In the fall of 2017, Puerto Rico was pummeled by Hurricane Maria, the strongest storm to hit the island in nearly a century.
The storm devastated Puerto Rico, claiming nearly 3,000 lives, destroying homes and roads, and leaving the territory to face the longest blackout in U.S. history.
With a slow response from the government, the island was left to remobilize and recover largely on its own.
Puerto Rico, its infrastructure, and its economy weren’t the only things crippled by Hurricane Maria. Tourism took a blow, and for three months after the storm, the island was virtually devoid of newcomers.
But even a hurricane couldn’t crush the island’s resilient spirit – or keep travelers away. A little over a year later, Puerto Rico was named The New York Times no. 1 place to travel in 2019.
So how did Puerto Rico go from a storm-crippled Caribbean island to a top tourist destination? Here’s why tourism is “back with a vengeance” on the island of Puerto Rico.
Renewed focus on tourism
After officially reopening its doors to tourists in December 2017, the local Puerto Rican government launched a spirited campaign to welcome guests back and reinvent its tourism industry.
“We know we have an opportunity to reimagine our destination, to be able to renew our inventory, to strengthen our partnerships with a lot of companies that do business in Puerto Rico,”
explains Carla Campos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC), a government-owned corporation overseeing tourism on the island.
“Our recovery plan has had as an ultimate vision to secure a promising comeback and make this an opportunity rather than a crisis.”
To promote tourism, governor Ricardo Rosselló signed the Puerto Rico Destination Marketing Organization (DMO), an organization designed to develop Puerto Rico’s brand, bring in visitors, and boost the island’s exposure internationally.
The Rosselló administration also partnered with Airbnb to launch “Experiences” in Puerto Rico in an effort to boost tourism and support the community’s reconstruction.
Rosello is hoping to restore and expand tourism to incorporate the more rural areas of Puerto Rico, with talk of plans to increase airport capacity on the island and push the country’s many local festivals. Already, the island is welcoming more cruise ships and flights.
The rise of ecotourism
As noted in the Times, ecotourism, agrotourism, and voluntourism have become increasingly popular over recent years as global travelers look for responsible, authentic experiences that conserve the environment and improve the lives of locals.
Ravaged by some of the most serious problems associated with climate change – sea level rise and extreme weather – Puerto Rico is an obvious and compelling choice for ecotourism enthusiasts.
Leveraging tourism as a powerful rebuilding tool, the island offers many ecotourism tours that combine vacationing with volunteer work.
Voluntourism tours invite guests to participate in projects like digging up Camuy Cave Park or rebuilding Culebra’s Flamenco Beach.
Increased empathy and connection with Puerto Rico is driving ecotourism on the island, Campos says.
Increased cruise ship traffic
Cruise ship tourism has long been integral to the Puerto Rican economy. Less than a year after Hurricane Maria hit, the country received more cruise ship passengers than ever before in history.
In 2018, the island received more than 1.2 million cruise passengers, including a record-breaking 107,390 passengers in May 2018 and 134,903 in June.
The trend is expected to continue in 2019, when the PRTC predicts the island will receive a record 1.7 million passengers.
The soaring figures are primarily due to a rise in visits from large cruise ships like the New Carnival Horizon, Harmony of the Seas, and Viking Sea ships.
Cruise ships were welcomed by the Rosselló administration with the passage of Act 124, which “extends the validity of the cruise ship incentive program for two years in order to maintain the confidence of the industry in Puerto Rico as a destination,” as reported by Caribbean Business.
Incredible natural beauty
Even without all the recent initiatives, Puerto Rico is an easy place for travelers to fall in love with. The island draws surfers, beach bums, and divers with some of the Caribbean’s best beaches.
Beyond the white sand shores and beneath the waves lie colorful coral with diverse fishes. The island is home to three bioluminescent bays, including the famous Mosquito Bay, one of the brightest in the world.
For travelers who can pull themselves away from the white sands, the island is a treasure trove of natural beauty.
Tourists can adventure through thick rainforests beneath the shade of dense mangroves and giant fern trees, scale towering mountains, or venture down into underground caves.
Visitors can travel around the island on a rented bicycle or hop a free trolley to get from San Juan to the national parks.
One-of-a-kind history & culture
Even after tragedy, Puerto Rico’s culture shines brighter than ever. In the historic colonial barrio of Old San Juan, Spanish colonial architecture stands proudly over pedestrians strolling cobblestone streets where pirates and smugglers used to walk.
Also in Old San Juan, the Barrachina – the alleged birthplace of the piña colada – continues to dole out fruity local rum drinks.
On the weekends, lechoneras, Puerto Rico’s iconic suckling pig restaurants, send tantalizing aromas of roasting pork wafting across the island.
Late into the night, intoxicating beats float through the air and revelars party at famous salsa clubs.
After a temporary immobilization at the hands of a hurricane, Puerto Rico is coming back stronger than ever.
As the unlikely candidate for the New York Times #1 place to travel in 2019, Puerto Rico is expected to continue to flourish and draw in more visitors in the coming years.
If you are considering visiting Puerto Rico, we encourage you to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity to support tourism and the local economy while enjoying the island’s breathtaking beauty and enchanting culture.
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