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Puerto Rico tourism craters in wake of Hurricane Maria

  • In this Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 photo, the streets of Old San Juan are dark after sunset one month after Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Tourism, a rare thriving sector on the island in a deep economic slump, is practically nonexistent a month after Hurricane Maria swept though. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) Carlos Giusti

  • In this Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 photo, Madam Sujanani, owner of Gul Plaza Souvenir Store in Condado, shows one of the shirts available for sale after Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The island's hospitality officials are encouraging do-gooders come to help rebuild. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) Carlos Giusti

  • In this Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 photo, German tourists Nikola Sheienssen and her son Stephan Julian walk past the Guarionex Cafe, one month after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The family from Kiel, Germany said they had some trouble finding a hotel and were surprised by the empty streets and closed stores, but never considered canceling their trip. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) Carlos Giusti

  • In this Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 photo, a note outlines a store's new hours in the Condado tourist area, one month after Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Scores of restaurants are open, but operating under truncated hours with limited menus and many without power. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) Carlos Giusti

  • A man walks past a boarded up store in the tourist area of Old San Juan one month after Hurricane Maria. Officials are hoping power can be restored before high season in December. AP

  • In this Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 photo, a couple watches the sunset from Norzagaray street one month after Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The expansive grounds of the Castillo San Felipe del Morro are open around the Spanish fort overlooking San Juan Bay, but the fort itself is still closed. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) Carlos Giusti

  • In this Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 photo, a crew hang a banner on the Caribe Hilton hotel featuring the Puerto Rican flag and the Spanish word "Strength," one month after Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Caribe Hilton isn't accepting reservations until New Year's. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) Carlos Giusti

  • In this Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 photo, men push a generator along Fortaleza street, one month after Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Maria roared across the island on Sept. 20 and after a month, only 30 percent of residents have power. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) Carlos Giusti

  • In this Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 photo, a man sits outside Casa Blanca Hotel, one of the few hotels still open one month after the passage of Hurricane Maria, on Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. About a third of the hotels in Puerto Rico remain shuttered. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) Carlos Giusti

  • In this Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 photo, a handwritten message in Spanish reads "Life is cruel" outside Raices restaurant in the tourist area of Old San Juan, one month after Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Businesses that count on tourism are staying afloat thanks to the emergency workers streaming onto the island. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) Carlos Giusti

  • In this Friday, Oct. 20, 2017 photo, power is out along Fortaleza street, one month after Hurricane Maria, in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Hotels are closed. Restaurants have no power. Old San Juan is deserted. Tourism is practically nonexistent in Puerto Rico right now. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti) Carlos Giusti



Associated Press
Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The narrow blue cobblestone streets of Old San Juan are deserted. Cigar shops are boarded up. Boutiques in bright colonial buildings are closed.

“It’s like a ghost town,” said Mike Maione, a 57-year-old tourist from Flanders, N.J., who was staying in the heart of the colonial city with his wife at a small hotel powered by a generator. “We’ve been here a number of times before, and the place is usually just crawling with tourists, but there’s nobody here.”

Tourism, a rare thriving sector on the island in a deep economic slump, is practically nonexistent a month after Hurricane Maria swept though. And part of the recovery from the storm depends on how fast visitors reappear.

About a third of the hotels in Puerto Rico remain shuttered. Restaurants and shops are still without power. Beaches are closed for swimming because of possible water contamination.

The high season begins in December, and tourism officials are hoping to lure some visitors, but that depends on when power is fully restored and how quickly hotels and attractions can repair the catastrophic damage.

“We want Puerto Rico to be more like New Orleans post-Katrina and Detroit post-financial crisis,” said Jose Izquierdo, the executive director of Puerto Rico’s government Tourism Company. Though, he hopes, on a faster timeline.

The U.S. territory usually sees more than 5 million visitors a year, and they spend close to $4 billion, creating jobs for more than 80,000 people. While that’s a small portion of the overall economy, about 8 percent, money generated by visitors has been growing at the same time other sectors have shrunk during a 10-year recession.

Maria roared across the island on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm, killing at least 49 people and knocking out electricity to the whole island. More than a month later, only 30 percent of customers have power, though Gov. Ricardo Rossello has pledged to get that to 95 percent by Dec. 31. Roughly 70 percent of the communication network has been restored, and 70 percent of the water service is back.

The main airport recently resumed full operations. Cruise ships are beginning to sail again. The Bacardi rum distillery will reopen Nov. 1. Nearly all the island’s casinos are open. Old San Juan’s colonial-era buildings mostly survived intact.

“We don’t want to give up entirely on the high season,” said Izquierdo, who hopes business will be bolstered by Puerto Ricans coming home for the holidays, emergency federal officials working on the recovery and others coming with a sense of purpose to help rebuild. “And then post high-season, we continue to revamp the product,” he said.

But for Patti Weiss, 54, of Gilbertsville, Pa., the uncertainty was too much. She and her husband planned their Royal Caribbean cruise a year ago and regularly embark from Puerto Rico, staying through Christmas, but are leaving from Florida instead.

“I just didn’t feel it was the right time to go, it was too iffy. I was still seeing pictures and the hotels lost the generators and I just couldn’t do it,” she said. “We were really disappointed, but I still have my house and drinking water so this is nothing compared to what they’re going through down there.”

Scores of restaurants are open, but operating under truncated hours with limited menus and many without power. Some are offering discounted meals to locals who can’t cook. Chef Ariel Rodriguez, owner of Ariel, a fine dining spot open for almost 30 years where a two-course meal is $54, said it’s been nearly impossible to get ingredients. He was offering a meal of beef stew and rice for $5. For smaller eateries like gastropub Gallo Negro, it’s hard to pay the cost of diesel for generators, said Chef Maria Grubb. Her 52-seat restaurant hasn’t been open for weeks.

“It’s quite crushing,” she said. “Rent is still due. Insurance is still due, distributors need to be paid. We have a staff of 14 people without any means of making money. That’s the toughest part of all this.”

The financial impact of Maria on the industry won’t be clear until after the season ends, but the visible impact of the storm is more obvious. Some of the island’s best-known attractions were battered, like El Yunque, a biologically diverse tropical rain forest of 45 square miles. Aerial footage shows massive defoliation, plus landslides and downed trees. One of the island’s most famous resort hotels, El Conquistador in Fajardo, will be closed until the end of the year for repairs.