With nine out of ten homes still without electricity, and first responders packing San Juan hotels, you might think that Puerto Rico would feel the Grinch stole their Christmas.
But the country’s tourism industry, battered and bruised but still standing, is staking a claim for its future – setting its sights on welcoming any and all visitors by Christmas.
Jose Izquierdo, executive director at the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, noted how San Juan withstood Hurricane Maria’s Category 5 winds. “San Juan is a very sturdy city. We were pretty much unscathed throughout the storm, and after a full assessment, the outlook is positive.”
The tourism agency has been participating in the three phases of recovery. The first – relief – ended Oct. 5, focusing mostly on providing rapid assistance to residents and the tourism industry. This included helping coordinate volunteer efforts with hotels, airlines and cruise lines.
Currently, Puerto Rico is engaged in the rebuilding phase, including taking an inventory of all of the major tourism venues and attractions like the marketplaces and beaches. This phase should last until Thanksgiving.
Airlines, many hotels, some attractions operating
- The Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) is fully operational with scheduled domestic and international flights. Rafael Hernández Airport (Aguadilla), Mercedita Airport (Ponce), José Aponte de la Torre Airport (Ceiba), Fernando Luis Ribas Dominicci Airport (Isla Grande) and the Antonio Rivera Rodríguez Airport (Vieques) are operational and offering limited service.
- San Juan Harbor is open and resumed homeport operations this past weekend with the departure of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s Adventure of the Seas. Over two thousand travelers are expected to travel in and out of San Juan to embark on these journeys and more than 45 cruise departures are already scheduled from San Juan in the coming weeks.
- The Mall of San Juan and Plaza Las Américas are open for shoppers, and the Puerto Rico Museum of Art in Santurce and the Ponce Museum of Art are open for visitors. Bacardi tours are expected to begin welcoming guests Nov. 1, and El Morro and other San Juan historic sites are expected to open in the coming weeks.
- Eighty-four hotels are open with most taking new reservations. For a full list of the status of hotels, travel agents can visit the Puerto Rico Now website.
Most of these hotels are already taking reservations for future vacations, or will be by Oct. 31, Izquierdo said. “FEMA, first responders, and volunteers with the NGOs are packing the hotels,” he said. “Even bed and breakfasts are putting their rooms available for relief.”
Izquierdo acknowledged that there was some erosion on San Juan’s beaches, and he has been posting pictures of the waterfront and other popular venues through his Twitter handle to demonstrate how the city is getting back to normal. “By Dec. 20th, leisure travelers will be sure to enjoy our beaches,” Izquierdo said.
El Yunque sustained severe damage
The news is not so good for tourism outside San Juan. “In the far west, I’ve seen some pictures. It will take some time.”
An initial inventory has been conducted on natural attractions, like the 28,400-acre El Yunque National Forest, said Izquierdo.
A Washington Post story described the rainforest, the only one in the United States outside of Hawaii, as being decimated.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service web site currently says: “El Yunque National Forest will remain closed until further notice.”
A Post reporter described how “ferns and palms have been stripped of their fronds, and hardwood trees snapped in half like twigs. What was once a blanket of emerald green draped across the mountainous landscape is now a brown pile of detritus.”
“The slow return of these island gems could impact reopening timelines for those ultra-luxury properties dependent on their proximity to the parks,” Izquierdo said.
Positive outlook for the future
The final pillar in Puerto Rico’s plan is recovery, Izquierdo said, which he described as a “gradual restart to business as usual for tourism,” including marketing to generate future visits.
During this phase, “our messaging has to be a little less than ‘despacito,’” Izquierdo said, borrowing from the popular song that this year invigorated locals and tourists alike with the Puerto Rican zest for life. “Our message will be more about our resilience, that tourism is up and running."
Izquierdo called the Dec. 20th target date for this phase as “conservative.”
Voluntourism and acts of kindness
Mainland travel agencies could be interested in the voluntourism packages that are increasingly popular, Izquierdo said. “It’s becoming a thing here. We’ve seen some of our hotels working on packages to do that, coordinating with NGOs on the ground to invite travelers in to assist in the rebuilding.”
One market that has been open to these trips has been what the island calls the “Diaspora,” Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland but still have family and friends on the island.
One local operator, Local Guest, has set up a web page on Indiegogo, “to provide relief and volunteers to hard-hit communities.”
“We’re not only working locally with tour operators, but also at the corporate level, with the major flags down here, Marriott and Hilton, to work on packages,” said Izquierdo, who feels optimistic in part due to one of the core strengths of the island, its hospitality.
A Washington Post reporter who was trapped on the island with his family during the hurricane, wrote a story about his experience, praising the locals for how they protected his family throughout the ordeal.
“There are so many positive stories, acts of kindness, rising out of this struggle, that we will carry with us as we rebuild,” Izquierdo. “These experiences will make us stronger.”