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Trend or coincidence? Tourist deaths threaten Dominican Republic’s sunny image

WATCH: Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism official Francisco Javier Garcia Fernandez said on June 21 that the number of unnatural American tourist deaths in the country is exaggerated by media.

A cloud of fear hangs over the sunny shores of the Dominican Republic, where a string of high-profile tourist deaths have sparked concerns in the U.S. and Canada about a potential trend — though government officials say it’s just a coincidence.

At least eight U.S. tourists have died at Dominican resorts over the last six months, and nine over the past year. Dominican officials say they all died of natural causes, but some would-be tourists are starting to rethink their plans as the reported numbers add up. No Canadian deaths have been linked to the alleged trend, although a handful of visitors have reported feeling ill after visiting the Dominican.

Chicago resident Jessica Stone says she cancelled her July destination wedding in the Dominican because of the growing death count.

“The numbers are going up constantly,” she told CBS Chicago on Friday. “Am I going to die if I eat something, drink something (or) get in a pool?”

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READ MORE: U.S. couple says they fell ill at Dominican Republic resort where 3 tourists died

Whether it’s a pattern or a coincidence, the situation threatens to hurt the island’s crucial tourism industry, which represents approximately 8 per cent of its US$75.9 billion GDP. The Dominican welcomed a record 6.5 million visitors last year and saw 605,000 more visitors in the first two months of 2019, according to government statistics. That’s about 20 per cent of all visitors to the Caribbean.

More than 2 million Americans and 837,000 Canadians visited the country in 2017, according to the tourism ministry.

With that much money on the line, Dominican Republic Tourism Minister Francisco Javier Garcia spoke out about the issue on Friday, telling reporters that there is no trend and that a handful of deaths among millions of visitors is not uncommon.

“There is nothing to hide here,” Garcia said. “What some media are describing as an avalanche of deaths doesn’t correspond to the reality that we’re living today in the Dominican Republic.”

WATCH: FBI opens probe into U.S. tourists’ deaths

FBI investigates six U.S. deaths in Dominican Republic
FBI investigates six U.S. deaths in Dominican Republic

Garcia says all of the tourists died of natural causes, based on five autopsies that have been completed to date. He says three other bodies are undergoing further toxicological analysis with help from the FBI, which is also investigating the string of deaths.

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The Dominican government has been criticized for not sharing more details of the death investigations.

They “probably have some indication of what it could be or what it might not be,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases and critical care doctor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. But officials have been “very opaque” about their findings, he said.

“The longer they keep everybody in suspense, the worse it’s going to be for the Dominican Republic, especially when they’re so dependent on tourism. Because the longer this goes on unexplained, the longer people are going to be leery of going there,” Adalja told The Associated Press.

READ MORE: Body of Winnipeg woman found dead at Dominican Republic resort returned to Canada

Garcia said the number of U.S. tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic dropped 56 per cent from 2016 to 2018, although he did not provide further numbers or details. The U.S. State Department also dismissed the idea of a surge of tourist deaths, saying that it had not seen an uptick in the number of U.S. citizen who died there.

“Most tourist destinations have a number of natural deaths during a year,” Dr. Sally Aiken, a medical examiner in Spokane, Wash., told the AP. Aiken has done more than 9,000 autopsies and is vice-president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Garcia says authorities are stepping up security at their resorts and increasing control over food and beverages. However, he says this is only a preventive measure.

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“We’re very sorry for the families’ grief,” he said, adding: “There is no wave of mysterious deaths.”

Dominican Republic deaths

The first deaths to capture headlines happened on May 30. Edward Nathaniel Holmes, 63, and his fiancée Cynthia Ann Day, 49, were found dead in their hotel room at the Grand Bahia Principe La Romana hotel. Garcia says several medications were found in the room including an opioid, an anti-inflammatory drug and blood-pressure medication.

Autopsies discovered fluid in their lungs — a heart disease-related condition called pulmonary edema.

WATCH: Maryland couple found dead at Dominican resort

Maryland couple found dead at Dominican Republic resort
Maryland couple found dead at Dominican Republic resort

The unusual incident prompted family members to report that Miranda Schaup-Werner, 41, had died at another Bahia Principe resort a few days earlier, on May 25. A spokesperson for the family said Schaup-Werner collapsed after getting a drink from the minibar at the Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville hotel.

The autopsy found she died of a heart attack, according to Garcia.

READ MORE: 3 U.S. tourists found dead just days apart in same Dominican Republic resort

Those deaths prompted many across the U.S. to raise concern that their loved ones might have also died as part of a trend. Eventually, more names were added to the list, including five others who died in 2019. Some of the victims reportedly drank alcohol before their deaths.

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Jerry Curran, 78, died on Jan. 26 at the Dreams Punta Cana resort. The autopsy found he died of pulmonary edema and other causes, Garcia said.

Robert Bell Wallace, 67, died on April 12 at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Punta Cana. Garcia says he died of septic shock, pneumonia and multi-organ failure.

John Corcoran, 70, died a week later on April 19 in the Dominican Republic of natural causes, according to Garcia. Family members have said he had a pre-existing heart condition. Dominican officials have not released further details.

Leyla Ann Cox, 53, died of a heart attack on June 10, according to Garcia. She was reportedly in Punta Cana at the time.

Joseph Allen, 55, died on June 13 at the Centro Vacacional Terra Linda resort in Sossua. The autopsy concluded that he died of a heart attack, anthracosis edema and pulmonary congestion, according to Garcia.

WATCH: New Jersey man Joseph Allen dies in Dominican Republic

New Jersey man latest U.S. tourist to die in Dominican Republic
New Jersey man latest U.S. tourist to die in Dominican Republic

Garcia declined to share the autopsy reports with the media.

Bahia Principe, which operates 14 hotels in the Dominican, including some where the tourists died, says it’s committed to collaborating completely with authorities. The company told Global News that it hopes for a “prompt resolution of their inquiries and actions.” It also said the safety and comfort of its guests and staff are “at the core of our company values, and we work daily to ensure it.”

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The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Punta Cana said it was “deeply saddened” by the deaths of Wallace and 45-year-old David Harrison, who died at the same hotel last year. Harrison has been included as No. 9 on some lists of tourist deaths.

“The safety and health of our guests is now, and has always been our highest priority,” the hotel told Global News in a statement. “We currently implement beverage protocols, including purchasing sealed and unopened products from licensed and reputable vendors, as well as daily inspections of all products served throughout the hotel bars and in-room liquor dispensers.”

The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino also recommends that all travellers visit a doctor prior to taking a trip, especially if they might have a chronic medical condition.

The Canadian government recommends exercising a high degree of caution in the Dominican Republic “due to a high crime rate.” It also recommends consulting a health-care professional or visiting a travel clinic at least six weeks before travelling.

— With files from The Associated Press