SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—When the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage last year, Sari Skalnik heard gay wedding bells in Old San Juan.
The veteran wedding planner knew that Puerto Rico was singularly positioned to become the new hot spot for same-sex destination weddings.
"For many years Puerto Rico has been known as the gay capital of the Caribbean, and now that same-sex marriage has passed, we have a unique opportunity," says Skalnik, who owns the company Tropical Weddings.
Puerto Rico's wedding-planning industry already rakes in millions of tourism dollars each year. The Isle of Enchantment is a favorite destination for American couples who want to get hitched on a tropical island that they can get to without a passport, and leave from with a legal U.S. marriages license.
Gay wedding tourism is another huge advantage. Many other Caribbean destinations are decidedly homophobic; they don't allow same sex marriage, and some (looking at you, Jamaica) even outlaw homosexuality with penalties that include jail time or hard labor.
Puerto Rico could own the gay market. But not everyone is jumping at the opportunity. The island is still socially conservative, and some wedding planners are shying away from LGBT clients, Skalnik says.
"One of my clients recently got turned down by 16 other wedding planners in Puerto Rico before finding Tropical Weddings," she said.
It's unknown how many "pink dollars" Puerto Rico is throwing away from gay couples who decide to get married in Puerto Vallarta or Miami after placing a few frustrating phone calls to Boricua wedding planners.
Finding ministers to perform gay weddings can be another challenge in Puerto Rico. So Skalnik got ordained herself and in the past 11 months has performed 14 gay weddings. She says same-sex couples now represent the majority of her clients.
"We have a great opportunity right now, and for whatever reason Puerto Rico is not jumping on it—we haven't grabbed the bull by the horns," Skalnik told me. "Someday the island is going to be kicking itself in the butt for not taking advantage of this moment, but for now Puerto Rico's loss is my gain."
Puerto Rico might be kicking itself in the butt sooner than later. The island has accumulated a whopping $70 billion debt that it can't pay. It missed a $422 million payment on May 1, and is expected to default on an even bigger bond payment on July 1. Puerto Rico has been asking the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that would allow the island to declare bankruptcy and restructure its debt, but so far nada.
Puerto Rico desperately needs money. And while gay tourism alone can't fix all of Puerto Rico's cash-flow problems, the $100 billion LGBT travel market could provide some much-needed moolah for an economy that depends heavily on tourism revenue.
But first Puerto Rico needs to come out of the closet and fully accept itself as a gay destination.
Businesses that have embraced the gay market say it was a good move.
"We had our coming-out-of-the-closet party two months ago, and business has been great since," says George Auz, the owner of Gato Flaco, the only openly gay bar in Old San Juan.
Auz says his bar had always been quietly gay-friendly, but he decided to get loud about it a few months ago by placing the rainbow flag outside the door. He says embracing his gay identity has paid off; now Gato Flaco fills with LGBT tourists who arrive for the day on cruise ships and know they will be welcomed in his bar.
"Puerto Rico is gay, but here it's hard to come out of the closet and be open about it," Auz told me. "All the rights and privileges we have as an LGBT community here are because we're part of the United States, but on the island it's difficult. The gay community is tolerated and accepted because we're too big and active to be pushed aside, but we're not fully inclusive."
For John Tanzella, CEO of The International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA), the world's largest global travel network for the gay community, Puerto Rico's hesitancy to market itself to LGBT tourists is a "missed opportunity."
"Puerto Rico could really cash in, but they've done zero" to promote themselves as an LGBT travel destination, Tanzella told me. "We can't get them to step up to the plate. Puerto Rico isn't even a member of IGLTA, and we have a hundred destinations worldwide. That says something."
To be fair to Puerto Rico, it has made some symbolic efforts. The island hosted a mass gay wedding last August and even released a tourism promotion campaign late last year advertising itself as gay-friendly. But the outreach efforts have been relatively timid—and sometimes reluctant.
Puerto Rico's Tourism Director Ingrid Rivera made no mention of LGBT tourism during her lengthy speech at last week's Puerto Rico tourism expo, the travel industry's main annual event. She did, however, find the breath to mention more times than anyone could count that Puerto Rico is home to the world's longest zip line. (I asked the tourism director about LGBT tourism after her talk and she assured me that "It's really important to cater to the group." Then she reminded me that Puerto Rico has the world's longest zip line.)
Caribbean countries that are getting serious about welcoming LGBT travelers are seeing the results. Curaçao has been actively promoting itself as an inclusive, gay-friendly island for the past eight years, and even has an official, English-language website, www.gaycuracao.com. Curaçao probably hosts as many gay wedding ceremonies as Puerto Rico, even though same-sex marriage isn't yet legal on the Dutch island (local authorities are voting on a same-sex marriage bill next year).
"I'm going to let you in on a little secret, we are getting a ton—A TON—of vow renewals, gay honeymoons and gay wedding ceremonies on Curaçao, without even having the laws in place. It's just by showing people that we are all-welcoming," said André Rojer, the North American marketing manager for the Curaçao Tourist Board.
Rojer says Puerto Rico, known as the "all-star island," would be smart to rebrand itself as the "all-inclusive island" before other Caribbean countries catch up, as Barbados is already starting to do by hosting LGBT parties such as "Rinse Out Weekend" and the "Get Wet Weekend."
"Puerto Rico can do much better," he said.
But they have to hurry up about it, especially as Cuba gets in the game. Once the formerly forbidden island fully opens for business, it's going to be a game changer for Caribbean tourism as the country pulls all U.S. travelers—gay and straight—from other destinations that have been previously explored.
"A new continent has just popped out of the ocean. This has never happened before," Simons Chase, founder of the Cuba Journal, told a packed room of tour operators during a seminar on Cuba travel, which drew a bigger crowd than any other event at Puerto Rico's Travel Expo. "Cuba is the most interesting place in the world right now. What do you think is going to happen there?"