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Fewer Americans traveling to Dominican Republic since tourist deaths

Concern over deaths in Dominican Republic
  • Fewer Americans are traveling to the Dominican Republic since a series of tourist deaths there.
  • Flight bookings from the U.S. to the Dominican Republic dropped 74.3% from June 1 to June 19 compared to a year earlier. 
  • Meanwhile, flight cancellations from the U.S. to the D.R. during the same period rose, as vacationers eyed other islands.

The recent spate of deaths among tourists who've traveled to the Dominican Republic has left Americans leery of visiting the Caribbean island that welcomed more than 6 million tourists in 2018.

From June 1 to June 19, flight bookings from the United States to the Dominican Republic for July and August were down a whopping 74.3% compared to the same period a year earlier, according to data from ForwardKeys, an agency that analyzes more than 17 million flight bookings per day to glean travel trends and insights.

The downturn came after flight bookings for the months of April and May had been up 2.8% from the year-earlier period. The analysis "shows a striking correlation" between American tourists' recent deaths and waning interest in travel to the Dominican Republic, ForwardKeys vice president Olivier Ponti said.

Since the beginning of the year, at least eight Americans have died while vacationing in the Dominican Republic. Local officials insist the deaths are not out of the ordinary — nor are they linked — but American tourists' interest in the D.R.'s beaches and resorts has collapsed since the end of May with a spike in cancellations of pre-planned trips to the island.

Flight cancellations jumped 51.2% from June 1 to June 19, according to the same data from ForwardKeys. They rose even more — by 70% — after Leyla Cox became the sixth American to die in the Dominican Republic on June 10.

"It amounts to a dreadful image crisis for the Dominican Republic because the USA. is the No.1 source market for tourism to the destination and its economy is highly dependent on foreign visitors," Ponti told CBS MoneyWatch.

Not out of the ordinary

The Dominican Republic's health minister, Dr. Rafael Sanchez Cardenas, told CBSN that autopsies show all eight victims had at least one previous condition, including obesity, hypertension and alcohol and tobacco problems, prior to vacationing in the Dominican Republic, and that the deaths are not linked to one another. He added that local tourist deaths from natural and accidental causes are actually down this year, compared to previous years.

The Ministry of Tourism of the Dominican Republic also rejected the notion that the island had been plagued by "mysterious of massive deaths."

"We have unequivocally shown that there is not an avalanche of deaths of American tourists in the country and it is not true that there are mysterious deaths," Francisco Javier Garcia said in a statement to CBS News.

Neighboring islands capture the D.R.'s lost business

Jamaica, the Bahamas and Aruba — where flight bookings were lackluster in April and May — each apparently claimed some of the vacationers who decided to pull their travel dollars from the Dominican Republic. Bookings to these locales rose 26%, 44.5% and 31.3%, respectively, according to ForwardKeys.

Melissa Biggs Bradley, founder of Indagare, a membership-based luxury travel service, said she noticed the same trend among her clients. More Americans travel to the Dominican Republic in the winter months than in the summer months, she said, and so they are leaving the island out of consideration for Christmastime travel.

"A lot of people who booked a year in advance are saying we should be moving somewhere else," Bradley said. "And looking ahead to Christmas, we have had people saying, 'Oh well, maybe we shouldn't consider these properties because they are in the Dominican Republic.'"

This sentiment is borne out in online search trends. Flight searches from the United States to the Dominican Republic were down 19% for the first two weeks of June compared to the same period a year earlier, according to fare aggregator Kayak.

Lingering questions around some of the details of the deaths are driving American clients' hesitance, Bradley said.

"The stigma of the unknown is making people think, 'Well, I could go there, but I could also go to Jamaica or the Bahamas or St. Barth's where there isn't any kind of issue around this, so why not?' It is going to take a very long time for perceptions to dissipate," she said. 

Lingering fears could hurt island's economy

But some of the fear is unfounded, says Bradley, who has encouraged her clients not to rule it out the Dominican Republic as a destination.

"Certainly I understand at the resorts where people have had issues, people cancelling, but it's a very big island with multiple airports, and there has been no reason for people to think that there is an island-wide issue and to not consider a lot of properties that have never had an issue," she said.

It's still too early to see resort deals that are aimed at luring back Americans, she said, but the current mindset could spell long-term trouble for the island's economy. "Unfortunately a lot of times in the travel industry, one incident can take a country out of favor for a very long time," Bradley said.

Still, some travelers aren't letting the incidents get in the way of planned trips.

Jeff Shumlin, co-director of Putney Student Travel, said its student excursion to the Dominican Republic will depart as planned June 29.

"Our travel programs are community service programs in remote areas that don't go anywhere near resorts where people might be concerned about pesticides used in hotel rooms. We have contacts on the ground and have no reason to believe anything has changed that would compromise the safety of our students," he said.