On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, Aaron and I stayed in a lovely area called Las Galeras located on the Samana peninsula. The shortest and most visually appealing route from our hostel to town was along the beach. This route wound around a section of land that, while still a public path, took us right through a resort area. As we walked through a sea of pink foreigners playing volleyball and discussing amongst themselves the list of reasons why they would never venture beyond the resort boundaries, Aaron and I began to discuss our own feelings about resorts and the resort culture.
We have both visited resorts. Neither of us has ever paid to stay in one. The most recent resort adventure (and there are very few of them) was at an all-inclusive resort in Liberia, Costa Rica. It was paid for by Delta after we gave up our seats on a flight home. Familiar food, drinks, “cultural activities”, multiple pools, room service, and people who spoke English calling us “sir” and “ma’am” all in a “safe” bubble of escapism. Who wouldn’t want that??
We do not travel as a means of escaping life. We travel as a way of living. Something about the false bubble of sanitized culture and safe experiences created by all-inclusive resorts makes us feel less than alive and more than a little uncomfortable.
So here is the list of our top 5 reasons NOT to stay in a resort:
5) Resorts play on people’s fears. All-inclusive resorts in particular are adept at using fear to keep you within their walls and not outside experiencing the country you just paid hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to travel to. They make it easy to embrace your fear by offering everything so that you never have to venture out for anything. Fear of a danger, fear of germs, fear of scams, fear of locals, fear of language barriers, fear of a lack of Western comforts. By staying in, you are missing out on experiences that will stretch you beyond your comfort zone and make you a well-rounded person. By never having to venture out, you also never have to figure anything out for yourself. Arranging for accommodation, food, transportation, and fun on your own by using a combination of sign language and pictionary-like drawings is admittedly not easy. But figuring stuff out on your own is one of those pesky little things that helps you grow as a person.
4) Typical resorts have a system of hierarchy that makes me uncomfortable. Call me crazy but I feel just a bit uncomfortable when resort staff approach me, bow,and ask if I would like rose water sprayed on my feet (yes, that happened). I don’t particularly like when people call me “ma’am” – especially for no reason other than I am a foreigner- and I do not like being told “don’t worry ma’am the boy will pick your towel up for you, just leave it on the ground.” I mean, come on! I was expected to pick up my own towel by the time I was 5 not to mention the fact that the “boy” they indicate is usually a grown man. It feels like playing make-believe except that the implications are far more disturbing. Doesn’t this false hierarchy feel inherently wrong to anyone else? We have established on the whole that slavery, apartheid, the caste-system, racism, and the general treating of others as “less than” as unacceptable; the UN mets to discuss the rights of indigenous peoples on the regular; and protests rage on around the world against poor treatment of the masses by the elite…. but I am expected to drop my towel in a heap at some guy’s feet so that he can pick it up for me (only after he sprays my own feet with rose water, of course) all in the name of “vacation”? Come on.
3) Resorts often deplete natural resources and cause strain on the surrounding area. Often. All that imported American food that makes you feel safe? It had to come from somewhere and it probably wasn’t from the farmer next door. The water that they have chlorinated to make it more convenient for you to drink straight out of the tap? Well now the local livestock won’t drink the water and their owners are growing increasingly worried. The private beach where you feel comfortable bathing topless? That beach used to be public property for the enjoyment of all locals until the resort moved in, bought off a couple of officials, and claimed it in the name of all future resort goers. The idea that resorts offer positive economic boons to local communities is a falsehood perpetuated by resort owners and local officials with something to gain. I am sorry to burst the proverbial bubble but the fact is that once a resort moves in, locals move out (and not always by choice). Are there instances where local regions as a whole have seen what might be considered benefits from resorts moving in? Absolutely. But those benefits are subjective and the downfalls outweigh the benefits in our opinion. The average local will tell you they wish the resorts had never popped up in the first place. Since we travel to connect with people (“Witness Humanity”, remember?), the negative impact on locals makes it impossible for us to endorse resorts.
2) Resorts present sanitized versions of the culture they have plopped themselves into. Resorts often offer “cultural experiences” so that visitors go home claiming they really “get” the culture they just spent a week or more hiding in fear from. I once sat through night after night of “cultural programming” at a resort in Egypt with a very generous host while wondering to myself what those protesting in Tahrir Square would think of my Egyptian cultural “education”. What I watched on stage gave me no more of an understanding of what Egypt and her people are really like than going to India and eating McDonald’s would educate me on Indian cuisine. It’s somewhat insulting when you think about it- both to the culture they pretend to represent and to the guests they try to dupe with sanitized versions of local culture.
1) Resorts perpetuate the idea that the world is dangerous. The resort industry is a self-perpetuating industry. They convince people who convince other people that resorts are more simple, safer, cleaner, and just plain better over all than the alternative of traveling independently. After all, the world is just so messy and unpredictable. Why not let someone else figure out the food, transportation, hygiene, activities, and communication? While we are at it, why not let someone else just think for us? Then we will surely be safe! We just do not buy into the idea that the world is a big scary place so we really can’t support an entire industry that perpetuates this outlook. The mess and the unpredictability of our world are what create the challenges that make us stronger travelers, people, and partners.
I wish I could say that I was able to walk by a resort in a foreign land and pay it little mind as I trudged along my own path of adventure; that I could excuse the excess with a simple “to each his own”. But to be honest there is something that just does not sit right with me when I walk through a resort of pink Americans and Europeans, listening as they pontificate on the politics and people of a country they are not really experiencing. Even the sight of a resort makes me wonder what was cleared, who was forced out, and what money changed hands to get it there. I get it- you need a break from life, your kid wants a water slide, and your husband “doesn’t want to think” for a week. But do you have to travel to someone else’s country to do that? For those of you who do not want to try new things, stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone, embrace the exciting unknown, really learn about cultures different from your own, or accept the fact that the world just might not be so scary after all ……I hear Florida has some lovely beaches!