Written by Jake Kheel, Grupo Puntacana Foundation
While preparing for the panel, “Tourism and Sustainability: Threats, Risks, Opportunities and Challenges” at the recent Conference on Jobs and Inclusive Growth: Partnerships for Sustainable Tourism in Jamaica, I realized one of the biggest threats the tourism industry faces today is the environmental and social cost of our own success. The Punta Cana destination encapsulates many of these risks, but also a potential formula to confront them.
In 1969, the founders of our company, Grupo Puntacana, purchased a large swath of land in the eastern Dominican Republic. We eventually did something quite unique: we built a private, international airport. And when we did that, we began to attract hotels. And new businesses. And more flights. And droves of people looking for work and opportunities.
Fast forward to today. Punta Cana has close to 50,000 hotel rooms. Our airport receives 3.6 million passengers a year. Tourism drives the economy of the DR. Punta Cana is one of the most successful tourism destinations in the world.
All of this was created by private companies, with little support from the government. The private sector operates the airport, built the roads, provides electricity and water, and even security.
Development driven by the private sector, unencumbered by government interference, has advantages. Businesses innovate, act efficiently and compete. They drive growth. The Punta Cana region has expanded exponentially over the last 50 years, providing thousands of jobs and immense economic opportunity.
But the private sector’s success is also one of our greatest threats. The lack of government participation means there has been insufficient planning and meager investment in public infrastructure. Local communities lack potable water and sewerage. Solid waste management is precarious. Every day, the risk of climate change is more real.
But herein lies the opportunity. Companies have demonstrated a profound capacity to generate positive impact in the region. Led by Grupo Puntacana, the private sector has built schools, health clinics, and successful waste management programs. We have pioneered coral reef restoration efforts and protected endangered species. We have voluntarily contributed to numerous community projects and contributed millions of dollars to environmental programs.
Most importantly, we have begun to use these experiences to convince the Dominican government to begin to invest in confronting the threats the region faces. While clearly more needs to be done, the example of private sector leadership informing the public sector can help awaken the sleeping giant of sustainable tourism.