Aging boomers fuel a boom in the Caribbean.
“Real estate tourism is booming,” Felix Jimenez said. “Any doctor, dentist or small-business owner from the United States or Canada can afford to live here in paradise.”
The Dominican Republic – as well as other sunny destinations in the Americas – has joined the crush to win the hearts and wallets of the 70 million U.S. baby boomers marching toward retirement.
Beaches along the nation's famous coastlines are studded with as many real estate signs as palm trees, and construction projects are blooming in once-remote hideaways as the Internet fuels a global land rush.
With more than 10,000 tourists a day flocking to the island, foreign investment is at a seven-year high of $1.2 billion. And more than $2.5 billion worth of real estate projects are under development, Jimenez said.
Perhaps nowhere is the shift being felt more than the coastal region known as Bavaro-Punta Cana, where the all-you-can-eat budget beach resort was virtually invented decades ago.
Driving along a busy road shared by tourist buses, bulldozers and backhoes, Emil Montas points out the dentist office, shopping mall and hardware store that have sprung up over the last few months.
“Five years ago, the only things here were all-inclusive hotels” behind concrete walls, he said. “If you weren't staying at one of them, you couldn't even find a restaurant.”
Emil Montas and Scott Medina are part of the region's changing face. Their company, La Costa Destinations International Realty, manages 2,000 condos across the island and Montas is building 70 of its own in Bavaro-Punta Cana with foreign buyers in mind.
Even as the U.S. real estate market stumbles, Montas said builders like him can't keep up with the demand.
Inspecting a two-bedroom condo that his company is selling for $123,000, Montas said about 40 percent of his buyers never set foot on the property before closing.
“Prices are rising so fast that people are buying property over the Internet sight unseen,” Montas said. “Right now, I'm talking to a Canadian living in the Middle East who found us on the Internet – that's how far the reputation of Punta Cana has reached.”
The appeal of living or retiring in places where the weather is milder and dollars stretch further is easy to grasp.
But what makes a good retirement spot is often different from what makes a good tourist destination, said Suzan Haskins, the Latin America editorial director of International Living, a publication with 650,000 subscribers aimed at retiring expats.
While isolated beaches and cheap drinks lure tourists, it is health care, accessibility and cheap labor that draw retirees.
“Medical attention and infrastructure are huge factors,” Haskins said. “Then there's the ability to afford a maid, a gardener, and all those things you can't even think about in the U.S.”
The minimum wage in the Dominican Republic is $99 a month, in line with Mexico and far cheaper than Puerto Rico – the island's two biggest competitors in the Caribbean – making domestic help affordable.
And the government and private sector are pouring money into new international airports – there are six of them – and multilane highways.
Hidalgo Montesino, 70, and his wife, Sonia, are Miami residents who bought a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment for $117,000 near the town of El Cortecito in the Bavaro-Punta Cana region. “The floors are marble, the countertops are granite, and the walls are real cement – not the Sheetrock that they use” in South Florida, Montesino said of the home he expects to move into in a few years.
Just a few miles from an airport, a new shopping center, and a modern health-care facility, the condo has all the comforts of home, he said. And it lacks some of the hassles of South Florida living. Because the house was less than $150,000, they don't have to pay property taxes, and insurance isn't required.
“I know people who have lived in Miami for years who are going broke because of all the insurance and tax problems,” Montesino said.
“And the people here are so much nicer. There's a reason we're putting our money [in the Dominican Republic].”