Is the Dominican Republic ready for its gay close-up? It's a slow zoom, increasingly coming into focus.
Last month, the CHIC Punta Cana, the all-inclusive resort (or "all-exclusive" as the brand boasts) hosted the second annual Caribbean Pride. For one week, the expansive resort turns into an adult playground packed with pool parties, drag shows, culinary workshops, and a slew of fitness activities—all geared toward the LGBTQ traveler.
"There are no specifically gay bars in the area. So this is, by far, the biggest gay party in Punta Cana," said Ruben Arellan, a Venezuelan cross-fit instructor who now lives locally. And what a party it was! The organizers packed the day, starting with a morning fitness class (yoga, kickboxing, boot-camp) and ending with a DJ-spun dance party till the wee hours of the morning. In between, guests enjoyed poolside salsa classes, foam parties, live music, drag performances, 24-hour food service and a constant stream of cocktails.
The CHIC is large enough to deliver variety and intimate enough to promote guest mingling. The nexus of activity is definitely poolside and available to everyone. The area includes the main party pool, a lower-key pool with swim-up bar and private cabanas (at an additional cost), and multiple food and cocktail options. Guests in search of a more premium stay, can upgrade to the Diamond Club, which includes your personal butler, access to the "Mermaid Pool" (to fulfill all your fishbowl photoshoot Instagram desires) and, for select rooms, a personal plunge pool.
Caribbean Pride is the brainchild of Canadian resort management company Blue Diamond Resorts. According to Christine Jamieson, Corporate Director of Marketing, the idea grew out of a "desire to develop an event for LGBTQ travelers and affect some change in the resort world." As the idea was forming, Orbitz had just named Dominican Republic as one of the top ten emerging gay friendly destinations, so the increasingly popular Punta Cana seemed a perfect choice.
The first year, the organizers were met with some resistance from the local community. "However, this year, all of our press releases were picked up in Dominican media, we had local influencers come to report on the event and had an amazing amount of support," said Ms. Jamieson. "That showed us that Dominican Republic was, in fact, evolving. So what Orbitz was reporting on a few years ago, we saw for ourselves."
This year, Caribbean Pride offered day passes so the local community could join in the festivities, though the crowd I met was still primarily from the U.S. and Canada, with a smattering from Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic.
The country's more traditional Gay Pride happens every July in Santo Domingo, the capital and home to the island's largest gay scene. Increasing in numbers and visibility each year, the Carvana del Orgullo celebrated its 11th anniversary in 2018. The festivities spanned several days of events culminating in a caravan (both a celebration and a political march), followed by a concert and party in the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo.
Additionally, the island hosts Santo Domingo OutFest in November, a week-long film festival screening shorts and features with LGBTQ themes from all over the world. Just two years ago, for the first time, films were screened at the National Theatre, which I was told is a "big deal" indicating a new level of support by the government.
GROWING SUPPORT FOR LGBTQ COMMUNITY
When President Obama assigned openly-gay James "Wally" Brewster as the United States Ambassador to the Dominican Republic in 2013, he was met with opposition from some very outspoken religious leaders on the island. Despite resistance, Mr. Brewster, joined by his husband Bob Satawake, served his term until President Trump's election, and made the protection of human rights and acceptance of the island's LGBTQ community a primary area of focus.
"It's a very vibrant, proud and diverse community. And we have seen an amazing progression of the community being out and open in the last five years," Mr. Brewster said in a phone interview. One example he cited was increased support for Orgullo: "We were the first diplomats to go to the caravan... this past year multiple ambassadors from different countries and various organizations were celebrating with the gay community. And the police are supporting it now, where many years ago there was stress between the police and the community."
He also emphasized the necessity for resorts to take a more active role in training their staff and pushing for inclusion of LGBTQ tourists; and that all travelers, whether gay or straight, be smart and cautious, as they should be anywhere.
In that sense, the CHIC Punta Cana is proving to be an industry leader. The staff was welcoming, supportive and genuinely seemed excited to celebrate with our community. By nurturing visibility, the resort is helping promote the Dominican Republic as an emerging LGBTQ destination, one Caribbean Pride party at a time.
Support of LGBTQ tourism never comes as fast as one would like. But it is an ongoing process and one that Dominican culture is slowly embracing. "I would highly recommend the Dominican Republic," said Mr. Brewster. "There is no place where you're going to find more beautiful beaches, fantastic resorts and a great culture of people. And it's progressing. There's still work that needs to be done. But it's progressing."