Tourism suffered a worldwide collapse due to a pandemic that disrupted everyone’s lives; recovery seemed a long way off. A series of opportune and courageous decisions, according to the sector, managed to revert the prognosis. At the beginning of the year 2023 with unbeatable numbers, Collado talks to Diario Libre.
– In the last edition of Fitur, it was felt that the Dominican tourism enters a new stage. For the amount of the investments, for a new generation of hoteliers, for the environmental parameters…
Fitur has become the most important tourism fair in the world. In previous years it was Berlin, the ITB, held in March. It is more of a business fair, but Fitur has become the event where every hotel businessman wants to bring good news. In addition, the banks are determined to find and close deals.
-It is also a competition of banks.
There are already three Dominican banks, the BHD entered with a space and next year wants to go on equal terms. We are talking about a lot of money: the businessmen themselves announced investments of three thousand six hundred million dollars. And yes, there is a new vigorous generation that is leading the new investments and investment funds and foreign capital are entering with force. For example, I have already received Chapur, of Mexican origin, who is bringing his capital for investments that have an impact: they are planning a 2,000-room hotel.
-Does the country spend too much money in Fitur?
The cost of Fitur for the Ministry of Tourism was 351,000 dollars. If we compare that with 1,333,000 foreigners from the European market that arrive every year, the investment versus the results are very clear. If we calculate investments for 3,645 million dollars coming to the country -of which 1,600 million are coming this year- Fitur was a success. It is a good investment.
-Is the future of the sector in the East?
Miches will be the new tourist destination that we want to promote. The Cisneros group is coming with an environmentally themed boutique hotel with 150 rooms and villas that will be managed by the Four Seasons chain. Frank Elías Ranieri with the Zemí hotel is projecting investments of some 200 million. Also a strong group of the Spanish Hyatt chain with 1,000 rooms. These projects have already started in Miches. Papo Blanco with Viva Wyndham comes with an investment of about 150 million dollars and has already started.
-Are the Spaniards still dominating?
Spanish families, traditional in the sector, maintain 37,500 rooms and are going to increase to more than 40,000. They own around 50% but now there is a different boom. Dominicans are investing for the first time. Frank Rainieri was never seen leaving what was his resort but he already has about 500 rooms in Miches and 250 in Uvero Alto. The Ritz Carlton project is owned by Dominicans, by Yamil Isaías, who is the president of Promiches and is the head of the project with other businessmen. We see a boom because Dino Campagna is at the St. Regis. Dominicans in that wave after COVID are entering the wave of tourism, something we have not seen before.
-What will be the difference between Miches, Bávaro and Punta Cana?
The organization. Bavaro and Punta Cana grew in an accelerated and disorganized manner without urban planning. In Miches we are doing the opposite. A clear example is that the bidding for the aqueduct has already been done and INAPA has started. That was part of the agreement we made with the private sector. The access to the beach has already been delivered and we are working on a garbage collection system. Shaney Peña’s team is preparing a land use plan to clearly define what can be built in Miches.
-With the sewers and sewage treatment? Finally?
That is correct. All the hotels will have their water treatment plant. We are going to guarantee that Miches will be an environmentally friendly destination, an example in security and a model in the Dominican Republic of our vision.
-When did Dominican banking enter the hotel industry?
It has been around for a long time. Part of the intention of reopening hotels as if it were an inauguration, with a ribbon cutting included, was to raise people’s expectations and excitement. Investors get a sense of the vibe, the energy of the country. Those ribbon cuttings were creating a feeling that we were recovering. We realized that only one financial institution, Banco Popular, has 59,000 million pesos lent to the tourism sector. If we did not recover tourism, the country’s banking system was also at risk.
-Do you know that they call you the minister of record?
Hahahaha, thank God, I hope they don’t run out! The big challenge was that after making so many records in 2022, the trend would continue. But in January we grew double digits, more than 25%, a record figure compared to the past. All markets exploded, we even recovered the European market.
-I assume it had fallen because of the invasion and war in Ukraine….
The country concentrated on the United States and forgot about Europe for a long time. Now we are growing again in France, England, Germany… The U.S. market grew approximately 20% compared to 2022. The Canadian market is back on fire and in Latin America we have gained countries such as Colombia and Argentina. Colombia has become the third country of origin of tourists. In the last 7 months, 30,000 travelers have come here, mainly to Punta Cana. In the last 3 months, the United States, Canada and Colombia have been the major tourist emitters.
-Is this tourism reciprocated? Are we traveling to Colombia?
Not in the same magnitude. Our country has become the preferred destination for Argentina and Colombia. Soon, on February 22 starts the ANATO fair, in Bogota, which is the most important fair in the region and we are the host country. We are taking Santiago. Just as we took Miches to Fitur, we are going to present Santiago mainly, although we will show the whole country: Miches, Puerto Plata and the Santiago cluster. The whole fair is dedicated to the country, with a recognition as a leading country in the region and the truth is that it has been a great surprise.
-What about the “privatization” of the beaches? More hotels, less public beaches? Nobody likes to talk about it?
I am open to touch it. The first thing we did was the public access to Miches beach. Today the hotels are not built but the public access is ready. We made an access that has nothing to envy to any private complex in the area. It has parking lots, lighting. Free access to a large beach. It has dignity, we put showers and it is in use. We made a cordon that had never been done before to protect the dunes and turtle nesting sites. There we also built a medical dispensary, the Navy goes to sleep there and they have beds and offices next to the Tourist Police. Miches is an example of our vision of free access to public beaches. We are not only going to stop there, we are going to build two more along the project, without hindering private investment so that they can invest to create jobs and boost the economy.
-The environmental issue is crucial and many mistakes were made in the past.
The legislations are always there and most of the time they are harsh. It matters the will of the incumbent and we have a firm will in alliance with the Ministry of Environment to comply with the permits and with what the law says. We are demanding from the private sector that if you are going to have a slightly higher density, you have to give green areas to the community. This is the scheme that is used in large cities and it is being complied with. What does not apply, does not apply no matter who it is.
-We sell beaches, mainly, but they are not at their best….
We are taking an inherited loan of 70 million dollars with the IDB for the regeneration of our beaches. There is a strong impact on our country’s beaches, we are running out of sand. We are doing the studies with non-reimbursable funds for half a million dollars.
-Is sand being brought from elsewhere?
It is a project directed by technicians hired by the IDB to regenerate the beach, to bring sand and with all the care for the environment. There are hoteliers who have asked us for permission to do so, but all of them have been forbidden to do so. This project must be initiated with responsibility.
-The PLD government made a similar intervention in Juan Dolio?
Yes, in Juan Dolio there was an intervention. I am not very clear but I think it was one of that type.
-Don’t you feel that one of the problems of tourism is the garbage?
Yes, it happens to us on the beaches, tourist poles and we are fighting it. We have just bought 11 dump trucks and we are going to deliver them in the next weeks, they are already at the ministry and they will be delivered to the municipalities for the tourist poles, to improve the issue of solid waste collection.
-In order to stay, first you have to arrive, can’t you find a way to lower the air fares?
You were telling me just now to tell you about something bad, that not everything could be so good in the sector. We have great challenges in the number of hotel rooms and air connectivity in the country and we are facing them. In Houston, a large tour operator told me that he had a family of 10 people who wanted to go to the Dominican Republic but decided to go to Mexico because of the fares. US$1,500 for 10 gave him US$15,000 and they went to Mexico for US$200 each and with the price of one they went here and with the other they solved the hotel and so on.
-There are routes that are excessively expensive and without much competition.
Exactly, we want to generate competition as well. From Puerto Rico here a ticket costs US $800 and tourists say that it is better to go to Europe or Miami than here, and we are only 30 minutes away.
-Does that subject fall under the open skies agreements?
No, I am going to that now. The President appointed me as coordinator of the commission to negotiate open skies with the United States, which has been on hold for 15 years. In December I met in Washington with the State Department and we already have a pre-agreement. In February we want to close it.
-Who was against it?
I don’t know, maybe the industry. Because here there are airports that could not enter because of the requirements that this firm brings, such as the service of works under the wing. I must say that the president of Aerodom (Monica Infante) spoke with the State Department and assured that in order for the country to sign the agreement they are open to airlines that want to provide their own services under the wing, they can talk to them.
-Does this issue remove a stone from the road?
Sure, that was the final stone. But also all the airports are in agreement. They saw the will of President Abinader and ours. We are really the only country, with Cuba, that does not have open skies with the United States.
-Would that lower the price to the final consumer?
We understand that it would because it creates more competitiveness, with more airlines coming to the Dominican Republic. The other point that the country needs is the Preclear that would provoke an increase of up to one million tourists, it would be even a local flight for those who come. The issue is in the Constitutional Court because it has an addendum that the country must receive refugees. This has been at a standstill for 10 years because of what we already know and it is sensitive.
The former mayor
-Is it better to be minister of tourism than mayor of Santo Domingo?
As mayor I loved the position, it was an intense challenge and with few resources, a city council with no budget. I had generated a very high expectation, but having been mayor has helped me to be a better minister, because wherever I go I meet with the mayor. I already know the problems, they don’t have to tell me. I know where there are storm drainage problems, for example in Las Galeras. The position of the Minister of Tourism in the tourist poles is like being a great mayor.
-You were not going to be the minister of tourism…
No, I did not come with a public position. I was going to see what would happen after Luis Abinader won, but I really feel good about what has been achieved and the honesty of what we have been able to do. We have saved more than 8 billion pesos with international promotion and we have opened the books.
-Could you wait four more years in the same position?
I don’t know, in this position, I don’t know… I believe that one should not be attached to public positions. One should have a clear strategy, execute it and give way to someone else. It happened to me in the mayor’s office, I could be reelected, I had a very high popularity, 93%, and I left. They could say that I had something guaranteed but no, at the moment of leaving I did not even talk to the president. Communication was cut off there, but now I feel good because I see that every effort made by the team has a positive impact.
With the value chain moving, we have been able to move the pride of the country, the pride of being Dominican, and the whole world is talking about our country. This is an achievement that transcends.
What is going to happen with Airbnb?
-What is the position of the sector? We have to regularize, when I say this I’m not just talking about taxes. We already have an agreement of intent with them because they themselves want to do it and Airbnb is a reality in the country: How many units do they have? They have 93,000 rooms, which is more than the hotels have. But the good thing is that they complement each other. Where are most of Airbnb? Where there were no hotels. In Puerto Plata, in the capital, in Santiago. Where there are hotels, the percentage is lower. -How much does the State lose by not charging taxes to this platform? It must be said that Airbnb gave us the list, that it wants to regularize itself. The issue of taxes is a delicate one… Internal Taxes can indicate it better. The reality is that when you rent a room through a platform from Miami in an Airbnb in the Dominican Republic, Airbnb pays the tax there and that will happen until the issue is not regularized here. -He says that it is not only about taxes…Airbnb is a reality in the world and in the country and the offer has to be regularized or supervised for the safety of the tourist and the reputation of the country.
At last, work began in the Colonial City
-The Colonial City confronted the previous minister when you were mayor. Now you are the minister…
Let’s get started. The important thing about the Colonial City is that if we don’t pay attention to it, we could lose the category of World Heritage because our monuments are abandoned and there is slum living. MITUR supplemented a budget of 460 million pesos and with this fund we are renovating and the recovery of all these monuments, plus the complementary repairs of sidewalks, curbs, drainage and others with their wiring, is already in bidding. The IDB is in Las Damas and Las Mercedes, we are starting on the other side and we will almost reach Ciudad Nueva. The idea with these amounts is to multiply the cameras in Ciudad Colonial. It should be the safest square kilometer in this country and we are going to achieve it in 2023.