WASHINGTON — Democratic Rep. Adriano Espaillat announced several recommendations to better ensure the safety of Americans in the Dominican Republic after several US tourists died.
Espaillat, who was born in the Dominican Republic, visited the island from July 1 through July 6, where he met with local officials, staff at the US Embassy, and tourism executives. At least 10 American tourists have died in the country in the last year, according to the State Department, including at least five in 2019.
Among six recommendations provided to BuzzFeed News, Espaillat is urging Dominican tourist officials to increase standards for monitoring the quality of food and alcohol.
Last month, the local minister of health announced the FBI had begun testing bottles of alcohol at one of the Bahia Principe Hotels & Resorts properties. Three Americans died after staying at Bahia Principe resorts and another three US tourists told BuzzFeed News that they became severely ill after staying at the company’s hotel properties. Bahia Principe has stressed that there is no official correlation between the deaths and US and Dominican investigators have not said that the deaths are related.
Police, assisted by the FBI, are investigating potential poisoning from unsealed liquor bottles — at least some of the tourists who died or became ill reportedly drank from hotel minibars, the New York Post reported. The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino has removed all liquor dispensers from guest rooms, following two deaths at its hotel in Punta Cana as well, though the hotel emphasized that the decision was made independent of the deaths.
Espaillat is also calling on the Dominican government to increase the presence of the local police force dedicated to tourism.
While Espaillat pushed for further safety measures for tourists, he emphasized that the State Department has “not seen an uptick” in US citizens’ deaths and encouraged Americans to continue to visit the island. “I am deeply concerned about the recent deaths of U.S. citizens visiting the Dominican Republic. My office will do everything we can to get answers and understand these cases,” he said in a statement. “The Dominican Republic, though, continues to be one of the top tourist destinations for Americans.”
Tourism from the US to the Dominican Republic had decreased following reports of the deaths, according to Airlines Reporting, and refunds for tickets to the island purchased in the US has increased 127% from Jan. 1 to June 23, when compared to the same time period last year.
“No one really knows whether they died from alcohol poisoning or pre-existing conditions,” Espaillat said of the deaths in an interview with BuzzFeed News on Friday. But he noted that whenever an island experiences increased tourism, they have a responsibility to “step their game up” to protect visitors.
“People should travel there and I don’t see a difference between what’s happening in New York and what’s happening in Vegas,” he said. Espaillat’s office later clarified that he was “highlighting [that] what we are witnessing in the Dominican Republic is not just happening in the DR but at other destinations as well.”
In his report, Espaillat also noted that the Dominican government can engage in third-party contracts to help facilitate forensic autopsies and toxicology reports, as investigators continue to seek answers about the deaths of American tourists. According to Espaillat, facilities dedicated to forensic exams would ensure an “independent outfit” could produce “reputable” outcomes.
“That would bring back the results in a relatively short time,” Espaillat said.
Espaillat also recommended that the Dominican Republic’s Tourism Ministry mandate hotels provide information on emergency services, including postings on how to contact 911 in hotel rooms, and urged the ministry to offer “access to affordable emergency health services” for tourists.
This post was updated with additional comment from Espaillat.