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News Flash - New York Times: Havens

Published: August 13, 2004, Friday

ONE sure way a destination can raise its public profile is by piggybacking on the reputation of a better-known spot that may, in the eyes of trend seekers, be losing some of its heat. Thus, Columbia County, in upstate New York, becomes known as the new Hamptons; Fort Lauderdale promotes itself as the next South Beach; and Atlantic City puts out the word that it is giving Las Vegas a run for its money.

Well, say hello to the Dominican Republic, "the new St. Bart's."

Tourism is booming in the Dominican Republic, and so is construction of second homes for people from northerly climes. The trend doesn't appear to have been slowed by unsettled politics in Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic; by flooding that hit both countries this spring; or by the power cuts and high gasoline prices that recently had Dominican citizens demonstrating against the outgoing president. In the seacoast gated enclaves, an insular bubble of luxury far from the trouble spots, villas and condominiums are selling fast.

Three years ago, Mikhail Baryshnikov visited the sprawling Southern Greek Revival beachside vacation home of his good friend, the Dominican-born designer Oscar de la Renta, in Punta Cana on the country's east coast. Mr. de la Renta and the singer Julio Iglesias are partners in the Punta Cana Resort and Club there.

As Mr. de la Renta tells the story, Mr. Baryshnikov fell in love with the place, put his house in St. Bart's on the market and built one in the Dominican Republic. "He thought it was a better environment for his children," Mr. de la Renta said in a telephone interview. "And it's the best place to really get away to rest."

"There's so much building going on," said Amelia Vicini, a fashion editor at Town & Country magazine, who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. "Every time I go home, I am amazed. The winter season is crazy, full of people -- celebrities, A-listers, everyone."

Air service is increasing, too. In 2003, the Dominican Republic was the fastest growing Caribbean destination for American Airlines, which now has 10 flights a day there from Kennedy Airport, up from seven in 2001. In June, JetBlue made the Dominican Republic its first non-United States destination, offering daily flights for $199 each way from Kennedy. Dave Ulmer, JetBlue's vice president for planning, said that in addition to serving the large Dominican community in New York, the airline will be catering to the crowd that has made the country "a hot leisure destination." (Recently, the airline was offering special fares of $69 each way, before taxes, for flights this fall between New York and Santo Domingo.)

The Dominican Republic, south of Cuba and the Bahamas, is a direct three-and-a-half-hour flight from New York. "It's so close," said Margarita Waxman, who lives in SoHo. When she retired recently from a public relations job at Bulgari, she spent $3 million on four acres of Dominican Republic beachfront for a new villa, passing up St. Bart's, where she has often vacationed. "I go back and forth on a monthly basis." (Not only is St. Bart's farther away, but traveling there requires flying to St. Maarten and then taking a jumper flight.)

But the big attraction is the combination of classic Caribbean assets -- "the people are beautiful, the ocean is beautiful, the weather is beautiful," Mr. Iglesias said by telephone from the Dominican Republic -- and surprisingly favorable prices.

The advantage is the same higher in the market. "It's so much cheaper than St. Bart's, but no less lush and tropical," said Ereka Dunn, a co-founder of D2 Publicity, a lifestyle and fashion public relations firm in New York. She and her family are eyeing properties priced at $400,000 to $1 million on the north coast. "For our price range, you can get an amazing home, built out and furnished," Ms. Dunn said, at a third of the price in St. Bart's.

A St. Bart's real estate agent, Alain Mora of CMI Real Estate, said that the two places aren't even comparable.

"You can be a king in the Dominican for very little money," Mr. Mora said. "You need much more than that in St. Bart's." Houses that are $400,000 to $500,000 in an exclusive Dominican Republic development would start at $1.1 million in St. Bart's, he said.

Until a few years ago, the Dominican Republic had a reputation as second-rate, and affluent shoppers for second homes largely stayed away.

On the market there now are a four-bedroom, 4,304-square-foot house without water views for $1,050,000 and a four-bedroom, 7,409-square-foot house, also without water views, for $3.4 million.

At Punta Cana, where Mr. Iglesias said that developers expect to add 300 homes and a third golf course in the next five years, the 35 homes now under construction start at $310,000, for a three-bedroom villa away from the water and rise to several million dollars for oceanfront properties. (Mr. Iglesias's own home in Punta Cana, a six-acre Balinese-style compound, presumably cost on the high side.)

So far, at least, the Dominican Republic is also avoiding some pitfalls of places adopted by the jet set. "There's a quaintness about it," Ms. Waxman said. "It has all the beauty of St. Bart's, only more bohemian."

Rolando Gonzalez-Bunster, a 55-year-old business developer from Argentina whose primary residence is in Greenwich, Conn., said that it was easier to have a house in the Dominican Republic than in St. Bart's. "It is more accessible and easier to get staff," he said. He bought an oceanfront lot in Casa de Campo five years ago and built a 16,000-square-foot house in the style of the Mexican Pacific Coast. Such lots can cost several million dollars, Mr. Gonzalez-Bunster said, but the cost of custom construction is less than half what it would be in the United States.

The Dominican Republic's half-discovered quality may not last much longer. "Everyone is always looking for the next place, and it is definitely the D. R.," said Shawn Prez, national director of promotions at Bad Boy Entertainment, Sean Combs's record label, and chief executive of Power Moves Marketing and Promotions, a music promoter based in New York. He plans a music conference there next year that he hopes will attract hundreds of industry executives.

The Dominican Republic, he said, is "still sort of untapped."

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