Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic // © 2017 Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange
Feature image (above): The city of Santo Domingo was a hot topic during this year’s DATE conference. // © 2017 Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange
More so than ever before, this year’s annual Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange (DATE) tradeshow — hosted by the Association of Hotels and Tourism of the Dominican Republic (ASONAHORES) from May 3-5 at Barcel Bavaro Grand Resort in Punta Cana — showcased the Dominican Republic as a Caribbean hot spot.
The D.R. is a destination with the capability of enticing every leisure demographic, from families seeking an all-inclusive property to spring breakers preferring a rum-soaked beach break and jetsetters requesting to stay in a fashion designer’s legendary retreat. In recent years, the destination’s key points have included fun, sun, value and beautiful beaches.
And last year saw a record number of arrivals — nearly 6 million altogether in 2016 — but this figure is not even close to ASONAHORES’ official long-term goal of 10 million annual visitors.
D.R. officials know they’ve got a long way to go, but they’re excited about their prospects.
For one, the D.R. wants to increase business travel significantly. In order to reach this goal, it plans to diversify its strengths and resort destination profiles. Colonial architecture history will be restored in Santo Domingo, while eco-tourism will take the spotlight in less developed areas.
Additionally, with a 20-percent increase in DATE delegates and 1,000 more appointments in 2017 compared to last year, there are more players hoping to achieve heightened tourism goals for the D.R.
The numbers are strong: Last year, 5,500 new hotel rooms became available, yet occupancy still rose to 78 percent from 75 percent in 2015 — suggesting that travelers’ enthusiasm for the D.R. nearly outpaces the destination’s aggressive development. Furthermore, 3,200 existing rooms were renovated.
About 7,500 rooms are currently under construction, with 69 new hotel projects in progress.
Radhames Martinez Aponte, vice minister for Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism, referred to this trajectory as a “panorama of continued growth,” where new rooms “are driving improved product across the sector.”
Two splashy all-inclusive brands performed grand opening celebrations around DATE 2017: Luxury Bahia Principe Fantasia wooed the trade and media prior to the conference, while Secrets Cap Cana Resort & Spa threw its opening bash to coincide with DATE’s goodbye party. As the media and trade finished admiring the glossy new property, a host of island VIPs were just arriving to party in style.
While well-suited to handle most types of convention and tradeshow business, the D.R. is in hot pursuit of more MICE business. The tourism ministry and ASONAHORES have been working together to position the country as a MICE destination by attending targeted trade fairs and bringing in buyers to showcase the island’s many assets.
Tourism officials have created specialized itineraries for MICE clients, with a dual focus on the sprawling sun-soaked beach resorts of Punta Cana and the new convention center in Santo Domingo.
The D.R. has long been one of those Caribbean destinations where arrivals would transfer to massive all-inclusive resorts and stay on property during their entire vacation. This led to a misperception of the D.R.’s off-property offerings, and the tourism industry has prioritized changing this view.
Motorcoach stalwart Gray Line is one tour operator ready to provide a different perspective, with efforts including an entire new slate of tour packages. These tours showcase every aspect of the destination, from nature parks and cocoa farms to the colonial city of Santo Domingo and celebrity-friendly Samana.
Eight itineraries were showcased at DATE for travel agencies, tour operators and wholesalers; Gray Line will also work with all-inclusive properties that want to offer such excursions to their guests.
While Punta Cana is a major draw from a tourism development standpoint, tourism executives at DATE were outspoken in their encouragement for another beach resort beginning to grow again after having plateaued for several years.
The 2015 opening of the cruise port at Amber Cove first breathed new life to the area; it was then followed by the construction of 600 new hotel rooms.
“Puerto Plata is where it all started,” Martinez Aponte said. “Everyone is happy to see a resurgence in both renovations and what’s new.”
Of all the news announced at DATE, nothing could exceed the excitement around Santo Domingo’s much-anticipated new look. The “First City of the Americas” has gone through its share of tough times, including colonial buildings crumbling as crime and decay moved into the city streets. However, by working together closely, the tourism ministry, the municipality and the Santo Domingo Hotel Association have achieved a rebirth of the city.
The renovated Colonial City and malecon combine a rich historic draw with architectural diversity, plus 27 premium hotels, new retail and gastronomic lures. With the opening of its new convention center, Santo Domingo is also ready to become the “capital city” for meetings and conventions in the Caribbean.
In fact, Roberto Henriquez, president of the Santo Domingo Hotel Association, and Fabeth Martinez, the association’s director, concluded their press conference by publicly proposing that the city host next year’s DATE conference.