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San Juan, Puerto Rico
Courtesy/ Puerto Rico Tourism Company
San Juan—after the storm.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS

Instead of asking tourists to ignore the hurricane, Puerto Rico invited them to help rebuild

By Rosie Spinks

In the six months since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, the headlines—and not to mention conditions on the ground—have not been good.

For the island’s tourism industry, this represents a dual challenge. First there is Puerto Rico’s actual recovery to contend with—rebuilding damaged tourist sites, refurbishing or rebuilding hotels, and ensuring vital tourism markets like the cruise industry can recover. And then, there is the battle of perception—or ensuring would-be tourists that it’s safe and indeed enjoyable to visit the island.

On both counts, Puerto Rican tourism seems to be defying the odds—at least according to Carla Campos, who is the acting executive director of Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the organization which promotes tourism on the island. She says that since the tourism industry “opened for business” in December, three months after the storm, the recovery has outpaced other industries.

According to official numbers, 125 out of the islands 155 hotels are now open and fully operational—though several notable and high-end hotels, including the Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton Reserve and the El Conquistador Waldorf Astoria have not yet re-opened.

Meanwhile, the upcoming cruise season is set to break records, with roughly 1.7 million passengers generating roughly $250 million in revenue with their short, in-and-out trips to the island. Finally, capacity on flights to Puerto Rico is set to reach levels on par with 2017 by early summer. In other words, Puerto Rican tourism is back—or at least, it’s getting there.

It’s important to note that at least some of those visitors—and many of those hotel reservations—are coming from people involved with the relief efforts and the insurance companies needed to deal with the aftermath. However, the signs of recovery are encouraging—and actually somewhat surprising.

Indeed, research from the World Travel and Tourism Council shows that the amount of time travelers stay away from a destination can be longer after a natural disaster (up to 23.8 months) than after a terrorist attack (13 months) or public health event (21.3 months). But in Puerto Rico’s case, the recovery began rapidly. This Campos said, was aided at least in part by all of those disaster headlines—and the island’s canny willingness to ask travelers for help.

“Let’s be real: A lot of times people confuse Puerto Rico with Costa Rica. And a lot of fellow US citizens did not know that we are a US territory or that you don’t need a passport to travel to Puerto Rico,” Campos said. “So while there may have been increased coverage on the island—and we do recognize that not all of that has been positive—that has also meant that there is an increased awareness of the destination. We consider it to be an opportunity.”

Just weeks after the storm—using lessons gleaned from Hurricane Irma, which battered tourist-heavy Cancun—Campos and her team launched a ‘Meaningful Travel’ program. The scheme invited travelers, locals, and Puerto Ricans living elsewhere, to come help rebuild some of the island’s most popular natural attractions, such as Camuy Cave Park, Crash Boat Beach, and Seven Seas. Campos said the program—which taps into the growing desire for “voluntourism” tours—was launched in response to demand from travelers who wanted to help the island make a comeback, and found “incredible receptiveness.”

‘Meaningful Travel’ has been phased out since the height of the post-hurricane rebuild, but individual properties—like the brand new Serafina Beach Hotel—are implementing their own voluntourism initiatives.

Still, significant parts of Puerto Rico are still staggering towards recovery. Parts of the island still don’t have electricity, while insurance pay-outs and services for those left homeless by the storm are still major issues for Puerto Ricans. Indeed an estimated 135,000 [paywall] have fled to the US because of it. But tourism—and specifically the immediate influx of cash that it brings—is somewhat of a bright spot.

While conscious and adventurous travelers wanting to help out may have been among the first tide of travelers to revisit the island, Campos emphasizes that six months on, the island is very much open to all. Still, similar to how one might feel vacationing in a country like the Maldives amidst a political crisis, some travelers might balk at the idea of luxuriating on an island that is still very much in recovery. As the New York Times’ 52 Places traveler Jada Yuan wrote [paywall] on a recent visit.

When I envisioned myself as a normal traveler, who just wanted a relaxing vacation, and who had a choice of spending my money anywhere, though, I could understand why not many are jumping at the chance to visit Puerto Rico, in this state, right now. The tourism department has put together a “Ready to Enchant You” campaign … touting how picturesque the beaches are, and how many hotels are open. Those claims are true, but they’re a bit like shoving a mess into a closet before guests come over.”

Indeed Craig Eddins, a property development consultant that works closely with the hospitality industry, says that even within the tourist “bubble” of San Juan, there is still work to be done before tourists can visit without feeling the recovery effort’s presence on their trip. He points to a walkway and bike path leading up to the Old City that was renovated before the storm—something that that virtually every visitor to San Juan will see.

“Even today, six months later, there are uprooted trees adjacent to the path and an extensive cleanup is needed. I think that’s a shame,” Eddins said. “The priority, of course, is getting people water and power and sustainability, but as far as tourist approach we need to focus on how we get back to being a place that people visit and go back and tell their friends they should visit, too.”

Campos says the tourism industry is by no means trying to ignore what happened, but rather seeks to showcase Puerto Ricans’ resilience in spite of it.

“The reality is that we suffered one of the most tragic incidence in our recent history and that meant that our recovery was a very big endeavor,” Campos said. “There’s normalcy coming back to Puerto Rico and our fellow citizens are just loving having our tourist zones back as well and reviving and greeting visitors. Puerto Ricans are the ultimate hosts.”