I just got back from a trip to the Dominican Republic, and I can honestly say that it was the most difficult trip that I have ever been on (I think I have a small list of trips that fit this bill at one time or another). I traveled there for my PhD work, so while I was reading plenty about the beautiful places that I could have visited while I was there, I was stuck in one spot, either carrying out my research, or waiting for my research partners to arrive. There were also some fairly major set backs to the trip. My lack of Spanish ability being one, and the fact that some of the key people that I was supposed to work with ended up leaving me stranded.
In terms of research, it just wasn’t what I was hoping for, although my fellowship did connect me with some really great people, who allowed me to get the amount of work that I did in two weeks in Dominica done in a matter of days. I also had the chance to practice my Spanish more than I ever have previously, and I think I have gotten over my fear of trying to speak to people in it, finally. I still sound like a totally idiot, and can barely get a sentence out, but I have struggled to speak with people enough here that I am used to the feelings of embarrassment now, and I have found that for the most part, after I was done apologizing for my lack of ability, most people forgave me and did their best to understand me and be understood by me.
I also learned some valuable things about myself. Most importantly, traveling just for work is not satisfying for me. I want to see things and explore, but when I am somewhere to get work done, especially on someone else’s dollar, I just don’t feel right doing that. This is fair, and anyone who has traveled for work, has, I’m sure, experienced similar feelings. I hope that I can use my weekends this summer to see more of the country, however, because the Dominican Republic has so much to offer nature lovers.
My confidence in tourism as a positive force was somewhat shaken by this experience, however. All-inclusive resorts are not good for local communities, because they typically cut them out of management, don’t stream as many economic benefits to the host location, and keep their visitors from experiencing the culture of an area. However, when the alternative is constantly being harassed in the streets by people wanting to send you on tours for prices that are too high, or trying to convince you to get on their motorcycle with them… well, it starts to make sense. That being said, the people doing the hassling are just trying to make a living, and really, it is tourism that has created this environment in which tourists are simply targets to be hunted for economic gain. There were so many nice people that I met while in Samaná, and I saw the way that locals interacted with eachother- they were so friendly and caring. I know that it is tourism itself that has taken this away from visitors. Not that I expect local people to treat tourists like old friends, but the face shown to tourists is not the real face of the people here. They are much nicer.
In the end, I don’t know what the solution is. When the disparities in wealth between visitors and visited are so high, can tourism be a friendly, relaxed exchange? I don’t know. Samaná needs tourism, but tourism is changing it, and the industry could shift its focus to another town at any time. I think tourists need to take more responsibility for caring for the places that they visit, but I also think that local people need to make their communities welcoming. In the end, if tourists don’t care for the places and people they visit, they will damage what they have travelled so far to see. And if local people make tourists uncomfortable and scared, they will encourage things like all-inclusive resorts.
As for myself, I now know that I can survive in these places alone and with the Spanish that I have. I think that I can manage without all-inclusives in the future, especially if I have a friend traveling with me. However, I think I would prefer to keep my future international journeys to leisure travel as much as possible once my PhD is completed. I have really enjoyed meeting the people here, but my personality is just far too introverted for the kind of work that I am trying to do, and I am just really so sad that I traveled all that way, and wasn’t able to see the great stuff that is out there.