Tourists Can Help Puerto Rico Get Back on Track After Hurricane Maria

Travelers have slowly started returning to Puerto Rico. BrendaLee Quiles Alvarado/

To call Puerto Rico's recovery efforts after Hurricane Maria slow would be an understatement. Some people in this U.S. territory went months without electricity and other basic services, and work continues in some of the more remote regions.

Getting back on solid economic footing after the storm has been complicated. Not only did Puerto Rico have to deal with infrastructure damage, but it was contending with debt issues even before Maria hit.

The slow rebuilding process and prolonged economic doldrums have led to at least 200,000 people leaving the island and resettling on the U.S. mainland, mainly in Florida.

Now, officials in the territory are looking to travelers to help jump-start the economy and quicken the pace of recovery.

It's not all doom and gloom

Media coverage has focused on Maria's aftermath and the slow recovery. This type of coverage may reflect reality, but it's focused on one aspect of a larger reality. The media reports may actually be hampering the tourism industry because people who don't follow the situation closely are not aware that the recovery effort has already yielded results, as CNN explains. Even if things are not 100 percent "back to normal," much of the island is open for business and ready for visitors. In fact, resort towns and cruise ports that dodged the worst of Maria were operating again only a few weeks after landfall.

Thus far, most post-Maria visitors have been Puerto Rican travelers who are well aware that hotels and restaurants in popular San Juan neighborhoods like Condado and Isla Verde are open for business. The Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC), a government-run entity in charge of travel promotion for the territory, wants to build on this initial influx of tourists. Their ultimate goal is to make tourism a larger part of Puerto Rico's economy.

PRTC is keeping would-be tourists informed by offering information about what attractions and destinations are open. The website even has a page with counters showing the number of open hotels, restaurants, attractions and travel agencies. The site also has a live chat feature so that prospective visitors can get first-hand information while planning their trip.

Can tourism really speed recovery?

Tourism can provide cash for local businesses in Puerto Rico
Tourism can provide cash for local businesses. Dora Ramirez/

Unlike manufacturing, tourism can bounce back quickly after a disaster like Maria. Hotel stays, restaurant trips and shopping excursions can provide a steady stream of cash. This is why the acting director of the PRTC, Carla Campos, released a statement saying that "one of the best ways people can support Puerto Rico is by visiting — staying at hotels, eating at restaurants, enjoying our Island's activities, and buying from local businesses..."

Before the storm, tourism accounted for about 10 percent of the territory's GDP. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares had hoped to expand that and made tourism a part of his economic development agenda. So the idea of tourism development in Puerto Rico is not a new one, but the storm has thrust it to the forefront.

Coupling recovery with renovations and re-branding

Hotels and resorts, especially historic boutique hotels in and around San Juan, have used the storm recovery effort to perform renovations and upgrades. Insurance payouts and federal aid have not only given the territory and its businesses a chance to rebuild, but also provided an opportunity to do so without having to worry about the current state of the economy.

The renovations and promotional efforts are giving Puerto Rico a chance to present itself anew. Of course, "new" is a relative term for a place defined by 16th- to 19th-century architecture and pre-Columbian sites. But Puerto Rico has a chance to promote its historic sites, attractions and vacation experiences to people who might not otherwise be aware of the travel opportunities in the largest U.S. territory.

The clean-up process offers Puerto Rico a chance to reinvent is tourism image. U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr

Tourism isn't going to be a cure-all for Puerto Rico. The economic situation is complicated, and the fix will require systematic changes — but that would have been the case with or without Maria.

As Anne Krueger of Johns Hopkins University writing for CNBC, explains, the territory has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get it right. Tourism income is important for the recovery effort, not just because it can provide an immediate injection of cash and provides jobs, but because it's an opportunity to increase tourism for the long run, which is something that could benefit the area in the long run.