How safe is it to visit the Dominican Republic?

Dominican Republic street

Georgina Wright
Global Threat Analyst, Americas

Dr Adrian Hyzler
Chief Medical Officer

In the latest of our “how safe is it to visit…” series, we shed light on the risks involved when travelling to the Dominican Republic.

Dominican Republic situation report

We consider the security risks in the Dominican Republic to be MODERATE, primarily due to high levels of criminal activity. Since March of this year, at least ten tourists have died in the country, prompting concerns over the unknown cause. The deaths are currently being investigated by local authorities, and while it is speculated that bootleg liquor was the cause, this remains unverified. While the media attention from these deaths has resulted in the perception that the country is unsafe, there is not a heightened risk posed to travellers. Since these incidents have occurred, the government of the Dominican Republic has taken measures to develop strategies to detect and prevent threats to travellers. This includes the creation of a crisis management team, the establishment of a National Committee of Tourism Security, more rigorous food and alcohol inspection, as well as coordinating with the FBI to determine the cause of the recent deaths. The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana, where two of the deaths occurred, has taken measures to reduce traveller exposure to such incidents, including the removal of liquor dispensers from the minibars in guestrooms.

Travel to the Dominican Republic can continue as normal, as the majority of people will travel without incident. Travellers are more likely to be at risk of low-level opportunistic crime. Some simple precautions that can be put in place to mitigate risks include booking a hotel / accommodation in safe locations, i.e. in a tourist area with adequate security measures.

Primary risks

Crime

Criminal activities including muggings, bag snatching, and petty theft, tend not to be violent if the target cooperates, though criminals can be armed and can resort to violence if they experience resistance. Foreign nationals are targeted less frequently in violent crimes like murder, assault, extortion or kidnapping for ransom; crimes of this nature are largely confined to lower-income areas and impact local nationals. Violent crime involving foreign nationals has occurred, and while these incidents are outliers, travellers should employ basic security precautions when outside of hotel resorts. This includes avoiding areas with a known criminal presence, only using verified taxis and not walking alone at night. Other precautions include only walking along streets that are well lit and not overtly displaying any signs of wealth.

Low-level opportunistic crime like bag-snatching and pickpocketing occurs regularly in tourist areas and transport hubs, including airports. Areas in Santo Domingo such as Arroyo Hondo, Naco, and Gazcue frequently report higher crime rates, including at hotel bars and restaurants. Targets for this type of crime typically include tourists not paying attention to their immediate surroundings. Bags on chairs and phones or cameras on table tops are usually targeted.

The country has its own security department that specialises in providing assistance to tourists; the Tourist Security Specialized Corps (CESTUR) can be found in most tourist areas. However, it is worth noting that the local police force lacks sufficient training and resources so cannot always be relied upon in emergencies.

Kidnap

In Santo Domingo, there have been incidents where individuals have been involved in a kidnap for ransom abduction after being approached by men in police uniforms. These incidents predominantly target local nationals, though there is a growing trend for visitors to be targeted by criminals in incidents of express kidnapping. Victims will be held for a short period of time and forced to withdraw the maximum amount of money from ATMs, after which they are usually released unharmed.

To lower the chances of being targeted in express kidnappings, travellers should avoid isolated areas, and should only use ATMs inside hotels or banks rather than on the street, as they offer more protection and are usually covered by CCTV cameras.

HEALIX HEALTH AND SECURITY RISK MAP

An invaluable visual aid that helps you to better understand the local risk environment of your operations.

Additional risks

Assault

There have been increasing reports of sexual assaults of female travellers over recent years. The majority of attacks have occurred at night, and these incidents usually involve the spiking of food or drink by local criminals. Also, it is worth noting that the Dominican Republic still retains conservative views on LGBT+ individuals, and open displays of same-sex affection run a high risk of being met with harassment and violence, even in major towns and cities.

Civil Unrest

General strikes and demonstrations occur sporadically throughout the Dominican Republic and have resulted in violence in the past, often with little to no warning. The majority of large protests occur in Santo Domingo, but more localised unrest has resulted in violence and deaths in other cities like Moca and San Francisco de Macoris in the north of the country. Demonstrations commonly impact traffic and public transport and can result in local businesses temporarily reducing working hours. Previously, unrest has been sparked by a multitude of issues including widespread power outages and shortages of fuel across low-income areas of the country. In recent months, the majority of protests pertain to perceived corruption, as well as reforms that would change presidential term limits. These have resulted in intermittent clashes with security personnel, which are known to use tear gas often to disperse crowds.

Natural Disasters

The Dominican Republic is susceptible to numerous natural disasters, though the most common include hurricanes and earthquakes.

Earthquakes

The country remains susceptible to earthquakes of any magnitude due to its geographic location near the ‘Ring of Fire’, where around 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur. Despite this, the majority of seismic activity in-country is small scale, with most earthquakes registering below a magnitude 4.

Hurricanes

The hurricane season runs from June to November, where landslides, mudslides, and flooding occur more frequently. The months of August, September, and October have historically been the most active months of the season for the formation of major hurricanes. Tropical storms and hurricanes have the potential to significantly impact operational abilities in-country. Over recent years, the government has attempted to increase investment into infrastructure that could mitigate the major risks posed by these storms. Travel to the Dominican Republic during this season can continue but should be undertaken with security precautions. This includes staying up to date on developments of storms, ensuring the location of the closest well-equipped shelter is known, and adhering to all directives issued by the authorities. The US-based National Hurricane Centre (NHC) updates information on hurricanes regularly and has regionalised social media feeds which post developments.

Healix advice to travellers visiting the Dominican Republic

The advice below may reduce the likelihood and impact of a security incident but is not exhaustive; travellers or employees planning journeys to the Dominican Republic, or overseas, should seek bespoke itinerary-specific advice where possible.

  • Avoid overt displays of wealth to minimise the risk of being targeted by petty criminals. Leave valuables at home, or in a safe, usually provided at your accommodation.
  • Only use reputable taxi firms, preferably booked through hotels, or a local vetted driver for all journeys.
  • Be prepared to hand over your bag or personal items in the event of a criminal confrontation; do not attempt to resist as this can provoke a violent response.
  • Avoid all protests due to the risk of unrest and incidental violence; if a crowd begins to gather and there is a significant police presence nearby, travellers should vacate the area immediately.
  • Monitor local weather forecasts to be alerted on any adverse weather conditions.
  • Never accept drink or food from strangers or drinks that you haven’t seen being made in front of you due to the risk of spiking.

How can Healix help employers with their Duty of Care

Employers should ensure all staff are briefed on the current security situation in-country and the potential risks posed to employees. Staff should also ensure they do their own research into the destinations they intend to travel to. If intending to travel to the Dominican Republic during the Atlantic hurricane season, employers should ensure evacuation plans are in place and are frequently reviewed. The plan should include considerations for scaling down staff and establishing business continuity plans for the hurricane season that allows the organisation to continue operations during this period. If you require assistance authoring evacuation plans, please contact GSOC@healix.com for more information.

Healthcare in the Dominican Republic

Public medical facilities in the Dominican Republic are generally limited with long waiting times and outdated equipment. This can be put into perspective by the fact that the government only devotes around 1% of GDP to health care, in comparison with western European nations that apportion between 10 and 14%. The public sector should only be used in dire emergencies such as motor vehicle collisions when speed of stabilisation is of the essence – the ambulance service is, at best, hit and miss and treatment may need to be paid for up front. It is very unlikely that any English will be spoken in the public sector. In addition, the nursing staff do not perform the same duties as in the UK and USA, in that they only administer the injections, change dressings, etc. The family is supposed to look after the patient, wash them and provide food, and most family members will stay with the patient around the clock.

Private hospitals, however, offer good standards of care especially in the capital Santo Domingo, and Santiago, but treatment can be expensive. Most of the staff will speak English, as well as Spanish, and most medical emergencies can be stabilised and treated. However, more complex injuries or brain injuries, for example, may need an air ambulance transfer to Miami. Private hospitals in the tourist areas are less likely to be able to provide care for the more complex patients. Dentistry is adequate and a good range of medicines are available, including some normally only available on prescription in other countries.

As with all travel destinations, travellers are advised to be up to date with routine vaccinations, ensuring particular care to check that you are up to date with the MMR vaccine. Some additional vaccines may also be required for travel. Expats on long-term posting in the Dominican Republic, and travellers spending time in-country, are strongly advised to be vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B and typhoid. Malaria is only present along the border with Haiti, and occasionally in the provinces including resort areas of Santo Domingo and La Altagracia. Anti-malaria pills are not normally needed. Cholera and the mosquito-borne illnesses of dengue, chikungunya, and zika have sporadic outbursts but mostly in the poorer areas where there is a lot of stagnant water in the streets and yards, and a lack of sewage collection and regulation. It is strongly advised to take precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes, and to ensure that sensible precautions are taken with food and water. Rabies is present with, on average, only one human rabies case every few years, but you should always exercise caution around wild and domestic animals.

Always make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment and potential repatriation. Over the last couple of years, a 911 emergency system has been rolled out throughout the country – it is available in Santo Domingo, east to Boca Chica, and west to San Cristobal. It is also now in Santiago and Puerto Plata and will eventually be available in the whole country. Otherwise the tourist police will coordinate transfers.

FIND OUT MORE

Healix International can deploy at short notice to conduct Project Risk Assessments, Site Security Audits, Evacuation Planning, Emergency Response Planning, Threat and Risk Assessments and Training, as well as offer Embedded Security Managers upon request (see Security Consultancy & Bespoke Services). If you are interested in commissioning these services, or would like to request a capability statement for your country of operations, please email us at GSOC@healix.com.

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