What most people know about Vieques is (a) that it's a tiny, under-the-radar Caribbean gem off the coast of Puerto Rico, best known for its low-key vibe and its amazing beaches; and (b) that the U.S. Navy used those beaches as target practice for decades, bombing the hell out of them until 2003.
Now, a number of residents are suing the U.S. government, claiming that the Navy contaminated the island with toxic chemicals, causing high rates of cancer, liver disease, and other illnesses. A heart-wrenching series of reports last week on CNN relates the story of several Viequenses who believed they've been sickened as a result.
Putting aside the validity of the islanders' claims — and I have no reason to doubt them — I wonder what effect these stories will have on tourism to the island. CNN called its series "Poisoned Paradise," which may not be wholly inaccurate but will certainly color the opinion of anyone planning a trip to Vieques. None of the reports I've seen so far say anything about the risk of exposure to heavy metals and other toxins faced by a casual visitor to the island: It's one thing to live there for years, another to drop in for a weekend. The Puerto Rico Tourism Board issued a statement that said little to alleviate any concerns (I've requested more guidance from them but haven't received anything yet). Starwood, which is opening a W Retreat on Vieques this spring, has been mum.
I'm no scientist, but I would guess that visiting Vieques for a weekend isn't going to do you any harm. Instead, my worry is that hysterical media coverage could turn Vieques into the next Cancún. Last year hotels and beaches throughout Mexico sat empty for months, after the press portrayed the swine flu scare as the next apocalypse. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people lost their jobs and livelihoods. So far, the Vieques coverage has been mild (see Travel Weekly's measured story), but if Puerto Rico, Starwood, and others who have a stake in the island's reputation don't act, that could change — quickly.