On Doing Nothing at an All-Inclusive Resort (and feeling slightly bad about it): The Follow-up Critique

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Let me be very clear—I had a fabulous time on my beach holiday. I soaked up the sun (to the point of getting stupidly burned, which, a week later, garners all kinds of compliments about how healthily-tanned I look, but which I’ll pay for when I’m 80 and presenting an award at the Oscars). I soaked up the food, the drinks, the hedonistic laziness. But, me being me, the part of my brain that is hardwired to be anxious, vigilant, and tinged with puritanical/socialist guilt about wallowing in the hedonism industrial complex, couldn’t help making a few observations:

To stay at an all-inclusive is a bizarre experience. A and I can say to our friends, we went to the DR, like we did something daringly exotic, like we have some claim to the country, like we know the place somehow.

Really, we could have been anywhere.

If you’ve never been to an all-inclusive resort, it’s like a cruise ship, but on land. Or, it’s like a Disney theme park, an “imagineered” version of the DR (or Mexico, the Bahamas, wherever), where the “environments” and “experiences” are all artfully stage-managed, and the machinery that keeps it all running is camouflaged behind carefully-designed facades. Or, if you’ll excuse the reference, it’s like belonging to one of the Houses of Westeros (A, I’m allying us with House Targaryen, if you don’t mind). The one thing an all-inclusive resort is not like is the place it’s in—designed, landscaped, and totally controlled, the resort is a reflection of what tourists want (or have been taught to expect), safely and artificially removed from the real food, culture, economy, language—even the land itself. Huge swaths of country’s beachfront have been given over to the resorts, each one its own compound with high walls (with razor wire on top), gates, security guards, and IDs for everyone (including the guests, who usually get banded with festival wristbands in the resort’s colors, stamped with the resort sigil)—all the resorts mass together to form one large meta-compound, catering to hundreds of Europeans, Canadians, and Americans, all dependent on the service of hundreds of others, recruited from the local population.

This army of retainers (the vocabulary of a medieval or fantasy court just comes naturally in this case, for some reason) was responsible for keeping our rooms clean and climate controlled; keeping us fed with a decadent breakfast buffet, barbecue lunch buffet, and dinner at a half-dozen different restaurants, each offering its own cuisine (French, Asian, American, Italian, Mexican—but not Dominican); keeping us safe, by guarding the compound gates to exclude anyone not paying, or being paid, to enter; keeping us entertained and diverted; keeping us complacent, with professional politeness and flirtation.

And, no small task of its own—the staff kept us hydrated. The resort had some kind of water filtration, so all of the food (of very good quality) was suited to the delicate, overly-clean, antibiotic-resistant digestions of us Northerners. But the drinking water was all bottled. As fit urban women, used to carrying our grown-up sippy-cups with us everywhere; and as tourists, eating everything that wasn’t nailed down, and trying not to rely only on frozen daiquiris as a source of fluids, A and I went through a lot of water—a dozen 1/2 litre bottles of water a day between us, easily. We tried not to think about where all the plastic was coming from, or going (along with all the beach towels, and uneaten food, and plastic cups for our daiquiris…). In other words, all-inclusive resorts are mind-bogglingly resource-intensive, and we’re not meant to wonder, or care, where all that materiel comes from, and at what benefit or cost to the local eco-system.

I’m not sure where the Dominican staff actually live—the resorts might provide dorms. But every morning, between 8 and 9, as we took our coffee on our Deluxe Pool-View Deck, we would watch as the staff, dressed in task-specific livery, flowed outward from their headquarters, which was carefully hidden away from tourist view. The gardeners who groomed the trees and shrubbery, and raked up excess seaweed washed up on the beach each morning (what do they do with it…?) wore green scrubs. The maids were in pink dresses, the bar tenders all in white polo shirts, shorts, and sneakers, the waiters in white high-necked jackets. They’d stroll past us in twos or threes, to start what was, for many of them, a 12 hour day, part of a 10-day-on, 4-day-off rotation. Some of the staff spoke excellent English; many hardly spoke any, but seemed eager to practice with us, and pleased when we tried to use our very limited Spanish (hola, gracias, dos daiquiris y dos aguas por favor). Do the resorts provide language instruction for the staff, or is it up to them to learn as best they can on their own? Would it be going too far to wonder if the resort industry kind of likes the staff to have limited language skills, to keep them more dependent, and less ambitious…?

And I wondered, often, what the staff must think of us. Everyone who helped us—who served us— was unfailingly polite and friendly; the men made sure to flirt with us at every opportunity, and we were thanked repeatedly for visiting their country. I felt genuinely welcome, and I believe that a lot of the friendliness is sincere. But surely it’s also at least partly a performance: this is what you say and how you act to make the tourists contented. Maybe it’s symbiosis: tourism is obviously a vital part of the economy in the Dominican Republic, and as much as we might be exploiting the DR’s resources and people, they’re exploiting us right back, and have every right to do so. Sometimes—taking the cruise ship comparison to its logical conclusion, as envisioned in Wall-E—I suspected that we all-inclusive tourists function as a kind of docile herd or cash crop that needs a lot of attention and tending; our caretakers might feel some affection for us, but occasionally? often? we must simply represent work that needs to be done, in order to keep us well-cultivated, organized, and productive (buying the vacation package; buying jewelry and bikinis and truly extortionately-priced sunscreen in the shops; tipping the maid who brings us extra towels; tipping the beach waiter who chats us up and insists that Boston/Montreal/Moscow/Copenhagen is his favorite city in the world, and asks us how come our papi chulo‘s aren’t on vacation with such lovely ladies).

I wondered especially what the staff thinks about all our relentless eating and boozing. As with cruise-ships, and as with grazing herds (really, the critique in Wall-E is pretty scathing, and yet the film’s large audience just doesn’t seem to take it personally), you can ingest and imbibe every waking minute if you want to. Breakfast starts at 8, and snacks end at midnight; you’re provided with unlimited rum and champagne in your mini-bar, and the bars open at 10 am. Many people move right from coffee and bacon to cocktails (or just have mimosas with the coffee), and continue to drink, eat, and doze all day. We hardly noticed anyone rowdily drunk—the combination of heat, food, alcohol, and reclining deck chairs kept everyone well-sedated (and sunburned). But how they all managed to keep going was a mystery. And if it sounds like I’m spending a lot of time on the role of drunkenness at these resorts—you haven’t been to one. People LOVE the whole conceit, that somehow the food and drink are endlessly illicit, while also bottomlessly available. Of course, the whole point is that you do at the resorts everything you mustn’t do at home—except of all the sins one could attempt in an anonymous vacation setting, no-one really gets much past gluttony. (There are “adults-only” resorts, with names such as Breathless, Hedonism, Secrets, the ads for which suggest that the environment will facilitate a lot of sex, possibly with strangers. Maybe people get a little more sinful in such places, but I’m betting that, with the same tempting orgy of food and alcohol on offer, they don’t).

Our fellow guests fascinated us. My dermatologist and fitness instructors would be horrified by the deliberately-abused skin, ranging from burned to well-cured, and the abundant fleshiness. (When do men give up, and just start walking with a backward lean to counterbalance their outsized bellies…?). There is some correlation between the choice of resort experience, and overall physical health, that medical science needs to investigate. The guests were overwhelmingly white; additionally: 1) single women generally travel in groups of 2-4 (I’ve done it solo, I know other women who’ve done it, but we’re rare creatures, and men absolutely don’t go by themselves); 2) straight men don’t go to all-inclusives without women—every man (except a few gay couples) was participating in a Family Trip, a Romantic Couples’ Getaway, or a Honeymoon. We theorized that while it’s acceptable for two straight women to travel together for a Girls’ Getaway, straight men won’t risk it, too afraid of being mistaken for gay by hundreds of complete strangers they’ll never see again (though, if it matters that much, and it shouldn’t—with those baggy beach trunks, no-one’s going to be confused); 3) white, North American men will not attempt Latin dancing and are no fun (fortunately, the resort provides male staff to get the ladies out for some bachata).

Many guests were there in groups—for weddings, family reunions, or as 2 or 3 couples traveling together. Each group would keep itself to itself—language was one barrier to socializing; a larger barrier was the astonishingly antagonistic, irredentist, competitiveness we all immediately developed over our beach chairs and shade. With more tourists than umbrellas to go around, people would attempt to claim chairs as early as 8 in the morning, leave them for hours, and expect to find the chairs vacant and ready when they showed up after lunch. A and I were having none of this—if we found chairs with no more sign of occupation than a couple of anonymous towels, we’d surveille the scene for a decent interval, then move in. When our fellow guests would waddle up to us 3 hours later and say, “Ve are sorry, but these chairs are busy. Ve hef left our towel,” we’d feign innocence: “Oh dear! Someone must have taken this spot before we got here—these chairs were empty when we found them!” Possession being nine tenths of the law, and the two of us politely but implacably installed in our shade, our foes were left to slog away to find shelter elsewhere. We were sworn at in several languages.

So: while all-inclusive resorts are luxurious, decadent, and relaxing, they are far from truly inclusive—installed in your little fortress of beach chair, inside a fortress of a resort, inside the larger fortress of the resort compound, you’re set apart from your fellow guests, from the people paid to serve you, from the culture that’s come to rely on you for the cash you represent. The experience doesn’t really bring out our best qualities: whether the resources are scarce (beach umbrellas) or abundant (liquor), resort guests consume, and even hoard them greedily. And so focused on getting our money’s worth of self-indulgence, we have no time or interest to spare for the other people around us, and the culture beyond the walls.

In the midst of comfort and self-indulgence, I’m bothered by all of this. And yet (did you know this is a confessional blog?), never enough for me to have surrendered my beach chair, and to have flounced out of the resort in a fit of marxist disapprobation. As I said at the start—I really, honestly had a great time on this recent trip. I might very well do it again. As a good friend once observed, if you’re overwhelmed by some problem (like your professional identity, like your nonexistent dating life, like winter), throw money at it. That’s what capitalism is for, after all. Throw money at a problem, someone will gladly catch it, and offer you frozen daiquiris, a fresh towel, and a spot in the sun in exchange.

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