This week, one of the first major storms of 2022’s hurricane season, Hurricane Fiona, ripped through the Caribbean, leaving major damage and power outages on the islands in its path.
One of those islands was Puerto Rico, a destination that was still recovering from Hurricane Maria, a deadly Category 5 hurricane that devastated the island in September 2017.
On Thursday, Brad Dean, the CEO of Discover Puerto Rico took some time to talk to TMR about Fiona’s impact on the island, including how the island is restoring power after the storm caused an island-wide blackout.
According to Dean, in the first 24 hours, 100,000 homes had their power restored.
In terms of tourism, the island’s main airport, Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is open and operational. The island’s main cruise port in San Juan has also reopened.
Most of the island’s resorts are operational, including all of the resorts in the San Juan metropolitan area, which was much less impacted than some of the regions in the south and the western coast. Some are operating on generator power, but are operating nonetheless.
The issue now for some travelers is access. While most of the well-traveled roads are open, including those on routes to the most visited areas outside of San Juan, a few areas are in the mountains or on the southern coast that “are going to take a little while longer,” Dean said.
“Generally speaking, access to the island is open and safe with the exception of a few isolated areas,” he said, adding that the parts that are still flooded can only be assessed once the flood water has receded.
“So far, the encouraging sign is there is no impact to tourism in the metro area and outside of the metros access has mostly opened. We couldn’t have had this discussion for months after Maria,” he added.
The storm came almost to the day on the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s arrival, a storm that, compared to Fiona, devastated that island to such a point that it was still in the process of recovery.
Dean told TMR that while “the island is showing its resiliency and strength already,” the damage wasn’t close to what happened with Maria, a storm that had FEMA on the island for the better part of a year after its arrival. Tourism, which was devastated by Maria, has also grown into its recovery.
“We’ve made tremendous progress since Maria,” Dean told TMR. “Consider the challenges that Puerto Rico face in recent years, not the least of which was a bankruptcy, we’ve made significant progress.”
The pre-pandemic year, 2019, set a record for tourism in Puerto Rico with double-digit sales increases across the board. That record was broken in 2021, again by double digits, as Americans, seeking international travel close to home, flocked to Puerto Rico, a destination that requires no passport, no currency exchange, and no international phone plan.
Puerto Rico in 2022 was again trending for a record year, with the island on pace for the most visitors, most spending, and most tourism-based employment ever. According to Dean, the lodging industry generated $1 billion in the first seven months of the year, a sign of strength for its tourism industry, but also a sign of the tourism industry’s importance to its economy.
“You cannot overstate the importance of tourism for Puerto Rico,” Dean said.
Part of that recovery had to do with investment in the island from some traditional tourism companies. However, the independent lodging segment also took off, as independent rental units from small owners came online to help supply keep up with that high rising demand.
“Our hotel inventory was down from Maria, but we had so many people put condos and homes and apartments, and even a tree house, on the market for rental,” Dean told TMR. “Not only did that expand the visitor economy but also extended tourism to all 78 municipalities” and not just the typical tourist districts.
While rental platforms like VRBO and Airbnb were a key part of that growth, Puerto Rico also hosts a lot of local businesses that focus on offering rentals and are on the island to serve that specific market.
“It was interesting to watch that as part of the recovery from Maria. More people were learning what’s available outside of the metropolitan area.”
In terms of what’s ahead of Puerto Rico, the island’s officials will continue to assess the damage from Fiona. Then, the island’s tourism industry will continue preparation for two major industry conferences over the next 12 months—the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s Caribbean Marketplace, which kicks off on Oct. 3, and ASTA’s Global Convention next year.
For ASTA, Dean said that “So hosting their national convention in Puerto Rico is a real privilege and gives us an opportunity to let their advisors see all of the island and not just the metropolitan area.” He added that while “many of the travel advisors are familiar with Puerto Rico as a leisure destination, will get to experience it as a business destination.”
“They are undoubtedly one of the most important strategic partners we have – the size and breadth of the organization and their commitment to the industry has been in perfect alignment in terms of where we want to go,” he said.