Environmental Issues and Ecotourism in the Dominican Republic

Birds circle a small rocky island topped with vegetation.

An uninhabited island in Parque Nacional Los Haitises. Photo © Ivan Cholakov/123rf.

When Columbus arrived, the forests of the island were plush and vibrant. Over the centuries, it is estimated that nearly two-thirds of those original forests have vanished. Illegal forestation, fires, mass farming without forethought as to how to replenish soils after failed crops, and pollution caused an immense amount of destruction. Over time, fertile and pine-covered hillsides increasingly vanished. In the 1970s, environmentalists warned that by 1990, a majority of the native forest would be destroyed, much like what had begun to occur in Haiti. With that, the Dominican government finally stood up and began an active move toward conservation. Today great amounts of land throughout the country are being protected as national parks.

However, there is still quite a lot going on in the environment. A growing tourism industry picks up more momentum with each year, and the mad rush to create more services, resorts, and activities is only now beginning to be monitored. Thankfully, many ecosavvy travelers have become attracted to the Dominican Republic as a destination. They are not just lying on the beaches anymore. Instead, more visitors are headed inland to raft the rivers and climb the mountains of the central highlands. They are taking boats through mangroves and diving to see the coral beds that fringe the island. While tourism is good for the economy, all of this nature appreciation can take a toll on the environment. An already fragile ecosystem can be crushed under the pressure of so much traffic. Although government programs exist for the protection of these ecosystems, they remain grossly underfunded.

Ethical Ecotravel

What is this “eco” that is getting thrown around everywhere? The term “ecotourism” was coined in the 1980s and was meant to describe responsible tourism in natural areas (like national parks and forests), making sure to conserve the environment and improve the well-being of local people. Emphasis has been put on areas where the flora, fauna, and culture are the primary attractions. Besides simply paying attention to the environmental and cultural factors of an area, it means that the businesses touting the ecofriendly claims should be taking initiative to promote recycling, energy efficiency, water re-use, and economic opportunities for local communities. Unfortunately, the prefix “eco” has become a sort of marketing gimmick in the tourism industry lately, and the Dominican Republic is guilty of it, too. Be wary of establishments that claim ecofriendliness while behaving in environmentally and socially irresponsible ways. For instance, simply placing a resort in a beautiful landscape does not make it ecofriendly.

Tourists with the best of intentions in seeing the Dominican Republic in an ecoconscious manner can actually do more damage than they realize if they don’t adhere to some basic practices.Tourists with the best of intentions in seeing the Dominican Republic in an ecoconscious manner can actually do more damage than they realize if they don’t adhere to some basic practices. Just going there and spending your money doesn’t quite do it. If you really want to help out in an effective way for the Dominicans and their natural environment, there are a few ways to go about it.

Giving Dominican-owned independent businesses your money rather than big corporations helps keep the money in the Dominican economy rather than being sent overseas. Many all-inclusive resorts are foreign owned (mainly Spanish, French, and American). Dominican-owned establishments are relatively rare or short-lived ventures (sad but true). One great Dominican-owned choice is the Paraíso Caño Hondo resort in Sabana de la Mar, where you can also book tours of the Parque Nacional Los Haitises.

Consider planning your trip for a lower tourist season. In the case of the Dominican Republic, this means not December–March. This will minimize congestion in small towns and spread the influx of tourist money more evenly throughout the year, especially for those mom-and-pop organizations whose livelihoods depend on foreign money. Also, visiting in smaller groups (like 4–6 people) is much less shocking to the cultural environment.

Spending the night out in wilderness is a great idea, but make sure to set up camp in designated areas or on durable surfaces like rock, gravel, and dry grasses. Use existing trails for hiking and don’t venture from the trail. Build fires only where it is permitted and burn everything down to ash.

If you’re visiting an area that is pristine, it’s best to try to inhabit areas that have not been visited so that you don’t help to create campsites and trails. Right now Bahía de las Águilas (Bay of the Eagles) is pristine. In 2006, a French development company was proposing building four 70-room hotels along its untouched shoreline. Environmentalist groups like the Coalition for the Defense of the Protected Areas are fighting hard to create other options for true ecofriendly establishments for the area’s incredibly fragile ecosystem.

Whatever you take into a natural area, bring it back with you when you exit. Packing out all trash, leftover food, toilet paper, hygiene products, and litter is a small task that has a huge impact on the ecosystem. Dig holes for solid human waste (15–20 centimeters deep and at least 60 meters from any water, camp, or trail). While most Dominicans living in the country have no objections to washing themselves and their clothing in rivers, streams, or lakes, it is not good for the environment. Carry water 60 meters away from the source and use biodegradable soap. The philosophy, “When in Rome…” should not apply here.

Marveling at the rich culture and historical artifacts is part of the fun. But don’t touch them or take them! Hard to believe and sad examples of people not adhering to this rule are the Taíno drawings found in some caves that have been completely ruined by graffiti. This goes for plant life too. While the country is dazzling with phenomenally beautiful orchid species, picking them is not cool; in fact it’s against the law.

Appreciate the wildlife from a distance and don’t feed animals. While there aren’t many big mammals in the Dominican Republic, you should never approach or follow any if you see them. The same etiquette applies while diving: If a big sea turtle swims past, don’t chase it down—just appreciate it as it passes.

Be courteous to other visitors and they will more than likely be courteous to you. Hiking Pico Duarte can be a very populated venture. Yield to others on the trail and you’ll avoid confrontations, which have been known to occur. Keep noise levels down. Everyone is there to hear nature, not you.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Dominican Republic.

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