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Friday, September 20, 2019

Caribbean Trouble Spots Cause Trouble for Travel, Tour Firms

Summer 2019 has been one of turmoil for travel advisors focusing on the Caribbean, stemming from last-minute cancellations to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico as well as the abrupt change in U.S. travel policy to Cuba.

Since early June travel advisors have been dealing with fallout from the highly publicized tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic and a policy change from the Trump administration, which immediately stopped cruise ships from sailing to Cuba. In July travel to Puerto Rico took a hit from massive protests calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló.

Flights booked in June to the Dominican Republic from the U.S. for July and August fell 59 percent compared to the same period last year, according to ForwardKeys, a travel research company that analyzes millions of flight bookings a day.

Hale, who has been running his boutique agency with his wife for 15 years, said this summer has been unique in the rapidness of one unexpected disturbance after another in the Caribbean.

For Hale, the biggest issue for his agency has been in the Dominican Republic, an area that he regularly books for summer vacations for clients.

Over the summer the popular beach destination has seen a drop in tourism due to a steady stream of negative news in the U.S. related to tourist deaths, assaults, and illnesses. The speculation for some of the deaths is from tainted alcohol.

“It’s kind of like, where is the next landmine going to explode?” Hale said, adding that the situation has required a lot of shuffling of travel plans to make sure clients get a similar quality experience in an alternative destination.

Birmingham, Alabama-based travel advisor Margie Hand of Andavo Travel, who has been in the industry for 21 years, had similar issues with travelers who had booked Caribbean trips this summer.

About half of Hand’s clients stuck with their plans to visit the Dominican Republic, while the others changed their destination.

“I think the key is we have to be able to find alternatives for our clients,” Hand said. “The big thing for me is I want my clients to be happy with their decision and feel comfortable. Often it’s just being available and being prepared with a Plan B.”

She had a wedding party of 50 people back out of a contract when news started to break earlier this summer. They changed their destination to Jamaica.

“It’s just trying to stay on top of everything,” Hand said. “I try to make sure I know the facts. I never try to offer my opinion to my clients. I just tell them here are the facts, here’s what’s going on. It’s their decision. I just want to be there to support them.”

Travel to Puerto Rico has not seen as drastic a drop during the protests this summer, but travel advisors told Skift that clients with trips planned there have expressed concerns.

Hale said he has not had any cancellations to the island but has received calls from travelers seeking reassurance before their trips.

“We definitely get those questions,” he said. “We get the calls coming in. ‘Is it safe to still travel there? What are you hearing of the realities on the ground?’”

Thomas Carpenter, co-founder of Huckleberry Travel, said the protests have actually been positive for client interest in Puerto Rico as they are drawing attention back to the island, which is still recovering from Hurricane Maria.

“An event like this can renew some interest,” he said.

The abrupt halt of cruise travel to Cuba was a big shock for Huckleberry Travel, which has focused a lot of attention on the destination over the past two years because of client interest. The agency spent a large chunk of its research budget last year by traveling to Cuba, Carpenter said.

“It really was overnight,” he said. “We had just booked clients on a region cruise where the entire itinerary was Cuba. It was a really beautiful itinerary with multiple stops.”

Some of the agency’s Cuba-bound clients have decided to travel to destinations such as Italy and Peru instead, Carpenter said.

“We lost some high-value cruise business. We will replace it with something else, but certainly the larger corporations that are running the cruise companies and resort chains are affected by it,” he said.

Although some airlines and most of the cruises affected have been generous in their refund and cancellation policies, the key for these travelers has been purchasing comprehensive travel insurance ahead of time, advisors say.

“It really makes all the difference,” Carpenter said.

Delta and JetBlue have allowed clients to change or cancel their flights to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic for no cost or airline credit due to the recent events there.

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