By Marta Florian
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, Sep 3 (EFE).- An unprecedented seaweed bloom has invaded portions of the Dominican Republic’s white-sand beaches and clear-blue sea this summer, sparking concerns for a tourism industry that is struggling to recover from the coronavirus crisis and for a developing country that relies on that sector as a major generator of foreign exchange.
For weeks, a macroalgae that originates in the Sargasso Sea – a region of the Atlantic Ocean located east of Bermuda – has been gradually blanketing the coastlines of that Caribbean nation, including areas where it is not normally seen.
The seaweed invasion is particularly worrisome for the tourism hub of Punta Cana, where dozens of men, rakes in hand, work under the blazing sun on Cortecito Beach to collect the rotting sargassum, which “arrived suddenly and in amounts never seen before,” a Haitian immigrant who preferred not to be identified told Efe.
A fellow worker and compatriot who also asked to remain anonymous nodded his head while pushing a wheelbarrow filled to the brim with seaweed. “Today there’s nothing compared to what there was on the weekend,” he said.
The man added that he receives 600 pesos ($10.70) a day from a hotel for eight hours of clean-up work.
A much greater amount of seaweed has washed up on Dominican coastlines compared to prior years, according to people familiar with the problem, although no official data has been released on the number of beaches affected.
The phenomenon mainly affects Caribbean beaches in the summer months and has surged at a time when the Dominican tourism industry is trying to recover from last year’s pandemic-triggered disruptions.
The country received 2.4 million tourists between January and July, an amount that exceeded the total number of arrivals in 2020.
The sargassum bloom started to arrive in “manageable” quantities, the president of the East Region Hotels and Tourism Projects Association (Asoleste), Ernesto Veloz, told Efe.
“But lately we’ve had a significant barrage that has really hurt us,” he said, though adding that no reservations have been canceled for that reason.
A tour operator in the area and head of the Sargassum Monitoring Group in Bavaro/Punta Cana, Marcelo Vargas, said however that the situation has already prompted many tourists to change their travel plans.
“It’s hard to do excursions. The customer comes and says, ‘look, the water’s dirty. I don’t want to do that excursion,’ and cancels it. Or in the best of cases he decides to change the destination,” Vargas said during a tour of Bibijagua Beach in Bavaro, a resort area in Punta Cana.
Another tour organizer who spoke on condition of anonymity was even more pessimistic about the immediate future for local tourist excursions and criticized authorities for providing “little support” for rectifying the problem.
Several local hotels put up temporary anti-seaweed barriers.
But a hotel owner told Efe that some of them were destroyed a few weeks ago by Tropical Depression Grace, causing large amounts of algae to accumulate on the beach.
Hotel owners are waiting for the installation of a permanent barrier, a project that will be funded equally by the government and the private sector and for which a competitive bidding process is to be held in the coming weeks.