Everything old is new again, the saying goes. And nowhere is that more true than on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, where Puerto Plata is seeing a rebirth of investment and tourism.
The island’s historic tourism capital has been eclipsed in recent years by the larger and more modern resorts that sprouted in Punta Cana. But for the more adventurous among the growing flow of tourists from the U.S., Canada and Europe, the North Coast offers more to do, more adventure, and a more immersive and real cultural experience.
Investors have been noticing the demand, or vice versa. Expedia reports reservations in Puerto Plata were up 10 percent for the first six months of 2017, and a dozen new hotels are in the works.
Hodelpa Hotels has just spent $40 million on the all-inclusive Emotions resort on Playa Dorada. Opened in December, it boasts a spa, a gym, a coffee bar, 24 swim-up suites (a first in this town), and a high-end adults-only area with a private pool and bar. A casino will open when licensing comes through, expected in March.
The Viva Wyndham Tangerine, meanwhile, closed for three months to renovate all of its existing rooms and the pool area, and added a new 40-room building and international restaurant.
Other hotels are retouching to appeal to a more upscale market. The VH Gran Ventana Beach Resort invested $3 million in a new VH Atmosphere adults-only section that offers a VIP beach area with waiter service; transformed its buffet to feature individual cooking stations; and signed on to be part of Apple Vacations’ charter program.
The Iberostar Costa Dorada, meanwhile, renovated the lobby and bar, and added a new Japanese restaurant; next on the agenda is a renovation of the spa.
The Sunscape was completely renovated two years ago when it was acquired by AMResorts; now it plans to add an outdoor buffet, 10 or 20 more family suites, and a convention center that can hold 500-600 meeting attendees, hopefully by 2019, as well as weddings. The weddings business is growing fast — last year, the property hosted 36 weddings, and this year 25 weddings are booked in March alone, mostly from the U.S. and Canada.
Updating travel infrastructure
And with the success of Carnival Cruises, which has brought a million visitors to the island in the past two years, Royal Caribbean is not far behind as negotiations are underway to homeport a ship here as well, Hodelpa Hotels President Edmundo Aja told TMR.
“In 1989, Puerto Plata was the place to be, the city of tourism,” Aja said. “Now the whole area is changing again; the hotels are changing, the city is changing. When you go on vacation, you want a beautiful hotel but you also want to go out.”
One big drawback continues to be airlift. Where now JetBlue is the only option, Allegiant Air will begin charter service with Apple Vacations from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Mar. 2; and local officials are “very aggressively talking with Delta and other airlines, not just from the U.S. and Canada but from other countries as well,” Aja said.
A new highway scheduled to open this summer also will cut travel time to Santiago to just 45 minutes, opening the area to many international flights.
Indeed, Hodelpa, which now has 10 hotels in the Dominican Republic and is building in Samana, Santo Domingo and Punta Cana, also is looking for another piece of land in Puerto Plata. “I think this area is going to explode in the next couple of years,” Aja said.
Agents discuss selling points
Many travel agents agree the area is making a comeback and can be a good choice for more active and adventurous customers who want a different experience from the luxury all-inclusiveness of Punta Cana.
“It’s great for families with teens looking for soft adventure and cultural immersion, and an affordable option for multi-gen groups,” said Sally Black, travel agent and author of “Fearless Family Vacations.”
“It’s where I send clients that want more than a beach,” agrees Tracy Larson, manager of True North Travel Design in Saint Michael, Minnesota. “It’s great for cultural immersion, adventure, beach, and rum. All of the hotels are a bit smaller than Punta Cana, so it doesn’t feel like an overcrowded zoo.”
Mary Howard Evans, owner of A Piece of the World Travel in Brooklyn, New York, said that after an Apple Vacations fam trip to Sunscape last year, she has indeed sold the destination. “I like the idea of having some options” of things to do in the area (which include a water park, a town with restaurants, a cable car — and the best kite surfing beach in the world, according to Henri Goldfarb, president of the New York Kite Club, who sat next to Evans on the plane home). “Jet Blue to there from NY is so easy peezy, and Sunscape has great family accommodations, and club accommodations for adults only.”
Tammy Ruffini, of Travel with Tammy Ruffini in New Brunswick, Canada, agreed: “I have been sending a lot of clients to Puerto Plata this year. I have a group, a destination wedding and several couples booked to the Sunscape Puerto Plata. And the Bahia Principe has been popular, and one that I have personally stayed at. The VH Gran Ventana is always a popular one, well known for having the best beach in that area. For those who don't want Cuba but Punta Cana is too high, Puerto Plata has some good choices.”