The Dominican Republic is the latest popular vacation destination to find itself in the middle of a steady stream of bad news that could impact tourism to the country – and once again, travel agents find themselves in the middle, seeking to inform their clients while not contributing to what many feel is unwarranted concern for a safe destination.
So far this year, nine Americans have died in the Dominican Republic from so-called “unnatural causes.” The media also has reported on individuals being assaulted, and people falling ill – including a group of Jimmy Buffet fans attending a theme vacation.
As a result, Americans are nervous, with some even telling media outlets that they are canceling their Dominican Republic vacations. Others are posting on social media, or inquiring about ways to protect themselves – search queries related to travel insurance for trips to the Dominican Republic are up 600% compared to the same time last year, according to InsureMyTrip.
The string of media stories and social media posts have caused agents like Sarah Kline, president of Time for Travel, Ltd., in Davidsonville, Maryland, to post their own personal experiences, to dispel the notion that something is wrong in the Dominican Republic.
“I am writing this as a traveler and not a business owner,” Kline recently posted on her Facebook account. “I am not a heartless, unsympathetic person, who has not been affected by vacation mishaps. But I am a realist, world traveler and not perfect. I want to share MY story to show perspective on the fear and twisted information that the media is spreading. I like the DR, not love it, but it’s a solid value and a beautiful country, so I travel there, often.”
Kline went on to recount a 2019 case of food poisoning she blamed on her own poor decisions while traveling to the Dominican.
“I treated my body badly. I made bad choices. I paid the price. The resort or a person did not poison me. The resort or a person did not overserve me. The resort or a person did not make bad food.”
Kline was roundly supported by agent colleagues and friends for her honesty. She finished her post imploring her followers: “Stop being a follower and listening to the media for how to run your life. Open your eyes, make good choices for you and own your life, so you can travel the world through clear eyes.”
Ashley Morris, CTA, owner and travel designer at Alpaca Your Bags Travel, in Warrensburg, Missouri, fired a potential client recently, a referral who started their conversation with, “’I won’t go to the DR, so don’t even try to recommend it,’” Morris said.
“The DR fit her exact needs for beautiful beaches, short travel time, nonstop flights and a tight budget. She did not care to listen to facts or experiences, she only wants to believe what she’s read on Facebook,” Morris said. “For that, she wasn’t a good fit for me, and I blessed and released her.”
“It feels like 2017 with Mexico again,” said Brenda Young, a marketing consultant to the travel industry, referring to a similar burst of bad news that eventually led her and a group of agents to conduct a social media campaign that year to support the country.
For many, like Young, the issue is personal as well, and she wrote about that on a Facebook page announcing a campaign to support the Dominican Republic.
“All of us in the travel business know the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Caribbean, and we have friends that we consider family there. I am heartbroken at what a drop in tourism will do to them and their families,” Young said.
“The people are warm and enthusiastic about welcoming tourists,” said Morris, who got married in the Dominican Republic and frequently travels there for her own vacations.
“Reposting stories without reading them, sharing gossip without fact checking ... all of this hurts real people. I have business owner and tourism friends in the DR who are hurting because of these actions. These are real people with families to support,” Morris wrote in a Facebook post, and confirmed in an interview with Travel Market Report.
As they did in 2017, Young and a group of like-minded agents this weekend are launching a week-long Facebook and Instagram campaign to flood the platforms with positive personal anecdotes about the Dominican Republic, as well as tourism and safety facts. Agents are being asked to use the hashtag #ILoveTheDR.
“We asked ourselves, ‘How can we, as advisors, allow the media to impact the Dominican Republic and our business, and not do something?’” Young said. “This is a perfect opportunity for us to show our value, to offer information that can improve client safety when traveling.”
On the page hosting the event, Young wrote: “The fearmongering is back, and this time it is hitting the DR hard. Many of us have honeymoons, weddings and groups that were booked to the DR because it was the right destination. Our clients and the general public have been second-guessing their decision to travel and it is time they hear what we have to say. It's time to educate the public about travel and our services.
“Let's take this opportunity and share our experiences as we travel an imperfect world with caution but without fear. Let’s encourage people to continue to travel because, frankly, there is danger all around us and life can change in seconds, anywhere in the world.”
Young and others helping to organize the event are asking agents to post 10 or more of their own pictures of their travel to the Dominican Republic – “bonus points for any pictures you have with staff or local Dominicans, and post a little about how you know them and something about them.”
Ideally, the group said, agents should post at least once a day on each platform, accompanied by the hashtag #ILoveTheDR. Other suggested hashtags include: #TravelAgentLife, #TravelExpert, #DontStopTraveling, #FearlessTravel, #TravelAgentTips, #TravelPro, #TravelAdvisor, and #KeepTraveling.
As of Thursday, 76 Facebook users said they would be participating, with another 50 saying they were interested in the campaign. During the 2017 #ilovemexico social campaign, about 100 agents participated generating about 2 million impressions, Young said.
Facts over emotion
Trying to move the conversation away from speculation and emotion, agents say they want to point travelers to relevant, verifiable facts, to counter news coverage that they feel fails to inform clients of real and present concerns.
“I calmly remind them of the crime here in the U.S. Our news is sorely lacking in context. Once you put things in perspective, it’s easy to be logical and not emotional,” said Morris, who had one wedding group with concerns. “I tried to put the situation in context. It’s a handful of isolated incidents that do not make a pattern, despite what the news would have you think.”
In fact, the State Department told NBC News this week that, "We have not seen an uptick in the number of U.S. citizen deaths reported to the department." Studying reported deaths of U.S. citizens abroad from “unnatural causes” since 2007, the State Department noted that 15 Americans died in the Dominican Republic during the same six-month period in both 2011 and 2015, and 14 passed away during the corresponding months in 2009.
The State Department’s Level 2 travel advisory for the region has remained unchanged throughout the media firestorm.
“These deaths are unfortunate, and I don’t want to diminish that. But six million travelers visit the DR, and the chances of you being at risk on vacation there are no different than driving to work in the morning,” Young said.
“As travel advisors, we should always tell clients, go to the State Department website for warnings; be prepared; and third, use the same common-sense safety rules you use when you are home, like not consuming alcohol excessively starting in the morning, going to places that don’t feel safe, etc.,” she said. “Give them all of the tools to make an informed decision.”
“Just like any destination — including the U.S. — you need to be self-aware and street smart,” Morris agreed. “Don't do things that you wouldn't do at home. Be aware of your surroundings.”
Agents offer client communications advice to other agents
“When I've gotten inquiries, I've tried to pause, listen and try to really hear their concerns before assuming or jumping in with a response,” said Morris. “If she's asking about ‘the news,’ what is she REALLY asking? Is she worried about food? Drinks? Resort security? What is the actual root of the concern? I try to be the voice of reason and context.
“Since I work primarily with wedding groups, many of my clients are first-time travelers. They don't know about the security and gate access to resorts. Once we walk through their concerns, I show pictures, video, etc., and that usually helps people to feel better.”
But Morris, who spent a good deal of her pre-travel advisor career in marketing, cautioned agents to not be “too reactive, which could actually make things worse. As agents, we can't get caught up in the hype. These news stories are cyclical. If we overreact and dramatically skew bookings to another destination, that destination could be the next one in the news.”