PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico- On a hot and languid afternoon in this tourist town on the Caribbean Sea, a Mexican band dressed in Wrangler jeans and black cowboy hats performed poolside at Hotel Xcaret Arte, an all-inclusive resort. While guests sipped frosty drinks, the quintet sang about a guy who fell for a girl who crushed his heart. Booze, that sly temptress, showed up to soothe his pain.

“He drinks and drinks and drinks, but I don’t think that works. It only makes you remember more,” said Jorge, a staff member, as he translated the Spanish lyrics for me.

“It’s a popular song from Guadalajara,” he said. “The band is playing famous songs from around the country.”

Bob Marley, Bad Bunny and Jimmy Buffet have no place here, nor do the buckets of wan beer or buffet troughs typically found at all-inclusives. The upscale property, which opened in July 2021, fully embraces Mexican culture and traditions. 

The concept — pay one rate for your room, food, drinks and select activities — has survived a number of trends, such as immersive travel and private home rentals. However, the easy-breezy vacation style is stronger than ever. One reason: decision fatigue, a symptom of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to STR, a hospitality data and analytics company, travelers booked more than 9.2 million all-inclusive rooms in December, an increase of about 80,000 reservations compared with figures from two years earlier.

Even so, travelers are demanding higher standards, and the resorts have been responding with more refined culinary and cocktail menus, expanded health and wellness options and closer ties to the culture and heritage of the host countries.

“None of this is a revolution,” said Adam Stewart, executive chairman of Sandals Resorts International, whose father founded the hotel chain in the early 1980s. “It’s an evolution.”

The grandfather of all-inclusives

Club Med, the world’s first all-inclusive, was born in 1950 in a tiny fishing village off the Spanish coast. The company’s founder, a Belgian diamond cutter, Olympic water polo player and yoga enthusiast named Gérard Blitz, set out to create a utopian retreat with tents on the beach and communal dining and diversions. For this novel experience, guests paid one price.

In the 1970s and ’80s, all-inclusives started cropping up in the Caribbean and Mexico, and they continued to spread like invasive coralita flowers. Sandals Resorts International owns 20 resorts on 10 islands, with more on the way.

Major hotel chains known for their room-only rates are also joining the party.

“People are going for all-inclusive services at five-star hotels,” said Pilar Valencia, a sales manager at Travelzoo. “It’s a wake-up call for a lot of these properties.”

Engineering a sense of place

For most all-inclusive guests, the holy trinity is cuisine, cultural offerings and accommodations.

Sandals Resorts International has created several new programs that connect visitors to the island community and culture.

For free activities with heart, Sandals and Beaches guests can participate in a number of charitable endeavors, such as planting trees in Jamaica’s Blue and John Crow mountains or restoring coral reefs in Grenada. Zoëtry Wellness & Spa Resort transports the country’s customs to its guests with classes that range from Creole or Spanish language lessons to the art of making cocoa tea or rolling cigars.

One criticism leveled against all-inclusives is that tourism dollars rarely flow outside the resort gates. At Sandals Royal Curaçao, guests who book a Butler suite receive a $250 voucher they can use at any of eight local dining establishments. They also get the keys to a Mini-Cooper convertible. (For these privileges, guests pay from about $670 per person a night for a Butler suite, more than twice as much as a regular room.)

Guests who prefer to dine on-property can still sample the local specialties. The 14-month-old Hilton Cancún celebrates Mexican cuisine at several of its own venues, such as Maxal; a taqueria with a mezcal and tequila bar, and an all-you-can eat ice cream and churro bar

Around Arte’s property, food carts dish out tacos and elote (street corn). In the rooms, the minibars are stocked with dulce de leche lollipops and churritos with amaranth and chia, among other between-meal snacks.

Guests at the all-inclusive Hotel Xcaret Arte can attend free...

Guests at the all-inclusive Hotel Xcaret Arte can attend free Mexican art and dance workshops. In the textile shop, a staff member teaches guests how to weave and cross-stitch, both traditional Mexican crafts. 
Credit: The Washington Post/Andrea Sachs

All-inclusives must follow some rules, but Palmaïa, the House of AïA, bends many. The Playa del Carmen resort, which opened in January 2020, promotes plant-based dining, though non-vegans won’t have to sneak off the property for their protein fix. Days are filled with exercises for the mind, body and chakra and  spa treatments honor Mexican goddesses and incorporate ancestral rituals.

Redemption for a disillusioned guest

Years ago, I stayed at an all-inclusive in the Dominican Republic. I have no memory of what I ate or drank or did, though I clearly remember trying to escape. At the front gate, I assured the guard that I was just going for a spin around the neighborhood on a bike. Less than a half-hour later, I was back after a harrowing ride that involved traversing pot holes and dodging cars. 

Recently, I saw how far all-inclusives have come — and can go.

The all-inclusive Hotel Xcaret Arte includes access to eight parks...

The all-inclusive Hotel Xcaret Arte includes access to eight parks and all of their attractions, including the butterfly garden at Xcaret Mexico park. 
Credit: The Washington Post/Andrea Sachs

Xcaret Arte is part of Grupo Xcaret, an ambitious park and hotel enterprise founded by Miguel Quintana Pali, a Mexican architect, and three brothers named Oscar, Marcos and Carlos Constandse. The company’s “All-Fun Inclusive” arrangement surpasses the standard resort inclusions. My digital bracelet worked like a skeleton key, unlocking unlimited access to four parks on the main grounds. 

The rate — I paid $1,580 for three nights in a junior suite with a river vista — also covered the round-trip shuttle from the Cancún airport, transportation to the parks, ferry ride and a catamaran sail to Isla Mujeres.

Arte embraces the artistic elements of Mexico, a category broad enough to include traditional crafts, cuisine, natural features and fashion. At the entrance, the staff, who wear flowy shirt dresses paired with a colorful handwoven bracelet and a crossbody bag adorned with a Mexican textile, hand out chocolate paletas.

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