Anthony Pacetti was ready to head to the Dominican Republic for a bachelor party in September when he saw the news about U.S. citizens dying in hotels under odd circumstances. He alerted the bachelor, his future brother-in-law.
"He said, ’We’re not going to the Dominican Republic,’ " says Pacetti, a real estate agent, police officer, and helicopter pilot in South Florida. "He canceled. He had insurance. He lost, like, $30."
At least seven American tourists have died unexpectedly this year in the Dominican Republic, which draws more than 6 million visitors annually.
ForwardKeys, a flight-data analysis firm, says cancellations have jumped 45 percent since the beginning of June for flights in July and August.
But cancellation policies are far from consistent, and experts say changing a trip may require haggling or paying a penalty.
Airlines haven’t issued waivers that would allow travelers to change flights without penalty as they would in the case of a natural disaster or other emergency. But the largest carriers in the United States — American, United, Delta, and Southwest — say they are willing to work with customers on a case-by-case basis.
Even tiny Sun Country, a low-cost airline, says it would work with travelers to "offer either a credit for future use or switch to an alternate destination."
Additionally, a spokesperson for Southwest pointed out that passengers could cancel for credit, good for a year, up to an hour before departure, because the airline doesn’t charge fees for changes.
Direct answers from the wide swath of hotels and resorts that pepper the country’s popular tourist areas were harder to come by. Several operators, including those where tourists have died, did not immediately respond to questions. But a Marriott International spokesperson said in an email that the company is monitoring the situation and has not seen a measurable change in reservations at its six properties there.
"We will work with guests on a case-by-case basis if they are looking to change an existing reservation," he says.
Michael McCall, who teaches hospitality marketing at Michigan State University, says talking to a real person at an airline or hotel and being willing to negotiate could help travelers find a solution. Ask whether it’s possible to postpone the trip or to get credit to use at another resort under the same ownership in a different country.
"The idea is, they still get to keep your money and provide the service, and everybody wins," McCall says. "You get the vacation, and they get the money you’ve already given them."
But working with an online travel agency such as Expedia could be trickier.
"That’s going to be your toughest bet; you’re not dealing with the people who provide the actual service," he says. In that case, travelers could end up paying cancellation fees.
McCall says he updated an online summer course to focus on the ongoing situation in the Dominican Republic. His main takeaway is that the tourism industry needs to take seriously the image it has among consumers right now — even as officials there stress that the country is safe and the deaths appear to be coincidental.
"If I don’t feel it’s safe, I won’t go," he says. "The customer will vote with their feet."
The travel search site Kayak has seen flight searches from the United States to the Dominican Republic drop 19 percent for the first half of June compared with the same time a year ago.
And ForwardKeys, which analyzes more than 17 million flight bookings daily, says news of tourist deaths "appear to have had a dramatic impact on travel to the destination." From January until the end of last month, flight bookings to the country for next month and August were up 2 percent compared with a year earlier. But bookings for the same time period made between June 1 and Monday, a time when news started emerging about several cases, were down 59 percent and cancellations had increased 45 percent.
"Since the latest death on June 13, we see a further erosion of bookings and no sign of recovery," the company’s vice president of insights, Olivier Ponti, said in a statement.
Travel insurance companies indicate that those who are booking trips are doing so warily.
InsureMyTrip says search queries about travel insurance for Dominican Republic vacations is up 600 percent versus a year ago. Spokesperson Julie Loffredi says insurance agents estimated that 30 percent of calls on Tuesday were about trips to the country.
Another company, Squaremouth, which compares travel insurance policies, has seen a 24 percent increase in travelers insuring trips to the country since news of the deaths came out. And 113 percent more travelers have bought policies that let them cancel a trip for any reason, says spokesperson Jenna Hummer. That type of coverage allows travelers to get as much as 75 percent of their money back.
In retrospect, Pacetti — who booked his flight and hotel through Expedia — realizes insurance would have been a good idea. He was able to cancel the hotel but finds himself bouncing between Expedia and JetBlue trying to change his plane ticket with no luck.
"In my opinion, I was going whether I’m sick, or whether it’s rain or shine, I’m going to the Dominican Republic," he says. Now, the party is probably moving to Jamaica, and he’s not sure he can afford to eat the cost of one ticket and buy another one.