Dominican tourism minister says autopsy results will reveal causes of deaths, insists island is safe

SANTO DOMINGO, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC – Beset by a rash of American tourists dying at luxury hotels and resorts on his island -- and recognizing prospective vacationers may think twice about journeying to the Caribbean getaway -- the Dominican Republic's minister of tourism passionately defended his island's reputation, stressed its safety and hit back at the critics he accuses of mounting "a negative campaign."

Francisco Javier Garcia sat down exclusively with Fox News on Wednesday to discuss the local government’s response to the deaths -- some of which grieving family members have labeled “mysterious” -- and how Dominican officials plan to quell the growing questions about tourists’ safety.

“I have been working in the capacity of minister for eleven years and this is the first time I have had to investigate the figures of visitors to the island,” he said. “What began as a news story has transformed and transformed and transformed into a negative campaign [against the island]. Not because it was mounted but it evolved.”

Francisco Javier Garcia, the minister of tourism in the Dominican Republic, insists that the Caribbean island is safe for travelers amid a rash of deaths of U.S. tourists. (Sipa via AP Images)

Francisco Javier Garcia, the minister of tourism in the Dominican Republic, insists that the Caribbean island is safe for travelers amid a rash of deaths of U.S. tourists. (Sipa via AP Images)

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Nine Americans have died this year on the Caribbean island in various hotels but from oddly similar circumstances – including one couple who died together inside their hotel room. So far, neither the health nor tourism ministries have publicly revealed the final autopsy reports showing why the men and women succumbed while on vacation.

Garcia told Fox News he's seen the final autopsy reports for all nine victims and said there is nothing in the reports to suggest the deaths were mysterious or nefarious. He didn't give any other details but said the autopsies are set to be made public during a Friday press conference.

A preliminary report shown to Fox News about the death of New Jersey resident Jonathan Allen, who died in the northern tourist town of Sosua earlier this month, stated he was a “ticking time bomb.”

The report said: “His organs were practically destroyed, with a biological age of more than 80 years old. He was extremely obese, weighing more than 400 pounds.”

The report said Allen had pulmonary edema, cerebral edema, a fatty liver and cardiac problems. Toxicology results were still pending.

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U.S. State Department officials confirmed to Fox News that the FBI has joined the investigation and is “providing technical assistance to Dominican authorities with toxicology reports for three recent deaths at the Grand Bahia Principe La Romana resort.”

The results may take up to 30 days to be completed, the state department said. The FBI did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment Wednesday about the completion date or results of tests.

The Grand Bahia Principe La Romana is where Edward Holmes, 63, and his fiancé Cynthia Day, 49, died inside their hotel room. A preliminary autopsy listed pulmonary edema and internal bleeding, including in the pancreas of both Holmes and Day. Holmes was also listed as having an enlarged heart and cirrhosis of the liver.

Garcia confirmed Wednesday that Dominican officials are still awaiting the results of the toxicology reports from the FBI and noted the island's leaders had requested the bureau’s assistance in the matter.

“Why the FBI? Because we have nothing to hide,” he said.

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The recent cases emanating out of the Dominican – which not only involve tourist deaths but also high-profile violence such as the recent shooting of ex-MLB star David Ortiz – have triggered a wave of speculation and endless questions from the victims’ families in the United States. It's also led some prospective tourists to ask if they'd be better off staying home.

“The campaign has become that anyone who comes to the Dominican Republic dies,” Garcia said. “What we seek is that the truth of the matter comes out… all we want is justice.”

He added: “We will be putting all our cards on the table and all the truth comes out.”

The Dominican government and the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo have stressed the deaths are isolated incidents and are not indicative of any breakdown in safety for tourists on the island.

The U.S. state department issued a travel alert in April for the Dominican Republic placing the country at a level 2 alert, meaning exercise extreme caution due to crime. Other countries with a level 2 advisory include Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Spain, France and Mexico.

In its list of U.S. citizens who died abroad from non-natural causes, the state department said 17 died in the Dominican Republic in 2017 with the various causes of death cited including vehicle crashes, homicide, suicide and drowning. In 2018, the number was 13. The list does not include those who died of natural causes.

Garcia said he does not have data of non-U.S. tourists who have died in the country.

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Local government data shows that the Dominican Republic welcomed more than 6.5 million overnight visitors from around the world in 2018.

In the first four months of 2019, the country saw more than 2.1 million visitors – an increase of 3.68 percent compared to the same period in 2018 – of which, nearly 40 percent were from the United States. In the same time period, the occupation of the hotels was at 84 percent filled.

“If every year, more tourists come here, it’s because of the treatment they are receiving and because of the levels of security in the tourism development areas,” he said.

Garcia acknowledged that the recent deaths – and the international media reports on them – will have an impact on the tourism industry to the Caribbean destination. He insisted that it would only be a momentary hit.

“Dominican hospitality is one of international standards,” he said. “I have traveled to countless countries [in my capacity] and I say that there is no hotel that I have visited in capitals of the world that have the characteristics of the hotels in the eastern region of the country.”

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He said, however, that the ministry plans to go “hotel by hotel” to determine the level of security already in place and determine what else needs to be done to improve its quality.

“We want to guarantee that the security measures are in place for our guests,” Garcia said.

Fox News' Elizabeth Llorente contributed to this report.