THE EARTH TIMES
OCTOBER 15, 1994
ECO-tourism at work: Unique resort complex makes money, creates jobs, preserves ecology
Key is sustainable development in Caribbean nations
By Ashali Varma
PUNTA CANA, Dominican Republic—On the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic is the fledgling resort of Punta Cana. With miles of fine white sandy beaches, more than 2,000 coconut trees, crystal blue waters and a coral reef, it is rapidly becoming one of the top tourist destination in the Caribbean. What makes Punta Cana different from other tourist destinations is the story of its development—what its creators call a unique form of sustainable development.
In 1969, the region known as Punta Cana was an inaccessible jungle, inhabited by peasants or campesinos, who depended on cutting and burning trees to obtain charcoal which they sold to farmers. The land was rocky and difficult to cultivate and the region was fast being depleted of its natural flora and fauna. Today, Punta Cana is one of the few resorts, which can boast of successful sustainable development producing economic growth and protecting the environment.
“Developing countries dependent on the hard currency that tourism brings in often pay a heavy price when the ecology of the area is destroyed,” said Theodore W. Kheel, the New York labor lawyer and one of first American investors in the region. (Kheel is former publisher of this newspaper, and its current advisory chairman.) “We were determined to keep Punta Cana not only unspoiled but to preserve and enhance the rich natural habitat of the region.”
As chairman of Groupo Punta Cana, Kheel along with his Dominican partner Frank Rainieri—the groups’ president—-set out to make their vision a reality. In a joint venture with Club Med and a loan from the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation the group built an international airport which was an essential step to open the area for tourism from the United States, Canada, Europe and Latin America. Designed by a Dominican architect Oscan Imbert, the airport incorporates the natural materials of the area and has a thatched roof of Cana leaves that grows abundantly in the area.
The resort itself was carefully planned and zoned. Rainieri said, “We allow 30 rooms per hectare which is the lowest density anywhere and we make sure no buildings are constructed higher that the top of the coconut tree. In addition, all our villas have to be at least 180 feet from the water.”
The original existing landscape of coconut trees and forest dictated the sites of the buildings and it is common to see a hole in the side of a roof with the palm trees jutting through.
“What we have done here,” said Kheel in an interview with The Earth Times “is sustainable development in the true sense of the word. Not only have we changed the economy of the region by creating 25,000 new jobs but the local people are no longer dependent on cutting trees to make a living. The airport and the resorts have created thousands of ancillary jobs.”
Andreas Gil a 30-year-old Dominican who has been working at Punta Cana for the last five years spoke about the prosperity that has come to the region since it was developed. “While I was growing up there were few jobs in this region, “Gil said. “ My brother and sister had to emigrate to the US to look for opportunities. But now I have a good life here. I finished my 8th grade in school and have since learned to speak Italian, English and French to cater to the different groups that come here.”
For Antonio Castillo who comes from the town of La Romana, tourism has been a boon for the local region. He used to work in a hotel in Santa Domingo but prefers life in Punta Cana. His father worked in a sugar cane mill but is retired now. Castillo said, “My father taught me English and now I am learning German in the evening. A bus from Punta Cana takes me to Higuey for my classes and brings me back.”
As Haydee Rainieri, operation manager at Punta Cana (and wife of Frank Rainieri) puts it, “We are different because we believe in people not buildings. Here the employees and guests are one family,”
To protect the ecology of the area, Grupo Punta Cana has set up a not-for-profit foundation, Fundacion Ecologica Punta Cana, and donated 1,000 acres of virgin land
as a reserve for the preservation of vegetable and animal species in their natural habitat
and to restock those that are on the verge of extinction.
The first step which has already been undertaken is an ecological path covering I50 acres which meanders through 11 natural subterranean springs and 95 different species of flora. .
Last October the Foundation in a joint effort with the National Aquarium released 39 turtles into their natural habitat in an effort to repopulate the marine environment The foundation is also lobbying the government to formally declare Punta Cana a “marine park” to protect the coral reefs and the marine life. It has also launched an awareness campaign among the local inhabitants.
To protect the heritage of the area, Kheel said, “We will also create a museum for the people so that they can understand the culture of the original inhabitants of this land, the Arawak Indians.”
The museum will draw on remarkable discoveries made at Indian burial grounds that are part of the property owned by Grupo Punta Cana. Some of the burial sites date back more than a thousand years.
Last week, on the occasion of the group’s 25th Anniversary, Bernardo Vega, the former governor of the Dominican Central Bank and an archeologist in his own right personally gave some visitors a guided tour of these sites, explaining ancient customs—-and of how the Indians came to this area from as far away as Trinidad.
He pointed to the well-preserved skeletons and explained how the Indians lived in those days. He described how the Indians created utensils and musical instruments from conches.
As the visitors walked back to the bus that had brought them to the site, an old man who worked nearby stood with a large conch in his hand and played a tune.
It was difficult to tell just what he was playing, and the rising wind carried the notes away from the visitors. But from the expression on the old man’s gentle face, and from the fading sounds that had been created on his conch, those notes seemed like rich and haunting music from another time.