I really hate it when people idealize the place where I live. I get it—pearly beaches, crystal-clear water, warm people, and a hot sun beating down on people with huge, white smiles on their faces. The food’s delicious, yes, and the remains of colonialism have left Puerto Ricans with aesthetically impressive architectural feats. All of that is pretty on paper, but do most tourists even stop to ask themselves what it’s like to actually live here?
The paradise fades away for those who actually decide to move here once they live through the debt-ridden, politically corrupt, and judgemental society that remains when you take away all the glitter and the affordable cocktails. Most people that live in Old San Juan have to work several jobs in order to pay rent there. In fact, the businesses there are mostly kept afloat by the tourists that come via cruise ships and airplanes. Most of the prices are not accessible on a day-to-day basis for the people who live there.
One-third of the island’s population is eligible for receiving food stamps aid from the government. That means that a grand majority of the people here either don’t have jobs or have insufficient income sources to make ends meet. Truth be told, many Puerto Ricans have to tolerate seeing people from wealthy backgrounds visiting their run-down towns and enjoying the expensive sightseeing trips that they can’t even afford because they have too many bills to pay. Tourists end up enjoying the spaces that locals wish they had more money and time to partake in.
It’s not like there’s much that can be done, though. The situation worsens when you take into consideration the fact that a large chunk of many islands’ economies also thrives on tourism and projecting a welcoming image that brings tourists and visitors to invest in and/or visit their countries. Sadly, many a time, investors are actually just finding out ways to exploit the damaged economy and avoid taxes or other obstacles that their businesses would face elsewhere. That is to say: they don’t actually appreciate the culture, the people, or the society that are a part of that place where they’ve decided to seize a business opportunity. There are exceptions, of course, but these are not as numerous as one would want them to be.
Many of the hotels that end up taking advantage of the massive waves of tourists aren’t even local businesses. The money that’s generated in those lodging spaces ends up being exported out of Puerto Rico into the hands of people who own hotels all around the world. Locally-established hotel owners have to do twice as much with fewer resources, tax exemptions, and more obstacles than foreign investors or owners. The same applies to many other businesses on the island. Islanders from all over the Caribbean end up becoming dollar signs to those from the outside, and their lives become accessories to the purpose of multi-million dollar industries.
Additionally, many of the gorgeous landscapes chosen as the settings for luxurious hotels are ecologically-protected areas. That is to say, hotels are not supposed to be there. Many foreign business owners have found loopholes to local legislation and have built impressive tourist traps while ignoring the consequences that will arise for the people who actually live here. Puerto Rican coasts are shrinking every year, with the coastline near Ocean Park being an example of how, in a few decades or less, we’ll have no choice but to find ways to circumvent having lost homes and land to the ocean. The soil’s erosion is a serious issue, and building massive hotels near the coast isn’t helping at all.
As if all this wasn’t enough, many tourists have the nerve to arrive at an island and be treated like royalty for some unspoken reason. Many people don’t even research or try to know the historical or cultural background of the places they visit. To make matters even worse, then they expect these same places to work and have everything that their home country has. It’s almost as if they never experienced the consequences of colonialism where they currently live. Well, that is usually the case, anyway.
Visiting other cultures is an enriching experience that helps each person grow and acquire cultural intelligence. I just hope that, in the future, when anyone decides to visit another cultural setting, especially one with a vastly different social and economic background from their native country, they should at least research and try to respect the culture and people there. It’s the least one can do for the people who can’t afford the riches and luxuries of their country and probably won’t ever travel to half of the places that these visitors have already gone to.
Thousands of pieces are already up online. What are you waiting for to get educated about this? Your nine-hour flight will give you plenty of time. I promise.