On Punta Cana, all inclusive resorts and the problematic superior stance of sustainable travel

Prior to this year, as a sustainable travel advocate, I turned my nose at all inclusive resorts. How could people stay in these large, gated properties and call it travel? How could you really experience a destination by staying in one location?

So you can imagine that when I was assigned to author a first edition of Moon Dominican Republic guidebook for Moon Guides, I felt conflicted about covering the Punta Cana region. The number one vacation destination in the Caribbean, Punta Cana’s 30-mile white sand shoreline and resorts attract over four million people every year. That number has increased steadily since I started writing about the DR six years ago.

While I had to research and include Punta Cana in one chapter of my guidebook, I placed my efforts on uncovering the more “independent” trail in this tourist-heavy east coast, particularly in Bavaro. I also placed most of my energy on the other lesser known and visited regions around the Dominican Republic. I aimed to steer people away from big resorts, and see “the real” DR. Back then, few bloggers and influencers were doing it.

I had continued to view Punta Cana as a diluted escape, where you don’t interact with the culture in its natural form. At least, those were some of the beliefs I’d held on to for a long time, until recently. It would take an out-of-the-ordinary crisis to alter my generalized, and frankly privileged, perspective.

I. Punta Cana in the spotlight

Spring 2019. When the Dominican Republic’s tourism sector faced a major crisis for the first time in its decade-long meteoric rise in the industry, I was pushed to reflect and dig deeper on the role of all inclusive resorts in the DR, and their importance in the livelihood of every day Dominicans. Thoughts that could probably apply to other places such as Cancun or Ocho Rios.

As you all know, the press did an amazing job of confusing and frightening the public. Tourism officials also stalled on official statements. Speculations flew online rather than awaiting FBI results. Tainted alcohol, fumes on property, violence: the underbelly of social media proved itself effective in spreading fear among Americans.

Bavaro Beach at sunrise, facing Occidental Punta Cana – November 2019

Travelers canceled bookings by the hundreds. Airlines like Delta decided to start offering refunds, adding fuel to the panic (many locals here say the airline behaved like Judas).

Realizing the extent of insults, misplaced jokes and unfair accusations about the DR flying on the Internet, I decided to speak up and published a blog post, as you know, that went viral. Almost simultaneously, Oprah Magazine came knocking.

Here’s what I didn’t realize, however, at the time: more than a few hotels were hit hard with cancellations and vacancies. Even the solid brands that had been in business for decades, with Green Globe Certification.

I knew that surely meant layoffs, even if I wasn’t aware of how many at the time; there were no reports on this anywhere in the media. I had felt sad for the DR and for Dominicans, knowing how untrue the accusations are, and spoke up as best I could. But as far as all inclusive resorts, I remained skeptical.

II. A powerful industry

This November, I was invited to stay at the Occidental Punta Cana, part of Barcelo Hotels & Resorts. I knew I wanted to go—it would be an opportunity to see just how the region was doing, several months later, and to experience a recently renovated property. And it was another chance to consider whether, this time, I’d feel a sense of place white staying at a resort.

When I ended up genuinely enjoying myself with colleagues, as well as spending time talking to various staff on my own, and taking part in activities on and off resort (hello Dominican rum and dessert tasting), I realized that I’d been misguided in my thoughts. 

Worse, I realized I’d been wearing my rose colored privilege glasses this whole time. Sustainable travel, you see, is important, but it also comes with a lot of superiority and high horse-ishness.

Arabeli Vasquez, Front Desk Team – Occidental Punta Cana – Image by Lebawit Girma

For one, Punta Cana is a giant industry that hires tens of thousands of locals.

In a country where unemployment is high, particularly for youth, opportunities are few to improve one’s education or rise up the ladder. One of the best options for those without a famous last name or a trust fund is just that: a hotel job, a resort position.

The reality is that most of the workers you see at resorts have few decent earning income options elsewhere in the Dominican Republic. Punta Cana is where those whose skills are limited or lack a formal education can earn a better salary and tips from visitors, earn new skills and support their families. Don’t have a job? Go to Punta Cana. Want to move up in the hospitality world? Go train in Punta Cana.

While tourism isn’t the Dominican Republic’s sole industry—important sectors include mining and agriculture, first, then textiles—it represents 17 percent of its gross domestic product. But employment wise, in a country where socio-economic inequality is severe, tourism is absolutely critical to Dominican households. It’s critical to communities where the every day Dominican seeks and deserves to make a little more than minimum wage.

What’s more, it’s presumptuous, condescending and utterly simplistic to think that every Dominican who works here is doing so because he or she is forced into it. There are many staff I’ve met over the years, including recently at the Occidental Punta Cana, who genuinely love hospitality and love to showcase their country.

They want to learn and grow—Barcelo Hotels & Resorts, I learned, offers educational funds and training on everything from learning foreign languages to workshops on the environment.

It’s a chance to hone skills, gain experience, and move up the ladder (the current Marketing and Sales Director at the Occidental Punta Cana, Sagrario Cueto, started out as a receptionist).

Left: Edwin Severino, Bartender at Royal Level Club, Occidental Punta Cana.

According to a 2018 statistics report from the DR Hotels and Tourism Association (ASONAHORES), the hotel sector generated 90,136 direct jobs countrywide in 2017, and over 233,000 indirect jobs. Punta Cana led the way with 47,959 jobs created in a single year.

Back in 2013, tourism created 216,543 jobs compared to 323,495 in 2017. That’s an increase of 106,952 jobs in four years.

So when the crisis hit earlier this year and tourists were canceling their trips by the droves, driven by scary headlines in US media, whom do you think suffered the most?

I spoke to Mr. Alvaro Fontenla, General Manager of Occidental Punta Cana. He’s been in the DR running the hotel for 1.5 years, but spent nine years leading Barcelo properties in Costa Rica and Cuba. What happens when a crisis suddenly hits a popular region like Punta Cana?

“It’s not easy because occupation rates go down,” says Mr. Fontela. “So you have to make tough decisions. You have to take down… well, fire people — that’s the hardest thing. For a temporary time, theoretically. They are supposed to come back in January.”

Now that the storm has passed, how does the upcoming season look? He sees the light starting in February, going into March, and April.

Perhaps the most astounding result of Punta Cana being smeared, was the domino effect on other tourism regions of the Dominican Republic. Neighboring Bayahibe suffered greatly when fewer tourists were flocking down from Punta Cana to depart on a boat trip to Saona Island. Boat captains lost their jobs because the thousands of daily tourists were suddenly gone. Imagine uprooting your life completely overnight to find work elsewhere in the country.

III. A consumer’s choice

From the consumer’s standpoint, a first-time abroad trip to an all inclusive resort feels like a safe, worry-free start in dipping your toe in a new country and culture. It’s often what is best fitting for families as well, because everyone’s travel savvy and budgets vary. That’s been the case for years.

For those with several kids in tow—particularly toddlers—it’s simply more convenient to stay in one resort and keep an eye on the kids, or have staff on resort to entertain them while you take a short break. Not everyone can afford the luxury of renting a villa with a chef, or staying in a luxurious boutique hotel. (Not to mention, many of today’s all inclusive resorts come in various sizes and are just as convenient to self-catering fans, with suites offering full kitchens).

When you stay at a resort like the Barcelo Occidental Punta Cana, in the heart of Bavaro, you can easily venture out into the surrounding areas, on day trips or dinners out, which supports the local economy.

I’ll give you another example that opened my eyes. At the height of the controversy earlier this year, my cousin’s wife had been planning a Punta Cana vacation for her and a group of three families. That’s a lot of people and kids, including her mother.

She had serious concerns. I understood, and explained the media was blowing the incidents out of proportion. Millions of people were still coming and going home just fine. The important thing was to pick a solid brand, and I also recommended they add Santo Domingo’s Colonial City. But with so many kids in tow, a city trip would be too much to handle.

She sent me her resort pick; it was a solid one. They ended up loving it and signed up for excursions outside the region, all the way to Saona Island. As their trip ended, she inboxed me to say she was so glad they’d made the trip, because they’d had the time of their lives.

Should I then have discouraged her to visit because sustainable critics paint all inclusive resorts with one brush? Or was it more responsible to say, come and see this country for yourself? Come see how Dominicans are wonderful people? And have her entire group pump their travel dollars into the economy with the side excursions, souvenirs and other side expenses?

Not to mention, the staff who received tips and remain employed in a busy hotel during a time the country needed it the most. And what about the ultimate, priceless result: taking back with them their incredible experience of the Dominican Republic and Dominicans to share with others back home?

The key in sustainable travel, then, is not to admonish someone for not staying in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, but to understand that we all hold different preferences and experience levels.

My aim is not to judge, discourage or preach. It’s to help point travelers who are interested in traveling for culture and relaxation towards the right property for their needs, towards responsible brands like Barceló, while also encouraging them to venture outdoors and add more regions to their itinerary for balance.

IV. Not all resorts dilute the culture

During my stay at the Occidental Punta Cana, I was struck by how much Dominican culture is incorporated into the hotel, from entertainment to food. I expected friendly Dominican staff, or merengue and bachata lessons by the beach. But the hotel’s efforts went further than that.

The buffet featured Dominican dishes throughout the day. Even the dessert section was at least 95% percent Dominican. And I mean, really Dominican. Majarete, dulce de pina, arroz con dulce and, wait for it: habichuelas con dulce. This dessert is unique to the DR and hard to find even in Santo Domingo, unless it’s Lent or Easter Week, or you make it yourself at home. (It’s a long process; watch this video I made when I was learning how to make it; don’t laugh!)

The evening entertainment, too, was outdoors. An poolside amphitheater with a live Dominican band and cultural dance performances. At the end, everyone could hop on stage and dance the night away. A party that felt like you were in the DR.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Barcelo has long stood out for their smart incorporation of local culture in their hotels; one of those includes the historic El Embajador Royal Hideaway in Santo Domingo, which happens to be one of my all time favorites.

As the weekend passed, realizing I was having such a good time at the Occidental Punta Cana and noticing how happy the employees seemed there, I wanted to hear more from the staff about how their year went or why they work here.

At breakfast, I asked one staff member in the buffet section what the tough times were like when all those rumors were swirling about Punta Cana and people were canceling. “It was awful,” he said. “There were days we’d be leaning against the wall, waiting for people to walk into the restaurant.”

I knew of slashed visitor numbers, but I had no idea it had been that bad. It made me think that throughout the shoddy reporting, no one had actually asked resort workers their opinions.

I felt compelled to dig some more and hear their stories so I could share it with others. I also wanted to show viewers that warm, friendly Dominican energy they exude so effortlessly.

V. Voices of tourism: Are we listening?

On my last morning at Occidental Punta Cana, I chose to interview a select number of employees. It was spontaneous; none of them knew they were about to be interviewed.

In this video, a handful of Occidental Punta cana’s employees share a little about themselves, their work, and the significance of tourism in their lives and for the DR. I also asked for thoughts on what happened earlier this year, and why so many people flock to the Dominican Republic.

VI. Placing travel decisions in context

I came away from the Occidental Punta Cana with a completely different view of the region and the importance of Punta Cana to the country.

Here’s the thing: we are all here to learn and guide on how to do things well and responsibly, while having fun.

Yes, pick the right brand. Look into their philosophy. Ask yourself questions beyond the cost of a room or the subjective opinion of people who’ve never visited a country, or who had too singular of an experience for it to be generalized. And sure, you should ask about the hotel’s green practices and certifications.

In the meantime, let us all come off our sustainable travel high horses, shall we? Point the finger less, empathize more. Avoid generalizations and assumptions. Understand that our words have weight and influence. That everything we share online, informed and uninformed, has ripple effects. It behooves us to be judicious.

Clockwise, Occidental Punta Cana staff: Jose Deddody and Ruth Santana (Animation Team), Eufemia Silverio (Housekeeping Manager), and Sagrario Cueto (Director of Sales and Marketing).

Embrace the culture wherever you go, because wherever you go you can interact with locals and learn. Sign up for tours with local tour operators, whether it’s to fish or dive; shop at surrounding supermarkets and craft markets. Tip the hotel staff generously beyond housekeeping, knowing they work hard to support their families.

In conclusion, it’s high time for our industry to stoop down from simplified and privileged sustainable travel mantras and find better ways to educate travelers, from discerning properties that respect environment and promote the culture, to placing destinations in their socio-political and economic context, including sharing the stories of those whose lives depend on tourism.

Esperanza Manasi, Kids Club Manager at Occidental Punta Cana

My stay at the Occidental Punta Cana was sponsored by Barcelo Hotels & Resorts. As always, all opinions expressed are my own, including this article and all content produced and shared above.

Feel free to share this post and plan your 2020 trip to the Dominican Republic.

Happy holidays and 2020 to all of you, dear readers—thank you for being here!

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