Media Criticism

Relax, the Dominican Republic Hasn't Become Less Safe for Americans

Misleading media coverage took an immediate toll on the island's important tourism industry.

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Following a handful of news stories about tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic, the number of flight bookings to the Caribbean country dropped 84 percent during June, according to ForwardKeys, a business intelligence firm that tracks commercial air flights. While the country's tourism industry appears to be bouncing back, new data analysis suggests there was never a good reason for Americans to fear traveling to the country. 

While a number of unexplained deaths did occur at resorts in the Dominican Republic during the first half of 2019, there's little to indicate that those incidents were out of the ordinary, or that more of deaths occurred than we should reasonably expect, given that people die, even on vacation. 

Using studies of Finnish, Scottish, and Australian tourist mortality, Daniel Engber of Slate argues that we should expect .0015 percent of tourists going to the Dominican Republic to die on their trip, with 73 percent of those deaths being from natural causes. Given that 2.7 million Americans go to the Dominican Republic, we should expect roughly 405 American tourist deaths a year, with 295 of them coming from natural causes—mostly heart attacks. 

As of June 27, nine Americans had gotten sick and died in 2019 in the Dominican Republic under supposedly "suspicious circumstances." There's no clear definition of what that means: Many of the deaths seemed sudden, and the FBI is still conducting toxicology tests. Several of these deaths were ruled heart attacks until some family members questioned the official story. The Dominican Republic government's response didn't do much to tamp down the hysteria, with the Ministry of Public Health spokesman Carlos Suero dismissing reports of mysterious deaths as "fake news." Despite his hamfisted handling of the media, he might be right. 

For comparison, between the beginning of 2017 and the end of 2018, 30 Americans died in the Dominican Republic of non-natural causes, such as accidents, drownings, homicides, and suicides. The nine deaths that have occurred thus far in 2019 are tragic for the people who died and for their families, but they are not out of the ordinary, especially considering how many Americans visit the D.R. each year. Even if all nine of these suspicious deaths turned out to be from non-natural causes, that wouldn't be a big divergence from previous non-natural death rates. 

American politicians nevertheless added to the panic. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) said the "recent spate of sicknesses and several deaths" deserved a federal response. Rep. Frank Pallone (D–N.J.) called for the State Department to consider increasing its travel advisory for the Dominican Republic from "increased caution," the second-least-severe warning the department offers. Schumer called for an in-depth investigation that would feature the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms assisting the FBI and local law enforcement. The supposed pattern of incidents became the story itself, with pieces about fear among tourists and advice for potential travelers. 

As the fever increased, even non-mysterious deaths became part of the trend. The New York Post published a story in late June about a man who died of a heart attack in the Dominican Republic in 2017. Another report from Fox News brought up a death from 2016.

The entire story arc is a useful example of how media panics begin, escalate, and then subside, leaving a trail of economic pain in their wake. While ticket sales have begun to rebound, June's dropoff will hurt in a country where tourism spending is directly or indirectly responsible for 22 percent of the economy

Fortunately, it seems that Americans have moved past the sensationalism—until the inevitable next panic over nothing.

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  1. “we should expect roughly 405 American tourist deaths a year, with 295 of them coming from natural causes”

    Given 2.7 million tourists at 0.0015%, that should be 41 deaths each year, 30 from natural causes (at 73%).

    I don’t know if that changes the narrative in this at all. I wasn’t planning on going to the DR anyway. But, if we can’t respect the integrity of the maths, then we’re really no better than the AOC’s of this world. Get it together Muresianu.

    1. Based on the linked Slate article, it should be 0.015%, which makes the 405 number correct.

    2. Irregardless of the Slate article, my guess would be around 320. The mortality rate of Americans is 863 / 100,000. Guessing that each tourist spends an average of 5 days, or 1.37% of a year there that gives a guess of (2,700,000/100,000)*863*.0137 = 319.

      1. “Irregardless”

        No. Don’t do that.

        1. I suspect that was intentional.

            1. Libertarians should be descriptive linguists, not prescriptive linguists. Of course, conservatives are gonna be prescriptive linguists by default, since they hate evolution. Alas, language evolves, despite their lamentations.

              1. “Libertarians should be”

                Shut up idiot. And stop using irregardless, it makes you sound like even more of a fucking moron.

      2. It is bad to say that an American mortality rate is the same for tourist destinations as inside the USA.

        Really sick people don’t travel and die overseas.

        An American mortality rate overseas should be much much lower than the mortality rate inside the USA.

        1. Given the Dominican Republic has a homicide rate almost three times that of the US it’s plausible although their gross death rate is about half the US.

          Maybe it was the fine ganja laced with fentanyl.

        2. I don’t know. People tend to be more active, eat and drink to excess, and undertake riskier behavior when on vacation. People aren’t as familiar with the local customs and practices when it comes to things like driving. And things like heart attacks happen when they happen, typically without a long build up of sickness. Then the health care is worse when something does go wrong.

          1. Then why aren’t puerto rico, bahamas, virgin islands, windward islands, and cruise ships having so many deaths of tourists?

            1. Cruise ships are a biological disease nightmare. They are also still ships I think there was one recently that lost engine power and passengers had to be rescued until they could tow it to shore.

              Virgin Islands is very posh and expensive. DR offers budget all inclusive deals so very different.

              I don’t really think there is anything to all this actually. Just chance and media frenzy.

              1. But few passengers die on cruise ships of health stuff. They typically die from falling overboard.

                Virgin Islands…posh? Hahaha. I don’t think so. Travel the World and see some really “posh” islands.

            2. “Then why aren’t puerto rico, bahamas, virgin islands, windward islands, and cruise ships having so many deaths of tourists?”

              Who says they aren’t? I have no idea what the tourist death rate is at any of those places.

    3. Math is off.

    4. Yes but what is the p-value on that?

      If the hypothesis is something sinister and non random is going on in the Dominican Republic tourist resorts. Then you need to test it out. Good start.

      Then you need to control by cohorts.

      Good post.

  2. As a rule I usually think these contextual less stories are bullshit. They generally are.

  3. “American politicians nevertheless added to the panic. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) said the “recent spate of sicknesses and several deaths” deserved a federal response.”

    Chuck Schumer believes sunrise deserves a federal response – – – – – –

    1. Yeah, I don’t know what that means. What does he want to do, occupy it like we did Haiti? I don’t suppose Papa Chuck specified a preference for the 1915 style that lasted over a decade or the brief occupation in the ’90s?

  4. Nobody has to vacation in the DR. I wouldn’t go there even if that means I’m irrational.

  5. But the incident that sparked the whole thing was 2 people in the same room dying of the same natural cause at the exact same time. Not really statistically possible( 1 out of 4.4B chance) unless there was a common cause.

    1. That was what I was going to post.

      There was a kickoff event that was unquestionably suspicious. It seemed likely that they were poisoned – both healthy young people falling very ill and ultimately dying within a few days… not gonna be any “natural cause”, that’s for sure.

      Then, the media being what the media is, they unthinkingly reported every person who either died or even got sick while anywhere in the vicinity as a part of the trend. This was the stupid part.

      But the original pair…. marking that down as “natural causes” is just handwaving.

      1. Some of the people complained of getting sick right after consuming beverages.

        That sounds suspicious.

        1. That is why you want to pay the extra and go top shelf or just buy a bottle.

          I am burned out on those Caribbean resorts anyway. Been to DR once it wasn’t great.

          If I want to go to the beach better to stick with Florida or the Carolinas. Just rent a place and then you can eat and drink without trusting those all inclusive places.

          1. Oh, on drinking in the carribean…

            The wife and I had a great beach day on Grand Bahama island during a cheap cruise. There was a dude selling coconut cup drinks. For 20 bucks he chopped us a pair of coconuts into drink cups and then proceeded to refill them for the next 8 hours as we soaked in the sun. I drank enough Hurricanes and Pina Coladas to rot my teeth out, but we undoubtedly got our buzz on. He was a nice dude, and eventually he poured me a few shots of rum into my coconut cup so I could forgo the sugar.

            So yeah, there’s a lot to what you say… but I’m still gonna give that dude a shout-out!

            And the rest of you can come visit us in Sunny South Florida! (Ok , Florida Tourism Board, where’s my check??)

        2. There were over 80 “Parrot Heads” (Jimmy Buffet fans) who all got seriously ill from drinking at the same swim up bar. Those people generally can handle their alcohol.

          Couple that with the stories a few years ago of all the illnesses and deaths in mexico due to bootleg alcohol supplied by organized crime in name brand bottles. The Mexican government cracked down on that, it wasn’t a media narrative.

          Also couple that with the fact Muresianu has yet to write an article that wasn’t completely effin terrible

          1. Wouldn’t surprise me.

            I had thought there was always a deal with the cartels to stay away from the tourists. Guess they don’t always follow the rules.

            And never get in a pool with a swim up bar. Every notice how those guys sit there drinking all day and never get up to take a leak.

    1. WTF? Metaphorically it sounds like he’s going to seek leadership advice in becoming blind from the blind? Seems it would be easier to just go borrow a spoon or something down at the soup kitchen and go full Oedipus.

    2. Well you need some excuse to go on a taxpayer-funded junket, don’t you?

  6. I agree that the panic was overblown, but some of the deaths occurred within days of each other (three happened at the same hotel) and some tourists who fell mysteriously ill described strange smells in their room and drinks.

    I would vaccinate my kids and eat food that underwent irradiation, knowing that science mostly disproves any hysteria. What’s happening at DR could be a coincidence or something more sinister, and American tourists didn’t really have to give them a benefit of the doubt pending the conclusion of the investigation.

  7. A Texas couple died suddenly in Fiji also.

    1. Same hotel chain, IIR…

      Which is an odd coincidence.

    2. With knowing the entire story, I would still say a couple dying suddenly raises red flags. Two people usually dont die at the same time without someone else doing something to them, suicide, or accidental falls.

      1. Food or other poisoning could cause several people to become ill at the same time and place. More than one of them could die. Happens fairly regularly. It should obviously be investigated.

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  9. I go to the DR regularly and I can’t fault it, lovely warm hospitable people. I’ve only stayed on the bavaro beach, vendors are on the beach to, a polite no is all it takes. And if you go looking for drugs and prostitutes you’ll find them in any country. Especially in London where I am from.

  10. I’m American and I been living here for more then twenty years and I go out every day and everyting is fine yes these things happen everywere in the world I love it here people are very nice.

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