Culturally Lost in Paradise

By: Diana Zhao, Queen’s University

When people hear about countries in the Caribbean, they often think of exotic sun destinations with warm, tropical climates and excellent all-inclusive services. An ideal vacation to many North Americans is a weeklong stay at a five star resort, where they can escape the frigid winter for the time being and relax by the beach. On the other hand, a large number of tourists believe that the purpose of travelling is to experience other cultures and broaden their perspective on the world. While staying at a resort that provides luxury services in a developing country is a relaxing holiday, it provides a skewed perspective of cultural differences and can undermine the economic growth of that country.


My recent trip to the Dominican Republic felt like a déjà vu. The pools, the buffet, and the uniforms worn by the service staff were almost identical to those of the resorts I visited in Cuba and in Mexico. Other than the occasional shot of Mama Juana and brightly coloured souvenirs sold in the gift shop, there are hardly any signs that remind tourists that they are in the Dominican Republic. Have you ever gone through old photographs taken at a resort in one of the many globally renowned sunny destinations, and have trouble identifying the country? Resorts are created to give guests a comfortable experience and feature tropical plants, pools and beaches to remind them that they are in a tropical paradise, miles away from home. Because of this, most resorts lack cultural distinctions that reflect the local culture, giving tourists an unrealistic and superficial perspective.


Staying at a resort with all-inclusive amenities makes it difficult for tourists to get outside the resort bubble and explore cities filled with local culture. Often, tourists spend the entire duration of their trips at the resort, only venturing outside to take a quick trip to local tourist attractions, with tour guides and transportation provided by the resort. This can give tourists a false impression of the country and cause them to associate only their personal experiences with the country. This can be problematic, as these countries already lack the agency to show the world an accurate representation of their culture. With a strong western hegemony over international mass media, the majority of people rarely hear about these countries, making it even more important to learn more about local cultures when travelling there.


Inside the resort, everything is within reach. With food, drinks, entertainment and even medical service readily available in the resort, tourists are comfortable staying in the man-made paradise, causing many to forget to explore outside the bubble. This can be categorized as enclave tourism, which leads to another aspect of how tourism is hurting southern countries. When everything is prepaid and right at their fingertips, tourists are less inclined to spend money outside of the resort. Because of this, there is a very slim chance for small businesses that operate outside of the resort to make a profit from tourists. Over an extended period of time, this leads to lower salaries for citizens and a general failure by tourism to significantly contribute to rural poverty alleviation in the host country.


Does this mean that those working at the resorts are better off? While tourists are paying anywhere from $100 to $500 per night, per person, at all-inclusive resorts, only a small portion of this is actually retained in the host country. According to the United Nations Environment Program, developed countries are better able to profit from tourism than poorer ones, due to both import and export leakage. Import leakages are the costs that cover tourist demand for equipment, food, and other products that the host country cannot supply. Export leakages arise when the overseas investors who finance the resorts and hotels take their profits back to their country of origin. Tourists have the illusion that they are helping the economy of the host country when they travel to these resorts, when in reality, a majority of the price they are paying goes to developed countries.


During my stay at a resort in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, I was able to speak to a few employees and get a basic understanding of their lifestyle. I was shocked to learn that most employees earn about 4000 pesos per month, which is less than $90 USD! According to Kendra Morsel, a twenty-year-old girl who works as a hostess of a restaurant in the resort, the wage at the resort barely covers half of an average person’s monthly expenses. Like most college students, she must work to support her tuition and often has to take semesters off until she can fund her tuition the next semester. Due to the climate that promises summer weather year-round, people from developed countries rush to buy property in tropical locations, causing prices to rise for locals due to the high demand. However, wages do not increase proportionally, which leaves many locals in the Dominican Republic with no choice but to live in poverty. This is not an isolated issue; numerous sunny destinations in the south experience the same problem. A study done in 2014 shows that foreign buyers represent around 85% of luxury property purchases in the Caribbean, while locals struggle to keep up with increasing rent each month.


While it is impossible for one tourist to fix the entire problem, there are simple ways to travel more ethically than spending the entire stay at a five star resort. The next time you fly off to a Caribbean getaway, take a stroll through some of the lesser-known tourist attractions and get to know some of the locals. Perhaps by immersing yourself in the local culture, the more unique memories from your vacation will last, even as your tan lines fade away.