A couple weeks ago I was on one of those trips that people think travel writers are on all the time. I was at a fancy boutique hotel in Playa del Carmen sipping cocktails by the roof deck pool and then staying at an all-inclusive Cancun luxury resort. Although I am editor of a publication that runs narrative travel stories about unique places and odd angles, there I was being part of a vacation cliché.
But you know what? There’s a time and place for that too. I don’t look down at those guests the way I used to before I had an office job for years. Or traveled with a picky eater for a daughter. Or had months worth of sleep to catch up on.
The Lure of the Unlimited on Vacation
This was far from the first time I’ve stayed at one of these all-inclusive beach resorts, whether on assignment or on vacation. Before my daughter went off to college last fall, we took a lot of vacations together over the years that weren’t exactly adventurous. Sure, I took my daughter to Southeast Asia, to Guatemala, to Costa Rica, to western Canada. We explored plenty on the other side of the Yucatan. But twice we went to Puerto Vallarta and there was nothing “perceptive” about our travels. We stuffed ourselves, we drank whatever we wanted, and we sat around a swimming pool. Apart from walking down the beach and back one day, we didn’t leave our all-inclusive resort for three days and nights. Did that make me a bad traveler?
In the insufferable “traveler” or “tourist” debate, I would certainly be tagged as the latter on that trip. I could partially justify it because I had won this three-night stay through an annual contest run by a travel writers’ organization. But the truth is, I picked this particular resort in Puerto Vallarta from a list of prizes. On purpose. I really wanted to go there and do nothing for three days with my family.
The further truth is, that was the second time we had done it in that resort location. We also did it twice in Cancun. Mommy and Daddy got to drink cocktails in peace and the little girl got to go have fun without her parents telling her what to do. When it was time to order food or hit the buffet, I didn’t have to worry about paying for food that got left on a plate after one bite.
Later the wife and I went off on our own a few times as a couple and stayed at an adults-only all-inclusive. This kind of place fills a different need: adults having uninterrupted conversations with other adults, no screaming kids in sight. No food compromises, no getting up early, drinking as much as we wanted with no little person to be responsible for. It’s hard to understand how great this is until you’ve been a parent. Then it sounds like heaven.
When the Resort Mindset Shifts
The first time I really encountered this traveler/tourist divide was during the first getaway trip I took with my then-girlfriend, now-wife. A very long time ago, while working long-hours office jobs, we took a break and went to Jamaica. I booked us at a nice locally owned small hotel on the beach in Negril and we spent part of the time exploring the island on a motorbike. We bopped around different bars and restaurants in the area. We visited villages and drank rum at roadside shacks.
On the way back to the airport though we met a lot of people who had spent the week at an all-inclusive resort and they looked damned happy I had to admit. And unlike me, they hadn’t had to pay for any meals and drinks after arrival. They coughed up a certain amount up front and then had no surprises, no matter their level of gluttony or drunkenness.
Since then I’ve met a lot of perfectly well-adjusted people who have gone to one of these all-inclusive resorts and would gladly do it again. Including some people I think of real travelers.
After that first trip to Jamaica we went backpacking around the world for a year. Then another year, then another after that. We made snide remarks about the people overpaying for fancy resorts in Sharm-el-Sheik, Antalya, and Agadir, in those resorts that follow the same playbook on every continent. We were getting by on $30-$40 a day for two in some of those places, so the hundreds per day each that these suckers were paying seemed downright dumb.
But then we we had a baby and everything changed. We were totally worn out from the messed-up sleep schedules and constant attention after a while, so we dropped said baby off with one of her grandmothers and made a beeline to the Riviera Maya of Mexico. Through a last-minute online deal, we spent less than $100 a night for the two of us at a low-end all-inclusive and did almost nothing but eat, drink, and be merry. We slept for 10 hours a night and spent much of the rest of the time lying in a beach chair or hammock. While waiters brought us cocktails. We returned fully recharged. “Maybe this isn’t such a bad idea…” we started thinking.
Since then I’ve repeated the experience many times, in places where you wouldn’t want to leave the resort anyway (like Cancun) and places where you could but we were having so much fun that we didn’t (like Club Med Ixtapa). If you pick the right resort, “all-inclusive” can also mean lots of adventures, so you don’t necessarily have to lounge around all day.
Yes I know, there are plenty of downsides to these mass tourism places, from energy consumption to plastic waste to the flight of earnings going out of the country. But as popular as these places are, they’re not going anywhere, so I’d rather see the industry push them to do better than to try to fight them altogether. I’d also rather see people go to a destination resort than get on a giant cruise ship.
If you want to really explore a place and get a feel for the culture, stay at a private local hotel that’s not too big and spend most of your time outside its walls. Contribute to the local economy and eat where the locals eat. Go on local adventures and see the sights. Wander around and get lost to see what happens.
But sometimes all you want to do is read a book, sit on a beach, and enjoy the pleasures of unlimited food and drink. When that urge hits, go stay at an all-inclusive resort and forget being too cool for a swim-up bar. Call yourself a tourist and be proud. That label is not like a permanent tattoo: you can return to being an explorer on the next trip–or even just a few days later after you’ve completely decompressed.