The Dominican Republic occupies the eastern two-thirds of the Island of Hispaniola, where Columbus first touched land in the Western Hemisphere, and this country stands today just about at that point where neighboring Puerto Rico stood 28 years ago -- on the threshold of becoming a major tourist target.
If the construction and promotion campaign works, as it should, the development of a tourist boom here will be a second chance for this country, which tried once before and failed. That was in 1955 in the waning days of its former dictator, General Trujullo, who dreamed up his own, rather private World's Fair and discovered it was almost impossible to persuade American travelers (the country's then and now major market) to visit it -- except for some of the polo-playing jet set with which his son raced around in the United States.
The formal inaugural recently of the Dominican Republic's newest hotel, Loews Dominicana, and its related Convention Center was a gala trigger for the proposed tourism boom, with a dinner for 600 Americans and Dominicans to establish the hands-across-the Gulf Stream atmosphere. If the several hotels projected for the north and eastern coasts of the country are as successfully designed (especially the dining rooms) and as well operated as the Dominicana, and if future prices continue at the same moderate level, the country's plans for the resort industry may well take off and reach a successful peak.
Lack of hotels and of properly developed resorts, and of transport to them, has kept the Dominican Republic lagging in the shadow of its neighboring and competing Caribbean islands -- even of little Haiti, which occupies the western third of Hispaniola and has suffered similarly from political and economic dictatorships.
Travel to Haiti also slowed to almost zero during the frightful years of the late Papa Doc Duvalier, who ran as tight a dictatorship as had Trujillo. Following his death, Haiti has begun to recover her rightful place in the American tourists' heart. For the last few years observers have been closely watching Duvalier's son, who succeeded him as President-for-life and promised reforms. While all is certainty not sweetness and light there, life in Haiti has returned so near to Haitian "normal" that its hotels are once again busy, and its visitors are enjoying themselves safely and comfortably -- if they can take delight in the natural beauty while not being too disturbed by the grim poverty. The gap between rich and poor has not been narrowed but there is more freedom.
The Dominican Republic is just now coming out of its own throes of transition from an iron-handed dictatorship, ended by a kind of palace revolution only in 1961. Its government today is groping slowly toward the form of some kind of a near democratic system with an elected president and congress. There is increasing freedom for individuals that is hard to comprehend by a visitor who has not been here since the heyday of Trujillo, when his bayonet-armed guards ringed the presidential presence in the Capitolio night and day, and his heavily armed soldiers stood very inquisitive guard at roadblocks along the nation's then crumbling highways.
The highways are much improved, many replaced by four-lane, divided superhighways; the armed roadblocks are gone; the police seem to spend more time directing traffic and less molesting the citizenry. A middle class, which did not exist under the dictatorship (one was either very rich or very poor) is now emerging. Witness the new automobiles on the streets and the unrestricted building of condominium apartments. And Dominican currency is openly and freely black-marketed on every streetcorner in town, a sure sign of individual enterprise, if not freedom!
For example, the Dominican peso is artificially pegged at one peso for one U.S. dollar when exchanged at banks and hotels. But there is a vibrant black market with taxi drivers working out of hotel cab ranks discounting at 15 per cent -- 115 pesos for $100. But downtown street peddlers run after you offering 118 to 120 pesos for $100, the supply and demand for dollars setting the market rate each day. I mentioned our 15-per-cent deal with a cabby to a very high-ranking Dominican official who said, without blinking an eye, "That's not a good rate -- it's 118 downtown."
The government apparently accepts the black market as a way to help merchants get dollars they need to import goods from the States. Policemen are said to make change openly in the street for black marketers who need small bills to complete their "illegal" transactions. Paying hotel bills and taxis, shopping, and even losing at the gambling casinos with pesos discounted 18 per cent can cut the cost of a Dominican holiday and extend the travel budget. But don't exchange more than you can spend -- you cannot convert black-market pesos back to dollars without an official bank receipt.
The 320-room Dominicana Hotel is in the capital's residential outskirts, a 10-minute drive from downtown, 45 minutes from International Airport, which itself is 3 hours, 10 minutes non-stop from New York and 40 minutes from Puerto Rico. It is not on the water, since zoning rules do not permit hotels to crowd onto and overwhelm the beaches, as they have on other islands.
Besides, there are no good bathing beaches near the capital, the nearest being Boca Chica's volcanic black sands not far from the airport. The good sand beaches are near the south-eastern tip of the island and on the eastern and northern coasts, sites for the new hotels.
The Dominicana, which cost nearly $15 million, is L-shaped in eight stories of white concrete, with the Convention Center attached to its entrance side. The large pool and handsome and expansive gardens and sunbathing areas are on the opposite, enclosed side of the hotel, with seven fine tennis courts. Guest rooms are spacious with good bathrooms and closet space, and in the past few months the hotel has been taking in guests in small numbers preparatory to its completion and full opening. The management has put together a staff that is uniformly friendly, courteous, hard-working and eager to be helpful.
This is one of the charms of this country -- its people are warm and spontaneously friendly. Everyone we met from hotel staff through traffic policemen, cabbies, waiters, moneychangers, guides, passerby, fellow motorists who volunteered help when we looked lost at intersections, shop clerks, all made us feel genuinely welcome.
For all the busy role Washington and its various representatives are said to have played in the political troubles before and after Trujillo's assassination May 30, 1961, and the subsequent convulsions on the road back from the old dictatorship, the Dominican people appear to hold America and Americans in high regard. This invites reciprocity from the traveler and creates a warm relationship whose absence has been unpleasantly noticeable in the past in some other tourist islands and countries.
The two keys to the forthcoming tourist boom, in addition to the appearance of political stability, are the emergence of large Dominican construction companies (with non-union labor) well financed with local money, like the one that built the Dominicana, which Loews Hotels operates under a management contract, and the construction of new airports on the north and east shores.
At Punta Cana, the easternmost point of this island, a new airport is being built to handle planes big enough to fill the 300 rooms of a Club Mediterranee scheduled to be opened there by January, 1979. At Sama, a cape a few miles to the north, a new, small airport is being finished and a brand new government-owned hotel stands idle waiting for roads and transport to be improved.
The biggest airport of all is the international one at Puerto Plata, almost due north of Santo Domingo on the Atlantic shore, with an already completed runway that can handle Boeing 747s. It is being used by cargo planes while passenger terminal facilities are being pushed for completion next year. The American conglomerate Gulf & Western is already pretty well committed to build a new hotel at Puerto Plata, according to Roberto Valentin, ambassador at large for the Dominican secretary of state for foreign affairs, and former head Dominican tourism in the United States.
Gulf & Western is already deeply involved in sugar plantations, two good hotels -- the Hotel Romana and Casa del Campo Hotel and Villas -- and the entire city of Romana on the south-eatern point of Hispaniola. It also owns two major Santo Domingo hotels, the 260-room Santo Domingo opened only last year and the smaller Hispaniola.
Robert Preston Tisch, president of Loews Corporation, said that Loews Hotels is talking with Dominican officials and builders about another new hotel near Puerto Plata and that a decision is expected soon. The Puerto Plata hotels are still two to three years at least in the future, and Valentin said his government estimates it will take five years for full tourism development of the north shore beaches. In the meantime, Sheraton Hotel Corporation is completing its 225-room hotel in downtown Santo Domingo on the Malecon, the waterfront boulevard that runs along the Carribbean Sea. Opening is slated for sometime this summer.
With all this bustling activity and future planned growth, tourism has not yet displaced sugar as the Dominican Republic's chief export, nor cocoa which is a surprising second. Tourism probably ranks third, slightly ahead of coffee, which is suddenly becoming a big cash crop, with one-pound cans of coffee sold at the airport duty-free shop. Tourists from the States had been running above 100,000 a year until 1976, when they jumped to more than 400,000. Expectations this year are for 600,000 American tourists, most of them arriving for conventions and business meetings and on group packages.
Rates are quite attractive here, even at regular exchange levels. The Dominicana, for example, in the off-season from now through Dec.21, gets $25-$34 single, $30 to $39 double, with $13.50 a day additional for modified American plan. Dec.21 to April 17, the peak season, rates jump less than astronomically: $26-$44 single, $31-$49 double, plus $12.50 extra for breakfast and dinner daily. Children 14 and under sleep free in their parents' room. In the Caribbean these are bargain prices for this kind of high quality hotel.
Restaurant prices are comparable: a very good lunch with wine or good Dominican beer goes for $5 or less, and a complete dinner -- we ate outdoors and ocean breezes kept us free of mosquitoes -- starts at $10, and the food is good, in some restaurants excellent. Service is uniformly eager, enthusiastic and friendly. Group and convention special arrangements bring hotel and meal prices much lower than regular tariffs. By next winter the Dominicana hopes to have its gambling casino ready, making four Santo Domingo casinos. Inflation has boosted the lowest-priced roulette chip to 50 cents, the minimum bet remaining $1.
For some reason Dominican officials are looking forward most hopefully to the presence here the week of July 10 of the Miss Universe contests in the National Theater. They believe it will give their summer tourism, so far not too healthy a venture, a big boost.
To a long-absent visitor, the new "democratic" regime makes itself felt by the removal of some -- but obviously not all -- of the waterless, non-electric wretched shacks that used to mar Santo Domingo's profile; by the absence of the armed soldiers on guard duty, now seen very infrequently; by the building boom in urban renewal and slum clearance housing scattered all around and construction of stark white pyramidal apartment houses and condominiums for the newly-emerging middle class, and by demolition work and restoration of good old buildings.
There is plenty of age here -- the Catheral, which is said to house Christopher Columbus' remains, was started in 1508, completed in 1540, and stands today with its original mahogany doors, pulpits and furniture all in excellent shape. This, in old Colonial downtown Santo Domingo, is in fine contrast to the clean, modern buildings farther out that house the National Theater, Modern Art Gallery and the Museum that traces the anthropological history of Hispaniola.
Also old are the souvenirs -- native amber, which is the resin of prehistoric trees (60 million years ago) solidified by temperature, pressure and the weight of centuries, and mined by man for the last few thousand years for jewelry. Equally stable is the climate, ranging from a January low of 66 to a midsummer peak in the high 80s, but this normally tropically lush, green island is still suffering from a long drought that will need more of its recently begun rainy season to restore the green foliage, and even the lean cattle, to their former good looks.