At least nine Americans have died in the Dominican Republic under mysterious circumstances in the past year, while others have reported getting sick in the country, casting scrutiny on whether the island paradise is safe for tourists.
Last week, a New Jersey man was found unresponsive in his room at the Terra Linda Resort, with results from FBI toxicology tests expected in July. And Barbara Corcoran, a star on "Shark Tank," said her brother John Corcoran died of an alleged heart attack while vacationing in the Dominican Republic in April. The same month, a group of Jimmy Buffet fans also said they became dangerously ill after vacationing at the Hotel Riu Palace Macao.
And the frightening headlines aren't just limited to medical emergencies. Earlier this month, retired Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz, who is from the Dominican Republic, was shot in the back at a bar in the nation's capital. And a Delaware mom said she was brutally attacked at a Dominican resort back in January.
Although they're a small fraction of the total number of tourists who visit the country — more than 2 million Americans visit every year, accounting for about one-third of the tourism to the Caribbean island — the sudden and mysterious circumstances have spooked some travelers.
While some visitors may be concerned about the vacations they have booked to the Caribbean hot spot, there are some precautions they can take to make for a safer, and thus more relaxing, trip.
Get travel insurance, including a medical plan
"We have been seeing an increase into inquiries about the Dominican Republic and what kind of coverage applies," said Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com.
He said it's a good idea for travelers who are going abroad, especially to the Dominican Republic, to purchase a travel insurance plan that offers medical assistance, and if the worst happens, evacuation coverage.
At the very least, medical coverage can offer some peace of mind.
"With a medical plan, you are a phone call away from someone who can help you navigate that country's medical system and hospitals. They will become your patient advocate and that is worth its weight in gold," Sandberg said.
Plan for your safety well before boarding the plane
The U.S. Department of State issued a "level two" alert for the Dominican Republic. American tourists are being urged to "exercise increased caution" due to crime, however, the alert stops short of advising people to reconsider their travel plans.
The State Department also recommends signing up for its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which is a free service for U.S. citizens and nationals that registers your trip with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. That means you'll get safety alerts about your destination, and you'll also be easier to locate in case of an emergency.
Another simple thing to do: Make two copies of your passport. Give one copy to someone you trust, and keep another on you — separate from your real passport — in case of theft, so you won't be scrambling to find important information when you need it most.
Liana Corwin, a consumer travel expert at Hopper, a flight and hotel booking app, told TODAY that doing research ahead of time is the best place to start.
"You’ll want to obtain information like, what are the best neighborhoods and the ones you should avoid? Are there only certain kinds of taxis you should take or modes of transportation you should avoid? Also, is there a hospital or medical center that is in close proximity to where you are staying?" she said.
Take basic safety precautions
Corwin advises doing a full check of your room before unpacking any belongings. This includes examining the windows and doors to make sure the locks work and that nothing has been tampered with, she said.
That check should also include the minibar. Many all-inclusive resorts also offer a free stash of drinks for guests, so it's important to make sure nothing in the refrigerator has been tampered with before you drink it.
She suggests being wary of accepting anything, including a drink, from a stranger.
"While it can be exciting to explore, try new things and meet new people while you’re traveling, it is important to be vigilant and not trust anyone too quickly," she said. "Scammers know how to quickly identify vulnerable tourists, so be cautious about who you talk to, the information you give out and leaving any valuables unattended with strangers."
Seasoned travelers know that it's best to blend in with the locals and not look like a tourist whenever possible. That could mean ditching the flashy jewelry and being discreet when paying for items or using gadgets.
You might also consider designating a check-in buddy, someone you trust who could be local or back at home. If you're going out for a night of drinks, tell your buddy that you'll text him or her by a certain time to confirm you've made it home safely. If you fail to do so, he or she should raise the alarm (tip: make sure your buddy has all your relevant details on hand, like your travel itinerary, local phone number and a recent photo).
Should you cancel your trip?
If you're still second-guessing going on a trip you've already booked, there may be some options. Look up your hotel's cancellation policy. If it was purchased at a special rate or as a package, it may be more difficult to get a refund, however, it never hurts to ask.
"Some hotels have the option to cancel without penalty, though cancellation policies can vary from property to property, especially when it comes to traveling abroad," said Corwin.
"Because many of the hotels you’ll encounter are owned by different parties, you unfortunately can’t expect the policies to be uniform everywhere," she said. So, while you may get a competitive deal on a booking platform, it's still important to read the fine print.
As for airfare, most airlines will allow people to pay a cancellation fee, which usually ranges from $75 to $200, and will allow them to receive a credit for future bookings. While it's not ideal if you got a steal on airfare, it can make a difference with a more expensive ticket.
If you have elite status on an airline, it doesn't hurt to call and see if there's anything they can do to waive the cancellation fee.
While travel insurance can be a lifesaver when it comes to canceling for unforeseen circumstances, such as jury duty or a major illness, Sandberg, of TravelInsurance.com, said it won't cover people who want to cancel simply because they're worried.
"It's a little trickier because with travel insurance, the covered reasons don't include the changing of one's mind," he said.
There is one special exception. Most states, but not New York, allow insurance brokers to sell plans at a higher premium that will cover some, but not all, of the cost of a trip if a person changes his or her mind. But for people who have already booked travel to the Dominican Republic, it's too late to get that kind of plan, Sandberg said.
If all else fails, go to the Dominican Republic, practice vigilance and enjoy the trip.
While the recent spate of headlines can be scary, consider this: Fewer Americans are dying abroad in the Dominican Republic than in previous years, according to the State Department.
And it turns out, most Americans have a blast.
Dominican Tourism Minister Francisco Javier García, in a statement last week, cited a survey by the country's central bank that reported that 99% of American tourists "said they would return to our country on vacation."