April 26, 2018

Puerto Rico tourism slowly bouncing back

By Joe Yogerst, CNN

San Juan, Puerto Rico (CNN) — Last summer, Puerto Rican tourism officials were getting flooded with calls about “Despacito” (“Slowly”), the sexy megahit by Puerto Rican crooners Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee that made history as the most streamed song of all time.

But nowadays they’re much more likely to get calls from people in the travel industry or ordinary travelers wanting to know if tourism has recovered from the hurricanes that devastated the Caribbean island in September.

Like the song, the answer is slowly — widespread but gradual recovery from one of the most destructive and deadly storms in Puerto Rico history.

After Hurricane Irma on September 6 and Hurricane Maria on September 20 — the latter passing directly over the island — close to 100% of Puerto Rico was without power or water, the airport was closed and cruise terminals were devoid of ships.

But six months later, tourism is well on the road to recovery in many areas.

“The island has been officially open for tourism since … December,” said Carla Campos, acting executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, or PRTC.

“San Juan Port started welcoming leisure cruises just two weeks after Hurricane María and areas around the island like Culebra, Ponce, Mayagüez, Cabo Rojo, Rincón, Vieques are also back in business. The best way to support Puerto Rico is to continue visiting, staying at our hotels, eating at our restaurants, enjoying our activities and shopping.”

Back in business

More than 125 hotels (with more than 12,000 total rooms) were back in business by the end of February, while more than 4,000 restaurants around the island were serving customers again. That’s about 80% of Puerto Rico’s hotels and restaurants.

The number of passenger ships calling on San Juan has risen steadily, from just 15 in October to 53 in December. PRTC says that more than 170,000 cruise passengers moved through the port of San Juan since the hurricanes.

Other than the fact that many of the traffic lights are still out, the tourist zones of San Juan have almost completely recovered; the beach hotels are open in Condado and Isla Verde. Restaurants and bars are packed, and attractions like El Morro fort and Old San Juan are just as crowded as before the storms.

The only tropical rainforest in the entire US Forest Service, El Yunque in the mountains of eastern Puerto Rico, looked like a World War I battlefield directly after the storms: the trees nearly leafless, the jungle slopes covered in mud.

Aided by hundreds of volunteers, the forest service was able to get parts of the park open again by February, including the main road through to La Coca Falls and one of the most popular trails.

But that’s not to say that everyone has recovered. Some of the resorts, restaurants and attractions directly in the eye of Hurricane Maria are still closed or struggling to open their doors again.

For many, recovery has been difficult and often dramatic. It took some hotels — like the posh Royal Isabela golf resort, which took a direct hit from Hurricane Maria — months to repair the damage and open its doors again.

A struggle to recover

For many of the others, recovery was difficult and often dramatic.

After the hurricanes, Wyndham Grand Rio Mar golf and beach resort east of San Juan was virtually cut off from the outside world. A combination of employees who rode out Hurricane Maria inside the hotel and others living nearby used chainsaws and axes to cut a path to the property.

Damage was extensive to the Wyndham’s guest rooms, restaurants and golf courses. But general manager Nils Stolzlechner and his team devised a phased recovery plan that saw the golf courses in play by the end of November, the first post-storm convention in February, and reopening to the general public on March 1.

Snagging that convention took major effort. The client was on the verge of canceling when Stolzlechner “suggested that they come and visit to see firsthand that we are alive and well. And we convinced them to give us a chance.”

Celebrity chef Mario Pagán faced a mixed blessing after the storm. His signature Mario Pagan restaurant in Condado was nearly unharmed. But down the road, his Sage Steak Loft in the Olive Boutique Hotel was flooded with 3 feet of brackish water from the storm surge.

“There were plenty of brutal challenges, but we worked through them,” said Pagán. “Getting gas and diesel for the generator was probably the main one. Produce and proteins were hard to get, but we managed with local purveyors. We had a lot of local farmers passing by the restaurant helping out with anything they had left.”

Loisse Herger, co-owner of the chic Olive Boutique Hotel, faced similar flooding. But within days of the hurricane, Herger and her staff had the upstairs guest rooms ready for occupancy.

“Right after the storm, most of our guests were journalists, humanitarian personnel, high government officials and others involved in the recovery,” she said.

By late January, Olive Boutique was full of bona-fide tourists and hosting a rooftop cocktail party for the Caribbean Travel Marketplace, another convention that decided to keep its commitment rather than abandon the island post-storm.

Another good sign is the return of surfers to an island generally considered to have the best waves in the Caribbean.

“West facing beaches on the northwest coast took the hardest hit,” said Otto Flores, a legendary Puerto Rican surfer and founder of a coastal environmental organization called Granito de Arena. “The storm unleashed its fury — decimating the coastline, taking down structures and putting them in the ocean like Baby Godzilla was playing Lego.”

But after several recent visits to the northwest coast, Flores thinks the region’s remarkable beaches are bouncing back.

“Yes, there are places with no power still and there are structures that are gone,” he said. “But as far as surfing goes, it’s all good.”