Where has tourism been heading recently?
I think that tourism in the Dominican Republic has gained a lot of strength. Firstly, the Dominican Republic is known as a beach destination. We have Punta Caña, La Romana, Puerto Plata, and Las Terrenas. They are fabulous beaches. The beaches here are beautiful in my opinion. I understand that the tourism sector needs to be organized better in order to be more competitive. People know about the beaches and charter tourism from Russia, Canada, Spain and Germany (mainly European tourism). American tourists also come here, given that we are located close to them.
But people are not only looking for beaches. If you stay on an isolated island for 14 days, all-inclusive and you go to the beach all the time, I personally would get bored. I need more. I am continuing to discover the potential there is here. There are areas in the Dominican Republic which are yet to be discovered, including Santo Domingo, and the colonial area. People talk a lot about it. People come and enjoy it, but it is not part of the tourist route in the country.
People talk about the new Coral Highway (Via del Coral), which connects Punta Caña to La Romana, and here. This reduces journey times. Today you can travel from Punta Caña to Santo Domingo in two hours. This facilitates travel between many destinations. Today I can offer you a more attractive package with five days at the beach and two days in Santo Domingo, so you can discover a bit more of what is over here. When I arrived five years ago, there was only one shopping mall, but now there are four or five. I think the city grew too much, without the population realizing. Now the growth is disorganized.
The overcrowding in some turistic áreas is overspilling to areas where the locals live. Is Santo Domingo prepared to cope with an increase of tourists?
The infrastructure has improved a lot. I think the past President was a visionary, because he did a lot to create infrastructure so that the city could continue to grow. There is a metro project and a port crossing infrastructure. One has to keep working on this. There is also something called “el punto de ordenamiento”.
The Constitution stipulates that the Government puts 4% of GDP to education, and this was never used to its full capacity. I think it is great that there is a program to get children into schools, instead of being on the street. I think it is all about increasing awareness amongst citizens. This reminds me of many years ago when I lived in Brazil. When I visited a small city, I went with my wife to a house which looked after children, and we went with bread, jam, butter and refreshments. There were children there who had never tried butter in their lives. If you go to the countryside, you will find that there are many things which do not form part of their daily lives.
Here it is different. You need to treat the water differently. You take these things for granted. You have to treat things with more care.
The tourism offering in the Dominican Republic is similar to that of neighboring countries. However, it is the leader in tourism.
I think the greatest strength here is the people. I am very fortunate to be here with a group of professionals who love to serve. Our customers have unforgettable experiences and our staff have a natural smile. It is not something you have to train them to do. I think the interaction between tourists and Dominicans are one of the greatest strengths this country has. In addition, the country has great natural beauty. I do not know if you have been to Costanza, but it is a mountain. In winter, the temperature goes down to 7 degrees. There are chalets with fireplaces. The Dominican Republic has everything – that is the perfect slogan.
We read some of your quotes in the press, where you said that the private and public sectors must join forces.
It is everyone’s responsibility, not just the Government’s. I think that all associations and corporations and the Government all have a responsibility, and if you work together, sharing objectives and defining strategies, we will achieve this. Today for example there is a program with a budget of $32 million for the colonial area. The architect who works in tourism is very competent and able to work on this. But you cannot work alone; you have to work with the Town Hall and the Police as well. Those are the goals we have in the Dominican Republic.
There is a serious issue regarding infrastructure. If it rains, there are floods. Electricity is improving, and areas are being developed which have 24 hour electricity. We have a serious problem with prostitution here. I remember two years ago I received some phone calls in my house and I had to come to the hotel here because there were over 40 prostitutes on the road behind here. But little by little, we spoke to the Prosecutor’s Office and the Police, and we created groups and we started to move them and take them out of the area. Today, if you walk by Malecón during the night, you will see tourists walking peacefully, whereas in the past you would not. I think it is about being aware that if you work together, you can all do something.
The Association has talked about the potential Santo Domingo has to grow, but all the main hotel chains are already here. What potential is there to continue growing?
I think it all depends on how we take the strategy from here. The cruise business is still developing. I think we still have a great opportunity to work and have a home port here in Santo Domingo, so we can receive the tourists. They can stay here for a day before the ship leaves. And the ports do not have the infrastructure for a conventions center. The hotels here do not have the capacity to hold large events. You need a conventions center for meetings. Hotel supply is developing. In 2014, Embassy Suites is going to open and the Marriot is going to open as well. People are talking about an NH as well in Nuevo Centro, and an Intercontinental next to Acropolis. I think it is like a fever – when one has an idea to do something, they all do a ‘copy – paste’. We shall see how it goes.
This is an atypical year given the elections. In April, demand declined as people were wondering who the new president was going to be. I am happy that the party won, because they can continue with many of the existing projects. We need continuity in government, even if you think in a different way and have different strategies. They can strengthen the political infrastructure of the country. I think we are at an interesting point when it comes to tourism. Many politicians think that tourism is not an important sector.
93% of electricity bills come from the tourism sector. So tourism is the driver. How are you trying to attract more tourists from the US taking into account the European crisis?
The US is still recovering from the crisis. We have been working with the Latin American market for a while. We visit Panama, Colombia and Brazil a lot so we can get more out of the potential there is today. In times of crisis, you have to look for alternative markets. If you depend 100% on the European market, and if Europe is in crisis, you are dead. If you split your market between 30% Europe, 30% US, 30% Latin America and potentially develop Asia, you are more likely to survive during difficult periods. The American market is always going to have potential, given the proximity to our country and the links by air, the economy and the people. We are going to continue to take part in all events. We always go to the US for events.
I think the free trade agreement between the US and the Dominican Republic (the CAFTA) really pushed things forward. There are companies today from Latin America that are working here, which depend exclusively on the US. There is a Brazilian company that makes wallets and shoes for Michael Kors and other brands. They employ over 1,800 people here in the Dominican Republic.
The second home sector is booming.
Yes. There is a lot of this in places such as La Romana and Casa de Campo, where you have the hotel and the weekend and holiday homes. Casa de Campo is beautiful; I love it. I remember when Cap Caña was starting to become well-known and there was a Cuban who was building a $20 million mansion as a weekend home. It is a paradise. There is potential across the island.