Independencia and Bahoruco, deep south ecotourism potential

The population of these two provinces is confident that tourism in Cabo Rojo will benefit the region.

The visitor leaves behind the metropolis and plunges into the highway adorned by coconut, banana and sugar cane plantations. Industrialization forgot to reach the bateyes of the southern region, whose inhabitants rest in wooden houses with dirt floors.

The people, with brown eyes, brown skin and strands of jet hair, seem to live happily driving motors and sustaining their lives with itinerant businesses that offer a pound of grapes for DR$100; a bunch of bananas for DR$200 or a pound of goat meat for DR$250.

Independencia and Bahoruco serve as natural barriers that protect tourism in the area. Their location placed them with the historical responsibility of protecting the tourism potential of Lake Enriquillo. This is affirmed by the fact that the region is close to seeing the dream of becoming the Dominican Republic’s new tourism hub materialize.

It can be and has the potential to be. But there is an undeniable truth: it must differentiate itself from destinations such as Puerto Plata, Punta Cana and Samaná, which stand out for their all-inclusive tourism offer that attracts millions of tourists every year.

In fact, the value of hotels, bars and restaurants contributed DR$384,933.9 million to the gross domestic product (GDP), generated 375,958 jobs and consolidated foreign direct investment of US$1,011 million, at the close of 2022. However, the 439,611 inhabitants distributed over an area of 6,769.3 square kilometers are quite clear: the development of Cabo Rojo, in Pedernales, will benefit them.

Project

The Dominican Republic has been able to exploit mass tourism, that which builds complexes such as resorts, in which the non-resident tourist buys a package for an overnight stay of eight days and spends about US$157, compared to US$774 for non-resident Dominicans and US$1,033 for resident nationals, according to the Dominican Central Bank (BC).

This travel model overcame the covid-19 crisis and was the starting point for developing the economic sector more than 20 years ago. Between 2020 and 2022, 100 projects were approved with an investment of US$3,816.6 million, which will add 40,384 rooms, according to the Ministry of Tourism (Mitur). Of the total amount, La Altagracia reports 59 projects with a value of US$1,117.7 million, followed by El Seibo (US$867.8 million) and La Romana (US$456.9 million).

But the development of Cabo Rojo is one of the country’s most important challenges for the next 10 years, which includes sustainability and social inclusion as an integral vision that will impact the southern region. Pro Pedernales contemplates works for more than US$2,245 million, and foresees the construction of 4,700 rooms in the first phase, of the 12,000 that the project contemplates.

For the representative of the Chamber of Commerce and Production of Bahoruco, Isa Miguel Lama, these actions show that tourism in one of the poorest regions of the country is about to take off.

“This development will benefit us. We are very close and we can do very well if we prepare ourselves to receive visitors and we are doing it. With that vision, agrotourism routes are being created, hiking and streams such as Los Guineos and Las Marías are being offered,” he explained. And no wonder, more than 80% of the value of goods and services depend largely on nature: from raw materials to the popularity of a nation that bases its economy on ecotourism.

For the mayor of Neiba, José Darío Cepeda, tourist preferences are changing. “We are used to sun and beach, but they demand natural attractions and others are interested in connecting with community routes, such as agrotourism,” he told elDinero.

Strategic focus

Governments face various social, economic and environmental challenges, but their stakeholders are aware that they must transform their offer into a more sustainable one to ensure its permanence over time. Consumers are paying more attention to their impact on the environment and are looking for more sustainable options in the way they travel. This idea is confirmed by the fact that 34.6% of global tourists opt for sustainable tourism, while 29.3% for natural immersion travel, according to Euromonitor.

While the Dominican Republic is known for its white sand beaches, the Enriquillo region offers ecotourism as a strategic axis, such as national parks, protected areas and scientific reserves. In 2022, it was recorded that 19,857 people visited the Cabritos Island National Park, an action that generated income of DR$252,150, according to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Mimarena). The visit to the national park generated DR$1,135,250 for the attendance of 115,125 tourists during 2010-2022. The entrance fee is DR$150.

The southern region is home to several natural attractions that place Independencia and Bahoruco in a privileged position compared to the traditional sun and beach, and position itself as an ecological destination. However, the mayor considers that the interest of the government authorities “has not materialized”.

Cepeda indicates that in order for the locals to receive an economic benefit from the development of Cabo Rojo, the province must develop and strengthen ecotourism. “We must prepare ourselves to offer sustainable travel, make investments in the town and then work hand in hand with the cascade effect, but the benefits must start from within,” he said.

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) points out that ecotourism generates revenues of US$600 billion, provides opportunities for countries to diversify their economies while protecting their biodiversity and natural heritage. In Africa alone, they cite, entrance fees to protected areas generate US$142 million, while wildlife tourism contributes US$343 billion each year.

Diversification is a concept that has taken off in the wake of the pandemic. The interest in protecting biodiversity is demonstrated by the project “Action to promote climate resilience through improved management and sustainable livelihoods in Lago Enriquillo National Park and Surrounding Communities”, implemented by the Fondo Nacional para el Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, Fundación Sur Futuro, and Mimanera.

The project has funding of €447,000 between 2021 and 2023 to conserve biodiversity, sustainable natural resource management and resilient livelihoods. Its stakeholders know this. For every dollar spent on restoration, countries’ economies receive between US$3 and US$5 in economic benefits from ecosystem-derived tourism goods and services, estimates the United Nations (UN).

Conditions

If you start from Santo Domingo, Bahoruco and Independencia are far away. But someone said that distance is relative. Its arid, mountainous landscape and roads adorned with dry trees make the journey a different experience.

The National Statistics Office (ONE) points out that the population of Independencia and Bahoruco depends economically on family agriculture, small businesses and remittances. However, its potential attractiveness is awakening the interest of the locals to undertake and forget the lethargy that numbed their economy.

Community integration

The vice minister of the Ministry of Tourism, Carlos Peguero, affirms that Pedernales is an integral vision for the southern region. “Development is more than a state project. It is a commitment to social and economic growth to reduce the poverty of the inhabitants of the Enriquillo region.”

He reiterated that the vision of Cabo Rojo in Pedernales is an integral, sustainable and inclusive plan for the provinces of Barahona, Independencia and Bahoruco, who will receive an economic benefit from potential visitors.

This new offer will complement the offer of the South, such as Lake Enriquillo, Bahía de las Águilas, Jaragua National Park or San Rafael beach, based on the care of the environment, innovation in community businesses and the projection of local culture, as an added value.

Thanks to this, the travel and tourism industry has set itself the goal of implementing more sustainable practices and complying with the Sustainable Development Goals under the 2030 Agenda.

This is the case of the heiress of Las Marías restaurant, Annie Sosa. A place with a history of 20 years of work that began as a vision to promote tourism in Neiba. According to the female, during the weekend the place can receive about 500 tourists looking to taste the dish of the day that varies between DR$350 to DR$450.

“To start up we need support. The province does not have so many economic resources and to start a business you need money. Neiba is a little bit abandoned despite being one of the richest areas in springs and mountains”, he considers. However, he trusts in the development of the southern region through Pedernales, “since it will increase the flow of visitors”.

The mayor points out that the natural monuments are waiting for tourists, however, they need investments to take off. “We have many ecotourism attractions that require state investment to enhance and dimension the destination for tourists,” he said. Since his administration, he has made investments for DR$1.5 million for the renovation of some tourist attractions.

One of them is Las Marías Spa. With cold water, five meters deep and about 620 meters long. Its visitors come from Bonao, Puerto Plata and Santiago, says guide Inidio Cuevas. Mitur refurbished the facilities of the tributary for DR$4 million. For the minister, David Collado, this investment reaffirms his commitment to the Bahoruco province to bring tourism to every corner. “Not to stop at a country of sun and beach when there is so much beauty and potential to encourage ecological tourism,” he said.

Although the National Association of Hotels and Restaurants (Asonahores) estimates 83,041 hotel rooms and 99,609 short term rentals, it does not count the lodgings in these districts.

In view of this situation, the mayor affirms that the area lacks a hotel infrastructure that can accommodate between 100 and 200 tourists. “Incentives must be created so that entrepreneurs are motivated to invest. It is not to create a Punta Cana in Pedernales, but also to take into account the nearby provinces and make large investments”, he considers.

According to a survey by elDinero, the Las Marías and Diosi hotels together house 80 rooms, whose prices range between DR$1,200 and DR$4,300 per night.

Bet

The road is narrow and winding. The arid vegetation of the Sierra de Bahoruco draws the road. Getting there is slow going. Climbing 64 steps is uphill, but the panoramic view of the lake is rewarding. The park ranger Frank Medina has the mission to take care of the natural resources of the area and guide the tourist to Las Caritas de los Indios.

Dry trees, American crocodiles that dive in the salt water current and an island that extends in the horizon, a guide welcomes the visitor to make the tour in a dinghy to Cabritos Island. To be a guide is to be a lover of fauna and flora, to have an adventurous spirit and a desire to travel. For Joan Cuello, member of the Lake Enriquillo Guides Association, training is a matter of time.

“Our salary comes from the visits of local and foreign tourists to Cabritos Island National Park,” she explained. Prices vary between DR$2,000 and DR$5,000 for a one to three hour tour in a dinghy with a capacity for 10 people. During a weekend, if a group chooses to skirt the water current, the guides will earn DR$3,000, multiplied by 10, totaling DR$30,000. These earnings will increase or decrease according to the frequency of the visitor.

According to his counterpart, Elkin Díaz, the French usually take the tour by boat, who are looking to live the experience and do bird watching. “Oh, but the iguanas pose!” exclaimed one onlooker. During the stay in the natural park, 2,000 iguanas can be seen.

On the trail

It is Saturday. Strangers take the road to the deep south of the island. After having a cup of chocolate under a temperature of 27 degrees Celsius, they arrive at Las Barías. About 17.6 kilometers from Lake Enriquillo. The temperature dropped a few degrees due to the dense vegetation, causing the swimmers to enter only their feet in the icy water.

Looking up is Luis Ferreras, a frequent inhabitant of the creek. Next to him recreate about 25 people who are refreshed by the high temperatures of La Descubierta.

Two hours submerged in the water, under the “teapot” of the sun, makes the stomach growl. And Miguel Medina took the opportunity to start a typical food restaurant. “There are weekends when we receive buses of 50 and 70 people coming from other provinces who buy local food for DR$350. On a daily basis we receive between 4 or 10 locals who come to refresh themselves in the river”, he explained.

The local is one of the owners of the 630 micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) registered by the National Association of Hotels and Restaurants (Asonahores) that provide their services to tourism. Meanwhile, Bahoruco has 1,279 compared to 186,000 at the local level.

“The Pedernales project will also have repercussions here… We have all the attractions and potential to accommodate visitors. We are looking at it positively and we are confident in that,” he said.

Binational exchange

Travelers have more than 13 hours of trip. Between mountains, turns, stops between localities and the shadow of what once was Boca de Cachón, the Azuey River is present before the eyes of the foreigners.

The clock strikes 4:00 in the afternoon and the workday of the bi-national market in Jimani, the closest point to Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, has ended. Everything seems to indicate that the tourists are reaching their final destination.

The mountains and the lake join as a natural barrier, but the fence of about 15 kilometers divides the territory of both nations. “Cross to Malpaso! Walk to Malpaso! Malpaso!” repeat the Haitians, pointing to the fence. The tourist exchanges DR$100 for 250 gourdes and returns to his lodging in downtown Neiba.

Undertaking

The secretary general of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Zurab Pololikashvili, affirmed that tourism opens doors to see other realities and cultures, building a more responsible and innovative industry for future generations.

Meanwhile, the Director of Innovation, Education and Investment of the UNWTO, Natalia Bayona, said that 50% of young people in the region want to become entrepreneurs in the tourism sector. This happened with the Association of Ecotourism Guides of Bahoruco, which has 25 guides trained in rural tourism, community and ecology. The group focuses on the promotion of the destinations.

“What interests us is that the Enriquillo region is strong in terms of ecotourism and that tourists feel satisfied with our added value,” said its president, Santos Morillo.

For the executive, tourists need to know more than their five-star accommodations, they want to be inserted in the community, live like a local and get to know the culture. “We must be confident because some initiatives have been made, but we need more support and that what is projected is palpable,” he said.

“Not only the different attractions of Pedernales, but we can sell the dry forest tourism and also what the grapes project, the binational market and the components that can really provide the tourist with an alternative attraction,” Morillo explained.

Market

This is the figure: US$24.7 billion will be the industry’s contribution to local GDP in 2033, projects the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Not surprisingly, this is due to the fluctuating growth of passenger arrivals. In 2020 alone, 2,707,423 people arrived due to covid-19 restrictions and in 2021 it stood at 5,590,124 passengers. According to the data, in 2022 it amounted to 7,942,713, 11.4% more than 2019 (7,126,857) and 10% more than 2018 (7,220,334).

Between 2018 and 2022, where an arrival of 30,587,451 passengers is reported, it is evident that 83.8% chose the nation located in the Caribbean for leisure and recreation. That is, 25,635,320 tourists. This is followed by 2.0% for business (572,473), conventions (148,922); studies (129,489); visiting a friend or relative (3,115,965) and a trip for unspecified reasons (990,282).

In the first quarter of 2023, the data are similar. Of the 2,297,165 tourists, 77.5% continued to choose the country for vacation, followed by business and conventions with 57,454 and 21,376, respectively. In analyzing the statistics, the Punta Cana air terminal received 1,271,027 passengers, Las Americas some 603,232 and Cibao, 222,076. Puerto Plata reported 134,422; La Romana, 29,747; El Catey in Samana, 23,701; La Isabela, 12,953, and Maria Montez just 7 passengers.

The government entity points out that of the 2,297,165 tourists who arrived during January-March of this year, 1,027,094 were non-resident foreigners from North America; 93,148 from Central America and the Caribbean; 249,044 from South America; 333,356 from Europe; 56,621 from Asia and 17,903 from the rest of the world.

In fact, the boom in tourism has encouraged international chains to dock in the ports of the Dominican Republic. In the January-March 2023 period, 801,878 passengers arrived on 313 ships, with the ports of Amber Cove (357,330), Taino Bay (240,927) and La Romana (150,336) receiving 93.3% of the total amount. The Don Diego and Sans Soucí ports in Santo Domingo totaled 7,267 and 6,661 people, respectively, Isla Catalina some 12,945 and Samaná registered 26,412.

New business

Time came to a standstill in 2008 when the waters of Lake Enriquillo rose in level and the residents of Boca de Cachón, in Jimaní, saw their belongings “drown”.

Between 2003 and 2013, the tributary rose 11.5 meters and gained 3.53 cubic kilometers of water volume, recount research from the City College of New York, United States. It took a decade for its inhabitants to see tourism as an opportunity to generate income. Yoel Medina is a merchant on the shores of the Boca de Cachón spa in the town of Boca de Cachón Viejo.

“We sell drinks and knick-knacks for tourists, the prices of which vary between DR$125 and DR$200.” The merchant indicates that his earnings oscillate between DR$1,000 and DR$2,000 daily, depending on the frequency of visitors. However, local guides indicate that 90% of the bathers are locals from Villa Jaragua.

Some tourist activities to do in Bahoruco and Independencia

Gastronomy. One of the typical dishes of Neiba, in the Bahoruco province, is the cornbread made on a wood fire. This is a sweet dish can be purchased for DR$500.

Las Marías. It is a bathing resort, located in the center of Neiba, with cold water and colorful fish. The locals say that it is named after a lady with three daughters named Maria.

House of Wine. Neiba is the land of grapes. Tourists can learn about the spring grape harvest, tour the vineyards and finish with a tasting of Tempranillo grape wine.

Monument of the Jaraguense Identity. In the city that sings and enchants. It is a work that gathers the cultural and social aspect of Villa Jaragua, municipality located in the Bahoruco province.

Caritas of the Indians. To the north of Lake Enriquillo, visitors will climb 64 steps of the monument, which was a space sculpted with petroglyphs by the Indians.

The most attractive destinations in the region

Cabritos Island. Nestled within Lake Enriquillo. Centuries ago it was a refuge for the indigenous people who revolted from the Spanish colony and as a space for raising animals.

Lake Enriquillo National Park. Nature lovers will learn about the flora and fauna, the population of American crocodiles, rhinoceros iguanas and ricord.

Las Barías. Located in La Descubierta, in the province of Independencia. The forest of Las Barías was declared a natural monument by decree 571-09.

Boca de Cachón. It is a natural pool located in Independencia, being frequented by the locals. Tourists use this spa as a stop to refresh themselves after going to Lake Enriquillo.

Malpaso. Tourists can finish the tour at the border of Jimaní and Haiti, exchange DR$100 for 150 gourdes and experience the binational commerce located in Malpaso.

Source: Eldinero.com.do

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