Arriving in San Juan, Puerto Rico has always been one of my favorite experiences. It’s the only place I know of that when you land, passengers cheer and clap wildly.
But this year, in addition to the excitement over being able to exchange the harsh winter for sun, beach, and temperatures in the 80’s every day, when the wheels touched the ground many were also wondering if instead of a relaxed getaway, would they find themselves in the midst of a political saga.
For months now, Puerto Rico has been mired in a debt crisis that has overshadowed other news from this Caribbean island, especially about its key business – tourism. A commonwealth of the U.S., the local government has been struggling with a crushing 72 billion dollar debt, its hedge fund collectors have called for austerity measures by laying off government workers and not paying pensions, this while the U.S. Congress battles it out on how to help restructure the debt.
It’s no wonder why many might be curious to know if all this political maneuvering affects the more than 3 million visitors who travel here each year.
The answer is apparently “no” at this point. Tourists are not staying away. In fact, according to Milton Segarra, President and CEO, Meet Puerto Rico, the overall key tourism indicators in Puerto Rico are all up over last year’s peak season. As for the basic services travelers rely on, he said, “Airports, hotels, taxis, communication services and other elements of Puerto Rico’s tourism infrastructure are not affected by the government’s financial status.”
JetBlue, the only airline from Bradley International Airport with a direct daily flight to San Juan, reports that its flights have not seen a dip in traffic or demand. Instead, Elizabeth Ninomiya, a JetBlue spokesperson, said they have seen a capacity increase of over 24% over the same period in 2015. As a result, JetBlue is adding 85 more flights to meet the demand through September of this year.
From my vantage point of having spent a few weeks in Puerto Rico this past January, I encountered just a few signs regarding the island’s financial issues. Goods are more expensive than I remember and the most noticeable change is the sales tax, which has increased to 11.5 percent and unless the debt situation is resolved, it may go up to 16.5 percent on April 1st.
Not to minimize the hardship this may cause residents, but for many tourists who have traveled to far costlier destinations, this increase apparently seems a small price to pay in pursuit of their enjoyment.
Even many residents say it’s business as usual.
Joy Salvo, who grew up in Wallingford and now operates Barefoot Adventures in the scenic northwestern town of Rincon, says the debt issue is not going to affect tourists. She is seeing the same number of visitors to her business as in previous years and more investors coming into Rincon. “The news has been so hyped up. If you think about it, Puerto Rico’s debt is so much smaller than that of the United States,” she said.
Another former state resident, Fernando Comulada a retired banking executive, says ‘this debt thing’ doesn’t mean you can’t have a good vacation here. He points out, “Many people today worry about traveling to many places in the world; Puerto Rico is a safe destination from that perspective.”
He is also quick to add, “Having fun, enjoying life is part of our culture. We will never give that up. Visitors who come here know that and love to share in it.”
Meanwhile Elby Pagano, CEO of the Manchester based, Interpreters and Translators, Inc. who has a second home on the island doesn’t believe tourists will really ever give up traveling to Puerto Rico. She cites its many highlights, such as Old San Juan, and other popular tourist destinations like beautiful beaches and the coffee plantations in the island’s mountainous region.
She too adds, ” One cannot find friendlier, more hospitable people anywhere in the world. When in a restaurant people wish one another, “Buen proevecho” and the greeting of choice is “Buen Dia”.