Is It Safe to Vacation in the Dominican Republic?
In the 2017–2018 vacation season, over 6.1 million people visited the Dominican Republic, making it one of the top vacation destinations of both the Caribbean and the world. And as a frequent visitor to this island nation of approximately 10 million people, I can honestly say that the locals are warm, friendly and overall very family-oriented.
However, not everything is sunshine and palm trees. The WHO, OSAC and other government bodies have ranked the Dominican Republic the 76th safest country in the world (out of 162 countries in total). And while that ranks the DR among the safer half of countries on the planet, it still indicates worrying patterns of crime, theft and assault that afflict the island and its residents.
The wide distribution and underground nature of the island's weapons and drug trades, coupled with a relatively weak criminal justice infrastructure make the DR more dangerous than (some) other developing nations. How do these circumstances affect tourists, vacationers and casual visitors to this island paradise? Is it safe to vacation in The Dominican Republic? Well, read on to find out.
Theft and Larceny
Petty crime constitutes the majority of criminal activity in the Dominican Republic. And most of this petty crime pickpocketing, luggage and bag-snatching in various public locations. Foreign visitors to the DR usually have their belongings stolen at beaches, airports, bus depots and resorts. Also ATM (i.e. debit and credit card) fraud is a fairly common occurrence in DR metro areas. Make sure to only use ATM machines located inside trusted banking institutions.
One particularly brazen form of theft is termed drive-by robbery. This happens when a quick and nimble vehicle like a motorcycle, scooter, or bicycle rides up next to a car and steals something from the car (sometimes at gunpoint). Dominican authorities advise visitors to "remain calm and comply with assailant demands," as refusal to do so may (in worst cases) result in violent assault.
According to the OSAC, the top DR metro regions for theft and robbery are: La Vega, La Altagracia, Santiago, La Romana, and Santo Domingo National District.
Though not a common occurrence, the kidnapping of tourists and vacationers does happen from time to time. These incidents are often called "Grandparents Scams," as the grandparents of the kidnapped individuals are contacted to guarantee that he kidnappers receive large ransoms.
Assault and Violence
Violence and assaults against foreigners and tourists happen occasionally and in a very sporadic fashion. The majority of incidents involve armed robbery, and most of these incidents occur at nighttime and in the DR's larger metro areas. As a point of reference, below is a list of the cities/townships in the Dominican Republic with the highest murder rates:
- La Altagracia
Scams and Fraud
Scams come in many different forms in the Dominican Republic. In the previous section, I have already mentioned that credit card fraud is a threat to vacationers. At certain ATM locations in the DR, you could face the threat of your card being cloned or outright stolen. However, more brazen criminals may simply try impersonating government or civil officials.
There have been a few reports of criminals impersonating local police officers. These "police officers" will often target foreign drivers and pull them over for (often) bogus offenses. They will then ask for payment in the form of fines (instead of issuing tickets).
Fake lawyers are a serious problem for foreigners (especially in Punta Cana). These guys wait outside tourist police stations and wait for foreigners who are a) in trouble and b) desperate for legal representation. In exchange for their services, these fake lawyers then con foreigners out of massive amounts of money.
Women who are vacationing alone in the Dominican Republic may fall prey to certain forms of harassment. This may include catcalling, glares, snide remarks. And while the incidence of actual sexual assault is low against foreigners, it has occurred. In some cases, hotel/beach resort staff have been implicated in such assaults.
If you are the victim of sexual assault, your first step should be to file a police report with local Dominican authorities. There can be no criminal investigation (by national or multinational organizations) without a formal report.
Back in 2013, the Dominican Republic was declared "the deadliest nation anywhere for drivers." This was based on statistics. In 2013, there were 42 traffic-related deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants. In recent years, there have been improvements in road safety but the roads are still considered very dangerous for foreigners.
There are many motorcycles on the island. And many drivers ignore traffic laws while driving at excessive speeds. Driving styles also tend to be aggressive and reckless in nature. For instance, in the DR there are a number of tickets issued for vehicles driving in the wrong direction.
Before we conclude, here are a few nuggets of wisdom to consider before, during and after you travel to this awesome Caribbean destination.
- Before leaving the airport, double-check that your luggage has not been tampered with.
- Do not agree to carry items for strangers overseas in your luggage.
- Do not walk around with flashy jewelry or expensive electronics exposed.
- Avoid walking alone in dark, unpopulated areas (especially beaches).
- If threatened with violence from robbers, do not make attempts to resist.
- Only use taxis and public transport services approved by your resort or hotel.
Above all else, use your common sense and intuition.
The Good News
Despite everything mentioned above, there is much to see, discover and celebrate about this Caribbean island gem. Firstly, in recent years the government has taken serious steps to improve safety and security for foreigners. In 2014, it was announced that the DR had completed the implementation of a 911 emergency hotline system. Alongside this, there has been the development and training of a "tourist police corps" to help ensure vacationer safety. Also, there tends to be a greater concentration of police resources in the resort areas than in the rural (or even some rural areas). So the popular all-inclusive resorts of places like Punta Cana are super-duper safe.
However, I do encourage foreigners to get outside the resort bubble and explore the local delights. As I stated before, the people are truly warm and friendly. Also, there is a slower pace of life here that could be a welcome relief to all you hustle-n-bustle types.
Dominican food is truly something to behold (mofongo and mamajuana anyone). Merengue and Bachata represent the heart and soul of the nation, so come dance and let your hair down (suéltate el pelo). If there were ever a place to bask in the warm Caribbean sun, this is it.
1. Dominican Republic Shares Strong Tourism Numbers And Plans For Continued Growth. BVK Public Relations for DR Ministry of Tourism
2. Is The Dominican Republic Safe or Dangerous Country? Squad Agency, LLC
3. How To Stay Safe On A Trip To The Dominican Republic: Robert Curley
4. Dominican Republic 2019 Crime and Safety Report: Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC)
5. Dominican Traffic Death Rate Among The World's Highest: Ezequiel Abiu Lopez, The San Diego Union-Tribune.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2019 Justin Muirhead