Tourism drive in the Dominican Republic

David Pye offers a sneak preview of the new luxury resorts of the Dominican Republic

A view of the beach at the Sanctuary Cap Cana Golf. Photograph courtesy Cap Cana, Dominican RepublicCap Cana–Juanillo Beach. Photograph courtesy Cap Cana, Dominican RepublicRoco Ki–beach view. Photograph courtesy Roco Ki

For more than 20 years, the Dominican Republic has been known as a Caribbean leader in all-inclusive vacations, competing with the likes of Cuba and certain regions of Mexico for that affordable niche market. But the eastern Caribbean nation is taking a new tack, and is poised to tap into new, luxury markets. The country’s growing diversity makes it an attractive and refreshing alternative offering new accommodation, limitless excursions and adventures, vibrant Latin culture and a choice of distinct destinations on a single island, all within a short haul of major North and South American markets.

“A few years ago, the government started looking at ways to drive tourism numbers higher,” says Magaly Toribio, vice-minister of tourism in the Dominican government. “With the all-inclusive market covered, a decision was made to develop a brand-new product that would help position the Dominican Republic as one of the most diverse destinations in the Caribbean.”

After altering its laws on foreign ownership and repatriating profits, the Dominican government has invested more than US$400 million in infrastructure improvements over the past four years alone, to demonstrate its commitment to future development and bolster confidence in the private sector. In 2007, that confidence led to the opening of more than 3,000 new hotel rooms across the island, 70 per cent of which fall into the luxury category. As private-sector investors began jostling for positions on the development bandwagon, the government announced an additional US$1 billion for infrastructure improvements, including building new highways, expanding airports, and coastal regeneration projects slated for completion by 2012.

The Dominican Republic has attracted investors who include Julio Iglesias, Oscar de la Renta and Donald Trump: the latter is involved in the multi-billion- dollar Cap Cana project on the  eastern coast. The 30,000-acre development—twice the size of Manhattan—will feature 5.5 kilometres of white-sand beach, 5,000 residential units, three Jack Nicklaus Signature golf courses and six luxury hotels, including Ritz-Carlton’s latest addition to its Caribbean portfolio.

Ellis Perez, vice president for commercial and institutional relations at Cap Cana, says, “About two years ago, Bill Marriott, chairman of Marriott Corporation (owners of Ritz-Carlton), noticed that things were happening in the Dominican Republic and came down to take a look for himself. After visiting some of the top developments…he set foot on Juanillo Beach and said that it was the most beautiful beach he had seen in the Caribbean.”

Marriott reportedly pointed to a spot along the beach where he said he would like to build a hotel. The rest is history in the making. Set to open in late 2010, Ritz-Carlton Cap Cana will include 220 luxurious rooms, as well as a 16,000-square-foot spa, a private beach club, five restaurants and lounges and a Jack Nicklaus golf course. The project will also include 194 privately owned residences and will be the 10th Caribbean property for the luxury hotel chain.

Cap Cana’s current offerings include the five-star Sanctuary Cap Cana Golf & Spa, an Altabella hotel overlooking a bluff high above the Caribbean coastline. Also completed is Punta Espada, the first of the Nicklaus-designed golf courses and the latest addition to the PGA’s Champions Tour.

Also in the Punta Cana region, Roco Ki is another mega-resort project in the making. The 2,500-acre development will feature seven branded resorts, including two—Fairmont Roco Ki and Westin Roco Ki Beach & Golf Resort—which are scheduled to open in 2009. Fairmont Roco Ki will feature 255 hotel rooms and several residential units, as well as a spa. Westin Roco Ki Beach & Golf Resort will feature 157 guest rooms, 32 bungalows and a 20,000-square-foot conference centre. The Westin property will also feature an 11,500-square-foot “Heavenly Spa,” six restaurants, four bar/lounges and five pools. Both resorts will have access to a new championship golf course designed by Nick Faldo.

Another luxury brand that has recognised the increasing value of the Dominican landscape is Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. The chain’s Casa de Campo Resort is set to open in late 2009 and will feature 200 rooms on a 67-acre property boasting 3,100 feet of beachfront. Built at a cost of US$120 million, the Four Seasons property will include “super-suites” starting at US$10,000 a night.

One of the most significant undertakings of the Dominican government in recent years has been the transformation of the Samana peninsula—a northeast region known for its whale-watching, natural beauty and Taino caves. Just a few years ago, Samana languished as a remote region with no tourism infrastructure, but today the peninsula is home to four five-star hotels, an international airport and a highway connecting it to the capital city of Santo Domingo. The development of the Samana region has earned the government credibility with the private sector as foreign investors have begun to realise the scope of its commitment.

“Over the last five years, the private sector has detected that there is a niche here for a high-end product, and that the Dominican Republic has the conditions and the potential to develop that product,” says Perez.

One of the Samana region’s unique offerings is Gran Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado, a 195-room retreat on a beautiful secluded island. Known as “Bacardi Beach” for its use in popular advertising campaigns, Cayo Levantado is a beach-lover’s paradise, with white powder sands and crystal-clear waters.

Further west along the north coast, a group of American investors recently reached an agreement with Aman Resorts—known for luxurious hotels in places like Bhutan, Cambodia, Bora Bora and Thailand—to develop a $60-million parcel of land in Playa Grande. The result will include a 40-room Aman boutique hotel, 40 new Aman villas and a 200-room five-star golf hotel to accommodate visitors to the spectacular Playa Grande ocean-front golf course.

In the Puerto Plata region, Canada’s Elliott Hospitality & Real Estate has turned their vision into reality in the tiny beach enclave of Cofresi, just minutes from the city of Puerto Plata. After launching the all-inclusive Sun Village Resort & Spa, Elliott bided its time until the market was ripe for something fresh, trendy and upscale.

“With the success we had with Sun Village Resort & Spa, we could see a shift in focus towards a more luxurious product was taking hold in the Dominican Republic,” says Derek Elliott, president and CEO of Elliott. “The country was clearly ready for change, and our new Maxim Bungalows fit right into that plan.”

The big picture began to unfold with the development of Ocean World, the largest marine interaction park of its kind in the world, just minutes down the road from Sun Village. The theme park followed up with a casino last year, as well as a large marina aimed at attracting some of the estimated 50,000 luxury vessels that sail past the Dominican north coast annually. That allowed Elliott to roll out its dream—a high-end condo/hotel project on land adjacent to Sun Village. Then an agreement between Elliott and the owners of Maxim magazine gave birth to the Maxim Bungalows, which opened last year.
The government not only anticipated that DR tourism arrivals would grow by five per cent in 2008, but also that the average spending of its guests would increase, thanks to these new developments. When these advances are combined with its successes in the all-inclusive market, the Dominican Republic may be well on its way to becoming the most well-rounded tourist destination in the Caribbean.