Travelers familiar with the Lilliputian scale of the Caribbean's Leeward Islands may be surprised by the Dominican Republic's size. This is not just another tiny Caribbean island with a beach and a straw market.
Instead, it's a big country with spectacularly varied scenery that includes the tallest mountains (with elevations of more than 10,000 ft/3,048 m) and lowest point (more than 100 ft/31 m below sea level) in the region; ecosystems that range from desert to cloud forest; stretches of talcum-white sand that run unbroken for miles/kilometers; and the Caribbean's oldest and—some claim—most cosmopolitan city, Santo Domingo.
No surprise, then, that the "DR," as it is colloquially known, outstrips all other Caribbean destinations in the number of international visitors by a wide margin.
The Dominican Republic was long one of the Caribbean's more obscure destinations. In the 1970s, a group of investors developed Punta Cana as a beach resort destination unrivaled by any other. Then the Dominican Republic's government began proudly splashing its assets around the world in colorful TV and print advertisements in a determination to elevate the country's name on the list of Caribbean vacation spots.
Evidence of its success is visible throughout the country. Visitor numbers, which top 5 million annually, have soared along with the construction of dozens of world-class, all-inclusive resorts. There's also been an increase in visits by cruise ships to the ports of Santo Domingo, Puerto Plata, Samana and La Romana.
Other improvements can be traced to the pursuit of tourism income: Many of the country's roads have been widened and paved, historic areas in the major cities have been renovated, Santo Domingo has gained an underground metro system, and the nation has gained a new cache among the world's rich and famous as more and more deluxe boutique-hotels, chic resorts, championship golf courses and marinas open.
Although the growth in tourism has eased some of the country's economic troubles, it hasn't ended the desperate conditions experienced by many Dominicans. The unemployment rate is high, and more than a quarter of the people live in poverty—many residing in shantytowns and rural shacks that even visitors to all-inclusive resorts will find hard to ignore.
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