Puerto Rico is back after years of challenges

The streets of Old San Juan, the historic quarter in Puerto Rico’s capital. | Dennis Lennox

The last time I was in Puerto Rico, it looked like it was on the verge of recovery.

My visit in late 2018 was more than a year after the devastation of Hurricane Maria and the unprecedented federal bankruptcy of the territorial government.

While the U.S. island territory did manage to recover its hospitality and tourism industry, nobody knew that recovery would be short-lived.

First, there was a weird series of earthquakes in December 2019 and January 2020. The phenomenon, called an earthquake swarm, culminated with a 6.4-magnitude quake in Ponce, a quaint city and emerging destination about 70 miles from the capital of San Juan on the southern end of the island.

Within just three months of the earthquake swarm came the coronavirus pandemic. Like just about everywhere else, shutdowns and restrictions kept many visitors away until some semblance of normalcy returned last year just in time for the 500th anniversary of San Juan’s founding.

“We have certainly faced challenges,” Discover Puerto Rico CEO Brad Dean said. “Yet, we set a record in recovery with 2021 being an all-time record year.”

His claim is supported by the numbers. Last year’s lodging revenue surpassed $1 billion for the first time. For hoteliers, the crucial measure known as revenue per available room is 124% higher than the national average. Meanwhile, Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, as San Juan’s airport is formally called, ranks sixth overall for seat capacity recovery.

One of Puerto Rico’s strongest assets is its history, heritage and culture.

Today a U.S. territory, the island was under Spanish rule from its discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1493 until the Spanish-American War in 1898. This rich and, admittedly, complicated past gives visitors the kind of international experience generally only possible with a passport and a trip abroad, the latter of which is difficult due to constantly changing pandemic restrictions.

The Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is the oldest cathedral in the United States and the second-oldest in the Americas. | Dennis Lennox

“For us, the strength of our strategy is amplifying all there is to do beyond our beautiful Caribbean beaches,” Dean said over breakfast at El Convento Hotel across from the oldest cathedral in the United States. “We are here in the historic city of Old San Juan, where you can explore the cobblestone streets and walk where Columbus and Ponce de Leon once ventured.”

Part of this marketing strategy is out of sheer necessity, as the hospitality and tourism industry was heavily dependent on cruise ship visitors before the pandemic, with as many as eight ships in San Juan every day.

While cruises returned in August 2021 after more than a year of no sailings, Puerto Rico was dropped as a port of call after Gov. Pedro Pierluisi imposed new restrictions last month. Pierluisi’s office declined repeated requests for comment.

“It is kind of like a roller coaster, but we do have people coming in,” architect and tour guide Andy Rivera said. “Still, we have a long way to go.”

Rivera leads daily walking tours of Old San Juan through the Puerto Rico Historic Building Drawing Society, a nonprofit organization.

“San Juan is the oldest city under the American flag, which means we have very interesting buildings and architecture,” he said. “Puerto Rico has the oldest buildings and the oldest churches.”

If you go

Arriving at San Juan’s airport should be like any other domestic flight. But it isn’t, thanks to strict entry restrictions imposed by the Pierluisi administration that effectively create an international border between the territory and the rest of the United States.

Not only are visitors required to present proof of a negative coronavirus test, but anyone who isn’t vaccinated must quarantine for seven days. Supporting documentation can be uploaded before arrival to a special website that then generates a QR code to show police and National Guard soldiers on the other side of baggage claim. These restrictions may have made sense at the start of the pandemic, but pursuing a COVID zero strategy in year three is a fool’s errand.

Stay at the Palacio Provincial Hotel, Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel or the Decanter Hotel.

The walking tours from the Puerto Rico Historic Building Drawing Society can be booked through Airbnb for $25 per person.

Discover Puerto Rico has full trip planning resources available through its website.

Dennis Lennox writes a travel column for The Christian Post.

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