The Up Side of a Down Market
They came in the afternoon, great waves of dark-green sucking up all unoccupied space on the sand. We drew up our toes in horror. How dare they invade our beach? On a day this nice? The waiters and the towel guy looked on, impassive; by now, they're used to the daily invasion of hundreds of cruise travelers onto the Casa de Campo beach. The resort's relative emptiness prompted management to start offering nearby boats the chance to dump its passengers on its shores in the name of an "excursion" -- and so they came, clutching the ships' dark-green towels in their hands.
Unlike in the U.S., it is possible to go days, even weeks in the D.R. without being reminded of the recession, so long as you don't flip to an American channel or surf the Web. But the fingerprints of the downturn are everywhere, and not just for people on the beach during cruise hour. I had a lot of time to think about this on my last day on the island, in which not only was I confronted with the above deserted airport, I ended up getting a ride to the airport on -- kid you not -- a 55-passenger bus. Just me and the driver rattling around in there. So here are two things to expect in the new Caribbean economy:
More, but not always better, service. Tourist-facing business probably have a surfeit of workers even if they've gone through layoffs in the past year, but if you're looking for speedy service, maybe you should be vacationing in a McDonalds drive-through instead. Whether we were stopping in a local farmacia or a tony restaurant with a bilingual staff, we were helped in the same relaxed manner which, had we been in a hurry, might have annoyed us. But a downturn in visits is no reason to get snippy if you're one of the people who are still going. Willingness to check one's assumptions about the cultural value of time is a great thing to put in your carry-on.
Independent vendors getting more aggressive. The resort used to ban people who came to the beach to sell coconuts from hawking their wares; now they're allowed to play through. Truth is, many Dominicans' economic situations are in trouble unrelated to the recession, since tourist development mostly create jobs for either the very educated (which pay a living wage) or those willing to do manual labor (which don't); for most, that means supplementing licensed work income with unlicensed business. (Steven Gregory's The Devil in the Mirror is a great, albeit depressing, read on tourism and the Dominican Republic specifically.) You don't have to use local vendors, but most of them aren't out to trick you; they're just making a living.
My intent is not to dissuade you from visiting the D.R. or any other Caribbean destination; I had an incredible time and there are deals to be had if you are in a position to take them. From stargazing under a stand of palm trees to dancing a beachside merengue, the sights and sounds are the best souvenir. Still, tread lightly.
· Bruce Willis Won't Let Caribbean Economy "Die Hard" [Jaunted]
· Everyone Still Going On Cruises, Royal Caribbean Says [Jaunted]
· Dominican Republic Field Trip [Jaunted]
[Photo of La Romana International Airport by the author.]