San Juan is increasingly becoming the Caribbean’s most LGBTQ+-friendly destination

By Hanan Redwan Published on February 19, 2022
San Juan is increasingly becoming the Caribbean’s most LGBTQ+-friendly destination

We’ve been to this gay stretch of Condado Beach before – before three hurricanes, a series of earthquakes and a pandemic crushed Puerto Rico and its capital, San Juan, both their infrastructure and their spirit. While the beach still has the same blue waters and golden sand, the skyline is much different: an old condo gone, a new one in its place; a boutique hotel rebuilt and renamed; what was once a fantastic beach club, now just an empty shell.

It only takes a day or two on this Caribbean island of 3.3 million to grasp how much it’s still hurting. Money starts to fly out of my wallet – we tip big and spend fast, but never quite as quickly as when I spy a slick, black baseball cap with a simple rainbow-flag patch in a shop window. It doesn’t leave my head for days. We also notice how resilient Puerto Ricans are as they wait patiently to return the tourism dollars – the heft of the gay community’s “pink dollar” included.

With the launch of Life Out, a 2022 campaign aimed at growing the LGBTQ+ market on the island, the tourist board Discover Puerto Rico hopes to not only attract more pink dollars but also empower its LGBTQ+ citizenry.

“When people visit Puerto Rico, we want them to live out their experiences, explore the food, the nightlife and the nature,’’ says Jose E. Arana Rodriguez, marketing and special events manager at Discover Puerto Rico. “We want to showcase that you can just be yourself when you visit the island.”

Despite the Catholic backbone – and very much unlike many of its Caribbean neighbours – Puerto Rico embraces diversity, its LGBTQ+ community enjoys the same rights as those on the mainland United States, such as protecting hate laws and the right to get married. And thanks to the beach, as mentioned earlier, a rich nightlife, gay-owned hotels and two annual Pride parades – one in San Juan and one in Boqueron on the southwest coast – the international gay crowd likes it here. 41 per cent of LGBTQ+ visitors identified Puerto Rico as a gay-friendly destination in 2020, according to a survey taken by Strategic Marketing and Research Insights for Discover Puerto Rico, up from 19 per cent in 2019.

When we are abroad, my partner and I have honed our senses so finely we notice even the slightest hint of homophobia. We travel in a continuous state of assessment of our surroundings and the people we come in contact with, a judgement call to see how we are being judged. Having been mistaken for “friends” on other Caribbean islands by hospitality industry staff (seriously, you’d have to be headless not to know we are gay), we realise that not all the hotspots have as much experience interacting with LGBTQ+ people as others do. In Puerto Rico, and not just in touristy Condado, we feel entirely welcome, our guard dropping along with our shoulders. Tour guides, cab drivers, shopkeepers, even just people on the street – all are extremely friendly and intensely proud of their island.

Rodriguez says the Live Out campaign will encourage LGBTQ+ tourists to visit and “at the same time, help Puerto Ricans broaden their culture and become a more welcoming destination.” Photoshoots using real people – including non-binary and transgender people from the island – will anchor TV spots, social media channels and print ads, beginning in early 2022, pending funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). This almost US$2-trillion law funnels pandemic-recovery money into the U.S. “Everyone will be visible,” Rodriguez says.

The open-ended campaign will first hit the U.S., where more than 95 per cent of the island’s tourists come from, Rodriguez says. “We hope to also explore our other international markets like Canada, Spain, Colombia, Germany and the U.K. later on.”

Other players helping to create Live Out include the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), LatinX and queer-rights activist Jhoni Jackson and the True Self Foundation, an LGBTQ+ political and social organisation. As a sidebar to the campaign, Pathway to Employment, a new program in development by hospitality education company HospitableMe and the IGLTA’s non-profit research arm, will help promote greater inclusion and fair treatment of the LGBTQ+ community within the island’s hospitality industry, partnering with hotels and other visitors bureaus.

“We know that many of our destinations are having work shortages for whatever reason, and we know that the transgender community is less represented within the hospitality industry, finding it harder to land jobs,” Rodriguez says. “We’re trying to identify how to partner with both groups to create a learning opportunity for everyone. In the end, we want hotels and hospitality brands and companies trained and prepared to welcome and provide job opportunities to this segment of the community.”

Meanwhile, back at the resort after a day of wandering San Juan’s blue cobblestone streets, the “gay end” of the pool, always the most fun, is getting its margarita on. And there’s that cap again – this time on someone else. Snap! We smile and nod, a tacit acknowledgement of solidarity – and our great taste.

Hanan Redwan

Hanan Redwan

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