Since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s infrastructure in mid-September, tourists are so rare that kayaker José Figueroa thinks he will soon be forced to sell water to motorists arrested at the traffic lights.
“Now we are trying to survive,” says the 46-year-old tour guide. “Last week we only worked one day”.
Previously, visitors had to go one month in advance to reserve one of their kayaks to travel the bioluminescent waters of Laguna Grande.
The year had begun, however, on the heels of the American territory, taking advantage of the worldwide success of Puerto Ricans song “Despacito” Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee with the participation of pop star Justin Bieber.
This tube offered a free promotion to the island of 3.4 million inhabitants, which collapsed under an abysmal debt and declared bankruptcy in May. Tourists flocked to visit the filming locations.
But Hurricane Maria has put a stop to this momentum so beneficial to the Puerto Rico caisses, by destroying the electricity and drinking water supply network and numerous infrastructures.
As a result, three months later, the beaches remain deserted and hotels and restaurants with closed shutters receive only professionals from the motherland to work for the reconstruction of the island.
“The few tourists we have are officials from the US federal administration,” says Figueroa.
Pessimism is prevalent on the coastal promenade in Fajardo, at the northeastern tip of Puerto Rico, where many restaurants are closed for lack of electricity.
That day, only the Racar Seafood is open at lunch time because it has its own generator. “We have local tourists,” says Justino Cruz, his owner.
“Our customers are local, those who have no electricity, no generator, cold food or no food at all,” said the 61-year-old.
– Welcome with fanfare –
The electricity grid is now operational at 70% capacity but mainly around the capital San Juan, about sixty kilometers from Fajardo.
While cities that depend on tourism are struggling across the island, its capital city is greatly improved and cruise ships are back.
The first since the hurricane docked on November 30, with some 7,000 tourists on board. He was warmly welcomed with, literally, drums and trumpets.
According to the London-based World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the tourism sector accounted for 8.1% of Puerto Rico’s GDP in 2016, with $ 8.1 billion.
The impact of Maria differs by branch: tour guides are idle and many restaurants remain closed, but hotels with a generator are doing pretty well.
Open institutions – about 80% on the island – are almost all complete thanks to the thousands of federal officials and reconstruction staff who arrived after the hurricane.
All of these people should start leaving the island this month, but some tourists are expected to go there at Christmas, at least in San Juan where electricity has been restored almost completely.
The hurricane “has undoubtedly cost billions in lost revenue,” says Jose Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, responsible for the tourism promotion of the island. “But I’m optimistic.”
A solution, he said, could be to turn tourists into volunteers taking part in the huge reconstruction project.
“We want travelers who want to travel with a mission,” he says.
A program of this kind was launched in mid-November – the “sensible trip” – which organizes stays in which locals, Puerto Ricans living abroad and tourists are invited to participate in the convalescence of the island.
“The project aims to create empathy for this tourist destination,” says Izquierdo. “We want to be like New Orleans after Katrina, where ten years after the hurricane tourism is the locomotive of the economy”.
And to send a message: “The world wants to help Puerto Rico, the best way is to visit us”.