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An Overstuffed Cultural History of the All-You-Can-Eat/-Drink Resort

In a world full of instant options, more and more people are suffering from decision fatigue. Enter the all-inclusive resort!

Any iPhone owner wields the tools necessary to book a vacation on the other side of the globe. Between TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, Yelp and the other countless crowdsourced travel advice platforms online, assistance from a travel agent is no longer needed to embark on the vacation of your dreams. The ease of booking a last-minute flight on Hopper, renting a dreamy apartment on Airbnb and comparing your preliminary itinerary to a Canadian stranger’s who took the same trip last year makes today’s travelers feel that we can really see it all.

Of course, not everyone wants to experience a place like the locals do. Enter the all-inclusive resort, a model that began as an easy and utopian way of organizing local family trips, but really hit its stride as an easy, safe bet for unfamiliar travelers going off to faraway lands. 

Now that traveling to these faraway places is easier than ever, the appeal of the all-inclusive resort is only increasing (even amid an experience economy in which people want to see as many places as possible to document on the gram). According to Adam Stewart, deputy chairman of Sandals Resorts International, all-inclusive vacations are this decade’s fastest-growing segment of the “leisure travel” industry. What turns people on to these resorts is also what turns people off: They’re designed for you to never have to leave. 

Xavier Mufraggi, the CEO of Club Med North, tells U.S. News that “all-inclusives are no longer a niche market but are now a real category,” referring to the uptick in luxurious accommodations contrary to the lukewarm-soggy-buffet and tiny-ugly-room stereotypes that plagued all-inclusive spots in the past. Afterall, the desire to “vacation” isn’t always the same as the desire to “travel.” In this way, all-inclusive resorts are the epitome of “vacation mode.” 

Here’s a look at the surprisingly un-American origins and appeal of the all-inclusive resort, past and present. 


1) John Sliz, 54, is the author of Paradise Found and Lost: The History of the First All-Inclusive Resort in the Caribbean. Sliz and his family made the journey from Canada to the Bahamas in 1972 and 1976, where they stayed at a resort called the Grand Bahama Island and Country Club. A few decades later, on his way home from another all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic, Sliz got to wondering about what happened to that hotel he had gone to in the Bahamas. The result was a book about the very first all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean, which has since become the most popular region for all-inclusives.

“Sir Billy Butlin was the pioneer in that area. He is credited with having the first all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean in 1950,” Sliz says. “He already had a number of family resorts in the U.K. called Butlins before expanding to the Caribbean. His first resorts had cabins and pools and all that, with some of them by the sea.”

According to Sliz, Butlin started all-inclusive resorts for families in the U.K. before World War II, but they really flourished in the years following. “Men, some of whom never left the country before the war, had spent time in Burma, India, North Africa and Germany. They were sick of the world and wanted to be home,” Sliz says. “His resorts are still running today in the U.K.” Today, the original Butlins family holiday camp is a noted historical landmark in England. 

Sliz says Butlin’s interest in applying his all-inclusive resort model to land in the Caribbean was all about the era’s increased air travel options. “I think it’s all to do with travel. Don’t forget the jet just came into being. Jets are starting to fly to more places. All of a sudden, you could get from New York down to Grand Bahama Island in an hour. An hour flight. That was unheard of before. When jets came in, that’s when the Caribbean opened up,” Sliz explains. “Don’t forget this was 1949. World War II had just ended. As planes got better and faster, people started traveling further south. At the time, Grand Bahama Island was especially exotic because you still couldn’t get to the further places in the Caribbean, such as Grenada and Saint Lucia, which are popular destinations now.” 

When a pilot told Butlin the Bahamas would be a great location for a hotel, he flew there to visit it in 1949. In February 1950, the hotel opened. This was the same property Sliz visited as a boy, although it was no longer owned by Butlin. These visits inspired Sliz’s love for the all-inclusive vacation experience. “I’d never seen a palm tree before in my life before that. I have great memories of that place as a young boy — I still remember it all. It was all fun time,” Sliz remembers. “Now my wife and I go to an all-inclusive resort at least once a year. We love it. We have the security of being in a resort and having everything taken care of.”

2) Around the same time as Butlin’s Caribbean experiment, another all-inclusive experience was emerging in the Mediterranean. A little historical context: wartime rations on food were finally over and the French Labor Movement won the country a minimum of two weeks paid holiday leave every year. The Belgian entrepreneur and yogi Gérard Blitz opened his first all-inclusive resort in Majorca in April 1950.

Its slogan? “The aim in life is to be happy. The place to be happy is here. And the time to be happy is now.” 

The company, Club Méditerranée, is better known today as Club Med. According to France Today, Blitz was a water-polo champion who based Club Med around the utopian quality of the Olympic village. Club Med claims to be the first all-inclusive resort company in the world, and before the launch of its finer accommodations, the original Club Med destinations also began as a large group of tents intended for family vacations. 

Although all-inclusive vacations are sometimes considered a relatively “yuppy” way to travel, the original concept sold a socialist ideal. As the France Today editors write

“There were no clocks, no locks on doors, no televisions, no cars and above all  there was no money. Guests, or Gentils Membres (GMs), were given strings of beads to use in exchange for drinks at the bar. At the time, the press found this idea revolutionary. In 1965, Paris Match exclaimed, “In these villages, money has no value. We are all billionaires! We live in a perfectly socialist economy, where everything is free for everyone.” 

By 1968, the Situationist International, a group of French artists and critics critiquing and challenging capitalism by making changes to everyday life, mocked these resorts for their colonial quality and commercialism: “Club Med — a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.” Eventually, “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery” made its way into a 1977 Sex Pistols song called “Holidays in the Sun.”

Today, most all-inclusive resorts are owned by global corporations, not local entrepreneurs. The United Nations Environment Programme reports 80 percent of all money spent by tourists in the Caribbean leaves the Caribbean, which, in a way, proves the Situationist critique true. 

A year after the Sex Pistol’s song, Club Med was more positively immortalized in Les Bronzés, a 1978 film by Patrice Leconte parodying Club Med that emphasized how racy an all-inclusive resort can get; A much more social foil to “cabin fever” in which no adult guest leaves without having vacation sex. Serge Gainsbourg made a song for the film called “Sea Sex and Sun” (which is a lot softer and hornier than “Holidays in the Sun”). 

3) The all-inclusive model spread throughout the ’70s and ’80s, with dozens of adaptations of the Club Med springing up around the world. Eventually a few hundred of these kinds of resorts opened up all over the Caribbean and Mexico, with a new wave of all-inclusive properties opening in Asia.

In 1981, Gordon “Butch” Stewart opened up his first hotel, an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica he named Sandals: Montego Bay. This became the first of many Sandals resorts, one of the most popular all-inclusive chains to cater exclusively to adults rather than families. Upon their launch, Sandals effectively rebranded the notion of an all-inclusive resort, once a family holiday, into an “escape.” 

Sandals quickly became a premium honeymoon spot and by 1991, became the leading all-inclusive chain in the Caribbean (and the first to offer the ability to “island hop”). Today, Sandals has 16 Caribbean results and growing. According to the Sandals website, the modern definition of all-inclusive means: “your stay, unlimited food, drinks, activities and entertainment are included in the booking price of the resort — without any surprise costs.”

But all-inclusive doesn’t always mean all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink. It’s during the ’80s and ’90s that this concept really took off. Full disclosure before you book with your glutton dreams in mind: It’s still very rare for resorts to have 24/7, all-you-can-eat meal and bar options, and some still only honor the “all-you-can-eat” claim during specific meal hours. If you’re booking your destination based on your ability to ravenously scarf down in paradise, look for an offering with a variety of restaurants with generous hours. On that note, if you love nice booze, be sure to pick a place such as Excellence, where premium liquor is standard. After all, what good is an endless supply of cheap shit? 

4) In a world full of instant options, more and more people are suffering from “decision fatigue.” Example: you spend an hour deciding what to watch on Netflix before just going to bed instead. All-inclusive vacations are beloved by folks who simply don’t want to make any more plans or decisions.

“I’ve only been to one all-inclusive, but it remains my favorite vacation ever. It was the Paradisus Palma Real in the Dominican Republic for my honeymoon, because I didn’t want to do any more planning after having to plan a wedding,” Jessica Francis, 36, from Louisville, Kentucky, tells me. “The place looked like an open-air palace. I laid in a cabana all day and a man came by every morning to machete off the top of a coconut for me to drink. Endless drinks and food and room service. A pillow menu to choose different types and scents of pillows, plus a butler who came by every day to make you a giant bubble bath with candles. It was glorious and the only way I want to vacation now. I’m too tired for adventuring.” 

5) All-inclusive spots make large gatherings easier to plan, creating a foundational experience that makes it easier to funnel your entire crew into specific activities. A lot of all-inclusive business comes from special occasions such as weddings and reunions, and even conventions and conferences. Travelers hoping to coordinate itineraries with a bunch of other people often depend on the convenience of a resort to make it through a group experience without a million “where are you?” phone calls.

“I do a girls’ trip to a different all-inclusive every September with all my college best friends. We’ve done this 18 years running now, and we live all over the country with crazy schedules. We like to drink and eat and relax and not split a bill 10 times a day. Splitting a check between six girls is a complete nightmare,” Kara Spence, 45, from San Luis Obispo, California, says. “Ninety-five percent of our trips over the years have been amazing. An all-inclusive is perfect for us, but we only do six-star resorts. Learned this the hard way. My favorite overall experience was Secrets Maroma Beach, but for the party scene it’s Breathless Cabo.” 

6) For parents, all-inclusive resorts can also mean the chance to actually relax while vacationing with children (there are childcare options!). “Before I had a kid, I would say ‘hell no’ to an all-inclusive. Now? I need an all-inclusive with childcare day and all night, buffets like whoa, an IV drip of booze and beachside room, etc. We’ve been doing Club Med Ixtapa, Mexico, for Christmas, and we’re going back again for two weeks in October,” Mahesha Anderson, 40, from Santa Clarita, California, tells me. “We pay extra for the island excursions to go snorkeling, catch lobsters and attend the ‘yacht night’ adult-only dinners. It costs less than $5,000 for the three of us, so it’s our once-a-year splurge. If we didn’t have a child? I’d be in some hut on the beach where we could be naked and adventurous, but that ship has sailed because kids truly ruin everything.” 

7) Another thing all-inclusive resorts make easy? Finding couples to swing (or at least flirt…) during ocean parties and sunset cocktails. Take the Hedonism resort in Negril, Jamaica, a clothing-optional resort where guests are invited to get in touch with their “primal instincts.” 

“Special kudos to the staff at the Kama Sutra Palace — Becky, Candi, Carmen and Mike — for sharing such wonderful tips and loving techniques. They awakened a feeling of confidence and intention about my sensuality that will bring greater enjoyment for the rest of my life,” a guy from Seattle writes on TripAdvis0r. He calls his time at “Hedo” the best week of his life. “Hedo brings a couple together like no other place in the world. With the right attitude it is literally paradise just like God designed it with naked loving people around,” write Ted and Susan from Cypress, Texas. 

Case in point: There’s probably an all-inclusive resort that caters to your specific interests. And if your specific interests have everything to do with sex, check out “Hedo.”

8) While there is still a stigma that the only people who love all-inclusive resorts are lazy travelers who don’t want to do anything, the boatload of excursions and activities many of today’s premium resorts offer prove to be enjoyable for the most active travelers. “I went to an all-inclusive ecotourism resort in Costa Rica. I think it was different than most all-inclusives because it was smaller. It definitely felt as though I was learning a lot. The staff offered guided walks around the grounds/reserve and gave a ton of info about the local birds, bugs, trees that we were seeing. They also knew a lot about the way the hotel was built. The part of it that’s in the jungle seemed unique so we asked about it and were given a lot of information about sustainable building practices in the area,” Clint, 26, says.

9) Some folks wonder why people bother taking international flights just to sit at a hotel, but others argue homebodies deserve international vacations too. Everyone has a parent or an aunt who can’t fathom a week without their familiar structure and structures, right? All-inclusives are an easy way to achieve a comfortable vacation for the commonly uncomfortable travelers in your group.

If you want an all-American all-inclusive experience, there are still plenty to choose from. Earlier this year, the Florida Keys opened up its first all-inclusive resort. There is Club Med Sandpiper Bay in Port St. Lucie, Florida, which includes a glamorous spa for adults as well as trapeze, sailing and kayaking lessons for the whole family. For a less beachy time, there’s the C Lazy U Ranch in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains where horseback riding, fly-fishing, hatchet throwing, archery and sleigh rides await you. Health and wellness lovers visit Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa in Tucson, where the hiking, yoga, pilates and meditation groups run from morning to night.

10) Most fans of all-inclusives are also fans of leaving their wallets back in their room – locked away and safe from pickpockets and strong tides. Sliz’s favorite resort is Galley Bay Resort and Spa in Antigua, where there’s no tipping. “You don’t have to carry cash, which is great for budgeting. We probably pay a little more up front to go to a resort without tipping, but knowing we have already paid for everything in advance makes the experience that much more relaxing,” Sliz says.

11) Many people who work at all-inclusives say guests should still consider tipping while at “no-tip” resorts, simply because of how hard the staff works there for relatively little money, especially considering the value of the local currency in comparison to dollars, Euros and many other foreign currencies popular among travelers. For convenience sake, this doesn’t have to happen after each individual interaction, but can be part of your parting gesture before leaving home. 

Kimberley Chan, from Montreal, started working at an all-inclusive resort in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, in 2006, right after graduating from university. She says she wasn’t paid well for how much work the gig required, but that she still enjoyed the experience, especially as a twenty-something looking for an adventure abroad. Kimberly says the resort attracted guests from all over the world, and that entertaining and befriending this array of guests was her favorite part of the job. 

“My job was to make people have fun, which was very joyful. My role was called an “experience animator.” I worked at least 12 hours a day, often up to 20 hours a shift, because it was my responsibility to make sure everyone enjoys themselves at the parties, shows and events. It was part of my job to be among the last people out at the resort at night,” Kimberly says. “Partying with tourists was fun. In the daytime, we would have sports activities on the beach, games on the pool and all sorts of competitions. We were encouraged to have a couple drinks with tourists in the evening, but not allowed to actually get drunk while working. If I saw someone alone, I would approach them to play a game, dance or chat. We got plenty of solo travelers who wanted to be surrounded by other people, so I would make sure they were having fun.” 

12) If you can manage to reconcile skipping out on local cultures all together and feeding the pockets of huge corporations instead of local hosts — 0r do your part amending that by leaving on tons of day excursions and tipping generously — all-inclusive resorts sound like a literal bundle of fun. 

Anybody know what time pool volleyball starts?