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A top-notch tourist destination

Interview - August 23, 2012
United World meets with Julio Llibre, President of ASONAHORES (the National Association of Hotels and Restaurants), who speaks about the Dominican Republic’s advantageous location and the numerous attractions the country has for a wide variety of tourist tastes
Many sectors such as tourism, energy and real estate have been accelerating the country’s growth to state it at its current growth of 5.3% GDP, leading Fitch Ratings to rank the Dominican Republic’s economy at B+.

Dominican Republic has been able to achieve this situation due to the exploitation of its geographical situation. We can talk about equidistance both to the United States of America, our main commercial partner, and Europe. This privileged access to these two huge markets has led to our nickname, “the navel of the world” – this being the reason for the proliferation of the free trade agreements. Commercial agreements with the United States, Canada and Central America (DR-CAFTA) and Europe, among others, are the platform from where all our economical projects are launched.

 In the current booming economical situation please describe the role of the private sector and how it has adapted throughout the time.

The most important characteristic has been their adaptability to change. In this global context we are now facing, Dominican Republic is positioned as an international hub of regional trade. Except for Cuba and Puerto Rico (Greater Antilles with Dominican Republic) the rest of the Caribbean Islands do not share our geographical position. Due to many reasons – political, strategic, structural and geographical – and because of the extraordinary network of national roads of routes, as well as the accessibility of our coasts, Dominican Republic is very welcoming for trade. In relation to infrastructure, there are seven international airports as well as several commercial ports in only 48,000 square kilometers. These facts visualize the country with an international perspective. 

Please expand on the participation of ASONAHORES in developing tourism and the Dominican branding.

Dominican Republic has always been known for its beautiful beaches and very high quality resorts, but I announced very recently the new tourist attraction of the country: Santo Domingo. People associate the Caribbean with small islands you can get around with a bicycle, but Santo Domingo is none of the sort. Santo Domingo is a big metropolis, an important capital of the country and it is developing more its tourism assets. There is a culture aspect: the Jazz Festival, the Cinema Festival, concerts, architectural, historic, gastronomy and arts scene. There is the traditional tourism of beaches and sand but with the help of the Government that has developed national routes where you can get from the furthest point of the island to Santo Domingo in two and a half hours, you can have day excursions to the city. As well, in Santo Domingo there is the cultural area, as mentioned, and the shopping malls, where there are seven malls like the ones you may find in cities like Miami, which are top-notch! Tourists on the beach resorts, cruisers, or business-related can enjoy this attractive city.

Please describe how tourism influences other sectors of the economy.

There are many areas that have many opportunities and many sectors still to be developed. Infrastructure is all developed and managed from the private sector. The seven international airports of the country are managed by private companies and have the highest quality of services as well as the highest standards of security. The ports too are managed by the private sector, many cruising companies come to the country and there is a big structure that needs to be developed to hold this enormous sector. Commercial airlines, airports, ports, real estate, golf and resorts, among others, are all sectors around tourism that can develop even more.

Is it true that tourism pays off 90% of the oil debt?

The oil bill accounts for USD 2.6 billion while tourism generates USD 2.4 billion, this means it pays off 93% of the bill. The importance of the sector is incredible, not only for the revenue generated in currency. There is a huge potential in tourism, the sector has not fully developed yet. President Medina wants to double the number of tourists that arrive yearly but I want to go even further: we should try to improve the average expenditure and the extension of vacations for longer periods of time, this way the whole economy could benefit immensely. Were this to happen, Dominican Republic would be the most prosperous country of the region. There were 17,000 vacant rooms in 2011; if we could increase the number of tourists by 10% and have 83% occupancy, it would have a tremendous impact in the economy.

Tourism is the cheapest mean of transportation of services as you are the receiver of the tourists. 85% of tourist consumption is national products: fruits, vegetables, pork, rice and beans are Dominican; no other Caribbean island is so autarkic. Every tourist is a force for the country. Were we to receive more tourists the multiplying effect for every sector in the economy would be astronomical.

Please complete, the best asset Dominican Republic has is…

…its people. In ASONAHORES we have a new policy that we are trying to implement to every Dominican which is “adopt a friend”. If every Dominican were to do this, we would have a loyal tourist in the country forever. Tourism sells an illusion, an experience and in Dominican Republic every resort has its own individuality and is different from the other. You have a completely different experience in Samaná than the one you have in Bávaro, Caberete, Sosúa or Puerto Plata. There are different individual programs that have to be developed to meet the requirements of the specific tourist. In Puerto Plata you find mainly Canadians, in Sosúa Germans, in Bayahibe Italians, in Samaná Americans; we have the capacity to pack a different product for every different market.

There is a huge market now in real estate, flats or villas that can be rented as a second home.

Yes, we find great places for American buyers in Casa De Campo, Roco Ki, Capcana and Punta Cana where American buyers can have the quality and services they are accustomed to in their home hotels. They will find golf, spa and very good gastronomy, not only in Santo Domingo but also in Cabarete and Las Terrenas; we have an amazing fusion food with Spanish, French and Caribbean cuisine. There are many opportunities too, in water treatment, the energy sector, pipelines and sewage, and education.

Please discuss the diversification there is in tourism in Dominican Republic.

In tourism there are still many subsectors to develop, such as infrastructure and the reinvestment in current assets. All-Inclusive hotels need a different kind of branding, tailored to needs, using other channels of communication and doing market research to address the specific markets. There is the traditional holiday of lying on the beach (sun and sand), health tourism, education (the country has a very important platform of education where foreign students go to Dominican universities or top-notch colleges we have, in general medicine, dentistry or hotel management – and along with the students come their friends, families, etc.), golf, spa, business-related, and fishing. This sector needs the work of both the private and the public sector, if we are to be what we want; we need tourism to be one of the most important issues of the political agenda.

Mr. Llibre, you have always been related to the public sector, first at the Banco Central for 15 years, as General Manager, and then in the hotel business as an entrepreneur.

After working in the finance sector I realized I wanted to turn to the private sector. At first I had a joint venture with a Spanish hotel but it ended. Later I understood I needed to expand more towards the American market, as they are the most advantageous tourists for us, they are closer to our country, their expenditure is higher and they are old friends (the U.S. is the most important trading partner our country has). Therefore I started a joint venture with an American Hotel and I created a company that manages condominiums such as Capcana and Samaná. Now we are independent from them, we also manage boutique hotels and luxury apartments with every service a hotel provides; there is golf, fishing and spa. It is the concept of ‘time-sharing’ vacation clubs; we now have more than 18,000 partners.

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