The Human Side of Tropical Paradise

Known for the breathtaking scenery, tropical climates, all-inclusive spas, and to-die-for cuisine, the Caribbean Islands, (including areas like Puerto Rico, which were most affected by Hurricanes Maria and Irma) hosted nearly “28.7 million stayover tourists in 2015”, according to new data from the Caribbean Tourism Organization, with numbers only increasing annually. Fifty percent of visitors are American, and more importantly, spend an estimated $30 billion collectively on the vacations alone. 
Pigeon Point Beach, Tobago (Source)

While resort guests enjoy all-you-can eat buffets and all inclusive swim-up bars, residents live below the international poverty line, scrummaging for clean water and basic living conditions, just blocks away from million dollar resorts.  Not to mention, the aftereffects of the historical hurricane season leaving an indelible mark of damage on the islands that could take years of negotiations and reconstruction to repair.  

So why is it that these dream vacation resorts rest only blocks away from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the world?  Why is it that tourists, Americans specifically, have turned a blind-eye to the immense poverty that exists just minutes away from their tropical paradise?

Enter Maria Laura Villavivencio Perez, born in Caracas, Venezuela, currently living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  Santo Domingo is known for its exotic beach resorts and wild nightlife- any tourist’s dream Caribbean paradise.  

Maria is a senior in high school and lives right in the heart of Santo Domingo.  “I love the people, the noise, the weather, the beautiful beaches and countryside, but most of all, I love the vibrant culture”.

Anyone who knows Maria will tell you she’s insanely extroverted with a passion for dancing, known to willingly approach any stranger and force them to “get loose”.   Maria embodies the spirit of the Dominican Republic: fun, vibrant, and selfless.  

Maria Laura Villavicencio Perez, a Santo Domingo resident. (Photo provided by Maria Perez)

With many native residents working at local resorts, more than half of civilian lives revolve around pleasing tourists at restaurants, bars, clubs, beaches, and shops.   However, according to the Borgen Project, “More than a third of the Dominican Republic lives on less than $1.25 a day and over 20 percent of the country lives in extreme poverty”. While these commercial resorts do provide jobs, it comes with the price of serving needy tourists and giving up precious family time for a small salary.  The resorts cause extreme gentrification toward areas that are known for their cultural vibrancy and all-tropical environments, all of which knocked down by gigantic resorts.

“These resorts are a great source of employment, but occupy and exploit large amount of lands and peoples”, says Maria, as she has witnessed vass amounts of tourists visiting the Santo Domingo, especially during the winter holidays when American tourists want to escape the Polar Vortex.  

Maria adds, “Tourism is a big part of Dominican economy, but unfortunately the biggest profits are made by foreign identities – like resorts, chains, and airlines.  They create package deals so foreigners visit the DR, but never really leave the resort…so besides maybe having a low paying job, the average Dominican gains very little from big tourism…”Locals feel exploited, but also very dependent on resorts”

So what can we do about this?  While fighting international poverty seems daunting and completely out of reach, we can all play a small role in very human ways:  

  1. Read up about the country you are visiting.  Trying to immerse yourself in a culture you have no prior knowledge about can often time come off as offensive to locals.  Get to know the people you are surrounding yourself with and be open to new experiences!
  2. Utilize your language skills, or download Duolingo to improve them.  Remember that the people serving you are humans too, and they appreciate having conversations that go beyond saying “Hi, how are you?” or “please and thank you”.  
  3. Ask about local shops, restaurants, or historical landmarks outside the resort, as Maria advises, “invest time in smaller, locally owned businesses”.  For those staying specifically in the Dominican, Maria recommends visiting some of her favorite places across the northern coast like Monte Cristi or Samana!
Local artwork shop in the Dominican Republic (Source)

Traveling abroad is a beautiful experience that should be taken advantage of when given the chance.  I’m not saying Caribbean vacations are horrible and you should stay locked in your house all of winter break, but it’s important to consider the environment in which you will be calling home for the next couple days or even weeks, and to be open to the culture in which you’ll be surrounded by. 

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