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What if Puerto Rico was a U.S. State?

What would change, and what would remain the same, with statehood.


On November 6, 2012, Puerto Rico will hold a referendum asking its residents to vote on its political status, and to determine whether the island should become the 51st state of the United States, declare its independence, or continue as a commonwealth of the U.S..

It's not the first time a vote has been called to decide what Puerto Ricans want, and it's certainly not the first time the issue has been debated. From the Spanish to the Americans, Puerto Rico hasn't been an independent country for over 500 years (except for a brief taste of independence in 1897). But does it want independence? The majority of the island's residents don't seem to think so. At the same time, statehood has never earned a majority vote, either. Perhaps 2012 will be different.

This article isn't about favoring one status over another. Rather, it's a look at how Puerto Rico, the state, would be different (and the same) for the millions of tourists who visit the island each year.

The same as it was before

In very basic ways, an American tourist visiting Puerto Rico the state would find things pretty much the same as they are now. You still wouldn't need a passport; you'd still use your American dollars; and you'd still be able to enjoy the benefits of U.S. government institutions like the post office. You wouldn't pay roaming charged for your cellphone, and, at least in the larger cities (as well as Vieques and Culebra island), you'll be able to speak English wherever you go.

Puerto Rico's most iconic monuments, El Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal, fall under the auspices of the U.S. National Park Service, and much of San Juan is a National Historic Site. The magnificent El Yunque would remain the only subtropical rainforest in the U.S. forest service. And myriad small ways, you'll see the familiar faces of home when you visit.

What would change

I for one think things would be different for Puerto Ricans if the commonwealth became a state. At the most basic level, Puerto Ricans would be able to participate in the U.S. presidential elections. Many believe that the island would also see an economic boost from becoming a state, similar to the stimulus Hawaii and Alaska enjoyed when they became states.

Of course, statehood would shift the political dynamic in the U.S. as well. The island would be represented in Congress by two senators and the House would receive seven representatives, and Puerto Rico might even become a key swing state in future elections.

Does this impact the U.S. tourist? Probably not so much, except perhaps a greater camaraderie with their fellow, fully vested citizens. One thing my younger friends may not like is that Puerto Rico's legal drinking age, now at 18, may jump up to 21. The other thing that may affect tourism on the island, although this will not happen overnight, is that English may become more prevalent. Although English is widely spoken in San Juan, once you get to rural Puerto Rico, you're predominantly in Spanish-language territory.

What about independence?

The 2012 referendum differs from the one that comes before in one key respect. It will ask Puerto Ricans two questions, and the first will pose the question: "Do you agree that Puerto Rico should continue to have its present form of territorial status?" That brings the issue of state or independence into sharp relief. Past referendums have asked residents to choose between three options (including maintaining the status quo). By asking this question directly, Puerto Ricans are being asked directly if they want to remain a commonwealth.

If the island votes for independence, it will be interesting to see how the decision affects tourism. Will you need a passport to go to Puerto Rico? Will your dollars be accepted? Would Puerto Rico be less appealing than, say, the U.S. Virgin Islands?

Whatever happens on November 6, any change in Puerto Rico's status will take place over time. This referendum does not by itself change anything, and even if Puerto Ricans resoundingly voted for statehood, it doesn't mean it will happen. Any such decision would have to go through Congress. What I hope never changes is the unique culture and tradition that makes this island so special.

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