Higuey, Dominican Republic (eTN) – Two weeks in the Caribbean for 999 German marks! Travel offers like that in the 1990s gave the Dominican Republic the image of a cheap destination. The country in the eastern part of the island of Hispaniola, is increasingly trying to attract tourists with deeper pockets, however.
Nevertheless, Dominican holidays in five-star hotels and luxury residential complexes are similar to “all-inclusive” bargain packages in an important respect: The tourists experience snatches of the natives’ everyday lives during daytime excursions but are back again with other tourists in the evening.
And despite the country’s efforts at creating a new image, it still draws plenty of people who are less interested in its culture and natural attractions than in the sunshine, beaches and booze.
“Raise your cups! Pass the rum! We want to see you drink!” While it is not perfectly clear what the some 50 men and women are shouting to each other, it is probably something like this. The tourists are standing chest-deep in the sea and passing around bottles.
They got into the water as soon as their catamaran dropped anchor off a beach in Del Este National Park and crew members are encouraging them to belt out drinking toasts.
Benjamin Castillo also has a bottle of “Dominican vitamins” with him, which is his term for the country’s brown rum. The boat carrying his tour group stopped about 30 metres from the catamaran, and the sea is softly bathing the legs and navels of his companions too.
Castillo is a tour guide from Higuey, the largest town in the eastern part of the Dominican Republic. There are few job opportunities for people like him except in tourism. Yes, there are fields of sugar cane south of Higuey.
“But cocoa, coffee, bananas, cattle breeding, sugar cane – only the rich people who own the land live on that,” Castillo said.
“All of the poor people live on tourism.”
Castillo and his group began their tour in Bayahibe, on the south- eastern coast of the Dominican Republic. Following their first beach stop, they travel onto a sandbank between Hispaniola and the island of Saona, where the water is only knee-deep.
Later the group enjoys chicken, fish, rice and vegetables, beer, and “Dominican vitamins” again, after which it returns by sailboat. The wind pushes the vessel strongly, but smoothly, and the passengers dance the merengue on deck. Sea and sky are deep blue.
The points of departure for tours like these are the hotel zones of Punta Cana. The region’s 73 kilometres of white sand beaches are home to about half of the country’s 63,200 hotel rooms, and more are still being built.
The hotels are another world, though, Castillo says: “That’s not the Dominican Republic, that’s a green piece of Europe.”
Tourists who do not want to block out reality should avoid gazing too deeply into their plastic cups of booze, and instead look out the windows of their bus on the way back from an excursion to the island of Saona. The road through the sugar-cane fields passes shacks. Chickens pick at garbage in the road. Higuey’s streets are chaotic.
“Higuey had 18,000 inhabitants 20 years ago,” Castillo notes. “The number now is more than 165,000. Every day new families arrive looking for work in the hotels.”
Tourists wanting to see more of everyday life in the Dominican Republic can book an excursion to Higuey’s market in Punta Cana’s hotels. “Please don’t hold your nose if the smell is unpleasant. It would be taken as an insult,” tour guide Johnny Santana prepares his charges.
The market stands are loaded with fruit, glistening fish of many colours, uncooled chicken meat, and seven kinds of beans. Mopeds putt-putt through the narrow streets. A street corner away, bunches of bananas are being sold from the bed of a pickup.
Excursions outside of the hotel zones are in line with the Dominican government’s bid to move away from purely “all-inclusive” tourism.
“We seek to attract new target groups: culture enthusiasts, nature fans, golfers, mountain bikers and wellness lovers,” remarked Petra Cruz, head of the Dominican Republic’s tourism office in Frankfurt, Germany.
Cruz said that the tourism ministry was backing construction of boutique hotels with fewer than 100 beds and spending a lot of money on expanding the road network “so that more tourists can simply get into a car and discover the country and its people.”
The tourists who now return to their beach hotels in the evening do collect a wealth of impressions, be it hectic activity at the city market or quiet hours by the sea with people like Benjamin Castillo and Johnny Santana, who see a friend and employer in every tourist.
But once the barrier at the entrance of their hotel goes down, the tourists are in a world that has little in common with the reality outside.