I just returned from a two-week trip to the Yucatan region of Mexico, with time in Merida, Uxmal, and the Gulf coast around Progreso. But then we spent the last three nights in one of those all-inclusive vacation factories in Cancun. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the free-flowing booze, the decadent selection of food, and plumbing systems that allow you to actually flush your toilet paper. However, the place had about as much to do with Mexico as “The Real World” has to do with, well, the real world.
I’ve circled the globe three times and spent some of those years reviewing hotels for a publication that travel agents use. I carried a notebook around and tramped through resorts in diverse places ranging from Guam to India to Egypt. In the course of doing that in nine countries, the thing I found most bizarre about these beach resort hotels is that they are all so amazingly similar. Whether you’re in Goa (India), Antalya (Turkey), Hurghada (Egypt), or of course Cancun, the only fundamental differences are slight changes in the food and the accent of the staff. If you’re lucky, one night you’ll get a performance of “local” dances to make you remember what country is stamped in your passport. Or you can take an overpriced excursion to see the sights–packed in with other tourists so you don’t have to interact with any scary locals except to shop. If your resort is not designed to be as bland as possible, you might even see a bit of decor that has something to do with local culture: a Mayan mask maybe, or an Anatolian pot in the restaurant, or a few Moorish arches by the entrance. Apart from those weak attempts at a sense of place, however, the experience is purposely packaged to be as generic and unsurprising as possible.
So why are these places so numerous? Why do at least a thousand of them line some of the best beaches in the world, from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to the South Pacific? Because in a way, it’s a great win-win business relationship: the tourists don’t have to think about anything and the resort owners make heaps of money. It’s an easy management task as well: keep the bars and restaurants humming smoothly, hire a few “animation directors” to make sure the guests have a good time, and you can keep the rest of the staff fairly lean. You can host an army of guests at a time with a paint-by-number formula and not have to worry much about personal attention. As long as the tourists are paying less than they would in say, Florida, or the south of France, they come out thinking they got a good deal. (Never mind that they’d be hard-pressed to spend that much on lodging and food outside of the tourist zone.)
A real “traveler” sees these places as plastic tourist traps and is blown away by the prices people pay. (Cancun, for example, is by far the most expensive place in Mexico.) Even if their budget would allow it, travelers would prefer to stay in a locally-owned hotel with character. They’d like to interact with locals and aren’t afraid to negotiate a bit of phrasebook Spanish or Thai to get where they’re going. They like to eat and drink what the locals are eating and explore the local markets, getting a sense of how the place hums. They try to see the local sights when the timing is right–either before or after all the tour buses from those resorts have pulled in.
On this recent trip, I did it from both ends of the spectrum. A funky hotel a few nights, a beach house rental in a decidedly Mexican area for a week, then a bus ride to an all-inclusive Cancun at the end. The latter was mostly for the sake of my daughter, since she could find plenty she liked to eat and swim in a giant pool. They had a kid’s club there, which was a big selling point: she got to play and watch Disney movies and we got to sip our cocktails in peace lounged in the sun for a while.
But if someone had dropped me down out of the sky onto the beach at that resort, would I have known I was in Mexico? It would have taken some effort. The mostly 18-20 year old crowd were the same rowdy and insensitive lot you always see at these places, getting annoyed whenever a staffer didn’t understand their rapid-fire, slang-filled English. Appropriately enough, they had all booked through an agency called “Invasion Tours.” There was a bit of Mexican food on the buffet, but most of it was “international,” lest the vacationers have to break with what they’re used to eating the other 362 days of the year. At least the beer was Mexican, though it included Tecate Light, which I’ve never seen a Mexican drinking.
In three days, we never left the resort. Why bother? So we could go to McDonald’s, or to visit a bar just like the bars in Daytona Beach? Or go to a shopping mall? In the hotel zone anyway, that’s Cancun. (And Montego Bay, Cabo San Lucas, Punta Cana, Phuket, Saipan, Mykonos, Ibiza, Canary Islands, the list goes on and on.)
So if you’re a traveler who is trying to avoid the synthetic, is there any reason to visit these places? Yes, if you take them for what they are: a hedonistic break from work and reality, a simple sun and sand stay that has nothing to do with the country you are supposedly visiting. There are two key times it make sense: 1)when you’ll get a great financial break because of the package or 2) when you or your spouse/kids need some quality time accompanied by extra creature comforts.
As maddening as it is, a resort stay that includes airfare can often be the same or less than airfare purchased by itself. The reason is that these resorts are putting thousands of people through the turnstiles each month, so they or their agent buys blocks of airline (or charter) tickets at a substantial discount. For one-way travelers especially, a resort package can be a zero-cost addition to your trip. Simply buy the resort package, spend the designated number of days there, then go on your merry way, forfeiting the return flight. Nutty as it is, this is frequently cheaper than buying a one-way airline ticket by itself, never mind the hotel nights on top of it. Doing this as a round-trip can be a problem though, as the package tour agencies usually start trembling and saying, “That’s out of rotation!” when asked to book anything not on their limited menu. So if you want to take the 3-night package to a beach resort and then spend another two weeks touring around the country, they’ll be hard pressed to give you the same deal, even if their plane is half-full when you want to come back. It’s always worth a try though, especially if you’re flexible on the dates.
Another option is to use Skyauction, which is like eBay for travel hounds (just have your calculator handy to add up the charges). I’ve used them both times I went the resort route and saved a bundle. Those packages are already excess inventory, so they tend to be much more flexible on the flight portions. Or try Hotwire at the last minute.
The other reason to stay at a package resort is to swallow your independent spirit and just enjoy being a mindless drone for a while. Let’s face it, even the most thrill-seeking travelers would like to kick back on a beach chair for a while and have someone bring them unlimited drinks on cue. Then retire to a nice cookie cutter room with a comfy mattress, air conditioning, and hot water that always works. After you’ve had enough of that and blown your budget for a while, you can return to the country you were visiting, outside the shrink-wrapped walls of Resort Town, Planet Earth.