"Then, why be afraid of the Dominican Republic? Why be afraid to visit our country? We continue to be, as we have in the past 12 years, peaceful, dignified people, who are dedicated to democracy and to the decorum of free citizenship."
Pedro E. Morales Troncoso.
Minister of Tourism
WARM FRIENDLY and disarmingly direct in approach. Minister of Tourism Pedro Morales Troncoso walked into this office last month without a retinue. No lesser government officials carrying his briefcase no PR men to smooth or explain his utterances. He appeared to be an ideal choice for the job - to try to get tourists to return quickly and in large numbers to the Dominican Republic.
Only yesterday, it seemed, his country was riding high on a tourism boom. The image from the past - exaggerated somewhat as is the case with most images, good or bad - had mercifully faded. Visions of gun-happy citizens in Santo Domingo, the capital, of shootings and political tensions in earlier years, had disappeared. The words "volatile" and "unrest" had been replaced by "smiling" and "peaceful."
And it was all true.
"Since 1968 (wrote Sr. Morales in the letter he hand-delivered to met, the Dominican Republic has actively pursued tourism as a major industry. Although we have made great progress since then, we realize that we still have a long way to go.
"As one of the few islands in the Caribbean where tourism had barely been tapped as a means of employment, in the last few years we have secured a considerable share of the tourist market and have been recognized for our achievements International credit and financial organizations have developed a confident relationship with us as a direct result of our responsibility to all our loan agreements. This demonstrates the strong commitment we have to the tourist industry.
"In spite of these great strides, the Dominican Republic today faces a crisis of image, as a result of the recent elections that were held in May."
During that tense period, which began as soldiers occupied vote-tabulating centers when it appeared that opposition candidate Antonio Guzman, of the left-leaning Dominican Revolutionary Party, was defeating three-term incumbent President Joaquin Balaguer, there were only scattered reports of violence. But for a short time the city virtually closed down. Members of the armed forces openly favored Balaguer's re-election. The government said it had ordered the military to stop any harassment. (The June 15 deadline for declaring official results passed without action, and there is still concern that an attempt will be made to rig the election. Dominican Republic travel officials in New York reported last week that conditions were "calm and normal" in Santo Domingo, and that inauguration of the new president (whose victory still had not been announced) would take place Aug. 16.)
Morales shook his head, smiled sadly, and chose his English phrases carefully. Tourists who had been in Santo Domingo hotels fled the city after the military action. Many charter flights and hotel reservations were canceled. Morales noted. He deplored what he termed unfair publicity, zeroing in on some U.S. news telecasts that showed film of the 1965 revolution when U.S. Marines aided Dominican troops against rebel forces.
Hotel managers complained that the old TV film led travelers to believe those kinds of disturbances were again occurring. Newspaper reporters, pointing to the country's turbulent history, maintained that they were describing a situation that could explode.
Only now some visitors were beginning to return to the near-empty hotels, Morales explained.
There are 2,300 hotel rooms in Santo Domingo and an additional 1,300 elsewhere in the country, which shares its island with Haiti. Though North American visitors are in the majority, the national carrier Dominicans flies to Caracas twice weekly, Iberia flies from Madrid each week, and charters arrive regularly from other parts of Europe. Dominicana flies nonstop daily from Miami to Santo Domingo, Pan Am offers daily direct (same plane) service to Santo Domingo from Miami, via Haiti, and Eastern has daily direct service from Baltimore via San Juan.
Tourism is a very sensitive business, and loss of confidence among nervous travelers was to be expected. Morales agreed, thoughtfully repeating the word "sensitive." He listened quietly and did not comment when told I could not fully accept the sanitized government account of the recent crisis as outlined in material he provided:
"Unfortunately, at one point, the counting of the ballots was interrupted by an unauthorized military officer. This naturally was covered by the international press and created an impression of political unrest or instability . . .," Morales was quoted in one press release.
". . . the Dominican electoral process has come to an end." he wrote in his letter. "The Dominican electoral process is over. The Dominican electoral process, whether liked or disliked, has set a precedent of democracy which will motivate and serve as an example for all other American nations . . . There has been here a clean electoral process and the verdict of the Central Electoral Committee will be duly respected . . ."
Experienced travelers with a modicum of political awareness generally believe it is wise to avoid being in developing nations before, during or immediately after elections (and as history has proved, sometimes it isn't even a good idea to be in some so-called "advanced" countries at periods of possible domestic upheaval).
Though the recent selective violence in Italy has in no way affected the flow of visitors to that strike and strife-prone nation, Americans seem automatically to be more wary and insecure in some Caribbean and Latin countries. Thus, any indication of government incompetence or instability - especially on islands - can create immediate fears of personal danger.
Morales indicated he would soon be leaving on a fence-mending mission to Europe. He was still murmuring "sensitive" as he said goodbye at the elevator.
The visit of the Minister of Tourism brought home again the delicate nature of international tourism and the question not only of "Is it wise to go?" but also the sometimes related query. "Should I spend my money there?" One refers merely to physical safety; the other concerns moral and political or ideological beliefs.
Jane Morse's accompanying column discusses how difficult it can be in some circumstances to find out what is happening in a foreign country. Newspaper travel sections are generally not the best sources of information to help a traveler decide whether a developing crisis is serious enough to warrant a change in vacation plans - and magazine sections even less so.
Primarily, that is because newspaper travel articles usually run only one day a week (mostly on Sunday) and must be written in advance. The sections are not staffed or designed to keep up with fast-breaking news. In addition, on some papers and magazines, travel articles are little more than sugar-coated vehicles for promoting travel. Scant effort is made to include hard reporting, and negative statements are carefully avoided. The focus too often is solely on "where to go and what to do."
However, if current conditions and developing political and sociological pressures are discussed even briefly in a travel story (when germane), along with balanced, personal observations and evaluations, the worried reader can often find valuable additional guidance.
Of course, the socio-political consideration is not the only potentially touchy factor involved in making or canceling travel plans - and, it should be noted, some adventurous souls will let nothing deter them in any case. A good travel agent, harassed as he or she is today with a maze of changing air fares and regulations, makes it a point to advise clients about adverse situations - even if it may mean the possible loss of a sale.
Health conditions, for one thing.
This does not mean merely information about the need for standard inoculations for some areas. It includes, for example, the fact that malaria has become a real threat in many parts of the world and a prophylactic is available and often advisable. Or that mosquito-borne dengue fever (not the fatal kind) has been prevalent again this year on a number of Caribbean islands, and that the Center for Disease Control recently noted in a traveler's advisory that Puerto Rico has been reporting many cases. (The CDC emphasized that there is no reason not to go to Puerto Rico; the chances of a tourist contracting the flu-like illness are relatively slight, but travelers should be told about the mosquito's habits and should carry insect repellent.)
The Public Health Service has been concerned about sporadic outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness aboard cruise ships and regularly inspects and rates vessels on sanitary conditions. The last time the Travel section ran an article on cruise ship problems (March 5, 1978), with the names of vessels, one major Washington travel agent ordered extra copies for his own use, while another competent agent complained that the article "discourages travel."
But tourists must look closely at the daily stories on Page 1, and inside their hearts, in order to decide whether to, in effect, "boycott" an area by refusing to spend their dollars there. At the moment, supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution are advocating a travel boycott of states whose legislatures have not ratified the amendment. Millions of dollars in convention business have already been lost by some cities.
On the foreign scene, a boycott can become more complicated.
Travel is now a highly competitive business. Almost every country, large and small, has entered the race for a share of the so-called discretionary dollar. So when unfavorable conditions arise in a nation, and they are obviously unpalatable to large numbers of foreign guests - such as the crime rate and antagonism against visitors that triggered a massive defection of tourists a few years ago in the U.S. Virgin Islands and later Jamaica - governments that depend on this income usually act swiftly. (Changes were instituted by both islands, but as usual it took a long time to repair the damage to their "paradize" image.)
Guests should always respect the laws and culture of the host, of course, but they also have a right to expect respect and reasonable security in return.
The State Department naturally frowns upon the idea of each citizen trying to conduct his own foreign policy. Sometimes a boycott springs up more or less spontaneously, as was the situation a few years ago when Mexican tourism suffered heavy losses of needed foreign exchange. While there is little doubt that in that case the incoming president was already prepared to change the political circumstances that had incensed so many of Mexico's friends, and to direct his attention to tourism complaints, it is also true that the costly display of disfavor by U.S. tourists caused officials to act more quickly and decisively.
Yet not knowledgeable observer of U.S.-Cuban relations can believe that refusal of North American tourists to visit Cuba would cause Sr. Castro (who has weathered a long commercial embargo) to re-think his involvement in Africa, despite his need for dollars. (Diplomatic relations have not been restored, and tourism activity between this country and the "Pearl of the Antilles" remains small.)
How will recent U.S.-Soviet diplomatic tensions, the arrest of a U.S.-businessman and persecution of Russian dissidents affect growing tourism from the United States? Tens of thousands still go to view the Soviet enigma, and some Americans seek to make contact with dissidents in order to learn firsthand. If the Soviet Union is still a valid destination, despite concern about the government's violation of human rights, then what about South Africa? And what about travel to certain Latin American countries run by military regimes? And should we still consider the intriguing Chinese card, even though a massive dose of propaganda is part of every tightly controlled tour?
Apparently tourism, like politics, makes strange bedfellows. In the end, you take your choice and you pay your money. But don't drink the water.
Rosenberg is Travel Editor of The Washington Post