Santo Domingo Cathedral is one of many historic sights in the city’s Colonial Zone. // © 2014 Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism
Powered by a strong year for tourism growth in 2013, the Dominican Republic is expanding its tourism infrastructure beyond Punta Cana with a particular focus on Santo Domingo.
Tourism arrivals grew 3.6 percent in 2013, according to figures released at the 2014 Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange (DATE) in March. A big part of that growth — 40 percent of the total — came from the U.S., the Dominican Republic’s largest market, accounting for 1.6 million visitors last year.
Tour operators at DATE confirmed a surge in travel to the Dominican Republic and credited increased air access as a major force behind the gain.
“We’ve seen huge growth to the Dominican Republic,” said Steven Bradley, MLT Vacations product manager for the Dominican Republic. “This growth mirrors Delta Air Lines’ increased service, particularly to Punta Cana. In fact, from January through the end of 2014 Delta is expected to increase service into Punta Cana by more than 30 percent.”
Delta Vacations reported substantial increases in destination weddings and honeymoons and vacations to adults-only properties in the country. Delta Vacations’ destination weddings business to the Dominican Republic more than quadrupled between 2011 and 2013 and honeymoon vacations increased five-fold, according to Bradley. Bookings to adults-only properties nearly doubled during the same period.
Santo Domingo Builds Up
While Punta Cana is powering along as the Dominican Republic’s primary tourism engine, Santo Domingo is seeing significant growth in visitor interest and tourism arrivals. A new highway between Punta Cana and Santo Domingo cuts travel time between the two destinations from four hours to two hours, which now makes Santo Domingo a feasible daytrip or overnight destination.
The city’s historic Colonial Zone, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is undergoing extensive renovations under the auspices of the city’s preservation society. Improvements include restoration work on the facades of more than 500 historic homes and buildings in the Zone and the removal of overhead electric cables.
Not all improvements in Santo Domingo are in the Colonial Zone. The new Sheraton Santo Domingo, formerly the Hotel Magna 365, has embarked on a $20 million renovation of the property. Renovations to the lobby, fitness center and pool with solarium have been completed, and room renovations will be finished later this year.
“The hotel is across the street from the malecon and most rooms have wonderful scenic views of the sea and city,” said director of sales Zenon Jimenez.
The Renaissance Jaragua Hotel & Casino is another iconic Santo Domingo property. The hotel closed in late April to complete a renovation project and will reopen in April 2015. The $30 million renovation will concentrate on the hotel’s rooms, public spaces, theater and meeting spaces.
“There will be no structural changes,” said sales manager Maria Checo. “Our goal is to reestablish the bohemian style of Jaragua while targeting the MICE market.”
In other news from DATE, Gray Line unveiled a new and flexible Santo Domingo tour that includes stops in the Colonial Zone, Chinatown, the malecon, El Mercado Modelo and the botanical gardens.
“We now have bus tours that allow hop-on hop-off privileges,” said Catherine Guzman, sales and marketing director for Gray Line Santo Domingo. “The 2.5 hour tour can be stretched out over a full day, with riders getting on or off at 16 different points of the tour. Buses depart every 30 minutes from each of these 16 points.”
Puerto Plata is the tourism region on the north shore that thrived decades ago before Punta Cana was developed. The general feeling about Puerto Plata among tourism officials at DATE was the destination has a way to go before it becomes competitive again, and its hotels need to be modernized and refreshed.
In November Puerto Plata opens a Carnival cruise terminal, which is expected to boost tourism to the city.