News cycle after news cycle this spring and early summer, the Dominican Republic has dominated the headlines...and not in a good way. More than 10 American travelers have died and many more have fallen ill after traveling to the island over the last half-year or so, and it's sparking widespread concern. But is that concern justified? The truth may be hidden in the facts and numbers behind the stories.
Let me preface this by saying that no travel to anywhere in the world is 100% safe. As responsible travel agents, we always recommend travel insurance, because while you hope it never happens, it's good to know that you have coverage in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, accidents can happen anywhere, even if you never leave your hometown. But I speak from experience when I talk about news and the way it operates. In my former career, I worked as a news anchor and reporter, so I know firsthand how stories get chosen, picked up, investigated, and inserted into a newscast or newspaper. If you remember the terrorism attacks that affected France and Belgium a few years ago, so do I, because I was in the newsroom covering them, and read them on air. For awhile, travel to Europe dipped, because, despite how small the chances of these attacks were, fear is pervasive, and these were newsworthy stories, so people heard about them.
Any time we see patterns, good journalists investigate. Paris, Nice, Brussels, and even Tunisia, a country on the other side of the Mediterranean from Europe, were all targeted by terrorist organizations in a relatively short time span. It made sense to report on and inform people of the incidents. It even made sense to look into WHY these attempts were successful, and how security may have, in some cases, failed.
So I don't blame the media for seeing a pattern in the Dominican Republic. The first reported death was shocking. The next ones that followed...well, now we have a pattern. I absolutely understand why the news media is looking into that pattern. But the other thing I know from my journalism background is that self-reported stories like these sometimes amplify the severity of the issues. I'm not discounting the sadness of these events in any way. But as the first stories were reported, others who experienced something similar have also shared their experiences. And just because we're hearing of more incidences recently doesn't mean that they are happening more frequently.
In fact, the numbers reflect that. Did you know that, according to the Dominican Republic Tourism Board, roughly 3.2 million Americans visit the Dominican Republic annually? OK, now do the math. The chances of a traveler dying on a visit to the D.R. is EXTREMELY unlikely.
Many of us also have inherent biases when hearing stories about foreign countries as opposed to our own. Compare the Dominican Republic statistics to violent crime rates in cities much closer to home, and you might find an unsettling truth. I (unintentionally) tend to drag my husband's childhood home through the mud from time to time, as he hails from Chicago. This is a city that will see multiple murders in a weekend, not even counting natural causes of death. Yet, we've become numb to that as Americans. And while we keep hearing from clients who are having second thoughts about traveling to the Dominican Republic, I haven't had a single person tell me that they're uncomfortable traveling to Chicago. (Even in Chicago's case, I'd again look at the number of visitors that travel there on a regular basis, and set aside any worry. Your chances of running into problems there are still pretty slim!)
But since I addressed our biases as Americans and media consumers, I'd also like to address my own inherent biases. Yes, I am a travel agent, and yes, the Dominican Republic is a popular destination, so you could make the argument that I am minimizing the concerns about the island for my own self-interest from a sales standpoint. I promise I'm not unethical like that, but don't take my word for it. I want to show you some more info from an unbiased source. If you go to the travel advisory section of the State Department website, you'll notice that the department has not upgraded the threat level in the Dominican Republic. This is a government organization dedicated to the safety and well-being of American travelers abroad, and they have no financial stake in whether you visit the Dominican Republic or not. What you'll see is that the D.R. remains at a level 2, the second to lowest level, on par with countries many associate with safety like the U.K, Italy, the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos.
It is important to take precautions anywhere you travel. Watch your drink no matter where you are. You would follow the same advice on a night out in downtown Minneapolis, so don't get lax on the habit on vacation. In fact, keep an eye on how much you're drinking - all-inclusives can make it easy to lose count, and the hot sun and dehydration you're likely experiencing as a result tend to exacerbate the problem.. Don't take part in adventure activities you aren't comfortable with, or ones that are offered outside of a legitimate tour company. Wear a life jacket if you're out on a boat or jet ski. Follow "no swimming" warnings on the beach. Basically, be smart when you're on vacation, no matter you go.
One last note: I am never going to encourage my clients to travel to a destination they aren't comfortable with. I've had a lot of people ask me about the Dominican Republic (or Mexico, or France, or whichever country was in the news at the time). I will give my opinion, backed up with information from supporting research or articles. But I will always let them know that they can make any changes they see fit. Some have decided to stick with their original destination. Others have rebooked somewhere else. Either way is fine. You won't enjoy a vacation if you're spending the entire time anxious about what might happen to you while you're there, and what's the point of taking a vacation if you're not going to relax and have fun? That's what's great about having a travel agent. We are here to help you plan and to offer expertise, but we leave a lot of the personal decision making up to you!
Hope all of you blog readers are having an amazing summer. And let me know where I can send you on a trip, next!