Puerto Rico boomed, and the Virgin Islands bloomed, and Jamaica and Bermuda and the Bahamas have grown fat with the crowds disgorged from plump jets and posh cruise ships. But the Dominican Republic has lain fallow, bypassed by wary tourists as if it were a kingdom of cannibals, its citizenry remaining dependent for a thin subsistence on God's fine climate and the oxcart to bring in a good sugarcane crop. This happened to the Dominican Republic largely because of the violence of its politics and the stigma of its many years under a dictatorship not noted for encouraging tourism. The settings have not changed. But the outlook is now quite different.
Now, for reasons political and economic, there is hope among Dominicans that the time is nigh when their country will emerge and claim a place in the sun of Caribbean tourism: an Island Paradise, or A Dream Vacation Destination, or perhaps even A Low-Priced Action Package of Fun, Sun and Sea. It should be hastily noted that the time is nigh—not now; maybe five years from now. For now, there is a curiously unpolished and finely imperfect quality to a vacation in the Dominican Republic. There is massive potential, and it is a beautiful, charming, exciting and good-natured place. But it is probably not the ideal trip for the average pampered buyer of Low-Priced Action Packages. Not yet.
Many things, of course, are fully finished. There is the stunning airport terminal at Santo Domingo and the excellent airline service—everyone from Iberia to Viasa and Pan Am is constantly flying in. There is the Embajador Hotel in Santo Domingo, which is strictly of the Miami Beach baroque school of design. It has no access to the sea, its bellmen wear gold swallowtail uniforms with stripes on the pants and spats on the shoes, its bar specializes in—what else?—banana daiquiris. And there is an unforgettable nightspot called Mesón de la Cava. Here one enters a door at the foot of a fantastically tall fig tree and descends a long spiral staircase to the floor level 50 feet below. Looking up, one sees the roots of the tree twisting down the walls; this is a grand underground cavern, now replete with bar and barmaids and a gentle rock band, and occasionally as one sips a Ron Tavàrez on ice a drop of moisture may fall from the high stone ceiling where perhaps it has been gathering itself together since the time Columbus first landed on this island of Hispaniola. Recently negotiations were undertaken to turn the Mesón de la Cava into a Playboy Club. The negotiations failed, but it was a close call.
Soon enough the world of plastic hedonism will make its mark on the Dominican Republic—but not yet. Jes√∫s Alou, one of the Dominican ballplaying brothers who has made it in the U.S. major leagues, sums it up well when he says: "My country is 30 years behind, but that is why tourists should want to come. We have not been exploited. We have not given away the things that other islands have already lost. We are unspoiled."
True. There are miles of gleaming white sand beaches, and on most of them the surf crashes in as it has for quite a few million years—unheard, unseen by human beings. Occasionally there is a lone thatched hut set back amid deep green groves of coconut palms. Occasionally a coupie of tiny brown children will appear to splash in the azure surf, then tumble in the white sand until they seem to be rolled in flour. But such pristine spots can be reached only by boat or by soul-jolting jeep rides over horrible roads or by wafting in above it all in a helicopter. They are unspoiled but they also are unused and all but unreachable.
There have been no major hotel complexes built outside the towns so far. However, there are plans for a $50 million three-hotel layout at Puerto Plata on the north coast, and there is talk of a $17 million project at Macao on the east. There is gossip that Howard Hughes has secretly bought land.
Even if the most promising of all dreams came true tomorrow, the Dominican Republic would not immediately become a tourist mecca. An expert who is involved in the Puerto Plata plan spoke with ruthless cool about the realities of the tourism game: "There is no authentic tourist boom—not a boom—until tens of thousands of people want to visit a place. Secretaries from Trenton and shoe clerks from Norfolk must want desperately to come. For that to happen they must be sold—sold by the travel wholesalers. The big wholesalers like American Express and Diners Club and Thomas Cook and the airlines must promote a country. They must have something to merchandise—package tours and options on the packages, a full range of prices and accommodations. The day will very likely come when the Dominican Republic can be merchandised by the wholesalers and at least begin to boom, but not for a while yet. The country is too far behind."
On May 30 it will be exactly 10 years since Dictator Rafael Trujillo was ambushed in his limousine on Santo Domingo's lovely seaside boulevard, Avenida George Washington. For 30 years he had ruled by terror, and the people celebrated his death; they renamed the street at the point where he died The 30th of May. A long and painful period of chaos and bloodshed followed, culminating in 1965 with a wild street rebellion in Santo Domingo, an uprising that was finally snuffed out through the intervention of U.S. Marines. Since then the Dominican people have seemed quite drained of the desire for civil war. Twice in the last five years they have cast overwhelming majorities to elect Dr. Joaquin Balaguer as president. It is true that there have been a number of flagrantly political murders committed by terrorists, and that there are menacing mumbles from fierce splinter groups on the left, and that scowling army men in rumpled khaki with submachine guns are everywhere in evidence. But it also is true that there are new Sinclair gas stations, new Coca-Cola billboards, new shopping centers and new North American capital investments worth hundreds of millions since Balaguer's administration began. There is broad agreement that he has brought at least the image of stability and dignity that his country sorely needed.
Balaguer is a tiny, gray sparrow of a man, a former law professor and a bachelor who still lives with his mother, who is 89 years old. When he comes to work in the ornate velvet-draped presidential chambers of the magnificent Italian Renaissance pink marble palace Trujillo built, he habitually wears shiny black shoes, a neat blue suit and an austere necktie. No medals, ribbons, pins or decorations of any kind adorn him. During an interview he will sit, nearly lost, in the corner of a brocaded French provincial couch and will speak in a soft, almost shy, schoolteacher's voice. He is a politician, so he does not speak frequently in specifics or quotable promises. He says, "We will do all that we can to encourage tourism in our country. We hope to install roads and landing strips and the systems to allow expansion of our tourist potential."
But it is Balaguer's aura of confidence and tranquillity, more than any grand commitment of government pesos, that will encourage grand investments in the new tourism of his land. The Dominican Republic is ripe, but for what?
Perhaps an answer to what good could happen lies in the unlikely environs of La Romana, a sugar mill town in the boondocks of the southeast end of the Dominican Republic. This is a community of 30,000 souls, most of whom sleep, eat, breathe, get married and perhaps even die by the seasonal cycles of the gargantuan sugar mill there—a mill owned by a U.S. conglomerate, Gulf + Western. The mill is one of the world's largest producers of raw sugar (330,000 tons a year) and it looms over the whole district like a giant Erector Set. The holdings of Gulf + Western reach much farther than the shadow of the mill, however—far out into the countryside past 250,000 acres of sugarcane fields and lush pasture land for beef cattle and thoroughbred horses, far out over 230 miles of railroad and countless miles of rutted oxcart lanes and millions of square yards of oceanfront and riverfront and jungle brush. Gulf + Western owns the hospital, a school, quite a lot of homes and the Hotel La Romana, along with the airport, the loading docks, a rodeo arena and a splendid white beach adjacent to a picturesque old fishing village.
Happily, all of this sweet conglomeration has fallen under the enthusiastic administration of a jaunty, relaxed little man of uncommon insight and admirable imagination. He is Alvaro Carta, 43, Cuban-born but now an American citizen. He has been successful in sugar for years. In 1964 he moved in as an executive of the South Puerto Rico Sugar Co., which had operated the La Romana mill for nearly 50 years; in 1967 he took the company under Gulf + Western's ever-spreading umbrella, becoming president. And now, with high spirits and absolute confidence, Alvaro Carta espouses an enlightened businessman's philosophy: "All they thought about here was sugar, sugar, sugar. Well, dammit, these days if you don't use your corporation money and power to help people, you're an s.o.b. My idea here is to divest and diversify. I don't even care if I end up with any stock, we're not trying to Americanize this company, we're trying to Dominicanize it. We're moving more Dominicans into top jobs. We're arranging financing so working people can buy stock—not only ours, either. These are people who never even understood what a share of stock was all about before."
There is more than a modicum of self-interest in the enlightenment, for if the day should come when a Dominican government should choose to seize and nationalize any industries, it is not likely a company closely identified with the pesos of the people would be too badly hurt. Quite candidly Alvaro says, "It is one of those nice situations where you help yourself by helping others."
The unlikely idea to create a Dominican Riviera in a sugar mill town grew from the conversion only last summer of the company's rather lavish quarters for bachelor and transient executives into a resort hotel with 30 rooms and cabanas. "La Romana was a dead turkey before; people in the capital thought of it as a wasteland," says Alvaro Carta. "Now already it's the In place and they are coming to spend their weekends. We haven't even put in an ad!" As a result, a new 32-room addition was added within the past month, and the dynamic Se√±or Carta has visions of the Riviera dancing in his head.
"Yes, I could foresee a very huge hideaway here in 10 years," he says. "But we are not going to hurry. Expansion will be gradual and natural. There will be no honky-tonky. We will have no casinos. We will retain the Dominican culture; the character of this country will be exposed, not buried under some kind of Las Vegas-Miami Beach nonsense. Gulf + Western has 3,000 acres of waterfront here. For every one acre we develop for tourists we will leave three acres natural. Forever. In perpetuity!"
Even without such a noble charter, La Romana is likely to remain an undeniably original Caribbean resort, for that grand sugar mill hovers at the hotel's very gate, and from December through July the place grinds 24 hours a day. It is a sight—and sound—unforgettable. Then, too, there are the rodeos, with strapping black cowboys in from the potrero, fresh from the Nisibon and Peligro cattle ranches and the branding of those hulking Romana Reds, each hauling a massive pistol at his belt (which even Gulf + Western vice-presidents are wont to do when they venture to some of the firm's more remote holdings). There is marlin fishing and bonito fishing and tarpon fishing and, perhaps best, snook fishing in the Chavón River, a meandering, tranquil stream that flows down to the Caribbean through green canyons full of flapping herons and gliding parrots. One rents a fisherman's yola and rows serenely upriver, casting into shaded pools beneath the vines that droop from trees on shore. There are dazzling coral reefs for snorkelers off Catalina Island and, at 75 feet or so, magnificent reefs and rills where spearfishing for lobsters is like grabbing frogs in a rain barrel.
Eventually, Carta plans a dude ranch near the hotel; one may helicopter over the hills to the rolling cattle lands, there to ride horseback along a beach and see neither another human nor another horse for a full five-mile stretch.
Perhaps the single brightest star in the La Romana crown will be its golf course, an 18-hole seaside layout designed by Pete Dye of Hilton Head fame. It is being painstakingly constructed. Each fairway will be lined with lovely pink coral fences carefully piled by hand like those rock walls marking aged Connecticut farms. It is a native coral called dientes del perro, which means "teeth of the dog." Seven holes will parallel the sea, and the area will be luxuriously landscaped with sea grape and hundreds of almond, cashew nut and teak trees. Pete Dye is unashamedly ecstatic. "When Alvaro showed me this land I told him, 'I think I can build a course here that will draw the attention of the world.' This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, I tell you. I've always loved using the natural materials at hand. Instead of formal landscaping and homes between the fairways and along the course, we're going to plant indigenous crops that the people will actually cultivate and harvest. Yes, sir, peppers and pineapple, tomatoes and citrus trees and sugarcane and even pasture grass for the thoroughbreds and the Romana Reds. When people play this course, they'll know they're in the Dominican Republic—it'll be all around them, natural as can be!"
Well, Puerto Rico boomed and the Virgin Islands bloomed and, perhaps, the Dominican Republic's turn has come. La Romana is still an unsophisticated company town and you can't buy suntan lotion or dark glasses or a pair of sneakers there yet. The government still insists that oil drums be lined up across the Gulf + Western airstrip at night and that an army man stand guard with a machete—just in case, just in case. But perhaps Alvaro Carta is right when he says, "There will be a tourist boom in this country and everyone is going to be better off within five years."
Indeed, maybe by then the wholesalers will be pushing A Low-Priced Action Package of Sun, Fun & Tarpon Fishing in the Dominican Republic.
Nisibon Ranch and Beach
Peligro Cattle Ranch
Golf Course at La Romana
Bayahibe Beach and Village