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Dominican Republic hotel deaths underscore limits of TripAdvisor’s warning system

Dominican Republic hotel deaths underscore limits of TripAdvisor’s warning system
[Photo: Justin Aikin/Unsplash]

Seven Americans have died and one was brutally assaulted while staying at resorts in the Dominican Republic in recent months, and that is making some American travelers nervous. While there are similarities in the sudden deaths, federal officials currently do not believe they are connected, and the causes are unknown. (Poison? Pesticide? Bootleg liquor? A series of very unfortunate events?) As the FBI moves in to help local authorities investigate and provide toxicological analyses in the hope of finding answers, tourists who had planned to travel to the country may be looking to change their vacation plans. Some may also be looking to find out if hotels they’d booked were the site of any of the unsettling events.

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The deaths were reported at three properties: the Grand Bahia Principe La Romana; the Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville in San Pedro de Macoris; and the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Punta Cana. The assault took place at the Majestic Elegance Punta Cana Hotel, allegedly by a person wearing the uniform of the resort.

Inevitably, nervous travelers looking for more information may find themselves on TripAdvisor, and those who do will come face-to-face with vague words of caution: The popular hotel review site currently has a warning badge on the pages of all three hotels, alerting travelers to “media reports or events concerning this property which may not be reflected in reviews found on this listing.”

The warning doesn’t cite specific media reports or even say if they’re positive or negative. It simply suggests visitors conduct additional research. Basically, TripAdvisor would like travelers to google the hotel and see what comes up, while also proclaiming: “Book now! This hotel is likely to sell out soon.”

As for the Majestic Elegance hotel where the assault allegedly took place, TripAdvisor is taking a page out of Yelp’s playbook. Reviews of that resort are currently suspended as people have flooded the page with negative reviews that are not from firsthand experiences, which violate TripAdvisor’s terms. In other words, TripAdvisor won’t cite specific media reports and won’t let other people do it either, unless they’ve actually been there. (TripAdvisor points out that their forums are a useful resource and that the page for Majestic Elegance includes a “travel safety review” from the victim who wrote about her attack, including photos. However, you have to scroll far down the page and click a box to find it.)

A Google search, meanwhile, may point readers to a New York Times story revealing that “four of the dead were staying at Bahia Príncipe resorts.” Two other couples came forward to tell the Times that they also fell sick during their stays at Bahia Príncipe resorts.

While all the headlines may be making travelers nervous, airlines are not waiving change or cancellation fees so far, although when reached for comment, a United representative said the airline is monitoring the events in the Dominican Republic and it has “not issued a travel waiver at this time, but will work with customers on a case by case basis.” We also reached out to JetBlue for comment, but have not heard back yet.

In April, the State Department issued a Level 2 advisory for travelers to the DR, urging “increased caution in the Dominican Republic due to crime,” including violent crime. The rising crime rate in the DR was in the headlines recently when former Boston Red Sox baseball player David Ortiz was shot in a bar in Santo Domingo.

“The safety and security of U.S. citizens that live in, work in, and visit the Dominican Republic remains our highest priority,” said Robin Bernstein, the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, of the recent events. “These incidents are tragic and we offer our deepest condolences to those personally impacted.”

As for resorts and hotels, cancellation policies vary by property. If you’re feeling anxious ahead of your relaxing vacation, contact them directly and hope they are sympathetic to your concerns. But don’t rely on TripAdvisor for hotel news. Its warning system is limited at best, so use your common sense and google it.

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