he tiny island of Vieques, seven miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico, is best known -- if it is known at all -- as a site of U.S. Naval target practices for the past 62 years, and more recently, the scene of vehement protests against those target runs -- and arrests of the protesters.

That all began to change last month when the planes, ships, guns, equipment and most of the 30,000 military personnel permanently departed Camp Garcia on the island's eastern half, thus ending the bombing runs, the occupation, the "Off Limits" notices ringing 70% of the island -- and the annual influx of $30 million into the island's economy.

What the Navy left in its wake is a narrow, 21-mile-long island rimmed by crescent beaches (more than 50), an impressive new Wyndham resort, quaint inns, the largest wildlife refuge in the Caribbean and the potential to become a go-to tourism destination. After a recent visit to Vieques, I'm convinced sharp-eyed agents and suppliers will begin to circle this tiny island on the map.

'Slow and easy'

But the prospects for outsized growth on this tight little island have some of the locals putting up the "go-slow" sign.

Jose Suarez, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. (PRTC), is among those who champion easing off development of Vieques' tourism infrastructure.

"We're going to take it slow and easy -- and very carefully," he said. "The charm of Vieques is that it is pretty much untouched. What is there in terms of accommodations and attractions will keep visitors happily occupied for now. Development will be well-paced and in keeping with the style of the island. Vieques is an island in the introductory stages of tourism."

But already there is a coterie of vacationers who make it a practice to head this way in search of sun and sand, with the prospect of a burgeoning number of arrivals an inescapable reality.

With almost no fanfare, in fact, the local Viequenses welcomed about 4,000 visitors last year, but William Rodriguez Pagan, PRTC regional manager and head of the year-old tourism office in Isabel Segunda, unofficial capital of Vieques, figures that many more than 4,000 came to the island but just didn't stop by the office to say hello.

"Now, we are really beginning to see an increase," Pagan said. "They come in and ask if the water is safe to swim in -- it is except for several beaches on the extreme east end where

target practice took place and where we are now testing the water. They want to see Camp Garcia -- they can see the barracks from the road, but they can't go on the grounds. And they want real estate brochures."

Pagan said he had mixed feelings about the end of the military presence. "The Navy had two-thirds of this island for over 60 years. While they were here, there was no growth in housing, tourism or agriculture, but they brought money and jobs to the island. We have to see what happens now."

The pace quickens

But slow and steady isn't to everyone's taste here.

Ben Tutt, who is the general manager of the newly opened Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort & Spa on Vieques' north coast near the airport, is eager to fill his upscale property's 156 rooms.

"What I want my guests to do is get a car and get out and about on this island. Vieques isn't just an add-on to a stay in San Juan or Puerto Rico's west coast -- it's a destination in itself."

His recipe for a perfect day on Vieques includes a morning swim at Green beach, lunch at Media Luna in Esperanza, an afternoon at Sun Bay beach with a stop in between for a visit to the art studio at the restored Fort Conde de Mirasol Museum, a beer and a game of dominoes on the Malecon in Esperanza and a sunset cocktail on the terrace at the Wyndham.

Talk of expansion circulates quickly on Vieques, especially now. One rumor is that the mile-long, concrete Mosquito Pier, built by the Navy, will be converted to a cruise ship pier. (No cruise ships call at present.) Angus, a local taxi driver, said he'd welcome that: "More people to drive around."

Another rumor has the school board adopting a tourism curriculum to teach the kids about the economic benefits of visitors staying on their island.

The Vieques Airlink pilot who flew me over from San Juan advised me to "buy property now. Real estate prices are just going to go up. This is the only new destination in the Caribbean, and people are curious."

But despite the talk of growth and beaches filled with tourists, the island of 9,000 inhabitants has a large expatriate community of mainland Puerto Ricans, U.S. Northeasterners, Europeans and Asians who would be happy if Vieques remained undiscovered and unchanged.

Many have questions about the island's future. The military provided a lot of jobs for locals on an island with high unemployment anyway, and much of the infrastructure of roads and medical and sanitation services came about as a result of the Navy's presence.

The head of the local hotel association, James Weis, owner of the 10-room Inn on the Blue Horizon, one of six properties endorsed by the PRTC that account for 72 rooms on the island, prizes the solitude and peace of Vieques.

His sentiments reflect the hopes of many here that Vieques remains a secret -- or at least doesn't become a mass destination.

But it seems as obvious as the nighttime spectacle of Vieques' bioluminescent bay, whose resplendent aura is the gift of millions of one-celled dinoflagellates that live within, that this island's future as an alluring tourism destination is just beginning. With the U.S. Navy gone, can an invasion force of tourists be far behind?

Getting there

" Flights serve Vieques from San Juan's international airport and the smaller Isla Grande facility, also in San Juan.
• The 20-minute flights are operated by Vieques Airlink, MN Aviation and Isla Nena Air Service.
• Roundtrip fares from San Juan average $99 for visitors.
• Ferry service from Fajardo, an hour east of San Juan, to Vieques takes about an hour and a half and is $4 roundtrip.
• Details are available at www.gotopuertorico.com.

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