Above: Tortuga Bay at Puntacana
By Alexander Britell
The Dominican Republic has grown into one of the dominant tourism destinations in the Caribbean, nearing 5 million visitors in 2012. The country also led the Caribbean in hotel growth last year, with 224 new rooms. And at its core is the ever-expanding Punta Cana region, highlighted by the Puntacana Resort & Club, which includes two hotels, a Six Senses spa and the Westin Puntacana, which recently broke ground. To learn more about Puntacana and the state of tourism in the Dominican Republic, Caribbean Journal talked to Alberto Abreu, director of hospitality at the resort, about the growth of Puntacana, the planned Westin Puntacana and the Dominican Republic’s position in the wider Caribbean tourism sector, at the recent CHTA Marketplace conference in the Bahamas.
What have you been working on of late?
Thankfully, we have the most occupied airport in the Dominican Republic. We’re handling 62 percent of the arrivals in the Dominican Republic, which is extremely important. But the most important is all the all-inclusive hotels, which are a fantastic product that we put a lot of money into renovating, making huge investments, doing water parks, to improve the project. On our end, on the EP (European Plan) side, we have some other hotels which are the Westin, which is going to be a new EP product, and a couple of more EP projects coming up. So we expect that the Punta Cana region will have product for everybody. You’ll have the all-inclusives, which is very well established for many areas, and now you’ll have more EP products. We’re also having new projects like nightclubs — we have malls, we have an airport hotel which we built, the Four Points by Sheraton, so Puntacana is very interesting, because it’s not really a resort coming up with hotels, it’s really a city being built, a community. Whereas before you had a little bank station in a mall, now you have ScotiaBank and CitiBank. So you have a whole economy really coming up in the Puntacana area.
What potential do you see for the Westin project?
What we feel with Westin is that there’s a client that wants to go to an EP product, and for them to be comfortable going to an EP product, they have to hear a name that they know. And Westin is a fantastic brand. It’s for very activity-oriented, health-oriented people that want to have a fantastic beach, a path to run on, tennis courts,that kind of thing. So we really felt that, from the moment we decided we wanted to have an EP product at our resort, the first name that came into our heads was Westin.
Above: a rendering of the planned Westin Puntacana
Do you envision more collaborations in the future with Starwood Hotels?
Our relationship with Starwood has been fantastic. They have understood very well that we’re in the Dominican Republic, we’re from the Dominican Republic, and we’re investing in the Dominican Republic because we believe in our country. So we have a fantastic relationship — they’re extremely good marketers, and they’re a great brand. It’s the perfect mix.
Where is the tourism sector in the Dominican Republic right now?
I think it’s just going to get better. We received, through November 2012, 7 percent more people coming from abroad than last year. That’s huge growth. And the reality is that’s because our product is getting better. And we’ve obviously done a lot of things to market ourselves and position ourselves. But when you see 7 percent growth these days, obviously you’re doing something right. The CHTA marketplace was such a positive, because everybody’s so excited about the Caribbean. And we are the largest volume in the Caribbean, and obviously we expect to have great growth again in 2013.
I spoke with Expedia’s Marco Tagliatti late last year about the Dominican Republic and its ability to source Latin American tourists. Where do you see Latin America as a source market for the Dominican today?
Obviously, our biggest business always is going to be the East Coast of the United States, logically. But, for example, we have two flights a day from Russia — one from Moscow and one from St Petersburg — 747s with 500 people every day. Latin America has picked up considerably. We’re increasing flights from COPA, LAN and GOL. So we’re excited about Latin America. The only market that has dropped, and this has been true worldwide, is Europe, obviously because of the situation that’s going on there. But everything else has increased dramatically.
The Dominican Republic has embarked on a massive road network rehabilitation plan. Has that had any impact? And will that ultimately enable people to travel more often to Santo Domingo and Puntacana in one trip?
Obviously, we’re from the Dominican Republic —we’re not from Puntacana, we’re not from Samana, we’re not from Puerto Plata. In a perfect world, you’d have somebody land in Puntacana, spend a few days and then be in every place in the country. Obviously a great road system makes that a lot easier. There will be people that will do ti, and there will be people that will not do it. But our road systems in the Dominican Republic — and I don’t know the rest of the Caribbean that much to say it’s the best in the Caribbean, but it’s very good. In Puntacana and the east coast of La Romana, we have 17 golf courses. And right now, you’re able to get within all those 17 golf courses in about 35 to 45 minutes. That’s impressive.
How would you like the Dominican Republic position itself as a destination within the Caribbean?
As the biggest one! We’re a Spanish-speaking country. We’re a big country — we have 10 million people. Our city has two million people. So we’re a lot different than a lot of smaller Caribbean islands. But we have fantastic beaches, fantastic food and beverage, fantastic golf. We are a leader in the Caribbean in number of rooms, number of guests. So we want the region to grow. It’s not a matter of thinking, well, we want the Dominican Republic to grow and everybody else to suffer. Because if your competition is not doing well, they’re going to reduce the rates and then everybody suffers. We really want the Caribbean region to continue to do well. We have the most hotel rooms, obviously the most volume. But we really see that in our destination, we’ll continue to increase room rates, which is very important, because we have been on the lower end of room rate over the years, with all-inclusives being lower. But that lower-end product has continued to improve everywhere. We have all-inclusive product right now that is on the very high end of rates, and it’s getting very good occupancy. So the rate is going up, the occupancy is going up, and we expect that to continue to do well for the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean.