The huge response to my Bloomberg Pursuits reported story about sargassum seaweed’s impact on beach vacations proves that more travelers are encountering this environmental issue plaguing Mexican, Floridian and Caribbean beaches. Record amount of travelers meets record amount of seaweed in tourism hotspots: Cancun, Punta Cana, Miami and the Floriday Keys, among others.
I remember when sargassum patches started to hit Caribbean beaches as early as 2011. As a travel journalist traipsing across the region on assignment long before 2020, I’ve seen the amounts increase every single year, with 2022 being the worst. That’s when I began intentionally avoiding certain beaches where clean up is slow and the toxic gas from rotting seaweed causes me migraines. Today the disproportionate amounts on beaches in the Dominican Republic, Antigua, Barbados, Mexico and other destinations are not only capturing tourists’ attention but tourists deciding which island and which beach to visit based on sargassum news, despite the unpredictability.
So what can you do, as a traveler, about sargassum on your next Caribbean beach trip? From choosing your hotel carefully to going for inland adventures and becoming an advocate for your favorite islands, here are six ways to tackle sargassum on your next Caribbean beach vacation.
Check on Local Conditions
Before you confirm a destination or specific beach resort, check with the hotel or with a travel advisor. They’ll be able to give you updates on the sargassum conditions there.
A travel advisor or local travel content creator who is on the ground or has contacts come in very handy for this type of rapidly changing information because they’re always on top of what’s happening in the destination.
You can also run searches on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok) and check user posts about your preferred location and hotels. It’s a reality that more travelers heading on beach vacations will begin to factor sargassum’s presence in making a decision about where to vacation.
Although conditions may be perfect when you inquire, know that sargassum movements can’t be predicted in terms of when and where the brown patches of seaweed might wash up on shore due to changing ocean currents and winds.
Choose a Beach with a Seaweed Barrier
A growing number of beaches have installed barriers at sea to prevent the seaweed from reaching the shore. I shared an example live this month from Playa Juanillo in Cap Cana, Dominican Republic, which lines the Atlantic. (Not all are accessible in shallow waters like the one at Playa Juanillo, so don’t attempt to do what I did unless it’s shallow and safe, with no boat traffic.)
If you’re not sure which hotel or location uses a sea barrier, check with your travel advisor, online or with the hotel to ask what type of prevention methods they use against sargassum.
Similarly, choose a beach where the hotel or authorities are quick to collect the seaweed and clean the shoreline. Many beaches that are popular with tourists and lined with upscale resorts tend to have teams of workers who stay on top of the sargassum arrivals.
Five-star luxury hotels that enjoy an exclusive spot sometimes enjoy a cove, which can act as a natural barrier, compared to a resort that faces a wide-open beach. It’s not a guarantee that sargassum won’t come in when there’s a cove, but luxury resorts tend to also have more financial resources to install a sea barrier and prevent sargassum from washing up on shore. Again your best bet is to ask the hotel—they’re used to those questions by now and can explain their collection and cleaning methods.
If you’re looking for more secluded and public beach areas away from crowds, you’ll have to take your chances. Sargassum seaweed isn’t life threatening as far as we know, but you do want to avoid stepping on it (there may be jellyfish trapped in there) or swimming around it. It’s fine to walk past it on the beach, but don’t sit and sleep right beside it because sargassum emits a toxic gas as it rots on the beach. That’s why clean ups are so important.
Go for Inland, Cultural Adventures
A surprise sargassum visit is the perfect opportunity for you and your group to venture inland. Take a break from sun, sea and sand and immerse in the numerous outdoor and cultural things to do in the Caribbean beyond the beach. This is what I’ve been preaching out for years and ironically now is a great time for all of these activities to get more attention.
Go hiking in national parks, visit local markets and museums, attend a cultural or music festival, dine at the local fish fry and sign up for a biking tour or a drumming class, for example.
A number of carnival celebrations and major events are also returning this summer 2023, including Crop Over in Barbados, Sumfest in Jamaica and Spice Mas in Grenada. Get outside the hotel and mingle.
Be an Advocate
It’s easy as a privileged traveler to run away from the reality of sargassum by choosing another destination. As temporary visitors, however, we should confront the reality of a changing environment caused by climate change and pollution (yes, all thanks to human industrial activities). That’s part of being a sustainable traveler: Turn it into an opportunity to be advocates for the islands you love and their residents.
The Caribbean is the most tourism-dependent region in the world and its destinations are faced with tackling a phenomenon for which its destinations are not responsible (just like the intensifying hurricanes we’ve seen). Consider that the impact of large amounts of sargassum is greater on locals who are there year-round and whose ecosystem is suffering—not just from tourists’ footprint but also from sargassum making its way there from the Atlantic Ocean.
Be supportive by asking questions and learning about the reality of climate change on the islands, how increased amounts of sargassum seaweed is impacting life on the ground and how to reduce your vacation footprint when traveling to the Caribbean.
Don’t sit by rotting sargassum, but don’t avoid places because of it—just get educated and share what you learn with others. Advocate for a push in collection and cleaning methods when you fill out surveys and talk to hotel or destination leaders.
Support Local Efforts
Speaking of advocacy, since sargassum isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, we might as well learn how we can support destination efforts to handle the surge and impact on their environment.
If your hotel or an organization on the ground is running a beach clean up when you happen to be there, go ahead and join in; tourists are often welcomed to participate and learn about environmental impacts.
You can also look for non-profit organizations on the ground that are working to find sustainable solutions to the sargassum problem. Consider supporting these efforts by donating or participating in volunteer programs. The most advanced one in the Caribbean region is the Grupo Puntacana Foundation — contact them for a visit when you’re in Punta Cana and ask for a tour of all their sustainability initiatives, from sargassum collection to waste management and the preservation of endangered species, among others.
According to some of my readers, there are many Caribbean destinations they visited that don’t ue sea barriers yet and basically do nothing to collect and clean. Reach out to those Caribbean tourism offices in the places you visit and let them know, whether in a survey or by email, how you’d like to see them do more about sargassum—not just for your beach vacation but for residents and the well-being of the destination you love.
Remind them that when they prioritize quality of life for locals, it also improves the experience for visitors. The more tourists speak up and ask, the more accountability is placed on Caribbean governments to step up and do something (unfortunately it’s often tourism dollars from high-spending visitors that will get them to act faster).
This is the new travel normal: Be prepared, be patient, be flexible and understanding as you travel to places and watch tourism businesses faced with unpredictable loads of sargassum seaweed (while also understaffed in some cases).
Focus on what you can control: Speak up with tourism officials about the importance of barriers at sea, diversify your trips with inland and cultural experiences, or linger at the pool until the beach is cleaned up. You can even beach hop to other corners of the island where the brown seaweed hasn’t hit yet.
Sargassum comes and goes and it’s not disappearing anytime soon as the climate worsens—not just in the Caribbean but also in other parts of the world where seaweed blooms are also growing in size. But if you balance your trip with immersive active outdoor and cultural experiences, road trips and and beach hopping adventures, those smelly strips of brown seaweed won’t ruin your entire trip.
Cover: A pre-dated image of sargassum seaweed on Quintana Roo, Mexico beach in 2015. Photo by saebaryo – Flickr Commons.