At least seven Americans have died this year in the Dominican Republic, and questions have been raised about whether travel is safe to the Caribbean vacation destination. But a Dominican Republic official spoke out at a press conference Friday to dispel concerns.
"The Dominican Republic is a safe country," Francisco Javier Garcia, the minister of tourism in the Dominican Republic, told reporters.
“There is no such thing as mysterious deaths in the Dominican Republic," Garcia said. "There is not an avalanche of deaths.”
Garcia said the confirmed seven deaths of are not out of the ordinary and that the number is lower than in some previous years. Garcia said in both 2011 and 2015 through June, 15 tourists died in the Dominican Republic.
Dominican Republic deaths: What we know, and what we don't
“Unfortunately, people die in situations that they don’t want; these things happen and they will continue to happen in the world,” Garcia said.
He added: “The worst news is when we are informed that a tourist that has visited the Dominican Republic has died, no matter the cause of death. ... We are in mourning with the victim, we are in suffering with the victim, but the Dominican Republic has made a name for itself in tourism.”
Garcia also highlighted the fact that the U.S. State Department currently rates the Dominican Republic as a level 2 ("exercise increased caution") out of 4 on its Travel Advisory alert system, which, he noted, is the same as Spain, France and many other countries.
The State Department rates more than 50 countries at a level 2 for various reasons. The Dominican Republic has held a 2 rating since the Travel Advisory system went into effect in 2018 and has not changed since news reports of the deaths.
The most recent advisory, issued on April 15, noted, "Violent crime, including armed robbery, homicide and sexual assault is a concern throughout the Dominican Republic." It added, "The wide availability of weapons, the use and trade of illicit drugs, and a weak criminal justice system contribute to the high level of criminality on the broader scale."
A tourism security plan was introduced in January and will be reevaluated next year, Garcia said. It includes the coordination of 3,000 cameras and 4,000 police officers.
“We continue to work to increase the security of tourists in the Dominican Republic; we continue to work on the hotel’s standards, to better emergency protocols, increase the quality of food and drink and work with a tourist assistance department.”
In the past five years, the Dominican Republic has had more than 30 million visitors, according to Garcia, and in 2018, 3.2 million tourists visited from the U.S.
The deaths and violence in question
Last week, two Americans were found dead in their hotel rooms in the Caribbean vacation destination: Joseph Allen, 55, of Woodbridge, New Jersey, and Leyla Cox, 53, of Staten Island, New York.
Cox died on June 10, the State Department confirmed to USA TODAY.
Allen's sister, Jamie Reed, told WABC-TV that his body was discovered the morning of June 13 in his hotel room at Terra Linda Resort in Sosua, located on the Caribbean country's northern coast. The previous night, he had complained to friends that he felt feverish and went to bed early.
That same week, David Ortiz, one of the most popular players in Boston Red Sox history, was shot in his native Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic’s chief prosecutor said Ortiz was not the intended target of the June 9 shooting that put his life in peril, but was merely the victim of a hit gone wrong.
In May, Maryland couple Edward Nathaniel Holmes, 63 and Cynthia Ann Day, 49, were found dead in their hotel room. Within a week, a woman from Pennsylvania, Miranda Schaup-Werner, 41, died at the same hotel chain.
The Maryland couple who died each had internal bleeding, preliminary autopsy results showed, according to CNN. Holmes was found to have an enlarged heart and cirrhosis of the liver, while Day had fluid in her brain.
Schaup-Werner reportedly died after drinking from his hotel's minibar.
One hotel is disputing the timeline of an alleged attack of a Delaware woman that also made news that week.
In April, the brother of "Shark Tank" star Barbara Corcoran, New Jersey-native John Corcoran, also died in the Dominican Republic. But Corcoran said her brother's death was of natural causes related to an existing heart condition.
A man who the State Department has not identified by name also became ill and later died on April 14.
Illness also called into question
Dominican Republic travelers have also reported illness that has come to light since safety concerns have been in the news.
A group of Jimmy Buffett fans, members of the Central Oklahoma Parrothead Association, told Oklahoma TV station KFOR and NBC News that they became seriously ill while staying at the Hotel Riu Palace Macao in Punta Cana in April. More than 40 travelers in the group of 114 experienced similar symptoms, including fever, dizziness and diarrhea.
And a group of 40 graduating seniors and their parents from Deer Creek High School in Edmond, Oklahoma, were on a trip to the Caribbean vacation destination when at least five members became ill, according to local TV stations KOTV and KOCO.
One of the parents, Liz McLaughlin told KOTV that her daughter was one of the students to get sick on June 11 after eating at a Japanese restaurant at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, where the group was staying.
"We just don’t know what is happening," she said. "Is it the water? Is it the ice? Is it the food? Is it the food handling? Is it the pesticides? We have no idea what’s going on."
Contributing: Sara Moniuszko, Jayme Deerwester, David Oliver, Jessica Bies
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dominican Republic official says country is safe: 'There is not an avalanche of deaths'