A new wave of all-inclusives serves up local culture far beyond the pool bar
“He drinks and drinks and drinks, but I don’t think that works. It only makes you remember more,” said Jorge, a staff member, as he translated the Spanish lyrics for me.
A band member handed a microphone to a mustachioed guest. He set down his mojito, gripped the microphone as if in prayer and belted out the tune. I looked at Jorge for an explanation.
“It’s a popular song from Guadalajara,” he said. “The band is playing famous songs from around the country.”
Bob Marley, Bad Bunny and Jimmy Buffett have no place here, nor do the buckets of wan beer or buffet troughs typically found at all-inclusives. The upscale property, which opened in July 2021, fully embraces Mexican culture and traditions, part of a broader movement to elevate and update an all-inclusive format that can feel like a holistic binge-fest staged at a temple of excess.
“There are plenty of all-inclusive resorts where you still find flashy hibachi restaurants and only find Mexican fare at the beach bar, but many … are trying to showcase the local destination more than they ever have before,” said Laura Sangster, founder of the Journey Group and Caribbean Journey, a travel agency. “They’ve started to realize they were losing out on an entire market sector that wanted a more authentic travel experience.”
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The all-inclusive is getting up there in age, closing in on nearly three quarters of a century. The concept — pay one rate for your room, food, drinks and select activities — has survived a number of trends, such as immersive travel and private home rentals. However, the easy-breezy vacation style is stronger than ever. One reason: decision fatigue, a symptom of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to STR, a hospitality data and analytics company, travelers booked more than 9.2 million all-inclusive rooms in December 2022, an increase of about 80,000 reservations compared with figures from two years earlier.
“We’re seeing a big resurgence, especially with the backlash against Airbnb,” said Denise Ambrusko-Maida, who owns Travel Brilliant, a travel agency in Buffalo. “The value of all-inclusives is that you don’t have to do anything.”
Even so, travelers are demanding higher standards, and the resorts have been responding with more refined culinary and cocktail menus, expanded health and wellness options and closer ties to the culture and heritage of the host countries. By sticking a pin in the all-inclusive bubble, the resorts are finally letting the stale air out and a fresh breeze in.
“None of this is a revolution,” said Adam Stewart, executive chairman of Sandals Resorts International, whose father founded the hotel chain in the early 1980s. “It’s an evolution.”
The grandfather of all-inclusives
Club Med, the world’s first all-inclusive, was born in 1950 in a tiny fishing village off the Spanish coast. The company’s founder, a Belgian diamond cutter, Olympic water polo player and yoga enthusiast named Gérard Blitz, set out to create a utopian retreat with tents on the beach and communal dining and diversions. For this novel experience, guests paid one price.
In the 1970s and ’80s, all-inclusives started cropping up in the Caribbean and Mexico, and they continued to spread like invasive coralita flowers. Sandals Resorts International owns 20 resorts on 10 islands, with more on the way. Secrets Resorts and Spas counts nearly 20 properties in Jamaica, Mexico, St. Martin and the Dominican Republic. Club Med has grown to nearly 80 resorts, with a large concentration on the Caribbean Sea.
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Major hotel chains known for their room-only rates are also joining the party. In 2021, Hyatt purchased Apple Leisure Group and added Secrets, Dreams Resorts & Spas, Breathless Resorts & Spas and Zoëtry Wellness & Spa Resorts to its portfolio. The same year, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts unveiled its newest brand, Alltra, which stands for “All-Inclusive Travel for All.” The year was equally busy for Hilton, which expanded the number of its all-inclusive rooms in the Caribbean and Latin America by nearly 75 percent.
“People are going for all-inclusive services at five-star hotels,” said Pilar Valencia, a sales manager at Travelzoo. “It’s a wake-up call for a lot of these properties.”
Engineering a sense of place
For most all-inclusive guests, the holy trinity is cuisine, cultural offerings and accommodations.
“People want more quality experiences. They want to get off-resort, they want to go on tours, they want experiential stuff, they want gastronomic journeys,” Stewart said. “So we reinvented the product to a degree across the board.”
Sandals Resorts International has created several new programs that connect visitors to the island community and culture. Through its sister company, Island Routes, guests can explore the destination’s natural and culinary landscapes.
However, many of the excursions, such as a cooking class or guided hike in Pigeon Island National Park in St. Lucia, cost extra. For free activities with heart, Sandals and Beaches guests can participate in a number of charitable endeavors, such as planting trees in Jamaica’s Blue and John Crow mountains or restoring coral reefs in Grenada. Zoëtry Wellness & Spa Resort transports the country’s customs to its guests with classes that range from Creole or Spanish language lessons to the art of making cocoa tea or rolling cigars.
One criticism leveled against all-inclusives is that tourism dollars rarely flow outside the resort gates. At Sandals Royal Curaçao, guests who book a Butler suite receive a $250 voucher they can use at any of eight local dining establishments. They also get the keys to a Mini-Cooper convertible. (For these privileges, guests pay from about $670 per person a night for a Butler suite, more than twice as much as a regular room.)
“You jump in the Mini, drop the top, cruise around the island and go have a five-star meal on Sandals,” Stewart said.
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Guests who prefer to dine on-property can still sample the local specialties. The 14-month-old Hilton Cancún celebrates Mexican cuisine at several of its own venues, such as Maxal; a taqueria with a mezcal and tequila bar, and an all-you-can eat ice cream and churro bar. Xcaret Arte’s 10 restaurants all incorporate elements of Mexico’s vast pantry, such as Mercado de San Juan, a sprawling feast with multiple “stands” reminiscent of a Mexico City market, and Cantina VI.AI.PY, which serves Oaxacan dishes, including many that star insects.
Around Arte’s property, food carts dish out tacos and elote (street corn). In the rooms, the minibars are stocked with dulce de leche lollipops and churritos with amaranth and chia, among other between-meal snacks. During evening turndown service, Mexican confections appear on guests’ pillows.
All-inclusives must follow some rules, but Palmaïa, the House of AïA, bends many. The Playa del Carmen resort, which opened in January 2020, promotes plant-based dining, though non-vegans won’t have to sneak off the property for their protein fix. Days are filled with exercises for the mind, body and chakra, such as Vinyasa yoga, ancestral dancing and harmonic singing. Spa treatments honor Mexican goddesses and incorporate ancestral rituals.
“I was really excited about the fact that I would have access to plant-based foods at every single restaurant,” said Robin Arzón, a best-selling author and Peloton’s head instructor who visited last March with her husband and young daughter. “They also have everything from acupuncture to astrology to Indigenous folks showing their traditions. The way they folded in Indigenous and local traditions felt really honest and intentional.”
Arzón contrasts that experience with an all-inclusive stay in college that she found disappointing: “It was just low-budget and repetitive and saturated and crowded with terrible food quality and excessive fees for any of the fun stuff you wanted to do.”
However, the new convert is planning to return to Palmaïa with her extended family. “I want everyone to feel more vibrant, rested and healthful than when we arrived,” she said, describing a goal that now seems attainable.
Redemption for a disillusioned guest
Years ago, I stayed at an all-inclusive in the Dominican Republic. I have no memory of what I ate or drank or did, though I clearly remember trying to escape. At the front gate, I assured the guard that I was just going for a spin around the neighborhood on a bike. Less than a half-hour later, I was back after a harrowing ride that involved traversing pot holes, dodging cars and out-chickening chickens.
Last week, I saw how far all-inclusives have come — and can go.
Xcaret Arte is part of Grupo Xcaret, an ambitious park and hotel enterprise founded by Miguel Quintana Pali, a Mexican architect, and three brothers named Oscar, Marcos and Carlos Constandse. The company’s “All-Fun Inclusive” arrangement surpasses the standard resort inclusions. My digital bracelet worked like a skeleton key, unlocking unlimited access to four parks on the main grounds (Xcaret, Xplor, Xplor Fuego and Xenses), plus admission to four other natural, cultural or adventurous attractions farther afield.
The rate — I paid $1,580 for three nights in a junior suite with a river vista — also covered the round-trip shuttle from the Cancún airport, transportation to the parks, ferry ride and a catamaran sail to Isla Mujeres.
“I have been to a lot of all-inclusives,” said a Los Angeleno who was traveling with eight friends and sat near me at the pottery workshop. “I am of the go-once-and-never-go-back school. But this is my fourth time here.”
Arte embraces the artistic elements of Mexico, a category broad enough to include traditional crafts, cuisine, natural features and fashion. At the entrance, the staff, who wear flowy shirt dresses paired with a colorful handwoven bracelet and a crossbody bag adorned with a Mexican textile, hand out chocolate paletas. Before the frozen treats have time to melt, guests are swept off to their casa, or thematic building.
I resided in Casa de La Paz, a serene space with a two-story library overlooking the underground river and an open-air vegan rooftop restaurant where servers provide warm wraps to chilly diners. I often dropped by the other casas, depending on the activity of the hour: a morning bachata class at Casa de la Musica, afternoon Huichol knitting at Casa del Diseno, predinner pottery painting at Casa de la Piramide.
“It’s beautiful,” an art instructor told me when I stopped by the studio to pick up the bowl I had painted the day before.
While she held it up for closer inspection, I shared my inspiration with her — the Otomi tiles in my hotel room shower.