by Jon Borschow, President Foundation for Puerto Rico
While we were sleeping, blanketed in the illusory notion that we were wise and self-sufficient, the 21st-century happened. While we were squabbling about nonsense, the world moved on. While our leaders danced and had us dance to the rhythm of their jingle of the moment, we squandered our capital and went into debt, unsustainably.
While we were sleeping, the rest of the world learned how to create value with innovation and knowledge creation displacing the more traditional engines of economic development. While our educational model languished, the world produced millions of engineers and scientists. While we imported and consumed, others learned to export – knowledge, technology and services, and we exported our talent. While we argued about which language was the teaching priority and taught neither well, the world learned how to be multilingual. While we continue to look for ways to wriggle our way out of the mess we have created, we continue to decline.
Reality is in our face, we have our creditors at the door. We have to take measures with our budget and our debt. We need to reform the government – to break the cycle of pork barrel patronage, to promote transparency and to remedy the extraordinary lack of productivity in so many government agencies. We also need to reform a private sector that no longer knows how to create value and has confused innovation with advertising campaigns. None of this is enough to save us if we don’t understand how the 21st-century works.
We need to perform psychological alchemy to transform these difficult realities into opportunities. A world that grows richer every day, seeks new destinations and unique experiences. That translate into a huge new industry – the “visitor economy”, annually worth $9 trillion worldwide, of which Puerto Rico (a world-class destination) captures only $7 billion.
Puerto Rico is a destination which provides a great variety of experiences for those who seek to vacation, to flee from the cold or even from the heat, to make a new home, pursue education, find inspiration, recalibrate our lives, or pursue various other forms of self-improvement and even establish global businesses. We have an ideal geographic location, an unbeatable climate, and enviable natural beauty far beyond our wonderful beaches. We have physical and technological infrastructure, excellent internal road access, and multiple airports that support long-range wide body aircraft as well as seaports for cruise ships. As a society, we have intellectual depth, an authentic and constantly evolving culture, great human warmth and a sense of humor, music, dance, art, and an extraordinarily diverse gastronomic offer.
Doubling our “visitor economy” to $14 billion a year, we can create 70,000 sustainable jobs. It’s enough to fill up our hotels, inns, guest houses, beach houses, apartments, and rooms for rent as well as our museums, art galleries, concert halls, restaurants, and all the other fun and informal places to eat all around the island. Our universities will thrive with thousands of international students and our health industry will be strengthened by medical tourism visitors. Let’s become the premier island destination for conventions and festivals! I can see idealistic young visitors heading to the country side to help us harvest our coffee, keep our beaches clean, and join the locals in domino matches in the town squares. Eventually, the world will come to learn how it’s all done!
For us to successfully achieve this far-reaching vision, we have to first fully understand its possibilities and implications, and then we make sure that we build in all the linkages that ensure that opportunities are created for all. We have to reactivate our collaborative genes and invest our collective energy and talent as a society in designing and developing a “visitor economy” at a 21st-century level, visionary, advanced, digital, sophisticated, and committed to excellence.
We have to use our community organizations to establish networks of qualified providers and design visitor experiences that appeal to all tastes; our universities must educate us on all the relevant subject matters and to create narratives and strategies; we need our local information-technology businesses to develop digital platforms that allow us to connect directly with potential visitors from around the world. And all of this work must be supported by new public policy from the government.
If we put our heart and soul into transforming ourselves around this new vision, our economy will grow and the painful and fractious measures to rescue our finances will not have been in vain. There is no other strategy that is going to get us out of this recession. I invite our political, business and community leaders to come together and make it happen.