Hotels in Puerto Rico were at almost 100% occupancy during the Easter/Passover weekend, and the island expects a record 1.7 million cruise ship passengers this year.
Spring break has been giving Puerto Rico a much-needed cash break.
Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. commonwealth seven months ago, killing at least 64 people officially — although some reports put the death toll closer to a 1,000 in the aftermath. The storm left the 3.4 million American citizens living there without power or running water.
But Puerto Rico worked to welcome travelers back again in December, since tourism contributes 10% of its gross domestic product. And it’s paid off, as a record-breaking surge of spring visitors is giving the 80,000 Puerto Ricans employed in the tourism industry a reason to smile.
Inns and hotels across the Island reported close to 100% occupancy levels over the Passover/Easter weekend beginning March 30, according to the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC). “Tourism has been up and running for months now, and we are definitely roaring,” Carla Campos, acting executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, told Moneyish. More than 120 hotels, 4,000 restaurants, 13 golf courses and 15 casinos are open for business.
Courtnie Nichols, 31, has been to Puerto Rico twice already this year for work and as a Red Cross volunteer, most recently returning on April 2. “There were so many people on the beaches Easter weekend,” Nichols, the owner of TravelBash boutique travel company, told Moneyish. “People were drinking and dancing in the street in San Juan and La Pacita. We couldn’t get into Pasta y Pueblo restaurant because they actually ran out of food! I was there the month before, and thought I had found paradise — but now it looks like everyone else found it.”
NFL star Devin Funchess, the Carolina Panthers wide receiver, spent almost a week there by himself in late February zip-lining in the El Yunque rainforest, sipping pina coladas in Old San Juan and snorkeling in the Caribbean.
.“It was a spur-of-the-moment trip. It was after the season, and my body was banged up, and I was just looking for rest and relaxation,” he told Moneyish. “It was a good time. Everyone there was really friend, and they’re working hard to rebuild.”
Plus, “You don’t need a passport, and it’s not expensive,” he added.
In fact, TripAdvisor also just included Puerto Rico on its top five Caribbean islands where U.S. travelers can take a weeklong trip for less than $2,000 per person, putting the tab at about $1,916 for a week, with hotel rooms averaging $244 a night. And the island’s tourism company is also anticipating a record-breaking 1.7 million cruise ship passengers to come through Puerto Rico this year, generating roughly $250 million in economic revenue.
Campos said that Puerto Rico is “ready to enchant you,” which has become its marketing slogan. “We’ve had a real challenge with being able to relay this message that people shouldn’t be concerned about traveling to Puerto Rico. The top questions that we have are, ‘Is there power? Is there water? Do you have internet? Will my phone work?’” she said. “We recognize how much people have been concerned about what we went through … but that’s not to say that Puerto Rico isn’t rebounding.”
Matthew and Ariane Ernst, who got married at La Concha resort on March 24, confessed they had cold feet about keeping their wedding on the island in the hurricane’s immediate aftermath.
“We were in constant communication with our wedding planner and vendors, making sure first that they were doing okay. We even began to look for second venues up this way (in Manhattan) … but we wanted to stick with Puerto Rico,” Ernst, 30, told Moneyish. “We knew we would be bringing them a lot of money, not just for the wedding, but with our family and friends coming down, and looking to have fun and spend money.”
But their nups went off without a hitch. In fact, they were so enchanted with their wedding destination that they’re looking into buying a condo nearby to vacation in themselves, and to rent out the rest of the year. “We want (Puerto Rico) to be at least a yearly trip!” he said.
While Puerto Rico has hustled to get its tourism hubs back online, many areas have still been left in the dark. Seven months after the storm, more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans still don’t have power in what is now likely the second largest blackout in world history, according to data analytics group Rhodium Group, and it’s the largest blackout in U.S. history, losing 3.4 billion customer-hours of electricity service.
“The traffic lights in certain places were blinking instead of working,” noted Nichols, who added that some locals she met who live in the mountains and around the rainforest only just got their power back recently. Some are still living off of generators.
The massive storm damaged or leveled more than 470,000 houses, according to The Economist, and also destroyed about 80% of the island’s agricultural crop, including coffee and banana plantations that will take years to grow back. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced last week that it is giving about $18.5 billion in aid — the largest grant in HUD history — to repair and fortify houses, businesses and infrastructure wrecked by Hurricane Maria. And President Trump signed a $90 billion disaster aid package in February expected to give Puerto Rico about $50 billion in federal assistance over the next six years.
“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda recorded the charity single “Almost Like Praying” with 22 music legends, including Rita Moreno, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Luis Fonsi, Fat Joe, Gloria Estefan and Gina Rodriguez, with proceeds benefiting The Hispanic Federation.
Those looking to continue aiding Puerto Rico in its recovery can donate through reputable charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross and The Hispanic Federation’s Unidos Disaster Relief Fund. But the tourism board is also encouraging visitors to come boost the local economy by spending money in the hotels, restaurants and local businesses. It’s reminiscent of New York City’s then-mayor Rudy Giuliani calling for visitors to come back after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, declaring: “The best thing you can do for our city is take in a Broadway show.”
Amanda Duff, who once worked in public relations for Puerto Rican hotels including El Conquistador, a Waldorf Astoria Resort in Fajardo, as well as Condado Plaza Hilton in San Juan, told Moneyish that she returned to the island with her father in January. They took a road trip around the island and handed out school supplies, so she saw both the rapid recovery and the areas still struggling to rebuild.
“I found that a lot of places had recovered quicker than I had expected, which was wonderful … specifically Guanica (on the southern coast) was in amazing shape … but there’s still a long way to go,” she said. “It’s a tricky situation, but actually the best thing that people can do to pump up the economy is to dine in local restaurants, shop in local boutiques and stay in the hotels. And then you get a vacation out of it, as well, so it’s a win-win.”
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