I love the Caribbean. I may have said that in a previous post or in several, but I have no problem saying it again – I absolutely love the Caribbean. I’se Bajan tuh de bone (I’m a Bajan to the bone) no question about it, but I’m also a Caribbean person. Maybe it’s because June, my neighbour growing up was from Grenada, so I always knew someone from another country in the region – June looked after me as a child and she looks out for me to this day. Or because I believe that as a region we are stronger together. Or that some of my best friends are from other countries in the Caribbean. Whatever the reason, I’ve felt a sense of ‘homeness’ in every country or territory I’ve visited in the region.
I’ve been to about two thirds of the countries and territories in the Caribbean at least once, be they English, Spanish, French or Dutch speaking. Some like, Jamaica, I’ve visited often enough that I’ve lost count of the number of times. One, Puerto Rico, I stayed in for 3 plus months while another, The Bahamas, I stayed in for two years. In each place there has been something – some thread – which connected one country/territory with the others. It could be the wall of heat and humidity I feel as I step off of the plane, whether day or night, regardless of where in the region I’ve landed. It could be our food, sometimes prepared differently, but most of the time excellent. Fried plantains, fried fish, sweet potatoes and more, taste different to me when I eat them in the Caribbean – they are especially good. It could be our accents, each unique, but all making me feel like I’m home. Maybe it’s our music, art, or culture. May be it’s our laid back approach to time. Whatever it is, wherever I go, I’m reminded that we are similar in more ways than we are different and our differences keep us and life interesting.
So what brought this on? If you follow my blog you know that I was in Puerto Rico a month ago for a research trip. That’s why I’m now waxing poetic about the region and missing the ‘amarillos’ (fried ripe plantain) that I ate almost daily while I was there☺️. I love fried ripe plantains (only fried, not green and smashed and not boiled unless I’m desperate) to the extent where I’ll eat them with nothing else, with fresh fruit (Ras, my cousin told me I’m weird), and as the only side along with my protein at my favourite restaurant in L.A. (double plantains with salmon Negril, no salad, no rice and beans). In Puerto Rico I had amarillos with fried snapper, with grilled mahi mahi, with a tuna sandwich, with lobster empanadas. I even had them twice in one day, I think on more than one occasion. I was there for six days! You get the drift.
So my recent visit to Puerto Rico meant that I got to go ‘home’ for a few days and I needed it because it had been about a year since I was last anywhere in the region. This trip was supposed to happen in February, but the red tape (or process inefficiency) of getting research approved by my academic institution delayed my colleague and I significantly. When we finally got the approval in May, we didn’t have an open week in common until the second week of August. So by August I was really chomping on the bit to go home, even more so than usual. Also, because while every country/territory is special, Puerto Rico is a bit more so.
While Puerto Rico is a US territory, in the Caribbean context it has always been a part of the Caribbean and like elsewhere in the region it is a well-known tourism destination. I have fond memories of Puerto Rico because in 1994-95 I spent three months there interning with the Caribbean Hotel Association to complete the requirements for my Bachelor’s degree. I think that was my first trip to the island; it wasn’t my last. I returned a few times since that internship to shop.
Before even considering an internship in Puerto Rico I was really familiar with Puerto Rico because it was a shopping hub for many from the Caribbean (think Plaza las Americas and Rio Piedras). On one of those shopping trips two friends and I were trapped in Puerto Rico by a hurricane. That hurricane was only one of two I remember experiencing prior to 2004. Puerto Rico was also a hub for American Airlines for many years until around 2013/2014. This meant that many flight itineraries to smaller destinations in the Caribbean connected through San Juan.
Doing research on the impacts of a hurricane took me back to Puerto Rico, so because my primary purpose for being there was research, I was a business tourist and not a leisure tourist. That said, I still engaged in activities that leisure tourists would – I stayed in a hotel, used an airport taxi, ate in restaurants, visited attractions for work and pleasure, and purchased souvenirs. Unfortunately I didn’t dip my toes in the Caribbean Sea! How did that happen?! Damn research! Good thing I got to hike in El Yunque.
After not visiting for more than 15 years (being in transit doesn’t count) I was back in Puerto Rico, not as a student or a young professional, but as someone with years of professional experience in the tourism industry and as a professor of tourism. Consequently I saw and experienced Puerto Rico in a way that was very different to when I was last there. Puerto Rico is beautiful and has the potential to be a phenomenal tourism destination.
Puerto Rico’s location in the Caribbean makes it attractive to travelers from the US for several reasons. It is a short-haul trip particularly for people living in the east and south east. US citizens and residents do not need a passport to enter because it is a US territory. It is a bi-lingual destination where English is widely spoken so non-Spanish speakers can anticipate few language-related communication problems. It is quite different to contiguous US states, yet holds some similarities in terms of hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and more.
Most visitors to Puerto Rico originate in the contiguous US or the US Virgin Islands. In 2017 there were 5,197,000 arrivals to Puerto Rico: 3,797,000 stayover visitors and 1,400,000 cruise passengers (excursionists) (UNWTO, 2018). Some 87% of the stayover visitors were from the US and the USVI. Note that ‘arrivals’ is a basic method of assessing tourism impact. More powerful measures are visitor spend ($ 4.09 billion in 2017) and length of stay. However, ‘arrivals’ tends to be the statistic that is more widely bandied about as a measure of the industry’s health or success.
During my recent trip, I was pleasantly reminded that Puerto Rico is a multifaceted destination. There’s the 3Ss (sun, sand and sea) for the traditional Caribbean vacation. Other fabulous natural resources that provide opportunities for adventure focused tourists (e.g. forests and caves for zip lining, caving/canyoneering, and hiking).
Casinos. Cultural resources including historic sites, museums, dance and theatrical performances, and art. A plethora of restaurants and bars. A wide range of accommodations – from budget to luxury, room only to all-inclusive, hotels to campgrounds, and a growing Airbnb sub-sector.
In my limited time in Puerto Rico, one factor that concerned me was public transportation. I recall taking the bus to various areas when I was last there, but it seems that it has become more difficult to get around by bus. This is somewhat offset by the availability of rental cars, taxis and rideshare, but reliable and readily available public transportation appeals to some tourists and I imagine to locals as well.
Since I was in Puerto Rico on a short research trip, most of my time was scheduled. While I visited a few adventure sites for my research, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience them fully or to explore other attractions. My sites this time around were also in 30 mile radius of San Juan, so there’s a lot of the island left to explore, not to mention the smaller islands like Vieques and Culebra that are a part of the territory. The one fun activity I made sure to do was a short hike in El Yunque National Forest.
Given my current research and my revived interest in Puerto Rico, I foresee at least one more trip in the near future. Perhaps after that trip I’ll be able to provide a more insightful review of the island’s potential for positively impactful tourism and more photos.