For travel agents, it’s not easy loving Puerto Rico right now. With the summer travel season rapidly approaching, consumers haven’t forgotten lingering images of Hurricane Maria’s press coverage, and the island’s slow recovery.
Recent stories about an unpredictable electric grid has left fewer clients asking for a Puerto Rico vacation this year, and many agents too nervous to recommend one.
Privately, some agents express their concerns both about the state of Puerto Rico’s tourism infrastructure, and the possibility of having clients stranded during a new storm, like those late September days after the Category 5 Maria trampled through the island.
Today, most of the island has returned to some semblance of normal, though thousands of Puerto Ricans, mostly in more remote villages away from the major resorts, still remain without power. Meanwhile, some hotels remain closed due to hurricane damage, and some popular tourism venues, like the El Yunque rain forest, continue to have only limited access.
The greatest concern for many travelers is the stability of the island’s electric grid. Eight months after they first arrived, the U.S. Corps of Engineers will be departing the island soon, leaving the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to finish the work to repair Puerto Rico’s devastated grid.
Most resorts and hotels are back up on the grid, with generators kicking in when the fragile network goes down – as it did in late April when a fallen tree pulled the plug on the San Juan metropolitan area, followed soon after by an excavator causing electricity for the whole island to go down.
The grid is supplemented by solar power arrays that were installed since Maria, but that backup is not nearly enough for the island of more than 2 million.
Still, Jenniffer González-Colón, the commonwealth’s nonvoting member of Congress, recently told a local radio station that the electric grid is “not ready for a new hurricane season,” which officially starts June 1. (Most significant storms develop in August and September.)
The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says it is better stocked and prepared than before Maria last year, with nearly 3,000 employees still on the island, and with emergency centers established throughout the commonwealth in preparation for the coming storm season. FEMA officials also say that satellite phones and better radio systems for first responders and municipalities will improve communications in the event of a storm.
Some travelers still steering away
Still, travelers are steering away from the destination, according to several sources. A recent study by Allianz Global Assistance USA found that among destinations outside the U.S., Puerto Rico has dropped in popularity with Americans.
For trips of 5-8 days in length for the period May 28-Sept. 3, 2018, 2.9 percent of travelers departing U.S. airports considered Puerto Rico for vacation this year, versus 3.9 percent last year. (Allianz looks at travelers' summer plans by analyzing online booking data for airfare and tour packages for partners offering Allianz Global Assistance insurance.)
Andrea da Rosa, ASTA San Diego chapter president and director of marketing communications at Balboa Travel in San Diego, said: “We haven't been getting a lot of inquiries for Puerto Rico, since travelers are concerned. We recently did have a client reach out for a specific property, the St. Regis [Bahia Beach Resort],” she said, but the luxury property is still closed due to hurricane damage and is scheduled to reopen Oct. 29, 2018. “So that’s a challenge.”
But da Rosa is hopeful: “We go over with our clients the current state of things in the main tourist zones, Condado and downtown. Things have normalized quite a bit and hotels and restaurants are open, etc. They have generators as backups for power outages and the bulk of those outages reported recently are typically in more remote areas. And cruises are going to Puerto Rico again.”
Tourism update helps soothe some agents’ concerns
Last week, Narciso Moreno, North American sales manager for the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, met with da Rosa and other ASTA chapter presidents during the American Society of Travel Agents’ (ASTA) meetings at its annual Legislative Day in Washington, D.C.
He provided an update on the island nation’s progress, and also briefed the ASTA National Board of Directors.
Travel Market Report contacted Moreno for details about the update but didn’t receive a reply by press time. Still, agents attending were grateful for the outreach, and said there is a growing sense that Puerto Rico is making strides towards delivering a consistent tourism product again.
“We were happy to have Ciso Moreno present to the chapter presidents and give us a realistic assessment of the situation on the ground,” said Jerry Mack, president of the Long Island ASTA chapter, and owner of Dutch Broadway Travel, Floral Park, New York.
“It really seems that Puerto Rico is open for tourist business and unfortunately there is still a lot of negative publicity discouraging agents from sending clients there,” Mack said.
“Yes, there are still problems on the island but most are in remoter areas that tourists don't visit. Puerto Rico needs tourist income to fill hotels and restaurants, and after hearing Ciso's presentation, we were convinced that it is time to encourage our clients to return.”
Da Rosa at Balboa shared similar sentiments. “Narciso's presentation was great, and Puerto Rico needs the business to rebuild jobs and the economy,” she said.
“We send clients to Puerto Rico and do now feel it is a safe destination to send clients to,” said Rob Hale, Rocky Mountain chapter president and owner of Travel N Relax Inc, Aurora, Colorado. “Based on the presentation we heard, I left feeling it is more safe now then I had presumed and that suppliers there are doing all they can to not only bring the destination back up-to-speed but to enhance it, as well. I feel the destination is on par with other quality destinations in that area.”
The best thing for agents to do, da Rosa said, “is take advantage of the low airfares right now and the agent rates Puerto Rico is promoting to the industry and go see and experience it for yourself. Travelers trust their travel advisor, so go and give them the first-hand feedback they want and need from you,” she said.
According to chapter presidents attending the update, Moreno also offered to visit with ASTA chapters during their local meetings, to inform their members directly. “We would love to have him come out to us in the future,” said Hale in Colorado.