All-inclusive resorts are often sold as a cheap, safe, zero-hassles travel option and conversations about the cons usually revolve around how bad the food is or how little contact there is with local culture. But the negative social, economic, and environmental impacts of all-inclusive barely get any mainstream attention despite the considerable gravity of the situation.
Tourism Concern, a UK-based charity that seeks to “expose tourism’s worst human rights abuses,” launched investigations all around the world to report possible human rights violations in all-inclusive resorts. The results were pretty grim—labour and wage abuse abounds and the environmental cost of running these resorts is staggering.
IT’S ESTIMATED THAT IN THE CARIBBEAN ABOUT 80% OF THE MONEY SPENT BY TOURISTS ENDS UP LEAVING HOST COUNTRIES
Part of the appeal of an all-inclusive vacation is that there isn’t any guess-work on costs, especially for the traveller that may have spent all year saving for some much-needed time off. When so little of that money ends up in local pockets, workers are often forced to tolerate poor working conditions, long work days, short-term contracts, economic vulnerability in the low seasons, unpaid overtime, incredibly low pay, and increased vulnerability to verbal abuse and sexual harassment.
So while tourists enjoy private beaches and unlimited amounts of alcohol and food, workers behind the scenes are not making a livable wage with which to support their families.
AN ONLINE SURVEY CONDUCTED BY TOURISM CONCERN FOUND THAT LESS THAN 20% OF RESPONDENTS THAT HAD BEEN ON AN ALL-INCLUSIVE VACATION REGULARLY LEFT THE RESORT TO PATRONIZE LOCAL BUSINESSES
Paradoxically, despite the limited amount of people who leave the resort, the mere presence of tourists in the area causes a ripple effect that impacts all aspects of local life—from raising the cost of living to causing displacement and an increased privileging of foreign comfort over local needs.
All-inclusive resorts are meant to offer everything on-site, there is little incentive for visitors to leave the confines of their hotel to pour money into local businesses. More often than not this leads to closures as smaller, locally-owned endeavours fail to reap the benefits of the increased influx of tourists.
It’s also worth mentioning that privatizing beaches isn’t legal in the Dominican Republic, all beaches must have public access. This doesn’t stop hotels from building along the beach and barring access through their grounds which effectively closes the beach to locals— a common practice in other countries. In some places, security is even instructed to remove local folks from the beach, all for the comfort, “safety,” and pleasure of tourists. This also means lack of access for fishermen who use the beach to eat and make a living.
ACCORDING TO THE UNITED NATIONS, 100 TOURISTS CONSUME THE SAME AMOUNT OF WATER IN 55 DAYS AS WOULD BE REQUIRED TO PRODUCE ENOUGH RICE TO FEED 100 “THIRD WORLD” VILLAGERS FOR FIFTEEN YEARS
Tourism, and especially all-inclusive tourism which concentrates large groups of people in a relatively small space, is taxing on local environments. And that manifests in several different ways, from water and electricity consumption, to management and disposal of the increased waste, to the loss of cultivatable land to tourism projects.
The Dominican Republic is plagued with regular power outages, in my neighbourhood I get about 12 hours of electricity a day total in two separate shifts (six hours on, six hours off, repeat). The pollution caused by generators and back-up power plants to ensure guest never endure more than a few seconds of a blackout-if at all-is gargantuan. Not to mention the associated environmental costs of travel by air, importing food and alcohol.
Often, beyond beaches, tourists have more access to local resources than the local people who live full-time in these areas all while creating an exponential amount of waste that often gets pumped right back into the oceans.
“HOLIDAY CENTRES OFFER A RECONSTRUCTED ETHNICITY THAT HUMILIATES BOTH TOURISTS AND THE HOST COMMUNITY.”—The Pope
As a child, like many middle-class Dominican families and returning immigrants, I spent my fair share of time in all-inclusives during the summer. One of the most vivid memories for me was observing the foreign folks as they watched the “cultural shows” offered by the hotel in which Dominican dancers performed typical dances in traditional outfits I had never seen outside of the resort.
At the time I was too young to understand that these performers were being trotted out to give visitors the illusion that they were experiencing our culture. It now makes me sad to think that foreigners would walk away thinking they knew anything about us because they watched a short choreographed performance that was nothing like the dancing I see in the local spaces I hang out in on the weekends.
We had been made into a safe, consumable caricature of ourselves for the foreign gaze—and no people should have to pawn their culture to make a peso. Cecil Rajendra, a Malaysian human rights activist, and lawyer, said “the raw material of the tourist industry is the flesh and blood of people and their cultures.” These instances reveal the truth behind that statement; instances in which the cultural exchange is unequal: locals in positions of subservience, performing for the entertainment of foreign people for poor compensation. Cultural exchange should be organic and as equal as possible and no performance at a resort can ever be an equal exchange.
All of this paints a sad picture for local communities that are forced into vulnerable positions in which they are overworked, underpaid, mistreated, forced to peddle a bastardized versions of their culture, and then are barred access resources which foreigners enjoy in excess. For me, it is a price that’s much too high to pay no matter how cheap the choice. Instead, for those who can afford it, extra research into destinations and their offerings can go a long way towards creating more of a demand for ethical travel options which funnel money, opportunities and resources into locally-owned businesses and the families they support.
Learning the language, finding a cultural guide, and supporting economic structures that maintain local access in tourist destinations are just some of the ways, a visitor can try to be a socially responsible tourist.