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The Dominican Republic: From sleepy to chic

The Dominican Republic used to be a quiet, sleepy get-away spot. But now, that’s quickly changing. By NBC's Kerry Sanders
/ Source: CNBC

The Dominican Republic used to be a quiet, sleepy get-away spot. But now, that’s quickly changing. Welcome to Casa Colonial. Dressed in white and rich mahogany, from its elegant lobby to the rooftop, it is a gem among the world’s boutique hotels. But, there’s something more than a designer’s touch that sets this hotel apart: Location, location, location.

This Italian inspired hotel sprouted two years ago in a most unlikely destination, the Dominican Republic. Unlikely because the “D.R.” — as it’s called here, is best known as the best bargain in the Caribbean. It’s still a deal in many ways. But, the fifty suite Casa Colonial with rooms starting at $260 a night, is just one example of how this third-world country is aiming for a higher class of tourist.

“Now we have a lot of people that in the past would not be attracted to go to Puerto Plata because they are not finding the right place to stay, now they have”, said Casa Colonial Vice President, Roberto Casoni.

Casa Colonial hotel and spa on the island’s north coast seems to have set off a building boom catering to the well-heeled travelers. Large resorts being built across the country are including “boutique” hotels and other high-end properties.

“In the next ten years you will find all the American chains like the Four Seasons, Hyatt and Ritz Carlton. We know that they are negotiating with the owners of the beautiful lands by the sea,” said Felix Jimenez, Dominican Tourism Secretary.

Jimenez says tourism has overtaken sugar production and accounts for 20% of the economy. The government hopes to grow that by reaching beyond the all-inclusive bargain tourist of the past.

“Our goal is like a plane. We can find seats for first class, business class and coach. So, we want it to be so that you can find many kinds of different hotels,"said Jimenez.

“Some will want the best of both worlds. That’s what the brand new Paridisus on the southeast coast is banking on,” said Sina Schreiber of the Paridisus Palma Real.

Less than a year old, the Paridisus, a Spanish owned all-inclusive was built for the high-end traveler who wants the amenities of a large property, the comforts of a luxury suite and doesn’t mind paying the $398 a night boutique prices.

“Americans now have experienced all-inclusive in destinations like Mexico and not always they know that all-inclusive can also be combined with luxury and this is what we build here. We have a beautiful Caribbean setting with world class property and we try to combine that,” said Schreiber.

Even well established resorts like the island’s Casa de Campo in La Romana is jumping on the boutique bandwagon as part of a huge expansion plan.

“We’re planning a 200 room hotel with a small beach and a five-star hotel with excellent facilities,” said Casa de Campo VP, Alfonso Paniaqua.

For those with privacy in mind, yet another option is going high-end in the D.R. with a private villa stay. Americans Dan and Ruthie Moller visited a nearby villa four years ago and decided to build one of their own. A $3 million, 18,000 square foot spread, complete with a private beach, will be ready later this year. They will use it as a family retreat, but also rent it out to other Americans for $15,000 a week — with a twist — the profits will fund a community center they’re building in a nearby town.

“It’s a place we can revisit and bring our family and come on a regular basis. And, instead of just give and go, to actually be part of the community center, to get to know people, to understand their needs,” said Ruthie Miller.

The Dominican is a country of contrasts with the wealthy visitors and the struggling population. But, in recent years tourism and the massive construction it has generated has been raising the standard of living for many in the D.R.

Lisa Bommarito Kirkman of Sea Horse Ranch is supervising the building of this $5 million  beachfront villa on the North Coast.

“Tourism started here sort of government oriented, so it was really basic hotels. Little by little, with private investments, we’re getting luxury hotels, luxury communities like this one. So, it is a trend and Americans are getting more and more demanding everyday with all the comforts, so this country has to keep up with it as well," said Kirkman.

With accommodations like these popping up across the country and views to match, it’s a trend likely to last.