Rita Indiana: The Media Is Reporting on Deaths of Tourists in the Dominican Republic Irresponsibly

The entrance of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is seen on June 20, 2019 in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

I was 6 years old the first time I went to an all-inclusive resort. My mother had won a one-week vacation to Playa Dorado for four through a raffle at the bank where she worked. We arrived with our worn-out towels – her husband, my step sister, my mom, and I. It was 1983, and Punta Cana didn’t yet exist, at least not for us.

There also weren’t doñas frying yaniqueques, nor merengue tipico bands, nor places to rent inner tubes or bathing suits.

The first thing that caught my attention was that no one there spoke Spanish. The second, that almost everyone, except those tending the bar, were white. The third, that I could drink all the Coca-Cola in the world without having to pay for it. The beach was clean, and there were no children asking us for money nor strewn heads of fried fish on the sand. There also weren’t doñas frying yaniqueques, nor merengue tipico bands, nor places to rent inner tubes or bathing suits. There weren’t rowdy games of dominoes, nor magicians, nor people with mental illnesses. There definitely weren’t tíos borrachos treating your jellyfish sting with urine. It was nothing like our Boca Chica, the beach we went to on weekends and the one that belonged to us as members of the capital’s lower middle class, as part of the real world.

Playa Dorada was a whole other country. A country that was “happily” segregated. In the water and on the lounge chairs were the “Americans,” which is how we described everyone white at the time. Dressed in colorful uniforms, always smiling, polyglottal and attentive, athletic and sensuous, were the Black people.

A strange instinct to mimic everyone around us seemed to come alive in my mother and stepfather, who began speaking to us in the little English they knew every time we were outside our hotel room. My stepsister and I, imitating them, improvised in a language that didn’t communicate anything, except the desire to seem like tourists.

By the ’90s, the all-inclusive resorts had become democratized. Dominicans inside and outside the country discovered its marvelous formula and began to turn it into a tradition for semana santa, summer, and holidays. Puerto Plata stopped being the center of this type of tourism and other names came on the scene. Bachata reverberated from boomboxes where European pop once reigned undisturbed.

Bávaro y Punta Cana created new work opportunities. It became trendy to study hospitality; so did leaving university to go work for an all inclusive-resort. Many members of the LGBT community found refuge as choreographers, dancers, and hosts in the variety shows that the hotels offered and continue to offer. Many women who worked in homes without any benefits or job security found liberation from their semi-slavery thanks to these new opportunities.

I wanted to get to know my country, the “real one,” and I found the idea of a walled-off beach, with pools and generic bars, to be boring and problematic.

When I was economically stable enough to pick my own getaway location, these all-inclusive resorts were not an option. I wanted to get to know my country, the “real one,” and I found the idea of a walled-off beach, with pools and generic bars, to be boring and problematic. In the dilapidated cars of my friends, and on buses, motoconchos, and trucks, we traveled through a vast and unfamiliar country of extraordinary beauty and immense poverty. It was a country that made you fall in love and made you fear at the same time, and where more than once, because of the color of my skin, my education and privileges, I behaved like another “American” on vacation.

I look at the photos of fields and beaches outside the tourism circuits – where lovely children were barefoot, standing beside fishermen and artisanal rug vendors – and I asked myself if my search for “what’s real” wasn’t just pretentious; an idea as banal and inconsequential as a visit to a resort. No matter how many tips I left or well wishes for my hosts, when I returned to the capital, they would become flat postcard colors. Their precariousness would remain, stagnant and perfect, like a cover of National Geographic.

I relate to the deaths of tourists in the Dominican Republic as if I were one of them – a person who wanted to blow off steam, experience an adventure, a safe adventure, to extract from the landscape without consequences. But the latter is impossible, because even within the isolation and protection of these hotels, life and its painful statistical framework continues.

In 2017, more than 2.7 million U.S. tourists visited the Dominican Republic. 17 of them died – five more than the 11 deaths that the international press has made an effort to portray as outrageous. In a statement to Time magazine, the State Department confirmed that there hasn’t been an increase in tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic, and experts assure that the DR is still a safe place to visit.

The sensational coverage of these deaths isn’t a conspiracy from the competitive tourism industry nor a fight between hotel mafias. The responsible party is in our face: it’s the ferocious news cycle that constantly needs to be fed, which has made human tragedy its favorite dish. How many clicks do the “inexplicable” deaths of innocent tourists in paradise yield?

Read Rita Indiana’s op-ed in Spanish here.