Punta Cana, What Does it mean And Complete History

/ / Punta Cana, What Does it mean And Complete History

Punta Borrachón (Drunken tip) was the original name in the 50s and 60s of what is now known as Punta Cana. It was also known as “Marsh”, both names had a somewhat derogatory connotation of the area. 

These names did have Nothing attractive when planning to build this tourist city. That’s why Frank R. Rainieri, its founder and ideologist, changed it to Punta Cana, but, what does the name Punta Cana mean and how everything came up?

What does Punta Cana mean?

The word Punta Cana is composed by “Punta” (Spanish word meaning tip) because this place is located at the tip of the Dominican Republic island, and “Cana”, due to a very characteristic palm tree of the area. 

Palma Cana is the name of a type of palm tree that grows in the Caribbean islands, especially in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Cana palm has the peculiarity that its leaves dry and remains attached to its trunk.

Due to its lightness, resistance to saltpeter, water, sun, and its natural appearance, its leaves are widely used in many roofs of different Caribbean constructions.

Conceptually the Palma Cana is a symbol of the Caribbean, sun, beaches, and sand, all this is what evokes the name of “Cana”, so they used this word for the name. 

The first feeling you will have when arriving at the airport and notice the roof and its shape is everything I described the concept of Cana, a Caribbean sensation.

When you look at the map of the Dominican Republic you can notice that the country has a shoe-like shape, Punta Cana is located on the east coast, in the sharpest point of the Dominican Republic, so they used “Punta” (tip) in the name.

Punta Cana history

The history of Punta Cana is intimately linked to the birth of tourism in Bavaro Beach, without this the tourist area as we know it today would not have been possible. 

The story told by its protagonists realize that it all began in the spring of 1982, when during a visit to Puerto Rico a group of businessmen from the Balearic Islands.

One of them, the restless Don Gabriel Barceló, decided to take advantage of the trip to visit the neighboring Dominican Republic.

After visiting areas such as La Romana and Puerto Plata, and already ready to leave the island for the East, through the small window of the airplane in which it was moving. 

It enchants amazed what it came to look for, kilometers of white sandy beaches, turquoise sea and an endless row of coconut trees, a paradise that would later be called Bavaro Beach.

Wanting to get to know that paradise a little more closely, Gabriel Barceló, orders the pilot to look for a nearby place to land immediately. 

The closest they found was a tiny runway a little further south, a small improved caliche airfield that was already used by pioneer Frank Rainieri, to bring friends and relatives to his rudimentary cabins installed in what was called Punta Borrachón at that time and previously by the Taínos “Yuya”.

Producing a casual encounter, which was the beginning of a story that even today , continues to impact and generate investments in what we know as the most powerful destination in the country and the Caribbean.

first landing strip in punta cana

When Don Gabriel Barceló finally, after hours of walking through deserted beaches, jungle and neighborhood roads.

He was able to reach the lands of ¨Gabito¨ (now Playa Bávaro), there he found an image that he had not even imagined in dreams. After strolling through the seven kilometers of “white sand like talcum powder and crystalline water”.

As described by the same businessman, he decided that it was the ideal place for his company, the Barceló Group, to begin its expansion outside of Spain.

The land with that wonderful beach belonged to a group of 12 or 15 people, mostly Cuban exiles and Dominicans, who had bought it to do business. 

They had no plans to develop anything in that area and I did not show any enthusiasm to avoid increasing the price of the land,” said Barceló. 

The plot of seven million square meters with 1.9 kilometers of beachfront, was magnificent but had a problem, there was no road or access road.

First hotel in Bavaro Beach

To begin this journey in 1983, Don Sebastián Barceló, Gabriel’s brother, settles in the town of Higuey, about 40 km from Punta Cana, where the government-run Hotel El Naranjo takes over.

From there he began his plans and to gather troops for the incursion to the inhospitable beaches that Gabriel had known months before and bought later. 

It is there and at that time he knows, the then young and enterprising builder Leonel Taveras. An ally who, in addition to providing him with labor and providing him with the heavy machinery, contacted him with local policy and facilitated the process for the approval of the Government.

The necessary permits to build his project and the missing access roads, both from that small Rainieri airfield, and from Higuey.

Barceló was the first international chain to settle in this part of the island excited by the limited competition, but also knowing that the risks were great. 

Hurricane David had caused serious destruction in a country still to be built, but in spite of everything. 

Barceló, whose investment policy was then a third of own resources and the rest of bank financing, relied on his intuition and the local people who he received it, from day one, with open arms, he says.  

Barceló spent a million dollars to feed the workers who built the first hotel in Bávaro.

Gabriel Barceló during the works of Bávaro Beach, which opened in 1985.

On January 7, 1984, the works of the Hotel Barceló Beach began, led by Sebastián Barceló, which, to expedite, built barracks for the workers who also received free food and salaries above the country’s average. 

In one year, the food budget reached one million dollars of the time. The Spanish company also had to install a power plant, a sewage treatment plant, laundry, bakery and even a commissary, to cover the needs of its new business.

Just 13 months later, in February 1985, Barceló inaugurated the first Spanish hotel in Bavaro Beach, Dominican Republic, which received its first Canadian clients, with a price of $ 30 per person on a half-board basis. 

After one month of being open, the occupancy rate was 100%, so, in June of that same year, the Barceló decided to expand the complex from 400 to 600 rooms.

Construction of the International Airport and birth of the Punta Cana Group

Somewhat ahead of these first investments of Spanish groups, Frank Rainieri did not rest and continued working in his Punta Cana Club. 

which began construction in 1971 and consisted of 10 2-room cabins, a clubhouse, a small town for employees, a plant electric and a rustic airstrip for airplanes.

At full capacity, this small hotel could accommodate 40 people, but it never reached its maximum, nor was it profitable enough, but it did show that the property had great potential, Rainieri later said.

First 10 cabins at Punta Cana Resort

Over the years Frank Rainieri continued tirelessly with his adventure now driven by the arrival in 1979 of the French company Club Mediterranée (Club Med), convinced by Frank himself and his partner Ted Kheel to install one of their innovative resorts in this inhospitable part of the island, within 48 square kilometers that they already owned.

For this, the Tourist Development Company, Residencial e Industrial, S.A. (CODDETREISA), which Rainieri already commanded, sells him a portion of land on the beach behind the small airstrip. 

Which by that time already received some planes per week that brought provisions and a few adventurous tourists who stayed for a few days in the cabins of the Punta Cana Club.

Already in 1981, the Club Mediterranée Punta Cana hotel with 200 rooms was opened and in partnership with the incipient Group.

With the Barceló Beach hotel running full and with the possibility of short-term expansion Don Sebastián Barceló meets with Frank Rainieri and this promises him that in a short time he would obtain the permits to enlarge the small airfield and turn it into an international airport.

A word that Don Frank fulfilled and as a first step, they enlarged the track that allowed the arrival of the first purely tourist flights from Santo Domingo, moving in a short time to the intrepid Canadian and French tourists who previously had to face about 7 hours of roads and bad roads to reach this paradise.

Rainieri’s next and most important step was to ask the Dominican government for authorization to build a private international airport. After several years of comings and goings, and the opposition of a sector of politics. 

The government of Salvador Jorge Blanco finally granted the building permit. Punta Cana Airport, now International, was formally inaugurated on April 17, 1983, when it receives, on its brand-new runway, a twin-engine turbo propeller from San Juan de Puerto Rico.

With the inauguration of the International Airport, the real development and the boom arrived in Punta Cana, because the time it was possible to access international markets directly, without depending on other airports and long trips on the rudimentary and dangerous roads that the country had for those days.

In the first year of its operation, surprisingly the brand-new airport mobilized some 5,000 passengers. Today there are 7 million people a year that pass through this, being the eighth most important in Latin America in international passengers mobilized.

The definitive step to the internationalization and consolidation of the Group as we know it today is in 1997, when the Spanish singer Julio Iglesias and the renowned Dominican fashion designer Oscar de la Renta join Kheel and Rainieri as majority partners of the Punta Cana Group, providing an international window that continues to speak to date.

The arrival of the other hotels at Punta Cana

Sol Meliá

In parallel, another Balearic hotel chain, Sol Meliá, beginning to write its international history just across the world, in Bali. 

That first project had the financial support of the World Bank, which changed a unique condition: that part of the overall development plan of the entire island.

The basic slogan was the luxury is the space, which, in the case of the hotel, translated into wide-open spaces and few buildings, will blend in with the surroundings. 

This was the idea that, shortly after, the Escarrer family company also put into practice in Playa Bávaro, where it arrived in 1987 with the Meliá Bávaro Resort.

Fiesta Hotels

The Matutes family soon joined the Barceló-Escarrer duo, which a year after the opening of the Barceló Beach Hotel took over a 500-hectare estate (1985). 

Although its Bávaro Beach Complex did not begin to develop until 1992, before, in 1989, the Ibizan saga, headed by former Foreign Minister Abel Matutes, bought the Hotel Dominican Fiesta in the capital Santo Domingo, to serve as a spearhead in the country and in which he invested about 50 million dollars.


Miguel Fluxá, the founder of the Iberostar chain, paid 40,000 dollars (31,180 euros) for each room of his first hotel in Punta Cana, the Iberostar Bávaro Resort, a big difference from the 180,000 dollars (140,300 euros) required today.

Iberostar also grew at the pace of demand, always together with that first litter of hoteliers and becoming over the years one of the most important in the area, with the Iberostar Bávaro Grand as the banner of the new luxury hotel in the destination.

Riu Hotels

In 1990 Luis Riu Jr. left his job in the Canary Islands, at the request of his father, to move to Punta Cana and personally direct the construction of the five hotels that had been projected on a plot of 800,000 square meters on the so-called Playa de Arena Gorda, halfway between Bavaro Beach and La Ceiba del Macao.

“The construction was cheaper in the Dominican Republic than in Mexico, but the daily expenses, personnel, food, electricity, and water were not,” confessed Luis Riu.

In 1991, the Hotel Riu Taino was finally inaugurated, a property that marked the great growth of the chain in the Caribbean. Arriving at present to own 6 hotels in the destination Punta Cana, one of them the Riu Republic of 1,000 rooms, which by its dimensions, had to be built outside the original complex.


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