Francisco Javier García, Dominican Republic minister of tourism

In a New York press conference Thursday, Francisco Javier García, the Dominican Republic minister of tourism, decried what he described as sensational media reporting of “unrelated” deaths and other incidents involving U.S. vacationers in the country, which has led to a sharp decline in American travel to the Caribbean nation.

“You have to ask yourselves: What happened in the [Dominican Republic]—is it true what they said happened or is it false?” García said at the briefing, moderated by travAlliancemedia CEO Mark Murphy.

The gathering was also attended by Carlos Castillo, consul general of the Dominican Republic in New York; Robin Bernstein, U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic; Rafael Blanco, vice president of the AsonAhores, the national hotel association; Alex Zozaya, CEO of Apple Leisure Group; and Bruce Wardinski, chairman and CEO of Playa Resorts.

Dominican Republic press conference in NYC

Discussing the case of a Delaware woman who says she was severely beaten at the Majestic Elegance Punta Cana resort in January, García disputed reported details of the attack and said the victim later filed a lawsuit that was dismissed. He also dismissed reports that characterized three deaths at the Bahia Principe resort complex in La Romana as “mysterious.”

García said Dominican authorities determined the deaths were due to natural causes but added that authorities are still waiting for results of the FBI’s investigation into the deaths. “We have our [toxicology] results, and we are at ease,” he said.

“The Dominican Republic is a well-developed tourism destination,” added García. “We have the best support for tourism infrastructure in the Caribbean. I personally have no doubt that good results will emerge from the FBI tests,” he said.

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At the gathering, Javier García also announced a presidential decree establishing a National Committee of Tourism Security composed of 16 government agencies, the Association of Hotels and Tourism of the Dominican Republic (ASONAHORES) and the Association of Tour Operators.

The new group will “further develop policies, strategies and programs for the prevention and detection of threats that undermine the country’s security,” the minister said. The committee’s formation follows an inter-agency tourism safety and security review launched in January.

The Dominican Republic has hosted 30 million visitors in the last five years, including 6.5 million land-based vacationers in 2018 and more than one million cruise ship visitors the same year. Nevertheless, the country has suffered a 28 percent year-over-year decline in U.S.-based visitors between 2018 and 2017, said Javier García.

“This has focused us to undertake a re-positioning campaign,” said Javier García. “This happened to the Dominican Republic today, but tomorrow it could happen to another country. We don’t want any privilege from the media. We just want the truth to come out,” he said.

“This year, how many tourists have died from violent actions in the streets? Zero. How many tourists have died at the beach or shot or robbed? None. How tourists many have been murdered in commercial hotels? None. Have any other things changed? Has our weather changed? Are our airports still operating?

Javier García continued, “Is the Dominican Republic a safe destination? The best answer is that the U.S. State Department assigns the Dominican Republic a ‘level 2’ security assessment level.” Javier García said the designation is shared by “safe” international countries including Spain, France, Denmark, Belgium and others that double as international travel destinations.

Robin Bernstein, the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, described the reports as “unfounded, negative news” and said the incidents involving U.S. vacationers stem from “totally unrelated issues.”

As part of her role, Bernstein resides in the Dominican Republic; she said Thursday she and her family have vacationed in the nation as well, traveling to several regions. “It is one of the safest tourist destinations I have ever visited,” she said.

“The [U.S.] government has worked hand-in-hand with the hotel association, the private sector and the Dominican government to make sure it is the safest country possible,” Bernstein added.