Dominican Republic Reviving Santo Domingo

In this April 5, 2017 photo, men fish at Fray Anton de Montesinos beach in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The colonization of the Americas began in Santo Domingo, which was founded in 1496 by Christopher Columbus' brother Bartolome and features the continent's first cathedral, first hospital and first university. (AP Photo/Tatiana Fernandez)

The Dominican Republic had the highest percentage of returning tourists to the envy of other Caribbean countries.

But that's not likely to happen this year, said an expert in Caribbean and Latin American history, on the heels of a Wilmington woman being brutally attacked, Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz being shot in the back at a bar, and a handful of mysterious tourist deaths and illnesses reported on the island.

But Franklin Knight, a professor emeritus of history at Johns Hopkins University, also pointed out that visits to destinations in the Caribbean have risen tremendously.

"It's not surprising--the amount of tourists in the Dominican Republic [DR] each year, in the last two years, is almost the total population of the Dominican Republican--six or seven million--so that's a lot," he said.  "so I think with the greater volume, you're going to get greater incidents of all sorts," he said.  

He said general violence among tourists has also increased across the Caribbean, with the exception of Cuba.

He pointed to outbreaks of viral infections with indeterminate sources. 

"On the cruise ships it's obvious sometimes what causes it, but in the hotels on land it's a little more difficult, and in the case of the Dominican Republic, it's curious, because most often these are not fatal, and what we have in the DR is an unusually high fatality rate among the tourists," said Knight.

The New York Post pointed to bootleg liquor as a possible source of tourist deaths.  But Knight said insecticides and other cleaning chemicals may be to blame.

"I do know that all across the Caribbean, they have been using suspicious mosquito disinfectant substances, in particular; I say suspicious because I know some of it would not be legally acceptable in the Untied States," he said.  "That might be part of it, we'll have to wait until all of these investigations, of course, are complete."  

Last year, a man was indicted for used banned pesticides in the U.S Virgin Islands that seriously sickened former Tatnall Head of School Steve Esmond and his family.

But Knight said while the Dominican Republic stands out at this moment, these types of rampant illnesses and suspicious deaths aren't common across the Caribbean, equally.

"There are safer areas...Cuba is relatively safe although the United States is discouraging its people from going there, and the characteristic that makes it noteworthy is that these are concurring in the higher-range hotel institutions...that's what's really peculiar about it, especially in the DR."

The Dominican Republic shares a border with the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere--Haiti.

"It is quite ironic," observed Knight.  "Haiti has tried unsuccessfully to participate in the general increase in Caribbean tourism, and it really hasn't gotten off the ground for a number of reasons--some just natural causes," he said.  "And the other, of course, is that you must have the infrastructure."

Some elite Caribbean countries have few of these problems.  Knight pointed to smaller islands like St. Lucia, as a popular destination wedding and honeymoon spot, that's doing quite well.

"Grenada is coming back.  If you go to St. Lucia, you'll find a lot of Americans," said Knight.  "They're very small--although size didn't prevent Aruba producing the Natalie Holloway incident."  

In Turks and Caicos, Knight said, crime there is more white-collar.

"Money laundering, [narcotics] trafficking," he said.  "The bigger ones, and again, it's a transit route--Trinidad, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas, although the Bahamas doesn't seem to have the type of effects...I haven't heard of the type of local addiction that takes place in Trinidad and Jamaica from the transit, [narcotics] trafficking."

But when it comes to the Dominican Republic, Knight noted its popularity as a tourist destination is likely to decline if the public doesn't get answers.

"If the source of these varied illnesses in these high-class establishments can be ascertained, it might help somewhat to restore the confidence in the tourist nation.  As long as it exists, it's going to affect [it] seriously."

Assistant News Director

Amy Cherry is the Assistant News Director and an investigative journalist at WDEL. She joined WDEL's award-winning news team in 2010 from WBZ Newsradio 1030 in Boston and has received national accolades for reporting.