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Original Issue

SRO for serenity

In the uneasy Caribbean one place is enjoying an unprecedented tourist boom: Puerto Rico has almost more than it can handle

Once maligned by Congressmen, deplored by economists, bewailed by visiting sociologists, even abandoned by its citizens who have fled in droves, Puerto Rico is bulging at the bedrooms and bursting at the beach. She is literally turning visitors away at the door.

It is ironic that the boom which the Commonwealth has been preparing for years should have thus exploded so soon. A land of many ironies, Puerto Rico is actually still only in the first stages of a giant program for prosperity, in which tourism plays a major role. No resort in the world has so many plans on the boards, so many hotels in the offing, so many port and pleasure facilities in blueprint. These were to come into being gradually over the next few years, but events elsewhere changed things. The strange face of Cuba, for instance, dour and hostile behind its beards these last 12 months; the unrest in Haiti; the political churnings in the Dominican Republic have speeded up the actuality of the program almost to the very limits of its planned potential. American would-be tourists, scanning the Caribbean scene, suddenly realized that in Puerto Rico they could find stable conditions under an American flag. They also found the first of the new hotels, major in concept, supermodern in execution, perched at the seaside in a nest of cabanas and beach chairs under a golden sun and in temperatures that stayed reliably between 70° and 80°. The gaming parlors and the nightclubs throbbing with the cha-cha-chas were just an elevator's ride away. The advance guard gave three chas for Puerto Rico and came home sun-tanned and rum-cheered, to spread the good word.

The result was a tourist rush that shattered precedent. There were so many cases of hotel overbooking during the 1959 winter season that the Commonwealth placed an ad of explanation in The New York Times and the government opened the new wing of the Presbyterian Hospital for tourists. And this season, to quote Alphonse Salomone, manager of the Caribe Hilton, "is merely the most fantastic that ever existed."

Under this pressure, work on the new projects has accelerated. Probably the most ambitious is the Vieques Island Club, a $16 million resort being built and financed by two young millionaires, Robert F. Woolworth and Thomas O'Connor. It has already cost Puerto Rico the services of its young and able tourist administrator, Rafael Benitez Carle, who recently quit government service to join the venture. Located on nearby Vieques Island, where Benitez Carle was born, it will be crowned with a 100-room hotel in Spanish Catalan style designed by Ballard, Todd and Snibbe, who are responsible for Jamaica's Round Hill. Like Round Hill, it will offer lots for sale and require landowners to build in the club's prescribed style. A bath and tennis club with beachside rooms will nestle alongside the mile and a half of Sun Bay Beach. Moon Bay Beach is half a mile away. The plans call for a yacht club and marina with 16 cabana-type sleeping quarters for yachtsmen who yearn for a night ashore, and a championship golf course replete with cliffhanging lies along the lines of Pebble Beach and Cypress Point.


Another island cabana colony will rise on the hitherto uninhabited atoll called the Isla de Lobos, near Fajardo on the east coast. In the seaport of Fajardo itself will be built an 80-room inn to be operated by the Hotel Corporation of America, as well as a colony of 80 tourist cabins called La Sardinera. Two piers and a marina are going in at the nearby fishing village of Las Croabas, as well as a shoreline promenade, tennis courts, a pool and seven vacation cottages. Far across the island the Villa Parguera will get 50 new rooms to add to the 35 spread around its new pool.

Puerto Rico, refuge for the expense-account executive, at last will also begin to develop hotels for middle income groups. The Hotel Corporation's 216-room Charter House will open in San Juan in November. Sheraton expects to break ground in April on a choice ocean-front site two blocks from last year's flashy La Concha. The Coral Beach, near the San Juan Intercontinental in the airport area, will be completely rebuilt and is expected to reopen next winter with 230 rooms, an Olympic pool, roof gardens and the usual trimmings. Even Rockefeller's Dorado Beach, with its own airport and its own championship golf course hacked out of the jungle, has added another dozen rooms along a pair of crescent beaches that border the grounds.

Coming soon to strengthen the strain of island cuisine are such famous names as Trader Vic and Maxim's of Paris. The month's big opening was the $4 million Intercontinental Hotel perched on a mountain-top looking down on Ponce, 50 miles southwest of San Juan, and Puerto Rico's second city. From the heights, once a Spanish lookout post, guests will be transported to the beach, 10 minutes away, which because of its dry and sunny climate many observers think will eventually become Puerto Rico's Waikiki.

There is, in fact, such a boom in bananaland that Governor Mu√±oz Marín has been accused of muffling tourism lest it cloud the whole island with commercialism and swamp the local culture. It is no secret that he has urged caution so that Puerto Rico will not become totally dependent on tourism's fast dollar. He views with alarm the touristy aspects of such holy places as Lourdes and Nazareth. He wants no hustlers and no hucksters preying on visitors. Already there are some minor evidences. The concessionaire in San Juan's handsome airport jacks up the price on every book and magazine and even charges a niggling 2¢ extra for a 5¢ newspaper. The drugstore in the Caribe does the same, lamely justifying itself as a "store of accommodation."

If tourism is not controlled, says one government counselor, echoing the fears pronounced by the governor, "we may become a floating Atlantic City." To avoid this, the island's jackhammering Operation Bootstrap is being tempered with a simultaneous and more gentle effort called Operation Serenity. Albeit with muted trumpet, Serenity is sounding the call for a cultural development to run side by side with the economic program—specifically, a restoration of traditional Spanish colonial architecture throughout the island. Bootstrap and Serenity come together in a narrow street called the Calle del Cristo, one of the original 13 streets laid out in old San Juan behind the protective sea wall. El Morro fortress commands its heights, and its lower end is marked by a tiny chapel set there to commemorate a horseman who was miraculously saved from death when, in a race around the hairpin curve in 1753, his horse plunged over the cliff. The tiny strip of a street is still paved with blue cobblestones that rode as ballast in the hulls of Spanish galleons westward bound to pick up treasure. Just a block or so off Cristo Street the ancient stones of La Fortaleza, bastion of Mu√±oz Marín, were first set in place in 1533.

These ancient Spanish façades must by law be carefully preserved, but behind them new shops and inns are being built. One of the handsomest of the new inns being whittled out of the old interiors will be El Convento, formerly the Convento las Monjas. In its central patio where the nuns once walked, workmen are installing a swimming pool, and tomorrow's tourists will dine under the great high ceiling of the chapel where yesterday's penitents prayed. The stream of blue cobbles runs downhill just outside the door. Across the street is the white facade of the cathedral of San Juan Bautista, which traces its heritage back to palmthatched days in 1521. Its circular stairway and Gothic vaulted ceiling date back to its first reconstruction in 1540.


Down the block La Residencia is emerging from a three-century sleep as a handsome pension with red-tiled floors, beamed ceilings, carved banisters and decorator tiles under each step of the stairs. Passers-by shop next door in the tropical Castilian air of the Casa Cavanaugh, and Martha Sleeper, the Caribbean couturière, has her own casa on the corner, with wrought-iron chandeliers hanging from the overhead beams. Jazz and a welter of Victorian drippings are hidden behind the eight Spanish colonial doors of a new place called the Ocho Puertas. Here amid all the history, guests pull up to marble tables and perch on stuffed velvet chairs to nibble on hot hors d'oeuvres while the blarings of imported gut bucket shiver the ancient timbers.

All these projects last year helped lift the capital investment in Puerto Rico tourism past the $50 million level. But the score or more of major projects which will get under way in the coming months will double the size of the island's tourist plant in perhaps two years. Even before this enlargement, the more than 300,000 tourists who will burst the seams of the hotels this year will leave over $50 million in Puerto Rico.


Strange as it may seem, the whole idea of tourism in the once Stricken Land was an accident. In an early abortive try at bringing visitors to the lush island so newly under the American flag, the Vanderbilt interests in 1918 put up the Condado Beach Hotel, a pleasant establishment overlooking the sea. But the hotel was no more than up and open before the island, like the rest of the U.S., was faced with the specter of Prohibition. Puerto Rico was given a local option. Only about 40% of the population could read and write, and in the ensuing vote the coconut was used as the symbol of the drys, while the bottle stood for booze. Mainland influence, plus the familiarity of the coconut and the desire of the young colony to do the right thing under its new allegiance all conspired to return a dry vote. Tourism on the island died aborning, and Puerto Rico had to wait 30 years for its next chance.

When it came, Muñoz found a firebrand to keep the steam up: a smiling, energetic Puerto Rican whiz-bang named Teodoro Moscoso, who was trained as a pharmacist in Philadelphia. Abandoning pill-rolling to his family, which owns a chain of drugstores, Moscoso moved rapidly after World War II to design tax laws that would prove alluring to continental businessmen. Successful in bringing them to the island on exploratory trips, Moscoso was unable to put them up in the style to which they had long been accustomed. The Caribe Hilton was built for businessmen operating between North and South America, and particularly for those who the Commonwealth hoped would stop over to survey the local business attractions.

The Hilton, and the hoopla which it attracted at its opening in 1950, actually triggered the second coming of tourism to Puerto Rico. Moscoso parlayed the publicity and the promotion with more of his own, putting a million dollars in rum advertising into ads which slyly sold Puerto Rico as sort of a short-order Shangri-La favored by young socialites from Darien. The crowning success of his psychological insinuations in the mainland press came last year when The New Yorker printed a cartoon showing a distraught lady in a parlor saying, "The last we ever heard of poor Rodney was in an ad for Puerto Rico. There was a photograph of Rodney, and the ad said that he was very fond of Puerto Rico and rum."

Tourism today is Puerto Rico's fourth largest industry, after garments and textiles, sugar and dairy products. Moscoso is confident that it can take over second place. To assure its progress and assuage the fears that Muñoz has voiced, Moscoso maintains a vigilant patrol of the industry. Taking a lesson from the pre-Castro ills that racked Cuban gambling, Puerto Rico has diligently screened out the mob. The Commonwealth hires John Scarne, the gambling expert, on a retainer basis to supervise the play. It assigns gambling inspectors to each of its six casinos, brings them in early each night to measure the dice and inspect the cards and rotates them regularly. Investors are required to spend $5 million on a hotel before they become eligible for a gambling license. If the investors want to keep the tax exemptions that make Puerto Rico so popular, they must abide by the regulations of a hotel code written by the hotel school of Cornell University.

Guest facilities are now being carefully zoned. The big skyscraping inns that have shut out the sea view in other resorts are being grouped into what Moscoso calls "hotel nucleuses." In between the groups of hotels there will be, says he, "a helluva lot of Puerto Ricans. That's what gives the color and that way we hold to the governor's theory."

The governor's "theory," which is to say, his fear of cultural inundation, is not what causes him to shy away from statehood, a growing movement in Puerto Rico. Says he, "The sincere people who want statehood must be bad economists. Puerto Rico is currently developing twice as fast as the U.S., but we would suffer a $188 million loss if we were to get statehood tomorrow." Muñoz reasons that statehood would bring an abrupt end to the tax benefits, both corporate and personal, which bring businesses and businessmen to the island. Moscoso, the practical businessman with an eye cocked to the tremendous economic uplift that tourism can bring, is likewise not eager to stifle the new-found bonanza for the sake of a star. As for culture, he is duty bound to heed warnings that Muñoz issues, but he does not share the governor's fears. "The U.S.," says Moscoso, "still hasn't assimilated Brooklyn culturally. As for us, listen to the Latin music you play up there. Look at the impact of West Side Story. Why, a country which has displayed such a vigor may impinge culturally on the U.S. before the U.S. impinges on us."


PATTERN OF A BOOM is seen from old San Juan. The Caribe Hilton (foreground) started it; now luxury hotels like La Concha have risen beside such old favorites as the Condado Beach (center) to make an imposing line along the sands of Santurce.


OPERATION BOOTSTRAP is producing these new or expanded facilities: (1) Dorado Beach, 12 new rooms; (2) El Convento, 90 rooms; (3) Swiss Chalet, 100 rooms; (4) La Residencia Guest House, 15 rooms; (5) El Miramar Charter House, 205 rooms; (6) Condado Beach, 100-room annex; (7) Sheraton, open 1961, 408 rooms; (8) Coral Beach, open 1961, 230 rooms; (9) Guest House, 24 rooms; (10) El Conquistador, 80 rooms; (11) La Sardinera, 80 cabins; (12) Cabana Colony, 32 rooms; (13) Vieques Project, 100 rooms; (14) Hotel Melia, 100 new rooms; (15) El Ponceno, 170 rooms; (16) Villa Parguera, 30-room wing; (17) La Palma, 60-room expansion.