Along with other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico has been utterly devastated by Hurricane Maria. The island that makes a living from tourism is already thinking: What will the hurricane mean for their already ravaged economy?
On the night of Tuesday, September 19, Paulina Salach Antonetti was, like most residents of Puerto Rico, battening down the hatches. She was worried about her home and her safety, but she was also worried about her business and, especially, about the five people she employs at Spoon Food Tours, her San Juan-based tour company that offers guided culinary excursions around the capital.
More than a week after Hurricane Maria made landfall, she still hadn’t heard from two of them.
Salach Antonetti had, however, heard from many other people. Her inbox was full of messages from American travelers. One of the few people on the island able to get online briefly—more than a week after the hurricane, the entire island remains without electricity and most telecommunications services—she had received numerous requests to cancel scheduled food tours.
“We’ve had no inquiries or bookings since the island was hit by Maria,” she says. “We’ve only had cancellations that so far, go through December. We’ve issued thousands of dollars in refunds and have no new bookings for 2017 or 2018.”
Though Salach Antonetti is concerned about basic survival needs—she says that every day is a struggle to get drinking water, food, gas, etc.— she is also deeply concerned about her employees and the island at large, which is so dependent upon tourism. “There is no money coming in,” she says, “but we all still have to pay rent, cell phone bills, buy water, food, and gas. We are living—and will be for an undetermined period—out of our savings.”
Nine days after Maria, a Category 4 hurricane preceded by Hurricane Irma which also tore across the Caribbean, most travel providers—from major chain hotels and vacation rental owners, to guides and tour operators like Salach Antonetti—are literally still digging out of the rubble. They are, in fact, struggling to simply survive in conditions that have been described by various mainstream media outlets as catastrophic and “war-like.”
But as they wait for aid to reach them and for basic services to be restored, literally disconnected by geography and technology from the rest of the world, they have all too much time on their hands to think about the future. For Puerto Rico, which even before the hurricane was suffering under the immense stress of a $70 billion debt and the consequential strains on its healthcare, education, and agricultural systems, as well as its basic infrastructure, Hurricane Maria is being viewed as nothing less than a total catastrophe.
Almost nothing on the normally lush island is recognizable, says Salach Antonetti, and the recovery process would be both long and difficult even under the best circumstances. But the circumstances aren’t the best: Aid has been slow in arriving and its distribution is reported to be hampered by bureaucracy and a lack of trucks and diesel. It’s been estimated that the island could be without electricity for months, or possibly even an entire year. It’s a condition that doesn’t exactly invite tourism—and tourism, of course, is what Puerto Rico lives on.
Salach Antonetti hasn’t seen a lot of the international coverage of the hurricane and its damage—with communications severely restricted, she has limited online time, and she spends what time she has on managing client cancelation and refund requests. But the coverage that she has seen leaves her feeling torn.
“We need help, so we need to show the world the level of damage,” she says. “On the other hand, the more negative press the island receives, the more reluctant travelers will be to visit.” And this, in the long-term, is what concerns her and other travel industry employees the most. “As soon as things are stabilized,” she adds, “we will need the tourism more than ever.”
Her concern is echoed by others in the travel sector in Puerto Rico. Jen Gold, owner of vacation rental property Casa Ladera on the Puerto Rican ‘little sister’ island of Vieques, says that while satellite images suggest her property fared as well as could be expected, “about four groups have canceled upcoming bookings” and the cost of that lost revenue, paired with the expense of clean-up, deals a painful blow. “We will likely refinance or take out a line of credit to pay for these losses this season,” she says. And until power and water are restored –which will probably take even longer for Vieques than on the Puerto Rican mainland—Gold estimates it will be four to six weeks even after utilities are restored before she and her team will be able to really get back on track.
Similar narratives are developing across the Caribbean. Though most of the other countries in the region were spared the near-total devastation reported in Puerto Rico, they’re still anticipating that this coming winter—their high season—will likely register record low visits. Lebawit Lily Girma, a US travel writer and author of Caribbean guidebooks for Moon and Rough Guides currently based in the Dominican Republic, just attended Jamaica’s travel trade conference and reports that tourism officials are “concerned that most Americans will generalize the entire region as being off limits.”
In fact, travel and tour operators have already announced region-wide post-hurricane cancellations that extend late into 2017. Among them is Adventure.com’s parent company, Intrepid Travel which has canceled trips to the British Virgin Islands after they were ravaged by Hurricane Irma. A statement explained that the company had been in communication with the BVI Tourist Board and had, as a result, taken up their recommendation to cancel trips up to mid-December. “The tourist board, like us, wants to get tourists back into the region as soon as it’s possibly viable as 85% of the islands’ GDP comes from tourism. We are committed to returning tourism to the islands when it is safe to do so,” the statement read.
For Cuba, the perception of the Caribbean at large being off-limits is an even more troubling prospect, says Conner Gorry, a journalist and the owner of Cuba Libro, the island’s only English-language bookstore. Already, Cuba was experiencing a drop-off in tourism after Trump’s announcement of an impending roll-back of the travel and diplomatic advances achieved by the Obama administration.
This season’s hurricanes have only compounded the slump. “It’s a double whammy we’re experiencing. Universities are cancelling their study abroad programs (because of Trump, not Irma), agencies are cancelling trips (Thomas Cook has cancelled all Cuba travel post-Irma and is offering refunds or different destinations to clients already booked to Cuba), and there are shortages of certain staples like toilet paper and condensed milk that we depend on for what we offer our customers in our café, ” says Gorry. “Our donation programs are suffering too, since people usually bring material donations in their luggage. Our condom program (we’ve given out over 12,500 since we opened) is now stalled for lack of condoms.”
“The more cancellations we get now, the longer it will take us to rebuild and get back up and running.”
Jen Gold, owner of Casa Ladera
Throughout the Caribbean, residents who make their living from tourism are fighting as much for their livelihoods as for their very lives. Major hotels in Puerto Rico are frantically trying to clean debris, do repairs, house rescue workers, offer support to the community, and provide a tentative timeline to travelers regarding when they can expect resumption of full operations. Eager-to-roam travelers, however, may not be willing to wait, nor deal with the uncertainty of the current rescue and recovery timeline.
But everyone interviewed for this article hopes travelers will wait and that they will think about the fact that their Caribbean travels will be more important to the region than ever. They all say if you want to help in the wake of the hurricanes, the best thing you can do is to take a vacation there.
Gold’s advice for travelers? Be patient and don’t cancel reservations until more information is available. Also, contact the owners or managers of properties where you’re staying to find out the status, and cancellation policy. “The more cancellations we get now, the longer it will take us to rebuild and get back up and running, “ explains Gold.
“Some colleagues of ours who own properties in Vieques have heard from upcoming guests, asking not only to keep their reservations on the books, but asking how they can help when they come down, to make it a ‘working vacation’ to help clean up the island,” adds Gold. “ This is incredibly inspiring to me, and I can only hope that many others will do the same.”
Want to help Puerto Rico?
Light and Hope for Puerto Rico: A Citizen Campaign
For $100, you can provide solar light, mobile phone charger and non-electric portable washing solution for a Puerto Rican family in need. Donate here.
100% of donations go to Vieques residents and Vieques non-profits in need. Donate here.