(eTN) – “Just Think” is a new copy line launched by the Office of Tourism for Puerto Rico (PR). Mario Gonzalez-Lafuente, Executive Director of the PR Tourism Company, is also asking us to Discover Why Puerto Rico Does It Better. Why PR tourism executives really want us to think very deeply about their commonwealth and to consider what the destination does better is a mystery to me.
Just Think: PR Highest Murder Rate in US
A press release issued by Annie Rodriguez, the Director of Communications and Public Relations for PR Tourism stated, “Puerto Rico Tourism Company’s Gonzalez: Puerto Rico is Safer Than Ever” (November 29, 2010). Even a cursory look at PR crime statistics challenges this statement.
Crime is so out of control in the commonweath that in October 2010, 750 FBI personnel were flown into PR to carry out raids and make arrests. According to Eric Holder, the US Attorney General, more than 1,000 FBI personnel participated in Operation Guard Shack, which was the largest crackdown on police corruption in the FBI’s 102-year history. In February 2010, the Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuno, activated 1,000 members of the National Guard to battle crime in this US territory.
In the past 8 years there have been 25 slayings of transgender people. Rose Ellen in a CNN iReport told the story of a 19-year-old gay Puerto Rican who was found on November 14, 2009 burned, dismembered, and decapitated, with arms, legs, and head torn off before the body was dumped. According to Ellen, the insensitivity of the police response demonstrated a prejudice against the gay community claiming that, “…people who lead this type of lifestyle need to be aware that this will happen.”
Because PR is a US territory, the brutal murder is a hate crime (signed into law by President Barack Obama). Fortunately the killer was recently apprehended and is spending 99 years in jail. Finally acknowledging the serious nature of hate crimes, in June 2010, Guillermo Somoza-Colombani, the Attorney General for PR, convened a special committee to investigate. The committee includes the US Attorney’s office in San Juan, police officials, and the island’s civil rights commission.
The Center for the Prevention of Young Hispanic Violence of the University of PR conducted a study (2006) that revealed that between 1999 and 2003, homicide was the number one cause of death in the PR among young people between the ages of 15 and 29. The study concluded that in the years between 1990 and 1999, the risk of death by homicide in PR was one of the highest in the world, with a rate of 213.2 percent homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, in contrast with the global rate of 10.7 percent for every 100,000 residents.
The locations with the highest crime rates include San Juan, Ponce, as well as Loiza and Catano. PR also has a massive marijuana problem as noted by the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) and puntos de drogas, or drug points, can be found throughout Puerto Rican nightclubs, restaurants, bars, and city streets.
Fevers and Chills
PR is not the healthiest destination and in February 2010 PR declared a dengue fever epidemic with 210 dengue and three hemorrhagic dengue cases confirmed by Health Secretary Lorenzo Gonzalez. Dengue, a tropical virus spread by mosquitoes for which there is no vaccine, causes fever, headaches, and extreme joint and muscle pain.
Moody’s Lowers Rating
In August 2010, Moody’s Investor Services lowered its outlook on PR to negative (specially A3 – just four notches above junk status), citing the likelihood that the government will have to incur significant debt to support the public pension system, as well as the country’s high unemployment, low workforce participation, and high poverty levels.
In PR It Does Not Stop
• To add other woes, there is concern with the public water supply reservoirs as they are filling with sand and other sediment reducing the storage capacity by as much as 60 percent over the last 50 years. The decline in capacity combined with population expansion presents a problem for long-term water supplies.
• Years of sand-mining from beaches and dunes have caused serious erosion, creating flooding and storm damage problems for coastal PR communities.
• According to attorney Cindy Badano, Animal Rights Special Committee President, dead animals are littering the roads, and their decomposition is creating a loss of US$15 million yearly as animal rights tourists are boycotting the island and refuse to return to see the pitiful scenes.
• On October 30, 2010, Governor Luis Fortuno lifted a ban on new construction for resorts and is permitting large-scale development inside the 3,200-acre parcel of land immediately north of El Yunque – the only tropical rain forest in the US National Forest system.
• Governor Fortuno is supporting a new coal-fired power plant and garbage facilities, alarming environmentalists.
• According to Camilla Feibelman of the Sierra Club, PR has many Superfund sites where the EPA is overseeing contaminant cleanup.
• Exposure to air pollutants from large ships includes nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and particulate matter and can cause respiratory illnesses, such as lung disease, asthma, and heart disease. The Port of San Juan in Puerto Rico moves approximately 11 million metric tons of goods on nearly 3,800 vessel trips annually. It is also a major destination for over one million cruise ship passengers. It was reported in the States News Service (December 7, 2010) that because of the pollution caused by cruise lines and container vessels there is a proposal for these vessels in “emission control areas” to use much cleaner fuel or install better pollution control technology.
• On October 26, 2010, President Barack Obama declared the commonwealth and surrounding areas as qualified to receive a federal aid supplement to assist local recovery efforts in the area struck by severe storms, flooding, mudslides, and landslides associated with Tropical Storm Otto during the period of October 4-8, 2010.
• On September 29, 2010, the EPA approved a list of 593 instances in which a pollutant caused impairment in the PR water body that keeps it from supporting its designated use for drinking water, swimming and recreation, fishing, or other activities specified by the commonwealth. The most common pollutants causing impairment include pathogens, arsenic, and dissolved oxygen.
• In June 2010, the Red Cross declared the areas from Arecibo to Dorado and surrounding areas as Disaster Areas.
• Workers in PR earn half the per capita income of the poorest US state (Daily Herald, May 23, 2010).
• In 2009, 9 beaches were closed due to excessive levels of bacteriologicals: enterococci and fecal coliforms (from human waste contamination). The beaches included Cerro Gordo en Vega Alta, La Monseratte en Luquillo, Boqueron en Cabo Rojo, and Rincon (60 colonias).
• In a 2009, PR Asthma Surveillance Report, “…our population suffers from the highest asthma morbidity and mortality of all states and territories of the United States of America.” The CDC showed that PR had a significantly higher overall prevalence of lifetime (19.6%) and current (11.6%) asthma in the US. In a Wessex Institute study of PR air quality, it was found that on average the urban districts presented higher particulate matter concentrations than the rural area. The study also revealed that particulate matter concentrations at some areas and at certain time periods were above the US National Ambient Air Quality Standards.
• In addition, the global recession has hit PR tourism in its tourism pocket, showing a 4.7 percent decline in 2009.
Private Sector Supersized
The Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuno, is offering a 30-percent tax cut for businesses plus a five-year property tax holiday. PR is also waiving most fees for many real estate transactions. This robust public-private partnership program cuts capital gains for new housing proposals along with caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractices cases and a crackdown on frivolous laws.
What is Better
There are many optimists among the public and private sector executives in the PR, and it is likely that the economy, safety, security, employment, water safety, pollution, etc. for the country will improve overtime. However, in a Paradise Lost study by John M. Hunter and Sonia I. Arbona in the Journal of Social Science and Medicine, it was found that while “…rapid industrialization…” transformed PR, creating employment opportunities and raising living standards, “…in its wake is widespread pollution resulting in a landfill crisis, a heritage of toxic dumps, and an advancing tide of pollution…” The authors call upon “…inter-sectoral political leadership” to reverse the trend “…towards environmental deterioration.”
In most situations, countries wait for the worst conditions to be eliminated before making an announcement or at least hedging their bets by stating the problems and proposing solutions (Iceland and the volcano situation is an example). It is rare for a locale to call attention to its many shortcomings and publicly declare that “it is does it better” until it has found remedies that address the challenges and in fact are “doing it better.”
Perhaps the “Just Think” marketing campaign should “think” about the serious reality of the situation in the PR and “think” about a turnaround plan prior to drawing global attention to the many issues it faces.