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Tourism Season Begins In Puerto Rico


Puerto Rico has declared itself open for tourism nearly three months after Hurricane Maria. But on an island where so many people still lack electricity, what does open for tourism mean? Jeff Cohen of member station WNPR recently visited Puerto Rico at the beginning of what would normally be high season.

JEFF COHEN, BYLINE: Old San Juan is a postcard of Puerto Rico, a hub of food, music and history. After the storm, it was dark and still. Since then, the lights have started to come back on. Restaurants began to open. And a couple of weeks ago, the once-empty streets were filled, if briefly, with a flash mob of thousands of tourists coming off two cruise ships. Ohioans Courtney and Eric Powell were two of them.

COURTNEY POWELL: We didn't think we were coming here until - what? - two weeks ago. They took it off our itinerary...

ERIC POWELL: They put it back on.

C. POWELL: ...And put it back on. So we were surprised.

COHEN: They came on an island-hopping cruise. When they woke up, they'd arrived in San Juan, but they weren't sure what they'd find.

C. POWELL: I even said I felt bad because - knowing that there are so many people still with nothing. And here we are, walking around and wanting to get a drink. And yeah. So it's sad, I think.

COHEN: But it's not sad for Victor Santiago. He's on the street, trying to get people inside the Cafe Fortaleza. For him, tourists mean income.

VICTOR SANTIAGO: They give me work (laughter). And I can convince them to go to my restaurant, taste the coffee and taste the delicious food we serve. We crumbled a little bit with the hurricane, but we're standing back up to receive you and give you a great treat.

COHEN: So to the tourists like the Powells who feel a little bit guilty about having fun in Puerto Rico...

JOSE IZQUIERDO: Don't feel guilty.

COHEN: That's Jose Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.

IZQUIERDO: As a matter of fact, feel like you're doing your part in helping our recovery.

COHEN: Izquierdo says the cruise ship industry is already picking up. He expects about 90 percent of the forecasted passenger load this year. As for hotels, three-quarters of the ones endorsed by his agency are open. And they're nearly at capacity, stocked with relief workers and contractors. As they start to leave, rooms are opening up for tourists. Izquierdo says restarting the tourism industry in Puerto Rico is going to happen in stages. While San Juan is ready, the rest of the island is not.

IZQUIERDO: We need to be cautious of not turning on that demand-generating button just too soon when there's an area that's not ready to welcome these tourists just yet.

COHEN: Take for instance El Yunque, the national forest famous for its tropical rainforest. If you want to see it, you'll have to do so from a distance. It's closed until further notice. And tourists usually come to the eastern part of Fajardo for boat trips and snorkeling and island visits. Jayanne McLaughlin has been in Puerto Rico for 23 years and runs East Island Excursions. She says her business has never seen anything like this.

JAYANNE MCLAUGHLIN: It means that we're really starting from scratch. I mean, we don't have any tourists coming here. And I don't think we're going to have any.

COHEN: So she's doing anything she can to keep her fleet in the water and her people employed, so that when tourism does eventually pick up across the island, she'll still have a business to run.

MCLAUGHLIN: If you see our advertising, you'd think everything was peachy keen because it's nice out there. And that's what we do. And so that's what we're telling everybody. Come on. Come out for the day. Forget your worries. Forget the cares. Go out there and put your feet in the clear water and sit on the sandy beach and have a pina colada.

COHEN: At least out on the ocean, it's harder to see the devastation Maria left behind. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Cohen started in newspapers in 2001 and joined Connecticut Public in 2010, where he worked as a reporter and fill-in host. In 2017, he was named news director.