Honors Thesis Spotlight: The Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Puerto Rico’s Tourism Industry

Tourism is one of the primary businesses which attracts external investment to the island of Puerto Rico, while also furthering pro-business interests in place of those from the general public. It has set the bar for Puerto Rico’s urban economy today, especially that of its capital, San Juan, and has developed around the influx of over one million tourists annually. However, with the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the virtual shutdown of all travel, there has been a very noticeable drop in tourism. Monthly tourist entry into the island was reduced from almost 200,000 to just over 50,000, and the tourism industry labor force dropped to 46,900, (4).

Statistics like these are jarring for Puerto Rico since the tourism sector accounts for almost 30% of the gross domestic product. Tourism has particularly made SIDS (small island developing states) vulnerable to catastrophe. Instead of finding sustainable ways to rebuild their economy beyond tourism, many SIDS, including Puerto Rico, have found themselves instead accommodating to the pandemic. For example, there is a visible increase in testing kit prices, and “other accommodations to pandemic protocols have caused setbacks in economic recovery of SIDS across the world,” (4).

With this Puerto Rico example in mind, the researcher argues that an increasing dependence upon an outdated form of tourism has been and remains unsustainable. The researcher outlines their study in support of their thesis. It tracks the historical development of Puerto Rico’s tourism industry, and compares it with actual analysis and data on tourism during the COVID-19 pandemic from news sources, press releases, and interviews with visitors to Puerto Rico during the pandemic. In so doing, this study will outline the toxicities brought about by creating a critical economic sector which is dependent on the influx of external capital. It also briefly attempts to offer solutions from academics, journalists, and industry operatives regarding the future of tourism in 5 sustainability and renewability, with a particular focus on educative rather than exploitive tourism, (5).

The Puerto Rican government’s prolonged pro-business mindset has permitted the reopening of the tourism industry despite a raging pandemic. It is also perpetuated by the extant colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, (9). “By not being allowed to close its borders to entry from potentially viremic tourists, Puerto Rico was forced to play the game of capitalism,” (9).

The researcher advises these SIDS to decrease their focus on consumptive, capitalistic tourism so that regenerative forms of tourism can arise. Education must be the new purpose of tourism if it is to become a sustainable means of economy.

Carlos Rivera Fernandez is a graduate of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. This post was based on Carlos’s honors thesis, written by COSSPP Blog Intern, Jillian Kaplan.

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