A Caribbean Christmas

9:25 PM

Every Christmas with my family in recent memory, the conversation around the dinner table has been the same.  It begins with how good it is to see each other, proceeds to a thorough commendation of the food and settles in (over Irish cream and desserts) to a lively debate about politics or current events.  Somewhere in the middle though, someone will make an idle, only half-joking comment.  “You know, for what we spend on Christmas, we could take a Caribbean vacation…”

After years of idle comments, this year we decided to take the plunge.  We would forgo the gifts, decorations, traditional meals and other seasonal expenses in favour of a sunny beach and ocean surf.  For a naturalist like me, this was excellent news!  What I lack in sentimentality I certainly make up for in birder-mentality, and a week in the Dominican Republic promised a handful of new species I couldn’t wait to see.

Palmchat (Dulus dominicus) – the national bird of the Dominican Republic.

Tempering my enthusiasm somewhat was my general uneasiness about all-inclusive resorts.  I don’t particularly enjoy being waited on, eating too much or lounging on the beach, so needless to say this is not my preferred way to travel.  “The experience is only as good or bad as you make it,” I convinced myself though, and a look at the resort via Google Earth revealed that it was reasonably remote, and bordered by scrub forest and a promising-looking river.  I resolved that I would make this trip work for me, and not let my reservations drag me down.
Despite my positive attitude, my first day at the hotel reminded me why I had been concerned.  The maps that I had checked were clearly out of date, and the once-remote resort was now located in the middle of a massive condo development.  The recently cleared lots stretched to the horizon, and only a few remnant patches of scrub remained by the roadsides.  The river that had appeared so full of potential had been completely diverted to irrigate a golf course.

Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) – wintering shorebirds 
(watch for us in Ontario this spring!).

For me, the experience was a stark reminder of the importance of considering the way we choose to travel.  As North Americans or Europeans (the clientele of this development consisted heavily of both) we have the capacity to travel throughout the world, but we frequently fail to think about the impacts of our explorations on the local people, culture and environment.  Sometimes these impacts are subtle or difficult to see.  Sometimes, as in this instance, they are not.

Standing amidst the chaos, I knew that I was undeniably part of the problem.  As a paying customer of the resort I was supporting the surrounding development, and the growth of an industry with which I disagreed.  It was disturbing to see that these resorts make a business out of sheltering the tourists from their surroundings, while at the same time convincing them that they are having a genuine cultural or natural experience.  

Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius) – a striking butterfly common
throughout the neotropics.

It is not my intent to vilify all-inclusive resorts as a whole, and certainly some are better or worse than others.  I do hope that travelers begin to think carefully about the impacts of their chosen modes of travel, and the current rise in popularity of ecotourism seems to suggest this is already happening.  Responsible travel means less impact on the local culture and ecosystem, less worry and guilt for the traveler, and a more positive experience for everyone.

~ Kyle Horner

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