Dominican Republic Hopes a Little Cholera Won't Hurt Tourism

Pristine beaches, warm blue waters, tropical drinks. And cholera?

That's a stomach-turning image that tourism officials in the Domincation are desperately trying to fend off as their country's image as a tropical parades gets tarnished by the growing number of cholera cases sweeping the country.

Especially this holiday season, the country’s busiest travel period, officials are trying to down play the cholera cases and highlight the D.R. as a top tourist destination in the Caribbean.

“The CDC and the WHO (World Health Organization) all say it’s safe to travel to the D.R. You just have to follow universal precautions, like make sure the water you drink is purified and the food you eat is cooked well,” said Vanessa Welter, spokeswoman for the DR Ministry of Tourism. “But that’s the case anywhere you go.”

About 32 people in the country have been infected with cholera, which has killed more than 2,300 people and triggered deadly riots in neighboring Haiti. All of those infected in the D.R. have lived or worked near the border – areas far-flung from the opulent resorts that dot the eastern side of the island.

Still, the possibility of cholera spreading to all parts of the country has officials scrambling.

The tourism industry is training its staff on cholera prevention and is urging visitor not to leave resort areas. Elsewhere, officials have cracked down on the border, which has also been lined with chlorine-soaked mats, and have chlorinated the water supply.

The Ministry of Tourism also sent out a press release earlier this month insisting the country was doing all it could to prevent the spread of cholera. But the number of cases continues to rise, and no one can predict how bad it will get.

“It’s something to monitor because the reality is, if the number of cholera cases in Haiti continues to grow, it’s only in inevitable that it will also grow in the Dominican Republic as well – just because of the fact that the borders are porous and you have a large number of Haitian labor in the Dominican Republic,” said Cid Wilson, a prominent business leader and longtime Dominican activist in New Jersey. “It’s a very serious situation we have there.”

The cholera outbreak is shaping to be one of the deadliest in history. It already is worse than the last major epidemic, which hit Brazil and Peru in the early 1990s and lasted a decade. According to the CDC, Haiti’s outbreak killed more people in six weeks than the last outbreak did in over a year.

And while the situation in Haiti is devastating the impoverished country, Dominican Republic will have a lot to lose if the problem stretches eastward.

The Dominican Republic is the top tourist destination in the Caribbean, and its economy – the Caribbean’s second largest – is largely fueled by its tourism industry. Places like Punta Cana, Casa de Campo and Puerto Plata are luxury resorts that attract visitors throughout the world. So a dip in tourism could have widespread financial repercussions.

The country regularly gets 4 million annual visitors, and over 400,000 in December alone, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

And while the country has made efforts to minimize the cholera situation, some say they still have concerns.

Mercedes Cuvi, a junior at Cornell University in New York, travels every other year to the Dominican Republic to visit family and friends. But this year, the 22-year-old Dominican said she has reservations about going there.

“I wouldn’t go on vacation there because of the cholera situation,” Cuvi said. “I wouldn’t put myself at risk if there is no need to put myself at risk.”

Russian officials have expressed concern about Russian tourists traveling to either Haiti or the Dominican Republic, and have said a travel ban is possible. Puerto Rico has advised against travel to any cities that have had recent cases of cholera, including Miami. There are no advisories in the United States.

Eric Munro, owner of Travelwise International in San Diego, Calif., said people are not as concerned as they first were when cholera was first reported in the Dominican Republic on Nov. 17. And people are definitely not canceling trips there – out of 115 families who booked trips there with his agency the past month, he did not have one cancellation.

“And that’s remarkable because when it first started, people were definitely concerned about it,” Munro said. “But the government kind of played it down, and that helped because it made people think it’s not as bad as they first thought.”

But he stressed that like anywhere else you travel, people should keep in mind “travel beware.”

“You have to be careful where you eat. Don’t buy food on the street, or buy drinks from some little corner store,” he said. “You have to be careful because it’s your health.”

However, he cautioned against staying holed up in the sterile, all-inclusive resorts.

“Go and explore, but be careful,” he said. “Just use common sense.”

The Spanish-speaking country has usually been walled off from the problems of its neighbor, one of the poorest countries in the world. It has stayed at a distance from the coups and earthquakes that have further crippled an already fragile economy.

But the cholera situation is different, experts say. And unless the Dominican Republic, and the world, steps in to help Haiti rather than isolate itself to prevent cholera’s spread, the situation is only going to get worse, said Wilson, the Dominican activist. Because, he said, what is happening in Haiti is trickling over to the D.R.

“While it’s in its early stages, you want to stop it before it goes viral,” Wilson said. “You don’t want to be in a situation where people are asking themselves, ‘Do I reconsider my wedding plans?’ ‘Do I reconsider my honeymoon plans?’ Non-Dominican American travel will be affected. European travel will be affected. So the country has a high incentive to help out its neighbor.”

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