TORONTO – Hurricane Maria was one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory, landing itself in the history books last September as the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record. While some islands were miraculously spared of any damage, others – particularly Dominica and Puerto Rico – weren’t so lucky, with reports of lives lost and widespread devastation.
In the case of Puerto Rico, where the Category 4 storm hit landfall on Sept. 20 just two weeks after the passing of Hurricane Irma, the island struggled to recover in the following days, weeks and months. Streets became rivers, entire buildings were decimated, thousands of families were left without homes, cell phone service was limited, power outages lasted for months, and clean water, food and medicine were in short supply. In short, Maria had crippled the island – but it in no way defeated it.
Due to the mighty resilience of its people, Puerto Rico slowly but surely picked up the pieces that Maria left in its wake and eventually welcomed back tourists. In December 2017, the destination kicked off its winter season with an official declaration – that it was “open for tourism” – with 75% of hotels back in operation, 4,000 restaurants once again taking orders, and major tourist attractions already cleaned up and restored. By then, all airports were fully operational and 80,000 homeport cruise passengers had embarked from San Juan between October and December.
“Some areas were hit harder than others, of course, but even before the holidays major tourist areas were back, with even more so now,” Carla Campos, Active Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC), tells Travelweek. “And while the airport closed during the storm, it reopened within days, as did the ports on the island.”
Since then, tourism and tourism conditions have only gotten better. At last month’s U.S. Travel Association’s IPW 2018 event in Denver, Campos told media that Puerto Rico continues to “make great strides” due to a “comprehensive strategy that has secured a speedy comeback for the island”. She went on to say that an “incredible amount” of cruise passengers were expected during the period of May-June, while air capacity figures will equal those from 2016 by the fall.
Despite these claims and the recent rollout of several “myth-busting” videos by PRTC, there’s still the misconception that Puerto Rico isn’t ready to welcome tourists. So we asked Campos to address these myths and ease any lingering concerns travellers may have about the island.
Myth: Puerto Rico’s hotels are damaged beyond repair
As of now, 89% of Puerto Rico’s hotels are open and accepting reservations (130 out of 146 endorsed hotels), with over 11,500 rooms available. Between 3,500 and 4,000 additional rooms will be added to that inventory when renovations are completed. This October, Puerto Rico will welcome several new hotels including The Ritz-Carlton Reserve, El San Juan Hotel and the St. Regis Bahia Beach, while Meliá Coco Beach will open its doors on Nov. 1 and Caribe Hilton on Jan. 1, 2019. Looking ahead, the PRTC reports that 28 new properties totalling 1,300 additional rooms are currently under construction, including ALOFT San Juan Convention Center, ALOFT Ponce and Four Seasons Cayo Largo Resort.
Myth: San Juan’s cruise port is still not ready to welcome cruisers
“Puerto Rico resumed cruise operations two and a half weeks after Hurricane Maria, and from post-Maria through mid-March we hosted 506,000 cruise passengers, with an additional 519,000 passengers expected in the first half of 2018,” Campos tells Travelweek, noting that’s an increase of 2.5% for the first half of the year and an economic impact of US$107 million.
The world’s biggest cruise lines made their return to the island early on, including Royal Caribbean and Carnival, whose Adventure of the Seas and Freedom ships resumed transit calls on Nov. 30 with close to 7,000 cruise passengers onboard. “They were greeted with a warm welcome and Puerto Rican-style festivities, ranging from free salsa classes to rum and coquito tastings, traditional BatuPlena percussion bands, artisan markets, street performers, children’s fairs and more,” said Campos.
As further proof that cruise business is “back and stronger than ever”, as recently as mid-May the island received 17,000 cruise passengers in a single day.
Puerto Rico is headed toward a strong summer season, says PRTC, with 14 vessels homeporting – four more than last season, including Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, the Windstar Pride, Silversea’s Silver Wind and Viking Sea. In total, the 2018/2019 cruising season is expected to witness a record-breaking 1.7 million passengers, which will generate roughly $250 million in revenue for the island.
Myth: Airlines have stopped flying to Puerto Rico
By the fall, seat capacity for air access is expected to be back on par with levels from this time last year, when tourism reached its peak. Growth, says PRTC, is driven by newly established routes and frequency, in addition to larger aircrafts resulting in higher seat capacity.
At this rate, it’s believed that Puerto Rico has recovered at a faster pace than destinations that have gone through similar situations.
Myth: Puerto Rico has permanently closed tourist attractions
There are more than 184 attractions currently open on the island, not to mention 13 golf courses and 16 casinos. Among those that are open and ready for tourists are Castillo San Cristóbal, Castillo San Felipe del Morro; Cueva Ventana, Plaza Las Américas and Toro Verde.
Myth: There is no running water or power in Puerto Rico
Power has been largely restored across all of Puerto Rico, says Campos. Currently, the island has 95.20% generation. As for water, 99.28% of San Juan, the capital city, has running water.
Myth: Tourist arrivals have taken a turn for the worse
On the contrary. Over the Easter and Passover holidays and U.S. Spring Break, Puerto Rico saw a surge in visitors across the island. Preliminary Spring Break numbers show record-breaking performance amongst the 130 hotels that are open, particularly the Wyndham Rio Mar in Rio Grande, which reached occupancy and overall sales levels never reached before. According to the PRTC, inns and hotels across the island reported close to 100% occupancy levels.
In addition, big-ticket events are taking place on schedule; in the first four months of 2018, the island was host to the DIVAS Half Marathon and 5K, a PGATOUR special event, IRONMAN 70.3, and a special MLB series between the Cleveland Indians and the Minnesota Twins. All this, says Campos, reaffirms Puerto Rico’s readiness to host visitors from around the world.
“We’ve been encouraging travellers since late December to visit and see first-hand our comeback for themselves,” says Campos. “Alongside the reminder that one of the best ways people can support Puerto Rico is by visiting – staying at hotels, eating at restaurants, enjoying our island’s activities, and buying from local businesses – our ‘We’re open for tourism’ message is being heard loud and clear.”