The Dominican Republic, the Caribbean’s top tourism destination, expects nearly 5 million visitors this year and in 2012

The Dominican Republic, the Caribbean’s top tourism destination, expects record numbers of tourists this year and next. It’s on pace to receive nearly 5 million visitors in 2011, topping the record set last year.

The country, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti, is

Bond defaults, jitters about a double-dip recession, 9.1 percent unemployment — all the unrelenting talk of the tattered global economy doesn’t seem to compare to the draw of a few days on a Caribbean beach.

The Dominican Republic, the Caribbean’s top tourism destination, expects record numbers of tourists this year and next. It’s on pace to receive nearly 5 million visitors in 2011, topping the record set last year.

“The global economy is clearly having an effect on tourism, but the Dominican Republic is trending higher. It’s a growing and developing destination,” said Scott Sperling, senior economist at Pennsylvania-based Tourism Economics, which forecasts travel patterns around the world.

Tourism Economics recently revised its global tourism forecast downward. While tourist travel will grow, it will only increase by 2.5% this year, Sperling said.

But economic struggles appear to be working in the Dominican Republic’s favor.

“We are attracting the U.S. tourists who are not going to Europe because it’s far and more expensive,” said Humberto Ozoria, spokesman for the Dominican Ministry of Tourism.

Sperling said the total number of visitors to the country, arriving by airplane and cruise ship, is expected to increase by 4.7% this year and grow by a robust 5.7% in 2012.

“Because of the economic situation, Americans that used to travel to long-haul destinations have shifted their preferences to traveling to closer destinations,” the ministry of tourism said.

The country, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti, is less than two hours from Miami on a direct flight, and the government is trying to cash in on that proximity with the advertising slogan “Closer than you think.”

One of its television spots shows a woman bundled in a coat and scarf in a busy city peering into a vehicle’s side-view-mirror, which reads “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” She and her family are suddenly transported to a palm-lined beach and sights such as Santo Domingo’s colonial quarter and a golf course appear.

Motivated by a cheap hotel rate in an online advertisement, Maria Bruno, a waitress, caught a flight from northern New Jersey and was on a Dominican beach a few hours later.

“It’s easy. You don’t have to plan much. You get here and it’s taken care of,” said Bruno as she sifted through crafts and artwork at a gift shop in Santo Domingo, the capital. “Even with the economy the way it is, you still want to get away, especially before the winter.”

U.S. travelers like Bruno are focusing both on shorter trips and attractive prices, said Tim Mullen, president of Apple Vacations, the largest U.S. operator of tours to the Dominican Republic.

For many travelers, a getaway to the country means a stay at one of the many mammoth beachfront, all-inclusive resorts. In these compounds, for as little as $50 a day per person, tourists can hop from buffet to bar, pool to sea, taking in a session of water aerobics or beach volleyball.

The country “has always been the best value in the Caribbean. The all-inclusive values make it more popular than ever,” Mullen said.

Thanks in large part to tourism, the Dominican economy is forecast to grow by 5 percent this year, according to the Central Bank. Tourism supports 250,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, and tourists spent roughly $4.5 billion last year, according to industry figures.

“Despite the global economic crisis, tourism continues to be the engine for development in the Dominican Republic,” said Julio Llibre, president of the National Association of Hotels and Tourism.

Still, some of the country’s destinations have struggled, despite the growth.

On the island’s northern coast, the once teeming resorts around the city of Puerto Plata, not far from where Christopher Columbus established his first settlement, 15 hotels have closed in recent years, either temporarily or permanently.

“Puerto Plata was one of the most popular areas. But around five years ago, we were overtaken by areas with newer, bigger hotels, like Punta Cana,” said Máximo Iglesias, president of ASHONORTE (the Association of Hotel Owners on the North Coast). “Now, we have to try to make ourselves stand out.”

The area’s most recent effort to reinvent itself has focused on outdoor activities and attractions as well as pushing down prices. Tourism officials tout its mountains for eco-tourism and the windy surf for kite boarders and windsurfers.

One tour company is offering a five-night stay, including airfare from Miami, and all food and drink for as little as $509 per person at Viva Wyndham Tangerine, a 221-room resort on a beach where “kite surfers and windsurfers abound.”

Other hotels are using more suggestive approaches. Iberostar Costa Dorada recently teamed with the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders. Twenty-two cheerleaders stayed at the resort just outside Puerto Plata while shooting their 2012 swimsuit calendar.

“We have to look for other ways to promote ourselves,” Iglesias said. “If someone goes on Google and searches for Dominican vacations, it’s all Punta Cana.”

Punta Cana, a stretch of powdery, white-sand coastline and enormous resorts on the country’s eastern coast has grown rapidly and been promoted heavily.

An unpopulated backwater with a shoreline clogged with mangroves just a few decades ago, the area has become one of the most visited spots in the Caribbean. Its airport is busier than the international airport serving Santo Domingo, a metropolitan area of 3.4 million people.

The government acknowledges that Puerto Plata “has reached its maturity and it is now competing with other new destinations” like Punta Cana. But it has tried to give the older destination a boost. Over the last five years the government said it has invested $150 million, more than it has in any other tourism area, in infrastructure in Puerto Plata. It has rebuilt roads and upgraded a sewage treatment plant.

But despite the investment, the number of visitors has fallen steadily in the last five years, Iglesias said.

The area is now resting its hopes on a new marketing strategy and a $65-million cruise port under construction just west of Puerto Plata. Financed by a Dominican shipping family and Carnival Corporation, it is expected to bring in thousands of visitors a day when it opens in late 2013.