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Puerto Rico's Spanish Virgins
Américas / May-June 2001

By Larry Luxner

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico -- It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that the U.S. Virgin Islands are owned by the United States, and that the British Virgin Islands are owned by Great Britain.

So who, then, do the Spanish Virgins belong to?

Certainly not Spain.

The geographical designation -- a marketing gimmick that's come into vogue only within the last few years -- applies to the two Puerto Rican offshore islands of Vieques and Culebra, and 20 or so smaller, mostly uninhabited dots in the ocean. Once unheard of, the term "Spanish Virgin Islands" is suddenly cropping up everywhere, from the new-edition Lonely Planet guidebook "Puerto Rico and the Spanish Virgins" to the 84-page "Guide to the Spanish Virgin Islands" by Bruce Van Sant.

In fact, the Yahoo search engine brings up 197 references to the "Spanish Virgin Islands," including the October 2000 issue of Caribbean Travel & Life, which features a glitzy article entitled "Treasures of the Spanish Virgins."

And that's just fine with Daniel W. Shelley, a transplanted New Englander who claims to have coined the term at a 1988 boat show in Miami.

Shelley owns the busy Puerto del Rey marina near Fajardo, on Puerto Rico's eastern tip. From the windows of his second-floor office, the hilly peaks of Vieques and Culebra are easily visible on the horizon; on a clear day, you can even see the distant blue haze of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"These two islands, Vieques and Culebra, were once part of Spain, but they didn't have a name," said Shelley, an antique map collector who's also part-owner of the $118 million Cayo Largo Inter-Continental Beach Resort now under construction. "So we decided to make it obvious to people, because when you say Vieques or Culebra, nobody knows what that is. But when you say the Spanish Virgin Islands, people know exactly what you mean: warm water, safe boating, white sandy beaches, scuba diving, beautiful reefs and not much rain. I think it adds flavor."

Don't tell that to Monique Sibilly-Hodge, acting tourism commissioner of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"The what?!" she blurted when asked about the name. "I'm not sure I like the sound of that."

Neither does Anne Leonard, director of tourism in the nearby British Virgin Islands.

"The BVI is the original and only Virgin Islands," she sniffed in a phone interview from Tortola. "All of our official documents are in the name of the Virgin Islands -- they do not differentiate between U.S. or British. It was only in 1917 when the current U.S. Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark by the United States, and they changed their name. As far as I'm concerned, the Spanish Virgin Islands do not exist."

Shelley concedes that Puerto Rico's previous governor, the pro-statehood Pedro Rossello, "didn't particularly like" the moniker either, because it didn't mesh with Rossello's "Puerto Rico USA" tourism marketing plan.

Regardless of what the islands are called, Vieques and its 9,400 residents -- half of whom are unemployed -- face an uncertain future. Tourism has been stagnant there ever since U.S. Navy bombers, which have long used the 20-mile-long island for target practice, killed a civilian in April 1999, sparking a violent outpouring of anger.

Despite the protests, Dallas-based Rosewood Hotels & Resorts will soon inaugurate Martineau Bay, a 155-room resort whose plantation architecture harks back to the French occupation of Vieques. The $50 million luxury hotel, with prices starting at $400 a night, promises to employ 350 locals and inject new life into the moribund economy.

Peter Shaindlin, regional vice-president for Rosewood, enthusiastically supports use of the term Spanish Virgin Islands as a marketing tool.

"When Martineau Bay came into play in the last few years, we quickly realized that we had Little Dix Bay in the BVI, Caneel Bay on St. John [U.S. Virgin Islands] and now Vieques," said Shaindlin. "In each of those three series of islands, we had a presence. Accordingly, we started using, rather subliminally, the term Spanish Virgin Islands."

Jorge Pesquera, who's just been appointed president of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. by newly inaugurated Gov. Sila Calderon, seems rather ambivalent about the name.

"I don't think it has any historical or official connotation. It has been concocted and has a nice ring to it," he says. "If it works from a marketing standpoint, why not?"

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