By Focusing on Nature & Taíno Heritage, Puerto Rico is Revolutionizing Its Struggling Tourism Industry

Lead Photo: Photo: Juan Angel Alicea Mercado for AP
Photo: Juan Angel Alicea Mercado for AP
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For decades, Puerto Rico was known to gringo vacationers as an exotic getaway that didn’t involve the hassle of actually leaving the country, and the island reigned supreme as the Caribbean’s go-to tourist destination. But about 30 years ago, Puerto Rico’s hospitality industry started backsliding, and tourist numbers have remained stagnant while industries on neighboring islands like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and even Cuba have exploded.

Naturally, hoteliers in Puerto Rico have chocked this difficulty up to unnecessary nuisances like US labor laws – which force poor CEOs to pay employees a $7.30 minimum wage, compared to about $60/week in DR – while bad publicity tied to the recent Zika panic plummeted numbers even lower. And while it’s true that cheaper operational costs on neighboring islands give a leg up in terms of pricing, the answer to Puerto Rico’s tourism woes probably isn’t plunging hospitality workers even deeper into poverty.

But little by little, folks on the island are finding new, creative ways to shore up an industry that accounts for up to 6 percent of the struggling economy’s GDP – focusing more on what makes Puerto Rico unique, and less on generic resort tourism. To that end, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company has dug back into Puerto Rico’s indigenous Taíno past to create the “Ruta Taína” – a tour package that traverses the center of the island north to south, and hits some of the island’s most important archeological sites along the way.

Billing the island as “the most important indigenous tourism destination in the Caribbean,” the tour takes advantage of the pioneering archeological excavation and preservation work carried out by the late Dr. Ricardo Alegría. Beginning in the northern coastal town of Arecibo, the Ruta Taína takes adventuresome tourists from the Cueva del Indio, through iconic petroglyphs scattered throughout towns like Aibonito and Jayuya, to indigenous-themed museums, and finally to Ponce’s Tibes ceremonial center.

The Ruta’s slick website invites visitors to discover the Puerto Rico’s “indigenous side,” highlighting the importance of Taíno place names throughout the island, and even including a glossary of Taíno words used in modern Puerto Rican Spanish. But even with this unprecedented focus on historical and cultural tourism, there’s still much more natural beauty to Puerto Rico beyond the white-sand beaches and colonial architecture traditionally peddled to potential visitors. That’s where the collective behind Ruteando Mi Isla comes in.

Made up of young, social media-savvy explorers, Ruteando Mi Isla has adopted a model of crowdsourcing information on the island’s hidden natural wonders, then gears up each week with drones, DSLRs, and GoPro cameras to document their adventures for curious Boricuas on and off the island. As an extension of their insular wanderlust, they’ve even begun to offer guided tours for visitors who want to get off the beaten path and discover some of the island’s breathtaking beauty. But folks on the island don’t even have to open their pocketbooks to get a taste of Ruteando Mi Isla: all you have to do is hit up the crew on social media to hop on board for their next adventure.

Of course, Puerto Rico still has a long way to go to catch up with the sophisticated eco- and cultural tourism infrastructure of countries like Mexico and Peru, but these initiatives point toward a promising break from the interchangeable, copy/paste resort tourism that has traditionally dominated in the Caribbean. Indeed, it’s visionary initiatives like these that point the way forward for Puerto Rico in the midst of profound economic and political uncertainty.