The Story of Punta Cana
From Impenetrable Wilderness to Tourist Paradise:
The Story of Punta Cana
Celebrating its 54th birthday this year, our esteemed neighbor on the east coast, Punta Cana, has a fascinating history that serves as one of the inspirations for the Samana Group. Join us on a brief journey through the history of a tremendous success and a key economic catalyst in the development of the Dominican Republic.
Punta Cana, a tourist resort and private city, is the second most visited place in Latin America, receiving millions of tourists each year and contributing about a quarter of the national GDP. Yet just 54 years ago, this beautiful coastline was covered by impenetrable jungle, unknown even to the locals. How did this tropical wilderness become one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations? Here’s the inspiring story of Punta Cana, in the province of La Altagracia.
From Punta Borrachón to Punta Cana
Until almost the end of the 1960s, the coast of this easternmost cape of the Dominican Republic remained completely wild. Dense jungle blocked access to heavenly beaches unknown to most locals. Not a single road led there, and the only human presence was a few fishing villages. But a group of American investors saw the treasures beyond the impenetrable jungle – endless stretches of white sand shaded by coconut palms, crystal clear turquoise waters and incredibly lush coral reefs. In 1969, investors decided to purchase 77 km2 of undeveloped land, and soon two key figures in the history of Punta Cana joined them: Frank R. Rainieri, a young Dominican businessman and hotelier, and Theodore W. Kheel, a prominent New York lawyer. The group entered into an agreement with the vision of creating a resort that would offer a quality holiday experience while preserving the natural environment. Thus began the transformation of the region, starting with a change in its rather uninviting name – Punta Borrachón (Drunkard’s Point), became Punta Cana in 1970, named after a local species of coconut palm.
Punta Cana Club Welcomes its First Guests
The first hotel, the Punta Cana Club, was built in 1971 with a capacity of 40 guests. At its inauguration, some guests expressed sympathy for Frank Rainieri’s investment in such difficult terrain. Understandable, as access to the hotel was limited to a small airstrip that could only accommodate small planes. The overland journey to the nearest town, Higuey, took 6 hours of arduous trekking. Despite these limitations, the irresistible charm of Punta Cana’s beaches drew worldwide attention, attracting a modest number of guests and, more importantly, additional investors. The development of the region gained momentum when the famous French hotel network, Club Med, recognised the potential of the place and decided to build a large hotel with 350 rooms. Finally, a road was built to connect the Cape to the rest of the country, cutting the journey to Higuey from 6 hours to 30-40 minutes! Interestingly, Colgate-Palmolive Corporation was involved in the construction of the road infrastructure.
The World’s First Private International Airport
After 8 years of difficult negotiations with the government, a fully commercial airport was finally opened in 1984. It was the world’s first privately built, managed and owned international airport. In its first year of operation, it served just under 3,000 passengers. In 2009, it handled almost 4 million, and by 2022, over 8 million! Over a few decades, Punta Cana has become one of the world’s most sought-after tourist resorts, while at the same time driving the economic development of the entire Dominican Republic. Today, it is estimated that the resort’s revenues represent a whopping quarter of the national GDP, and tourism capital is propelling the Dominican Republic into a new era of development.
Social and Environmental Responsibility
Grupo Puntacana has commendably remained true to its original principles of preserving the natural environment and heritage of the region. Substantial profits from the airport are invested in social projects: interest-free educational loans, medical facilities and renewable funding for housing loans for employees. The Puntacana Ecological Foundation was also created to protect the land and marine flora and fauna of Punta Cana.
A Tourist Mecca and a Private City
Today, Punta Cana boasts over 100 hotels and resorts, more than 40,000 hotel rooms and 40 kilometers of natural white sand beaches. The resort attracts millions of tourists and numerous celebrities, such as fashion designer Oscar de la Renta and musician Julio Iglesias, who joined Grupo Puntacana in the 90s. It is also home to various communities that have formed over the years, with a current population of over 100,000 people of different nationalities.
Not everyone knows that Punta Cana is also a form of administrative organization that could be called a private city. In many ways it serves as an inspiration for us, although the Samana project is fundamentally different in that we are not building another tourist resort. However, the legal framework of our private city is overseen by the invaluable expertise and experience of Adelaida Adames, who as Legal Manager of Grupo Samana oversaw the legal aspects of the resort organization.