Monday, May 27, 2024

Club Med

Club Mediteranne, as it is properly known, has an enviable history in the travel industry. They have long been a major player in the "all-inclusive" resort industry. There are industry estimates that describe Club Med as owning 10% of the beds in the worldwide all-inclusive market. I can’t help but think that this kind of size could be a double-edged sword. But, the development of this monster and how they got into diving is a really interesting story.

The origins of the company lie with a French/Belgian tent maker who suddenly ran out of customers at the end of World War II. The various armies in Europe stopped fighting and at the same time stopped buying his tents. It was a classic business catastrophe. The Frenchman turned his energies to housing a shell-shocked and homeless population. That worked fairly well for a couple years, but those shell-shocked people very quickly re-built their homes. Europe in winter is no place to be living in a tent.

This "about too become poor" fellow turned his attention to a different market. He took his experience in building tents that were made to survive a war and decided to build tents that would be erected semi-permanently and used as a resort. He reasoned that it wouldn’t take much to convince large numbers of war-weary Europeans to take a vacation. He was right. His marketing was pretty smart too. Each vacationer became a "Member" of this new "Club." And as the program was marketed pretty much only in France, everyone became known as a "Gentile Membre" or Gentle Member. Everyone that is, except the organizers at the village who were known as "Gentile Organisateurs." These terms are still used but they are usually shortened to GM and GO. And every village worldwide still has a decidedly French flavor to it.

The first village was on a beach in Spain. It’s not far from France. Land was cheap and so was the local labor. It’s funny, but even today most of the villages are located where the land and local labor are both really cheap. The first couple of summers were tremendously profitable and the decision was made to expand quickly. One problem that became apparent was a lack of qualified GO’s who were willing to work for the same pay as an olive picker. Again, it’s kind of funny, because this is still a problem. And these days Spanish olive pickers get paid better than GO’s. That’s why there aren’t very many Spanish GO’s.

The chiefs at Club Med hit upon a uniquely cheap solution that involved Tahitian university students. Tahiti and French Polynesia have been a Department of France for a very long time. Even during WWII, these islands were garrisoned with French troops to protect them from Japanese invasion. Not that they ever were, but hey, the troops were there. After the war, the richer families from the islands began sending their older children to France for schooling. Well, transportation wasn’t as well developed then as it is today and those kids didn’t go home for their summer vacation. Instead, they hung around the squares and plazas of Paris, played their guitars and ukuleles, drank beer and wine, made more Tahitians, and played whatever games they could, usually using a soccer ball as a soccer ball rather than a coconut.

Well, the guys in charge of the fledgling Club Med gave these kids a place as GO’s. They were offered free meals and accommodations in exchange for a beach to play on. The parents were ecstatic, because they didn’t have to pay rent. The kids were just happy to have a beach. And they went and did all the things that Tahitians would do on a beach, including making more Tahitians and playing soccer with a coconut. They also brought their ukuleles and did a lot of singing, particularly at night, after having drunk a lot of beer and wine. They were happy, the chiefs were happy, and the Spanish are still picking olives.

This may all sound a bit frivolous, but it actually explains many of the customs of Club Med today. A lot of the villages are oriented around life on the beach. The first sports to be taught at the first villages were swimming and spearfishing. Today, Club Med teaches snorkeling and scuba diving. In the old days, they really did play soccer with a coconut. Today, most villages organize a number of land sports, including volleyball, tennis, and aerobics. The early tradition that was singing on the beach at night transformed itself into a nightly extravaganza show that starts sometime shortly after dinner.

One tradition that seems to be fading away from Club Med is the beach clothing. Tahitians, both men and women, still regularly wear a wrap-around skirt known as a pareou. For years this was the standard daytime uniform for GO’s around the world. Longtime GO’s and regular GM’s usually have a great collection and there are dozens of ways to tie them. I still have three and I always wear one when on I’m on vacation.

At about the same time as the invention of Club Med and all-inclusive resorts, Our Father who lived in France (but now lives in Heaven), Jacques Cousteau, along with Emile Gagnon, invented compressed breathable air and a device to decompress that air so that it was breathable underwater. Well, scuba being a French invention and Club Med being in all ways French, the two went together like wine and cheese (another great French invention, along with the barbeque and tall metal towers). Scuba diving came to Club Med early.

The dive operations at Club Med are not for the extremely active diver who would like to do 3 or more dives per day. In fact, only two of their 11 villages are setup to do anything close to this number of dives in a day. No, it is more common to do only 2 dives and in some villages only 1 per day. The villages where diving is organized by GO’s includes SONORA BAY, CANCUN and PLAYA BLANCA, all in Mexico. There is COLUMBUS ISLE and ELEUTHERA in the Bahamas, MOOREA, French Polynesia; TURQUOISE, Turks and Caicos: BOUCANIER, Martinique: ST. LUCIA, St. Lucia; FARU, Maldives; SANTA ROSA, Italy; and CADAQUEZ, Spain.

Diving is also possible at quite a number of other villages. Their diving is organized by locals who are usually ex-GO’s and some of them may even have a small dive school inside the village. A partial list of these includes RIA BINTAN and BALI, Indonesia; CORAL BEACH, Israel; DA BALAIA, Portugal; and LINDEMANN ISLAND, Australia. There may be many more that I am not aware of.

I should go on to say that not all diving at Club Med is created equally. In fact, Playa Blanca and Eleuthera do not offer dive trips at all, they stick to a "school-only" format. Santa Rosa and St. Lucia are "family" villages and so the typical GM is not what you might expect. St. Lucia is not particularly well organized as a dive village. There is a long bus ride and then a long boat ride just to get to the usual dive sites. For some reason, the ride back always seems longer.

Cadaquez in Spain is oriented to CMAS trained divers who are accustomed to deep dives and decompression stops. It wouldn’t be a good choice for your average PADI advanced diver. They wouldn’t feel comfortable and probably wouldn’t be able to keep up. Most of these CMAS guys breath slower than I do and I’m an ex-GO dive instructor with over 1400 dives.

In Mexico, Playa Blanca and Sonora Bay are not even open all year round. In the winter months the Sonora desert and Sea of Cortez are quite cold. The water temperatures get down to 10C/52F and the desert isn’t much warmer at night. This may be the best diving season because whales and dolphin are common, but the average warm water wimp, like myself, would be quite unhappy. The temperature in the summer months is much better and in August it is possible to see mantas and even hammerheads. I was fortunate enough to see one great white during my stay.

Cancun, on the other hand, and on the other side of the continent, has warm waters year round. But, the dive operations are "traditional" in that they only offer one dive per day. The highlight of a trip to Cancun is a day long excursion to Cozumel, escorted by a GO for a two tank trip. The flight over and back are done at low altitude to avoid decompression sickness.

Moorea is in the South Pacific. It is the next island over from Tahiti and as such usually inspires dreams of soft sand beaches, palm trees, warm winds and unbelievably beautiful women. All the rumors are true. The diving offered at the village is a changeable affair. When I worked there, it was an "intensive" village that offered up to 3 dives per day. A few years later, when I was back as a guest, the diving had changed to the "traditional" format and it was only possible to do one dive per day. For up to the minute information, it would be best to call the village directly, because it seems to change every 6 months or so.

Farukolufushi, or "Faru", is in the middle of the Indian Ocean just north of the Equator. The dive operator is independent of Club Med, but they hire GO’s to do the jobs of teaching and organizing dives. So, it’s a bit of a hybrid. It’s also really hard to get to, even from Europe. As for getting there from America, be prepared to overnight in Singapore and perhaps even Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne or Kuala Lumpur as well. A guest can do up to two dives per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Night dives are done once per week. As for the underwater creatures, you could be in for a real treat. Mantas and whale sharks are common in August and sharks are seen year-round. The collection of colored soft corals is absolutely outstanding. On the downside, strong currents are poor visibility are normal.

Back in the Caribbean, in the island chain of Turks and Caicos, is the village known as Turquoise. This was previously the premiere dive operation of Club Med. They still operate an "intensive" program where a guest can dive up to three dives per day plus a night dive once per week. It is also possible to become certified or take an advanced course during your stay. The boats are fast and comfortable and the diving is something that most people can only dream of. And the beach at Turks is known to be the most beautiful beach in all of Club Med. Turks is marketed as the preferred destination for singles.

Also in the Caribbean, but with a traditional dive program is the village of Boucaniers on the island of Martinique. The clientele in Boucaniers is a mix of singles and couples, both American and French. This can lead to some unusual cultural clashes. A large percentage of the French population are smokers, and of course Americans generally are not these days. The usual habits among the divers are just as different.

The reigning champ and currently "premiere" dive operation is the Columbus Isle facility on the island of San Salvador in the Bahamas. This village is a step above the usual in most senses of Club Med. In most villages, the rooms are simple to functional at best. Television and telephones are not normal at Club Med. But in a move to appeal to a wider variety of customer, including the more upscale client, Columbus Isle was designed with much more comfort in mind. Strangely though, Columbus Isle is not the most expensive operation in the Caribbean. That honor is still held by Turquoise.

The upscale concept in this village extended very nicely to the dive operation. A guest can do up to three dives per day and one night dive per week. The boats are fast catamarans with an amazing amount of space available for each diver. The dives consist of deep walls and colorful reefs. The fish haven’t been spoiled by herds of snorkelers from the cruise ships and the occasional big thing will cruise by. I was lucky enough to spot an 8 foot bull shark during my stay.

As for the villages that do not offer "diving" per se, I think that Lindemann Island would be the biggest attraction because it is so close to the Barrier reef. Close is a relative term. You will still have to endure a boat trip lasting several hours. Ria Bintan in Indonesia intrigues me because it is relatively new and unexplored. Other people would enjoy Coral Beach in Israel. The corals of the Red Sea are legendary. I still have to get over my hang-ups about Muslims with guns, so I won’t be going there soon.

Club Med continues to expand and diversify their product. They recently opened villages in both Cuba and Vietnam, though neither of these offers diving. I have been to the area around the Cuban Club Med and can report that the diving wasn’t worth the effort of getting there. So, I don’t expect an offer of diving at this particular village.

As for other news in the Club Med world, they are continually shuffling their offerings. They also own a chain of clubs that is not quite to the usual international flair of the original. The St. Lucia village has been moved back and forth between the programs in an attempt to improve its occupancy rates. And the Moorea village has yet to settle on a profitable format for its scuba program.

Here in Germany, the company has recently entered in to a share-swap/reverse takeover with Deutsche Reiseburo (German TravelOffice). DeR seems to think they can improve profitability by directing more of their customer base to Club Med. Most of the resorts promoted by DeR are significantly less expensive than the average Club Med village so this may be quite a challenge for the new owners.

As for that Tentmaker and the other original Gentile Membres and Organisateurs, well, some of them are still around. There is one very old Tahitian who sits at the entrance to the restaurant in village of Moorea. He greets the guests every day, every morning, just like it was the most natural thing in the world. He and I used to joke that he was the only one who got out of bed earlier than I did. His name is Pappy and for years it was his job to attend the opening of each new village, just to ensure that it was up to the standard. He retired to the restaurant several years ago. As I mentioned a couple times through this article, I’m an ex-GO, and I enjoyed several months in Moorea. I went back a few years ago as a GM and there was Pappy. He even remembered my name and invited me to bring a chair and sit down with him for a while, just as he used to do with guests when I worked there. I skipped my dive that day.

The article is dedicated to my friend "Pappy" and I wish I had a picture of him.


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