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Last month, TravelAge West was on the scene as the annual Dominican Annual Tourism Exchange (DATE) unfolded in Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic. One of the most exciting developments discussed at the event was the imminent opening of a major new highway, linking Punta Cana to the capital city, Santo Domingo. With the opening of the Coral Highway, the grueling eight-hour roundtrip will be cut in half. This is sure to inspire more visits to the colonial city, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1991.
The Coral Highway is expected to be completed somewhere between July and September of this year. If completion stretches until September, it may be a good thing, however. One Santo Domingo resident, who preferred to speak off the record, acknowledged that the capital faced some challenges in preparing for the influx of tourists. In light of this, the Dominican government has allocated funds to renovate and upgrade the Colonial City, which will be the main transit point for visitors.
During the conference, the Dominican Republic’s minister of tourism, Francisco Javier Garcia, noted that the country welcomed 1.7 million tourists in the first three months of 2012, representing a growth of 9 percent. The minister attributed the growth to the familiar factors: climate, great beaches, tourism product and improved infrastructure.
“What the visitors like most is the way they are treated by locals,” said Garcia. “We have a natural quality — there’s a feeling of empathy between tourists and Dominicans.”
Pablo Piñero, president and founder of Grupo Pinero, was called to the podium by the minister. Piñero spoke of his love for the country, and his confidence in the Dominican Republic’s tourism future. Then, Piñero dropped a bombshell of sorts by casually announcing that, over the next five years, the company would build seven new Bahia Principe resorts in the Caribbean, five of which will be in the Dominican Republic. The effort represents a combined investment of $250 million. Piñero also noted that the company will proceed with the expansion of existing resorts in the area of Samana.
While Samana is a region packed with immense appeal, it is still a blip on most visitors’ radars. The region has a unique African-American immigrant heritage, stunning beaches, whale-watching and a mix of all-inclusive and E.P.-style resorts. What Samana needs to fully come into its own is direct flights from the U.S. It seems as though it’s on the verge of getting regularly scheduled JetBlue flights from JFK, but Fabeth Martinez Fernandez, executive director of Samana’s hotel association, did not make a solid announcement, although she noted that negotiations were at a very advanced stage. This JetBlue flight will be a real game changer for Samana if it comes to pass.
A pair of Punta Cana resorts was also announced at DATE. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide will debut its Westin brand in the Dominican Republic in late 2013 with The Westin Puntacana Resort, as part of the 26 square mile PuntaCana Resort & Club. The 204-room resort will have 16 suites, meeting and wedding facilities, a spa, an outdoor pool, poolside grill, lobby bar, cigar bar and children’s club. Guests of The Westin Puntacana will have complete access to the amenities at PuntaCana Resort & Club, including three miles of beach, 45 holes of championship golf, nine restaurants and a Six Senses Spa.
“The Westin Puntacana Resort will be the first property of its type in the region that will not be all -inclusive,” said Alberto Abreu, executive director of hospitality, PuntaCana Resort & Club. “Being an E.P. property makes it distinctive and we will be catering to groups.”
It was also announced that Grupo Puntacana and Starwood Hotels & Resorts have signed a franchise agreement for the opening of their first Four Points by Sheraton Puntacana Village hotel. Scheduled to open in the winter, the hotel will be located in the Puntacana Village residential complex, opposite the Punta Cana International Airport. The 122-room hotel will have meeting and events facilities, a lobby bar, gymnasium, swimming pool and other amenities, with direct access to shopping and restaurant options in Galerias Puntacana.