April 12, 2023

AMPLIFY! | People Live Where You Vacation

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Welcome back from break! Whether you stayed in Ithaca or went abroad, I hope you were able to use this time to rest and recharge away from the stress of coursework. 

While we’re all settling back into class-mode, I thought I would take some time to discuss ethical tourism in the context of Puerto Rico — fun, I know. Given how popular of a destination the island was for Cornellians this year (and most of my years at Cornell), and what I’ve noticed to be a widespread unawareness of Puerto Rico’s political, economic and cultural status, I wanted to take some time to reflect on and address the tourism industry in Puerto Rico, and how visitors can behave respectfully and ethically during their time on the island.  

First, we need to acknowledge one fundamental fact: Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. Puerto Ricans (and any American citizens) living on the island are not legally entitled to the same Constitutional rights and protections as American citizens living in the continental United States. Principles that we take for granted living in the 50 States, such as “one person, one vote,” don’t apply to Puerto Ricans, who have neither a voting representative in Congress nor a vote to cast in presidential elections. This is only the tip of the iceberg, however, and I encourage everyone — regardless of whether you intend to travel — to read further about the political status of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans.

That being said, I wanted to provide the Cornell community with some reminders and suggestions for any potential travel to Puerto Rico. 

1) Do your research! While Puerto Rico is a paradise to many, lots of the island’s residents do not get to experience this luxurious version of P.R. As of 2020, nearly half of the island lives below the poverty line, compared to a national average of 12.8 percent. Recognize your status and privilege as a visitor, and act respectfully toward locals and the native flora and fauna. 

2) Make an effort to learn about our culture — remind yourself that Puerto Rico is a nation with a rich and diverse history, and a culture distinct from that of the United States, despite our status as a “Commonwealth.” Make an effort to get to know Puerto Rico beyond the resorts, and appreciate the humanity of those making your relaxing vacation in paradise possible. 

3) That being said, listen to the locals. Avoid areas that you are told to avoid, for the sake of both your safety and theirs. Every once in a while, stories come out of tourists who intentionally disregarded instructions to avoid certain areas and/or behaviors who met unfortunate consequences. These easily avoidable incidents then become further fuel to the fire of alienating and villainizing already marginalized neighborhoods. 

4) Look after the environment and clean up after yourself. At the bare minimum don’t litter, but if you’re feeling extra kind, consider cleaning up some trash before you head out, especially if it can pose a threat to wildlife. Don’t leave an area in a state you wouldn’t leave your own home in. My golden rule is to always leave somewhere better than you found it. 

5) Make sure the money you spend goes into the hands of Puerto Ricans. When and where you can, frequent Puerto Rican-owned businesses and restaurants, which will not only grant you a more authentic experience but also ensure that the communities you are visiting are the direct recipients of any money spent during your trip. For lodging, consider staying at paradores or small inns, where you’ll receive a more genuine and oftentimes cheaper experience. 

In the end, I want to emphasize that respect is the most important thing. I am so proud to be Puerto Rican, as are most of us, and it brings me joy to see people appreciating my island, its landscapes, seascapes and people. However, it also hurts to see the place where I grew up prioritize the interests of tourists over its local population while people are priced out of their neighborhoods, denied access to the very same lands and waters they grew up with and oftentimes left with no choice but to move to the continental United States. So, if you go to Puerto Rico, make sure to do it right. Just listen to Bad Bunny, who partnered with journalist Bianca Graulau (whom PRSA brought to campus last semester!) to create a documentary-style music video for El Apagón titled “Aquí Vive Gente” (People Live Here). 

Claudia Leon is President of the Puerto Rican Student Association and a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Amplify! runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.