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photos | David Paul Appell
One of the downsides of tourism development, say critics, is its impact on the environment, particularly natural habitats. But in recent years, we’ve seen a growing number of initiatives to minimize its effects – for example, recycling, solar power, and other green practices, in addition to hiring biologists and other scientists to restore and even oversee development in ways beneficial to local environments. On a recent trip to the Dominican Republic’s premier resort area, Punta Cana, I discovered one remarkable organization that’s in the forefront of that effort.
The Punta Cana Ecological Foundation is a marquis project of the Punta Cana Resort and Club, an exclusive, 200-room Westin resort just south of the airport, and which I had the pleasure of visiting very recently. In addition to being a sterling example of contemporary Caribbean luxury, the resort’s ownership (which include singer Julio Iglesias) takes its environmental responsibilities more seriously than many, and for 15 years have supported this foundation – which in turn has an ongoing impact on resort operations in numerous ways.
Visiting its colorful, two-story Sustainability Centre (top) on the resort’s 26-square-mile (67-sq.-kilometer) grounds, I was led through the education room (above), open to visitors, by the center’s German-born director of more than nine years, aquaculture specialist Susanne Leib. It basically presents an overview of the foundation’s main projects, including conservation of endangered local species such as the Ridgeway’s hawk; control of aggressive, invasive species like the lion fish; sustainable fishing and lobster harvesting practices; and perhaps most important of all, in my humble opinion, preservation and restoration of coral reefs (as you’ve no doubt been reading and seeing on TV, due to a combination of factors including climate change, vital reefs the world over are in trouble these days, but those in the Caribbean have been particularly hard hit).
In fact, the Susanne and her more than 20 full-time staffers are quite the astonishing dyamos of productivity, engaged in a flurry of research in conjunction with blue-chip institutions such as Harvard, Columbia, and Cornell Universities – and even the likes of the Wharton School of Business – to tackle the problems of sustainable tourism that affect virtually every country in the world, but perhaps most especially the developing world.
I browse brochures with names like “Fertilizer Effects on Sea Fans” and “Alimentary Preferences of Fire Worms in Caribbean Corals” – perhaps a wee bit abstruse-seeming to you and me, but with profound implications for tourism and the environment. “We are the only organization in the DR that does all this in an integrated way”, Susanne tells me proudly. This knowledge is shared with international organizations and hospitality concerns, to the tremendous benefit of travelers, businesses, and local communities across the globe.
Wait, there’s more. Beyond research, I discover another important side to this eco foundation, as Susanne leads me outside into the organic garden where staffers tend to lettuce, arugula, peppers, and quite a bit of other produce – farmed using organic waste from the resort and soil from a worm-composting shed a few feet away, and then sent back to the resort’s kitchens as well as other local restaurants; another certain amount is sold at a weekly local farmers’ market. (Yet another extremely important impact the foundation has had on the Westin resort is as part of the international Zero Waste movement, overseeing recycling and other green measures.)
Our tour continues, including the aforementioned worm composting shed; a fish nursery; beehives (you can buy jars of the more than 3,000 gallons/11,000 litres of tasty honey produced per year at the Sustainability Center’s small gift shop); and hydroponic, palm, desert-plant, and medicinal-plant gardens.
I was especially pleased by our last stop. On top of everything else, the foundation administers a 1,500-acre (607-hectare) park called Ojos Indígenas (Indigenous Eyes) with an “interpretive trail” exhibits with a fruit orchard; exhibits dealing with things like coffee, cacao, and sugarcane; an iguana conservatory; even a little petting zoo with ponies, mules, chickens, geese, horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, tukeys, and - wait for it - peacocks!
But after all this strolling in the afternoon heat, by now I was admittedly working up a bit of a sweat, so was especially gratified by the jewels in the crown here: 12 spring-fed lagoons, four of them swimmable (one is open to the general public, with an admission fee of US$25, while the other three are reserved for Westin guests only). Plunging into the bracing water as turtles darted into their underwater hidey holes, feeling tiny little fishies ever so gently nibbling my toes, amid cana palms (from which Punta Cana takes its name) and other lush vegetation – this was for sure a special kind of tropical heaven.
Still, even after all the above, there remained one final box to check. The following morning, I joined a small group chugging a short ways off the beach to don snorkel gear and watch foundation staffers placing corals on racks to encourage their regrowth for use in reinvigorating local reefs, followed by a visit to the nearby “underwater museum” some 10 feet (three metres) down on the ocean bed, a collection of 22 cement statues with motifs of the Taíno, the precolumbian people who once inhabited this island. Both amazingly moving experiences, each in its own way.
So yes, we all enjoy a relaxing, luxurious holiday under the sun. But I think you’ll agree with me that given the world’s environmental and development challenges in the decades to come, we’re all deeply grateful that organizations like the Punta Cana Ecological Foundation also exist, in the spirit of saving Mother Earth while still aiding development. They will be ever more crucial in the years to come.