UNWTO Calls for New Tourism Narratives at 118th Executive Council Meeting in the Dominican Republic

The Executive Council of the United Nations World Tourism Organization held its 118th meeting in the Dominican Republic for the first time ever, from May 16-18, 2023. I had the privilege of attending the events at the Paradisus Palma Real Golf & Spa Resort and see many colleagues in tourism, new and familiar, who were visiting the DR and the Caribbean, also for the first time.

Tourism leaders who made the journey to the Dominican Republic included Mozambique Minister of Tourism Fredson Bacar, UNWTO regional director for Africa, Elcia Grandcourt, and Jamaica minister of tourism Edmund Bartlett, among many others.

New Narratives in Tourism

As part of the UNWTO executive council gathering, two cohorts of content creators and PR were sent around the DR on pre-conference media trips. One group was sent to the Jarabacoa mountainous area of the country, while the other group experienced a journey from Santo Domingo’s historic Colonial City to to the stunning Samana Peninsula.

These immersive media trips, which put participants in contact with the lush outdoors, with Dominican entrepreneurs in tourism and local communities, were intentional: They were planned as part of a subsequent UNWTO panel discussion at the conference titled, “New Narratives in Tourism.”

Sending content creators to parts of the country that are generally lower on tourists’ radar than Punta Cana’s all inclusive resorts is a positive shift, some of which began shortly before the pandemic. But it’s a message on the importance of sustainability that still doesn’t ring as loudly as it should and isn’t yet a mainstream approach on press trips.

Having sustainable tourism narratives — cultural experiences, Dominican entrepreneurs and outdoor adventure beyond the beach — being elevated on a global stage in the Caribbean through the UNWTO, matters.

Showing an Authentic DR

Some of you might recall that in 2014, long before the Covid pandemic, I began documenting my travels around the Dominican Republic for an entire year while I researched and wrote the guidebook Moon Dominican Republic for Moon Guides. (I had also been reporting on sustainable travel in the Caribbean for several years prior to that.)

My #MoonDominicanRepublic hashtag on Instagram became popular with my readers as well as with media colleagues, aside from my published articles, and caught the attention of the DR ministry of tourism’s digital marketing team. That’s because I was, for the first time, showing a holistic view of the country throughout the year and posting on social media about it in English.

Like most destinations I’ve covered for work, I genuinely wanted to immerse and get to know this country that is often so misunderstood and misrepresented in mainstream news. How else would you do that than by mingling with every day Dominicans and visiting as many provinces as possible around the country, while also experiencing its resorts, eco-lodges and attractions?

I found a destination that is not only rich in culture and diverse in gastronomy and history, but also one where tourism’s benefits could make a huge difference but weren’t equitably spread. A country that is as beautiful as it gets in the Caribbean, but struggled with plastic pollution and environmental degradation. A country where the focus of the marketing was always on glitzy resorts and beaches in Punta Cana, when in fact the rest of the country offered a more authentic cultural and outdoor adventure experience than most would get to see.

After my Moon Dominican Republic guidebook years, which stretched until 2019 with two editions and many more story publications, Dominican content creators and influencers such as Alejate con Ale and Andariego, a local TV show, had begun surfacing and were also showing a more authentic side of the country — but mostly focused on outdoor adventure and for a Spanish-speaking audience.

Domestic tourism was also growing and taking a sustainability direction that I wished the international marketing side would have followed. Still, it was a shift that was happening and I was glad to see it at the time.

“La Industria de la Felicidad” (The Happiness Industry)

Post-pandemic, Punta Cana’s resorts continue to steal the show as each hotel opening gets more luxurious, but more tourists say they want to see the DR authentically while others — primarily African Americans — say they avoid it because of what the media says about the country’s treatment of Haitians (again, the mainstream press plays a role here).

But that’s exactly what coming here and immersing showed me over the years as a travel journalist: That the heart and soul of this country’s people can only be understood when you come in contact with people and see their challenges and wins for yourself. You won’t see that behind the four walls of a resort.

It seems obvious but unfortunately travel storytelling remains stuck on selling consumers romanticism — “la industria de la felicidad” as DR tourism minister David Collado described it at the UNWTO meeting — over balancing that (after all vacations are about joyful moments) with our responsibilities as an industry and as travelers, or showcasing the role of tourism in a nation’s economy even as the world undergoes seismic shifts.

Change can be slow. Travel journalism is confronting major headwinds, but expertise in localized travel and useful content remain more critical than ever even as artificial intelligence tools emerge. The UNWTO’s presence in the DR highlighted the importance of a more inclusive, authentic narrative of the Caribbean region’s destinations and addressed how tourism boards can improve their content through partnerships. Will tourism boards and their public relations firms in the Global North heed the call?

Travel Storytelling at a Crossroads

Similar to my UNWTO experiences in Morocco, it all begins with local experts creating press trips that focus on local entrepreneurs — social enterprises, community-based tourism, hands on enriching experiences for all — and showcase natural and cultural activities, but also explain the role of tourism in the destination. In turn, content creators will steer their audience towards meaningful travel and an understanding of the impact of their travel decisions.

I’ve since expanded into covering global destinations in addition to the Caribbean, but I have hope that through today’s increasing number of private-public collaborations, creators will dig beyond the surface about this region’s tourism offerings and that more travelers will begin to advocate for and demand the kind of tourism industry that benefits locals and protects the environment.

As for the UNWTO’s push for “new narratives in tourism” on Caribbean soil and its potential to breathe new life into the experiences we see promoted in the future in the DR and beyond: I’m here for it.


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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