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Puerto Rican Tourism Industry Tells Visitors: Don't Feel Guilty

Ryan Caron King
The first two cruise ships to pass through Puerto Rico since the hurricane stopped in Viejo San Juan. Thousands of tourists, some hesitant, poured in -- filling streets that were previously empty.

Puerto Rico is officially declaring itself open for tourism -- nearly three months after Hurricane Maria. But on an island where so many people still lack electricity, what does open for tourism mean?

Lea estahistoria en español. / Read this story in Spanish.

Old San Juan is a postcard of Puerto Rico -- a hub of food, music, and history. After the storm, it was dark and still. Since then, the lights have started to come back on. Restaurants have begun to open. And a couple of weeks ago, the once empty streets were filled, if briefly, with a flash mob of thousands of tourists coming off two cruise ships.

“We didn’t think we were coming here until, what, two weeks ago? They took it off our itinerary and put it back on,” said Courtney Powell, who was traveling with her husband Eric. “We were surprised.”

They came on an island-hopping cruise. When they woke up, they had arrived in San Juan. But they weren’t sure what they’d find.

“I even said I felt bad knowing that there were so many people still with nothing,” said Powell. “And here we are walking around and wanting to get a drink, and….So, it’s sad, I think.”

But it’s not sad for Victor Santiago. He’s on the street trying to get people inside the Cafe Fortaleza. For him, tourists mean income.

“They give me work. And I can convince them to come to my restaurant, taste the coffee, and taste the delicious food that we serve,” he said. “We crumbled a little bit with the hurricane. But we’re standing back up to receive you and give you a great trip.”

So, to the tourists like the Powells who feel a little bit guilty about having fun in Puerto Rico?  

“Don’t feel guilty,” said Jose Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. “As a matter of fact, feel like you’re doing your part in helping our recovery.”

Izquierdo said the cruise ship industry is already picking up.  He expects about 90 percent of the forecasted passenger load this year.

As for hotels, three quarters of the ones endorsed by his agency are open, and they’re nearly at capacity -- stocked with relief workers and contractors. As they start to leave, rooms are opening up for tourists.

Izquierdo said restarting the tourism industry in Puerto Rico is going to happen in stages. While San Juan is ready, the rest of the island is not.

“We need to be cautious of not turning on that demand-generating button too soon, when there’s an area that’s not ready to welcome these tourists just yet,” he said.

Take, for instance, El Yunque, the national forest famous for its tropical rainforest. If you want to see it, you’ll have to do so from a distance. It’s closed until further notice.  

And tourists usually come to the eastern port of Fajardo for boat trips and snorkeling and island visits.

Jayanne McLaughlin has been in Puerto Rico for 23 years and runs East Island Excursions. She said her business has never seen anything like this.

“It means we’re really starting from scratch,” she said. “I mean, we don’t have any tourists coming here and I don’t think we’re going to have any.”

So she’s doing anything she can to keep her fleet in the water and her people employed so that, when tourism does eventually pick up across the island, she’ll still have a business to run.

“If you see our advertising, you’d think everything was peachy keen because it’s nice out there.  That’s what we do,” McLaughlin said. “So that’s what we’re telling everybody. Come on. Come out for the day. Forget your worries, forget the cares. Go out there, put your feet in the clear water and sit on the sandy beach and have a pina colada.”

At least out on the ocean, it’s harder to see the devastation Maria left behind.

This story is part of “The Island Next Door,” WNPR’s reporting project about Puerto Rico and Connecticut after Hurricane Maria.

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director. Then, in 2022, he became a senior enterprise reporter.

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