tim Mullen, president of Apple Vacations, the largest U.S. operator of tours to the Dominican Republic.

For many travelers, a getaway to the country means a stay at one of the many mammoth beachfront, all-inclusive resorts. In these compounds — for as little as $50 a day per person — tourists can hop from buffet to bar, pool to sea, taking in a session of water aerobics or beach volleyball.

The country “has always been the best value in the Caribbean; the all-inclusive values make it more popular than ever,” Mullen said.

Thanks in large part to tourism, the Dominican economy is forecast to grow by 5 percent this year, according to the Central Bank. Tourism supports 250,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, and tourists spent roughly $4.5 billion last year, according to industry figures.

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Source: Miami Herald

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