If you’re looking for everything that your typical Caribbean vacation has to offer—swaying palm trees, relaxed breezes, transparent waters, endless beaches, even kid-friendly hotels and romantic resorts for destination weddings—at reasonable prices, you could very well find yourself flying to the Dominican Republic, with your ultimate destination being popular tourist destinations such as Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, or Sosua.
But once those tickets and hotel rooms are booked and you begin looking forward to that gorgeous Dominican Republic weather, you might also find yourself wrestling with an unexpected question: Is the Dominican Republic safe? It shares an island with Haiti, a nation that suffers from its own dangers and crime. Plus, a recent and high-profile series of traveler deaths in the Dominican Republic have sent the country’s tourism numbers spiraling.
The U.S. State Department’s 2019 travel advisory designates the Dominican Republic as a Level 2 destination, which advises visitors to “exercise increased caution.” The advisory cites the Dominican Republic crime rate and states, “The wide availability of weapons, the use and trade of illicit drugs, and a weak criminal justice system contribute to the high level of criminality [in the Dominican Republic].”
It’s also worth noting that the Dominican Republic’s risk of natural disasters is higher than in many other places, and the nation is susceptible to environmental calamity, including hurricanes, tropical storms and depressions, earthquakes, floods, droughts, and other forms of extreme weather. Hurricanes, in particular, are frequent, and many Dominican buildings are not erected to code. The risk of terrorism in the Dominican Republic, on the other hand, is “minimal,” according to OSAC, and the country has no known terrorist groups.
Tips for Staying Safe in the Dominican Republic
- Know where to go—and where not to go. Although most of Punta Cana and other tourist areas in the Dominican Republic are relatively safe, if you stray from where most travelers stay and end up in other parts of the country, you could find yourself in places known for high rates of violent crime. Even in Punta Cana, remain vigilant against thieves and scammers—especially on the beach and near the airport.
- Avoid driving in the Dominican Republic. The road conditions and traffic patterns can be dangerous and unpredictable, especially for drivers who are only accustomed to navigating U.S. roads. Instead, use a reputable tour company or hire a private driver who comes recommended from your resort or a well-reviewed travel agency.
- Avoid all contact with drug dealers This may seem like obvious advice, but locals like cab drivers or beach vendors could offer to sell you small amounts of marijuana or cocaine. While it may seem harmless in the moment, the Dominican Republic’s legal system takes drug offenses very seriously and comes down hard on anyone suspected of possession—to the tune of a year-long detention even before trial.
Recent Dominican Republic Deaths: What You Need to Know
Tragically, since 2018, at least 36 U.S. citizens who had been vacationing in the Dominican Republic died there, many of them under mysterious circumstances, and many of them in their hotel rooms. These Dominican Republic deaths made headlines, causing tourism numbers to plunge more than 80 percent, which in turn prompted the country’s National Committee of Tourism Security to announce an initiative to investigate and prevent future deaths in Punta Cana and other tourist areas.
The speculation for the causes of these Dominican Republic deaths includes bootleg alcohol—some of the travelers died soon after drinking from the minibar—as well as improper use of pesticides at the resorts. However, an FBI investigation into three of the deaths revealed no evidence of tainted alcohol or foul play, and officials in both the Dominican Republic and the U.S. have asserted that the number of tourist deaths in the country is not out of line for such a popular destination.
Adding to the country’s travel woes, hotel employees have brutally attacked resort guests in Punta Cana; tourists have gotten seriously ill (but not died) at the same resorts where other Americans did die; and baseball star David Ortiz was shot in the back in Santo Domingo, the island’s capital. (He survived.)
According to OSAC, the Dominican Republic’s high murder rate places the nation among the world’s most homicidal countries, though it’s worth noting that most of the country’s violent killings were committed during a robbery—so if a perpetrator demands that you hand over your belongings, do not resist.
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Is Punta Cana Safe?
So is it safe to travel to Punta Cana specifically? Crime in Punta Cana is significantly lower than it is in the rest of the Dominican Republic. However, that doesn’t mean that Punta Cana doesn’t have its own dangers, although you shouldn’t necessarily let Punta Cana warnings keep you from hitting its beautiful beaches and resorts. Here’s the comprehensive Punta Cana safety advice you need to know.
One common question arises for many travelers considering a trip: Where is Punta Cana? It’s on the Dominican Republic’s easternmost tip, adjacent to Puerto Rico. Despite the Punta Cana deaths that have gotten lots of media attention, the crime rate within Punta Cana’s main resort area is low; its beaches and other attractions are guarded by a police force called CESTUR that’s dedicated specifically to protecting travelers, resorts, and attractions. Tourism is big business here, thanks in large part to the enviable Punta Cana weather, so the Dominican Republic makes sure that hotels, resorts, and beaches are well patrolled.
Other areas of the Dominican Republic—especially Santo Domingo—are the ones the U.S. government considers to be “critical-threat locations for crime,” including gang-related violence. But they’re hours away from Punta Cana.
That doesn’t mean that you should let down your guard in Punta Cana. Recent crime statistics show that the Dominican Republic’s highest incidents of sexual assault occurred in six specific areas, including Punta Cana. Theft is also prevalent at pools and beaches, as they’re common areas for people to leave their valuables unattended.
Avoid solo travel out of Punta Cana; going with a partner or group is preferable. Even within Punta Cana, stick to popular areas and limit excessive alcohol consumption. Sexual assaults involving date-rape drugs in drinks have been reported at Punta Cana hotels. As the U.S. Department of State advises travelers to Punta Cana: “Report any unwanted attention to hotel management.”
To reach Punta Cana’s police force in an emergency, dial 911 just as you would in the United States. Or you can access CESTUR via smartphone app (iOS | Android). Another option for assistance in Punta Cana: Contact the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo.
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Is Puerto Plata Safe?
Many tourists choose the Dominican Republic’s northern resort town of Puerto Plata for its gorgeous sea views, especially as seen from the Mount Isabel de Torres cable car.
But Puerto Plata crime is definitely an issue to be aware of, and those wondering “Is Puerto Plata safe?” might want to know that an American teacher was recently killed in Puerto Plata after being robbed of a laptop and other items; sadly, she was found strangled, with her hands and feet bound.
Though her case is extreme, thefts are common in Puerto Plata, so leave valuables at home or keep them locked away out of sight. In addition, avoid walking around Puerto Plata at night, especially in isolated areas, and especially if you’re alone.
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Is Sosua Safe?
Sosua, which isn’t far from Puerto Plata, is well worth a visit for its rich Jewish history—many Europeans fled here during the 1940s to escape the Holocaust—as well as for its idyllic beaches, luxurious resorts, ample opportunity for outdoor adventure, vivid snorkeling, and raucous nightlife.
Still, travelers wondering whether Sosua is safe have concerns that aren’t entirely unfounded: Recent tourist deaths in Sosua have been victims of armed robberies, and have also been mysterious, with no clear cause of death.
There have also been ocean drownings in this region because of strong undertows, so always avoid swimming alone and make sure to check local conditions before heading into the water.
Sosua, along with other Dominican Republic towns including Bavaro, Boca Chica, Cabarete, and Juan Dolio, has also been found to be a place of frequent sexual exploitation, particularly of children, so travelers who aim to avoid destinations that are hot spots for human trafficking might decide to steer clear of Sosua.
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How to Get Around Safely in the Dominican Republic
Many Dominican Republic warnings and dangers revolve around transit and traffic. That’s because driving conditions across the Dominican Republic are very different than they are in the United States. Travelers are likely to encounter uneven road surfaces, including large potholes and missing manhole covers. Unpredictable driving patterns are a serious danger. Don’t take the decision to drive here lightly—and if you do choose to drive, do so defensively and cautiously. It’s easy and affordable to hire an experienced driver instead, and most excursions from hotels include transportation.
For safety and convenience, also avoid using public transportation in the Dominican Republic—it’s often unreliable, and the drivers tend to operate their vehicles unsafely. Again, it’s better to hire a professional driver through a reputable travel agency or via your hotel. For intercity travel, use only a reputable tour bus company or taxi service.
Another factor to keep in mind when considering Dominican Republic safety is that scammers target unsuspecting travelers here. One scam that the U.S. State Department warns of, for example, involves a stranger handing you an illegal drug before someone claiming to be a police officer arrives. Then the “police officer” demands money to let you leave.
As with other destinations, visitors to DR should never buy illegal drugs. Not only is it inadvisable to be in an altered state in a place that you’re unfamiliar with, but the legal consequences here are severe. Visitors are not exempt from the country’s strict drug laws, which are intended to keep the strategically located Dominican Republic from becoming a major drug trafficking transit point. Still, some beach vendors and taxi drivers try to sell drugs to fun-seeking tourists. Just say no.
Keep in mind, too, that the Dominican Republic is at high risk for natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes, and that Caribbean hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. Tap water isn’t drinkable for most travelers, so stick to bottled water to avoid getting sick. The Zika virus is still of concern throughout the Dominican Republic and the rest of the Caribbean, so bring and wear mosquito repellent. If you find yourself needing medicine, ask at your hotel; large resorts typically keep a stockpile of common remedies since the nearest pharmacy may be far away.
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DR is also a known spot for prostitution, which is technically legal here—but if you encounter a sex worker propositioning you, you should decline immediately for a wide range of reasons. Even more serious than the drug trafficking that happens in the Dominican Republic is the human trafficking, with women and children forced into slavery. According to the U.S. Department of State, “The government of the Dominican Republic does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.” and women and children are forced into slavery.
Plus, travelers have been prosecuted in the United States for sexual contact with minors; Americans don’t have immunity for crimes they commit in the Dominican Republic. In addition, the rate of HIV/AIDS in the Dominican Republic is high, even as compared to other Central American and Caribbean countries.
If you’re female, you should be even more vigilant, as it’s not uncommon for women to be harassed or attacked here. Avoid traveling alone in the country, especially in isolated areas or on empty beaches.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Punta Cana Travel Guide
- What to Pack for the Dominican Republic
- 5 Caribbean Resorts That Should Be on Your Bucket List
—original reporting by Avital Andrews