Puerto Rico has always been a part of my childhood. My grandma was born and raised there, with many stories to tell, and my mother would stay there every summer with her cousins. Anyone who has been to Puerto Rico would agree that its beauty and unique culture is what makes the small island so special. One side of the island is covered in El Yunque tropical rainforest, the middle has beautiful mountains, and the other side is covered in white sand beaches. The bioluminescent bay at La Parguera is something I will never forget.
However, after the travel restrictions that were put in place during the pandemic, Puerto Rico has now been marketed simply as a cheap, accessible hot-spot for American travellers to build in and vacate to without a passport. This rise in tourism therefore led to many Covid restrictions being broken. Thousands of tourists explored the island without face masks and broke curfews. This sudden influx of tourists was so large that some streets in San Juan had to be shut down due to overcrowding.
It’s true that tourism has always benefited Puerto Rico, especially due to the USA’s previous failures to properly aid the island after multiple hurricanes. But this has all come at a cost.
The tourism industry has been responsible for the destruction of mangroves, wetlands, and other coastal areas — even the extinction of local fish! Puerto Rico is no stranger to resort construction, but now widespread projects have increased to meet the demand for rentals on Airbnb, and are adding to concerns about coastal gentrification and ‘touristification’. The island, which was originally priced to be accessible to locals, now has prices skyrocketing, to the extent that locals can no longer afford their own homes. Furthermore, in Puerto Rico, the Estuaries and coastal forests (some of Earth’s most biodiverse and productive ecosystems) house the wildlife and plants that so many people rely on to make a living, and to live sustainably. Since this rise in rental platforms like Airbnb, locals have faced a rise in homelessness and are being pushed out of coastal areas. As one-third of households in these communities rely on coastal goods for at least part of their income, while more than two-thirds rely on them as food sources, it’s evident just how much of an impact the tourism industry has, not just on the livelihood of these people, but their actual lives and ability to survive as well.
In Puerto Rico, and elsewhere on the continent, wetlands have historically been seen as undesirable and even dangerous places to live and work. They have often been inhabited by poorer people, commonly from Afro-descendant or Indigenous communities, who have made their living through fishing, foraging, harvesting coconuts, cutting wood, and making charcoal. However, recently, the wealthy across the world have decided that this is desirable for themselves, and as a result those who live there due to necessity now must compete with tourism companies over the same land.
Over the years there have been many exposés on what these corrupt companies do to build developments on the coast. In 2020, it was revealed by a political activist that most companies were cutting through protected mangrove at night and illegally logging land, which led to much anger towards the council and developers — understandably, and rightfully so. Hildia Llorens, a journalist from Puerto Rico, asked the locals living on the southern coast about these developments: “What would your community look like without access to the mangrove and its bounties?” The owner of a family restaurant, replied: “The answer is easy. Without access to coastal resources, this community would be dead.”
This issue is only getting worse and rent prices are rising alongside the number of developers. What was previously home to thousands of people now is an unaffordable luxury beach hotel. Not only are the people suffering, but the government is also not doing anything to help, only ignoring the protests of illegal activity which will causes permanent harm to the environment and local economy.
By Valentina Del Bo, student