Tourism Lens Podcast: The Sargassum Crisis, Coral Reefs and the Conscious Traveler

In the second episode of the Tourism Lens podcast, one of the Dominican Republic’s best known environmental foundation leaders in the luxury hospitality sector, Jake Kheel, came on to discuss the sargassum crisis in the Dominican Republic and the state of coral reef restoration work in the Caribbean.

Jake Kheel is vice president at the Grupo Puntacana Foundation. If you’re not familiar with Grupo Puntacana, they are the masterminds behind the name and concept of “Punta Cana” and the development of this now world-famous tourism region. The company includes luxury hotels — not all-inclusive resorts — such as Westin Punta Cana and Tortuga Bay, a luxury villa residential community and the Punta Cana International Airport, among other investments.

To mitigate their tourism impact and take responsibility as destination stewards, Grupo Puntacana very early on built a foundation that has served as a sustainability lab, quite literally, where solutions emerge to tackle all sorts of challenges.

Examples include the preservation of endangered wildlife, building a professional technical school for the surrounding community and co-subsidizing teachers — an early example of government-private sector collaboration — coral restoration work that employs local fishermen and waste management experiments to reduce food waste. The list goes on.

I’ve visited and learned from their projects multiple times over the years, most recently in 2021 to see the progress at the marine innovation center.

“It’s really hard to say how much tourism impact there’s beenThe numbers in the DR are very good, but perhaps they would be even better if we didn’t have this [sargassum] issue.”

– Jake Kheel, Tourism Lens Podcast Episode 2

The Grupo Puntacana Foundation is also the first entity in the country that proactively began to tackle the growing amount of sargassum washing up on the properties’ pristine eastern white sand coastline. In 2015, they started using collection barriers at sea, as you might have read in my Bloomberg story.

The huge impact of sargassum on the Caribbean beach vacation is no longer one that the region can sweet under the rug. Thanks to the foundation’s work in this space, it’s placed the Dominican Republic on a solutions-forward track compared to the rest of the region in tackling the seaweed that’s now a frequent visitor on its most-visited eastern coastlines.

Jake sat down to share more with the Tourism Lens audience about this environmental crisis and the work in restoring coral reef health.

He also shares his take on the industry’s claims that travelers are becoming “more conscious.” Are they, and do they visit the sustainability or marine innovation centers while vacationing in Grupo Puntacana’s hotels and villas?

Listen to this brief overview in Episode 2. Opt for captions if needed.

For future episodes of the Tourism Lens podcast, subscribe on YouTube and stay tuned for its availability on Apple. Follow on social media as well for a heads up on my next guest.


Lebawit is an award-winning, independent travel journalist, author and speaker specializing in global tourism. Her reported stories on sustainability, equity, destination management, hospitality, responsible marketing, and climate action have appeared in consumer and trade publications, including Bloomberg, Skift, and Conde Nast Traveler. Read more about Lily here.

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