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Tourism is back in Puerto Rico, but with a focus on clean up

Brittany Jones-Cooper

On Oct. 7, the Royal Caribbean “Adventure of the Seas” departed from San Juan, Puerto Rico, with more than 3,000 passengers. It was the first cruise ship with tourists to depart from the island since it was struck by Hurricane Maria last month.

The ship is based in Puerto Rico and completed what is called a “home port operation,” meaning it departed from San Juan, cruised around for a few days, and returned on Oct. 13. This round-trip journey sounds simple enough, but it signals something very important—the return of tourism to Puerto Rico.

“That means that the airport is functioning, because people are traveling to Puerto Rico to get on the ship,” said José Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC). “It’s a return to normal operations for a very important industry player like Royal Caribbean.”

The Luiz Munos Marin International Airport resumed its normal flight schedule on Oct. 4, after weeks of cancellations, delays and limited arrivals and departures. Other airports located in Aguadilla, Pone, Ceiba, Isla Grande and Vieques are also now operational and offering limited service.

The “Adventure of the Seas” will depart again on Saturday with another ship full of passengers.

Finding a new normal

It’s been three weeks since Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico with sustained winds reaching 155 mph. The storm knocked out power to most of the island, caused extensive damage and claimed the lives of 45 people. Puerto Rico’s Department of Public Safety says 113 people are still unaccounted for.

While much of the island is still struggling to restore basic needs, like clean water, shelter and medical supplies, the tourism department is determined to get people back to work and focus on the future. During the recovery efforts, PRTC never really shut down. Instead, it developed a 90-day recovery plan and went into emergency mode — locating visiting tourists and helping them to evacuate via humanitarian flight or cruise ship.

Now tourism officials say it’s time for phase two of their plan: rebuilding.

A man uses a battery-operated light in Puerto Rico during the extensive power outage.
A man uses a battery-operated light in Puerto Rico during the extensive power outage.

Currently 80 hotels are operating and taking new reservations. Most of these facilities are using back-up generators to keep the lights on (84% of people on the island still don’t have power) and have been housing first responders helping to rebuilding the island. For this reason, hotel occupancy rates have been high, and employees have been able to work. This is crucial, since about 68,500 jobs in Puerto Rico are tied to tourism.

In addition to airports and hotels, local attractions like the Puerto Rico Museum of Art and the Ponce Museum of Art have both reopened. Bacardi Rum tours are scheduled to resume on Nov. 1.

The first week of November will also signal the return of cruises in which tourists will be allowed to disembark and tour the island. Last year, Puerto Rico welcomed 1.5 million visitors via cruise, and that number was expected to reach 1.8 million in 2017. The hurricane will undoubtedly affect projections, but the PRTC remains hopeful. Currently, 45 cruise ship departures are scheduled from San Juan between now and the end of the year.

A different kind of tourism

People typically visit Puerto Rico to wade in the ocean and soak up the sun. The beach hasn’t gone anywhere, but island officials are predicting that the profile of tourists will change over the next couple of months.

“We’re placing a bet on groups that come to travel with a purpose and help those in need,” Izquierdo told Yahoo Finance. “I also think the diaspora is going to return to Puerto Rico, reunite with family and friends.”

Puerto Rico usually sees an influx of tourists between mid-December and April, when temperatures drop on the mainland U.S. Already, churches and other relief groups, like “Love in Action Travel,” have scheduled mission trips to assist in recovery efforts.

Hotel properties are also chipping in, creating packages with volunteer opportunities and giving priority reservations to people coming to help with recovery efforts. There’s also been an effort to build “voluntourism” opportunities through Local Guest, a San Juan–based company dedicated to providing unique local experiences in Puerto Rico.

“That’s still tourism,” said Izquierdo. “It’s not the traditional tourism that we were expecting for the high season, but it’s an opportunity.”

Still, the PRTC hopes to bring back some of Puerto Rico’s traditional visitors as well. By Dec. 20, their plan is to rebuild enough of the island to welcome the typical leisure traveler wanting to experience the beaches, culture and gastronomy of Puerto Rico.

“We’re definitely not giving up on the high season for Puerto Rico. We’ll be ready for visitors as we continue to clean up,” he said.

Brittany is a reporter at Yahoo Finance.

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