Photo: Hannamariah/Shutterstock

It’s Time to Rethink the Aversion to the All-Inclusive Caribbean Resort

Travel Sustainability Epic Stays
by Alex Bresler Jul 23, 2020

However many platitudes they spout about being open-minded, travelers are notorious for judging other travelers: Backpackers write off luxe hotels as international ivory towers. Luxury travelers avoid hostels like they’re radioactive. Eco-travelers, perhaps justifiably, regard sustainable tourism as superior.

Experiential travel topped the hierarchy in the days immediately before the pandemic. Tourists are trading their parent’s old travel guides for immersive itineraries — a trend Airbnb helped elevate with the launch of its Experiences in 2016. Meanwhile, the once-acceptable dream of a vacation spent glued to the pool bar of an all-inclusive resort somewhere in the Caribbean is beginning to feel like a guilty pleasure.

But there’s a time and place for every type of travel, even all-inclusive resorts. Maybe that time is a honeymoon, family reunion, or two-week vacation from an 80-hour workweek. The place might be the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, or the Bahamas. Whatever criticisms of all-inclusive resorts exist, the fact remains that there’s a demand for them: All inclusive travel’s upward trend is proof of that.

The argument against all-inclusives is that they enable travelers to visit a destination without really experiencing it. They’re designed to help guests disconnect and, ironically, make it so the travelers hardly have to travel at all. In an age in which tourists itch for authenticity, all-inclusives are quickly losing their cachet.

If travelers are going to judge one another, it should not be on the basis of hobbies or vacation habits. Travel’s value should be decided by travelers’ commitments to sustainable tourism.

Vacation is not a one-size-fits-all concept. There’s no litmus test for the right kind of travel: A trip to Nepal is not more valid if you summit Everest. No points are awarded for returning from Barthelona with the Catalan ceceo, or so-called “lisp.” And there’s nothing unusual about wanting to spend a beach vacation planted firmly in the sand.

It’s easy to see why some travelers soured on all-inclusive resorts. The Caribbean is an example of a region that went all-in on all-inclusives. It’s also an example of what can go wrong when the focus is on the amenities rather than the people who call a destination home.

Few regions are as tourism-dependent as the Caribbean. Tourism generates roughly 14 percent of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP). According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, that figure totaled $32 billion in 2018. Of those billions, however, some 80 percent likely leaked out of the local economy.

Tourism leakage is a phenomenon in which destinations lose their tourism revenue to foreign-owned businesses. Developing countries, including those in the Caribbean, experience the worst leakage.

All-inclusive resorts and cruise travel dominate Caribbean tourism. Cruises alone are estimated to contribute at least two billion dollars to the Caribbean economy annually. These vacation packages funnel money into airlines, cruise lines, chain resorts, and other large, foreign-owned companies. Resorts hire local workers but import a damaging percentage of supplies (Jamaica leaks 30 percent of its revenue in imports alone). The majority of cruise staff is international.

By nature, both all-inclusive resorts and cruises also eliminate the need for outside spending, depriving local businesses of tourist revenue.

“Leakage remains the major obstacle to sustainable tourism growth in Jamaica,” said Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s tourism minister, at a Sectoral Debate in parliament in 2018. He later added, “This is an unacceptable situation if we are serious about expanding the benefits of the [tourism] sector to more ordinary Jamaicans.”

Things are improving as more money is directed to locals and local businesses, and with that, so is the appeal of all-inclusive resorts.

One solution is to create linkages between the tourism sector and the local economy. In 2013, Jamaica established a Tourism Linkages Network to increase the use of local goods and services in the tourism sector. The Agro-Tourism Farmer’s Market initiative was launched shortly after, giving local farmers a platform to sell their produce to both tourists and hoteliers.

Today, the markets in Negril, Montego Bay, and Discovery Bay generate an annual average of $1 million, $2.5 million, and $5 million, respectively.

Efforts have only increased since then. In 2017, during a presentation for Jamaica’s 47th annual meeting of the Board of Governors, Bartlett outlined a comprehensive plan to better curb leakage and bolster linkages, from identifying more opportunities for the use of local goods and services to reevaluating the sector’s supply chain.

Despite these successes, tourism in the Caribbean is far from equitable. Travelers stress local resources, negatively impact the environment, and contribute to problems like overtourism while their financial investments in a destination wind up in foreign bank accounts. All-inclusives have even claimed the Caribbean’s coastlines, sectioning off private beaches for tourists and usurping the birthright and backyards of local communities.

There’s work to be done and an onus on travelers to help do it.

Patronizing locally owned hotels, restaurants, shops, and tours is the safest way to ensure your tourism dollars make it into your destination’s pocket. Often this means booking smaller, less-inclusive accommodations. Yet even those hung up on the idea of the archetypal Caribbean vacation can plan conscientious, all-inclusive-style trips with a little effort.

When choosing a resort, consider hiring practices, partnerships with local tours, and sustainability pledges alongside criteria like location and amenities. Bartlett has lauded Sandals Resorts for its contribution to the Caribbean economy, calling it “nothing short of phenomenal.” The privately owned, Jamaica-based company, which now has 15 locations across the Caribbean, employs more local workers than any other travel business in Jamaica.

Sandals also launched a nonprofit in 2009 to support the communities surrounding the brand’s properties. As of June 2019, the Sandals Foundation’s efforts across the Caribbean were valued at more than $58 million. The Couples Resorts, founded by Jamaican hotelier Abraham Issa in 1949, similarly runs a trust foundation that provides health and education services in Negril and Ocho Rios where its resorts are located.

Planning an all-inclusive-style vacation around local tourism may require extra effort, and likely a few sacrifices. Some, like abandoning your station at the pool bar to patronize a local watering hole, are hardly sacrifices at all. It’s up to travelers to take responsibility for their impact on the places they visit. This matters now, more than ever, as the Caribbean begins to reopen, rebound, and reinstate travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected some 2.4 million workers in the tourism industry across the Caribbean region.

It’s high time travelers stopped judging each other for what they like to do and start holding each other accountable for how they choose to do it.

There’s no shame in wanting the vacation that decades of Sandals commercials have promised, but there’s pride in knowing your hard-earned vacation fund will benefit your destination. Even if that means flying all the way to the Caribbean and never leaving your beach chair.

Discover Matador