By Joe Sylvester

jsylvester@dailyitem.com

Local travelers are heading to Alaska, Europe and Florida theme parks.

Some are heading to the Caribbean, except, for the most part, the Dominican Republic, said a couple of local travel agents.

Negative publicity over the deaths of nearly a dozen American tourists this year, some of them under suspicious circumstances, has had some travelers rebooking, and the airlines and other vendors were not penalizing, said Amie Miller, owner of Miller Travel, in Middleburg.

“The Dominican, that’s kind of out for now,” Miller said. “We rebooked 50 to 60 people.”

She said the vendors — such as airlines, hotels, car rental companies, cruise lines — granted waivers to not penalize Miller’s clients for changing their plans.

“Normally, there are penalties that are non-refundable,” she said. “That says a lot. They don’t normally do that.”

In fact, she said, in her 32 years in the travel business, she has never had an airline waive all penalties, other than after 9/11.

Meanwhile, travelers have opted to go to another Caribbean island, such as Jamaica, St. Lucia or Aruba.

Sara Newbury, office manager for Travel Leaders of Lewisburg, said requests to travel to the Dominican Republic have decreased to nothing.

“That’s probably the only place people are avoiding,” Newbury said. “We’ve had zero requests.”

Trend reversing

Trudy Lagerman, office manager at Liberty Travel in the Susquehanna Valley Mall, said, though, she is seeing the trend beginning to reverse.

“The news sort of sways people one way or another,” Lagerman said. “The Dominican Republic, when it was heavily in the news, we had a lot of questions on it. For obvious reasons, we have had a few people change. I have not seen that any longer. The people who did go loved it.”

Eleven American tourists died in the Dominican Republic this year and at least 13 Americans have died there under suspicious circumstances since June 2018, according to media reports.

The State Department has confirmed the deaths of several U.S. tourists who have died while staying at all-inclusive resorts in the Dominican Republic since June 2018, though most died from heart attacks or other apparent natural causes.

TIME reported that according to the U.S. State Department, there has not been an increase in reported deaths of American tourists in the Dominican Republic. The State Department reported 13 U.S. citizens died while traveling to the Dominican Republic in 2018, fewer than the 17 in 2017.

More than 2 million U.S. tourists visited the island in 2017, nearly 40 percent of all tourists who visited.

Miller said Mexico has picked up a little bit after undergoing its own round of bad publicity. Cruises and national park trips are up, too.

One place most Americans can’t go is Cuba.

“Now we have Cuba off the table,” Miller said. “Trump actually decided he didn’t want Americans traveling to Cuba.”

The Trump administration last month banned all trips to Cuba by American cruise ships and other recreational vessels.

Alaska, Japan popular

Most travelers who book out of her office are going to Alaska, Miller said. That is the most popular destination, ahead of New Zealand. Maui, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park. When she advertised a trip to see scenic Switzerland by train, it was sold out in three weeks.

Newbury said her Travel Leaders has seen a lot of last-minute requests for vacations, among them trips to Japan for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.

“We have seen requests definitely increase as compared to last year,” she said.

She said those last-minute requests could be due in part to reasonable airfare, targeted marketing campaigns or the influence of full-time travel vloggers.

“For some, they are honestly worried that the economy will plunge and they want to get their travels in now,” Newbury said, adding she’s heard that from several guests.

Trips to Central Florida — Disney, Universal — and taking family trips to the Caribbean or Mexico are the most popular, Newbury said.

She said travelers typically want to travel to someplace where English is the traditional language, such as the United Kingdom, though Spain and Portugal have seen more requests.

“What is really growing is the trend of living like a local,” she said.

The agency will book accommodations away from heavy tourist areas.

“What we’re getting a lot of right now is people who are looking for more than a beach,” said Lagerman, of Liberty Travel. “There is sparked interest in Europe and Hawaii. In general, they’re looking for something more than the Caribbean.”

One area she has seen grow is river cruises.

“That is the hot thing to do right now, mostly in Europe. The Rhine and the Danube (rivers) are the two most popular,” she said. “That is the most we get requests on.”

‘Road trips are king’

Travelers who don’t travel “across the pond” or to the islands many times opt to venture closer to home.

Jim Garrity of AAA said members from Pennsylvania are mostly traveling to the beaches in the Carolinas.

“Virginia Beach also is a hot spot,” Garrity said. “Also, a lot of people are traveling in-state to more scenic areas. Road trips are king this time of the year. Four in 10 Americans said they would be taking a trip this year.”

He cited the strong economy and relatively lower gas prices. 

“Nearly 100 million (nationwide) are planning on taking a trip this summer,” he said.

He said that even though Pennsylvania gas prices have been moving upward, they still are about 10 cents cheaper than this time last year. 

As for flight destinations of Pennsylvania AAA members, Orlando is on the top that list. Las Vegas also is a big destination, Garrity said.