WASHINGTON. One of the most important elements that could contribute greatly to Puerto Rico’s recovery is a return of American and international tourism. Quite robust previous to the disastrous arrival of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico tourism was and still can be a linchpin in the island’s long road back to normalcy.
Returning tourists support the hotels and restaurants that provide much-needed jobs for the island’s residents. Puerto Ricans whose livelihoods were destroyed by the island’s economic downturns look hopefully toward efforts to revive Puerto Rico tourism. The jobs this industry creates are very important not only to Puerto Rico’s economy, but for the legion of unemployed workers who still want to make a go of it.
When Maria hit, it not only destroyed the island. The storm also destroyed Puerto Rico’s largest industry, tourism. But since then, key parts of that industry are staging a surprisingly robust comeback
Major hotels lead the way toward reviving Puerto Rico tourism
The island’s major hotels, like the Intercontinental San Juan, kept their doors open throughout the storm and after. These hotels sheltered not only tourists stranded on the island at the time, but also employees and families. In addition, many of these hotels continued to provide emergency food shelter to those who needed it. They also worked to maintaining jobs for many of their employees along with much-needed paychecks.
Today, signs of the devastation from Maria are surprisingly few and far between in the tourist areas. Here Puerto Rico once again puts on a shiny face, signaling to tourists that everything is all right, at least when it comes to visiting familiar tourist scenes. And in many areas, that’s the current reality. This means that American tourists and sun-seekers in particular should put a Puerto Rican holiday back on their list of travel destinations.
Puerto Rico has long been a vibrant tourist destination, with its large cities filled with tourists and tourist industries. Here, the island’s warm, friendly people still beckon. They offer a variety of attractions, including a remarkable culinary industry, world-class hotels that provide a luxury island experience or the option of heading to the interior for hiking, waterfalls, birding and other adventure activities.
Puerto Rico offers beautiful sandy beaches, exceptional scuba diving, and snorkeling. All these draw many tourists to the island. In addition, the island’s mountain areas are rich with hike-able forests like El Yunque National Forest along with man-made Lakes.
Beyond the cities and familiar tourist destinations, the island Commonwealth of Puerto Rico actually consists of an archipelago located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic. The main island of the Commonwealth is the smallest and most eastern of the Greater Antilles. This chain of islands includes Cuba, Hispaniola (containing the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.
With an area of 3,515 square miles, Puerto Rico is the third largest island in the United States. It’s the 82nd largest island in the world. Various smaller islands and cays that are a part of Puerto Rico. They include Vieques, Culebra, Mona, Desecheo and Caja de Muertos. Of these, only Culebra and Vieques are inhabited year-round.
Where the tourists aren’t: Today’s hidden Puerto Rico
But beyond the island’s tourist attractions, many of which are now on the comeback trail, there has always been a different Puerto Rico. On remoter parts of the island, large groups of people live off the grid. And indeed many of them did even before Maria’s disastrous visit.
In these areas, phones, television, cable and cell reception are not guaranteed. Life in general is harder, and has become worse for more remote island inhabitants. When we spoke with one Puerto Rican family still living in the hills, they told us that even many months after Maria, people they knew were still missing. We heard similar stories others. They told us they believed – perhaps knew – that more people died in and after the storm than their government had claimed.
Post-Maria, it’s an uncertain numbers game
Today the human tragedy, the loss of life is still hard to pin down specifically as far as verifiable numbers are concern. As one young woman noted,
“The people that live in the forests and mountains, we don’t see them unless they come down to the cities. They are born and die and we often do not know, even in our own families, when this happens.”
We spoke to a cab driver about his hurricane experiences. He told us that he has ridden out many such storms over the years. As a child growing up in the outlands, he remembers his mother pushing both he and his brothers outside to play while the eye of one hurricane passed over the island.
“She told us the storm would last many hours so we should go outside while we can.”
When Maria hit, he went back in and hunkered down with his family. They prepared for the worst. And hoped for the best. Just like the rest of the island. But with Maria, it seems their luck ran out. Now the entire island is picking up the pieces. Tourism seems to be coming back first.
There is still work to be done
However, unless Puerto Rico’s government stops berating the president, giving him false information, and then damning him for the efforts, the rest of the island’s already struggling economy will have a difficult if not an impossible recovery task.
The Puerto Rican government’s mismanagement of its infrastructure contributed mightily to its difficulty in getting supplies to its people throughout the island. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s antiquated electric power system may have to get rebuilt from the ground up. In many ways, these issues had long pre-dated Maria’s arrival.
Today, Puerto Rico’s post-Maria administrative snarls – not the Trump administration – may be directly contributing to the ever increasing death estimates on the island.
In Puerto Rico today, some are recovering. But many are not.
When visiting the island this spring, we noted that some of the island’s devastation remained painfully visible. Some buildings large and small still showed the devastation caused by the storm. According to individuals we queried, most of those buildings are either under insurance review or structural review.
Both processes have been taking an uncommonly long time to complete. That’s a problem, because repair and rebuilding efforts can’t commence until these issues get resolved. In the most badly affected areas of Puerto Rico, the people most negatively affected by Maria were, predictably, those living in the island’s poorest communities. Many carried no insurance. Many may never return to their devastated homes
Time for President Trump to re-enter the fray?
A great many of Puerto Rico’s post-Maria issues were problems long before Maria arrived. Some of these problems – particularly those stemming from the island’s critical infrastructure failures – became issues due to decades of neglect by a generation of politicians who didn’t know or didn’t care. In many ways, this still seems to be the case. Someone needs to intervene. Forcefully
Perhaps President Trump needs to undertake a real intervention here. Perhaps the President needs to become much more than the titular head of state for this damaged island in order to get its economy and its people back on track. No one else seems capable at this point
We suggest this not because the President is any way responsible for the political failure of the island’s politicians to adequately care for its people, who’ve been long neglected by those they’ve elected to represent them. But, those elective representatives having failed miserably, perhaps only the considerable energy of America’s Commander-in-Chief can bring the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico into the 21st century at last.
—Headline image: Entrance, Intercontinental Hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Screen shot via Hotel’s official web site.