SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – The picturesque, sandy beaches of the Dominican Republic have become the backdrop for a rash of deaths of U.S. tourists at luxury, all-inclusive hotels.
Nine Americans this year have died in various hotels in the Caribbean nation in oddly similar circumstances – including one couple who died together inside their hotel room. Neither the Dominican ministry of public health nor the ministry of tourism has publicly shared the final autopsy reports showing the reasons why the men and women succumbed.
The strange cases - along with the recent shooting of ex-MLB star David Ortiz - has triggered a wave of speculation and questions from the victims’ families in the United States and has prompted many to question whether the island is safe for visitors.
Government data shows that the Dominican Republic welcomed more than 6.5 million visitors from around the world in 2018. In the first two months of 2019, the country saw more than 600,000 tourists - an increase of 8 percent compared to the same time last year. Of those 600,000, 65 percent came to the Dominican from North America, mainly the U.S.
An expert on Dominican tourism told Fox News Wednesday that the country should expect a temporary decline in visitors – particularly from the U.S. – this summer, which is one of the high seasons of travel.
He spoke on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
"I think the (downward) curve started in June and will continue in July before starting to recover again in August and September," he said.
He warned, however, that if Dominican authorities do not determine the cause of death for the victims, and soon, it could potentially be just as damaging to the island's tourism industry as the May 2005 disappearance of American teenager Natalie Holloway was for Aruba.
"If this is not figured out, it will be a catastrophe [for the country]," he said.
The 18-year-old's disappearance triggered nonstop news coverage in American media and calls for a boycott of travel to the small Dutch-controlled Caribbean island. While the island’s tourism has recovered more than a decade later, it saw nearly a double-digit loss in U.S. visits in the 12 months after Holloway's disappearance.
The handling of the case by Aruban officials – or mishandling as some critics described it in the months and years after – is believed to be one of the reasons why U.S. travelers decided to forego traveling to the island.
The tourism expert said he fears something similar could happen in the Dominican Republic if local officials do not publicly speak out on the cases and offer concrete details surrounding the deaths.
"It would be really bad if we end up with a 10 or 15 percent decline (in tourism)," he said, adding that not just the hotels would be affected, but other businesses and communities who benefit from them. "It's thousands and thousands of dollars that enter these communities directly or indirectly from the tourism industry.
He added: "A fall of 10 percent of tourism is a 10 percent fall of income for these communities."
The Dominican government, as well as the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, have emphasized over the last few weeks that the cases are isolated incidents and that the tourist destination is safe for travelers.
Gustavo Montalvo, the minister to the Dominican presidency, has reiterated the claim, saying no city in the island appeared in a recent report of the 50 most violent in the world by the Interamerican Development Bank.
“In that list of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world, there is none from the Dominican Republic,” he said during an event Wednesday hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in the Dominican Republic. “Actually, we find ourselves very far from any similar figure.”
The ministries of public health and tourism are expected to release more information later this week, sources told Fox News.