Vacationing in the developing world

Fresh off the heels of reading week, many Laurier students are returning to campus tanned and happy after vacations in sunny destinations. While enjoying a sushi dinner recently, I overheard the conversation of one such student reminiscing about her holiday in Mexico.

She made a comment along the lines of “I never tipped in Mexico. They should be happy; it’s awesome they get to spend all day at a resort.” While I understand the desire to vacation in such a destination, I think it is important that we understand the economic realities of the nations we choose to visit.

Popular vacation destinations, particularly for university students, include Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. These are not prosperous nations. The gross domestic product, or GDP, per capita in Mexico is $13,200. Cuba’s is even lower at $9,700. The Dominican Republic has a GDP per capita of only $8,200. To put this in perspective, the GDP per capita of Canada is $38,400 as of 2009, according to the United Nations Development Index.

While these nations are far from the poorest of the world, they remain less than prosperous by Canadian standards.

As a result of these countries’ relative poverty, vacations to these destinations remain inexpensive. A seven-day all-inclusive stay at a four-star Mexican resort was advertised this week for only $712 before taxes. A Cuban vacation of the same quality and length is advertised at $788 before taxes. A seven-day stay at a five-star hotel in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic was only $497 before taxes. While we may celebrate the availability of such affordable vacations, it is important that we consider how such affordability is achieved.

These low prices include a hotel stay, flights, food and often open bars and entertainment. A large portion of the vacation price is allotted to your flight. I was unable to find a return flight to Mexico for under $500 this March. This leaves your hotel stay at a few hundred dollars at most. Your stay requires the hard work of many staff members, including chambermaids, waiters, cooks, bartenders, custodial staff, receptionists and managerial staff.

In order to achieve competitive pricing, the staff at resorts in vacation destinations is poorly paid. According to, a Mexican chambermaid can expect an average monthly income of $261 USD for a 50-hour work week. The receptionist who greets you upon your arrival makes a slightly larger monthly salary of $355 USD based on a 51-hour work week.

You might argue that visiting such destinations fosters economic growth through support of the tourist industry. This may be true, but the majority of the price of your vacation goes directly into the pockets of wealthy resort owners or the multinational organizations who own resort chains. A chambermaid in Mexico earns a yearly salary of just over $3,000, which is $10,000 short of the Mexican GDP per capita. This accounts for the price of maybe three vacations in a resort that hosts thousands of tourists yearly.

These nations suffer from extreme inequality. The poorest half of the Dominican population accounts for just one-fifth of the GDP, while the richest 10 per cent enjoy almost 40 per cent of the GDP. Of the entire population, 42 per cent live below the poverty line. Very little of the money you spend on your vacation will end up in the hands of the blue-collar workers who made it possible.
While I understand the draw of affordable vacations, particularly among university students with limited finances, it is important that we understand where our money is going and who exactly benefits from this system. Workers at these tropical resorts are not “lucky” to earn low wages waiting on foreigners hand and foot. They are the victims of a world system of inequality which forces them to seek low paying, unskilled positions.

I understand that Canadians will always vacation in destinations such as Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. I only encourage travelers to make informed decisions on their choices of destination. In Cuba, for example, a vacationer has the option of staying in a small, privately-owned Havana hotel rather than a resort complex.

If this is not your choice, please at least remember that these workers are not lucky to have us giving them patronage. We are lucky to be able to visit such destinations and owe them, at least, our appreciation for the hard work that they do for low wages.