Post-Maria, a new tourism emerges in Puerto Rico

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Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Setting: A Caribbean island, two years after a Category 5 hurricane.

Cast: A delegation of American travel suppliers. A Russian who loves salsa dancing. An Italian-born tour guide working in Puerto Rico. A young Michigan travel advisor.

Plot: An unlikely story about destruction and renewal that contains important clues about new directions in tourism.

There is no such script or movie, but there was an almost cinematic arc to a 48-hour event in Puerto Rico earlier this month. On May 8, the industry nonprofit Tourism Cares brought 198 members to the island to learn about its renaissance following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria two years ago. The gathering was in turns emotional, exhausting, exhilarating and inspiring.

I'm on the board of Tourism Cares and served on its Global Committee, which helped raise funds and decide how they would be disbursed to aid tourism-related Caribbean businesses impacted by the storm. Our goal was to find opportunities to help enterprises "build back better" than they had been before Maria.

A dominant theme at this gathering in Puerto Rico was food in all its dimensions. It's not unusual for travelers to preplan meals at specific restaurants, visit local markets or take cooking classes, but Puerto Rico is at the forefront of a movement that connects tourism more deeply.

The delegation heard from a panel involved in the local food industry. Some –- a restaurateur, the regional general manager for Marriott –- had obvious ties to tourism. But suppliers of food from farms and the sea, who might have once seen themselves as a step removed from tourism, are successfully engaging with visitors as well.

The group got hands-on exposure to this movement.

World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit started by chef Jose Andres, used a portion of the funds provided by Tourism Cares to work with the Centro de Microempresas y Tecnologias Agricolas de Yauco, a shareholder enterprise that provided small farmers with food and access to clean water in Maria's immediate aftermath and today provides them with educational training and programs.

A volunteer experience there is currently offered by many inbound operators, and Tourism Cares participants joined one. I was in a group that helped build a retaining wall out of used tires. Others planted trees or painted.

On the way to the work site, Tourism Cares chief impact officer Paula Vlamings told me, "Travelers today want to go from being spectators to engaged and connected with destinations in a meaningful way. The industry is responding."

Call it enlightened self-interest, but she believes that the trend is supportive of the long-term health of the travel industry.

"In many destinations, both the ecosystems and cultures we sell are fragile," she said. "If we ignore this opportunity to engage and connect, they'll decline, and tourism will instead only put pressure on those destinations."

I also spoke with Anastasia Kitsul, president of Rutrex Puerto Rico, an inbound operator. The story of her business renewal post-Maria affirmed both Vlamings' perspective and the effectiveness of Tourism Cares' efforts.

Born in Russia, Kitsul came to Puerto Rico for a job. Her love for salsa dancing kept her on the island after the assignment ended, and she started an inbound tour operation, securing VIP and luxury clients from Europe.

When her business was devastated by Maria, Kitsul was unsure how to rebuild. Tourism Cares had hired a consultant specializing in disaster recovery and tourism to counsel businesses in Puerto Rico. Kitsul was told her clientele would change: She'd get more adventurous travelers and could cultivate a specialization in working with corporations that wanted to send "service tours" of employees to help rebuild the island.

Having followed that advice, Kitsul said, her business is now stronger than ever.

"Once we met Tourism Cares' standards on meaningful tourism, they referred business to us," she said. "And after a disaster, you need business, not handouts."

She also said that living through Maria in some ways had made Puerto Rico better.

"The music, the street artists, the chefs -- hurricanes don't change cultures or human essence," she said. "To the contrary, they bring out the best in people and build stronger relationships."

That sentiment was echoed by Paulo Sorbello, an Italian who works as a tour guide in Puerto Rico.

"The hurricane helped everyone see things anew and opened minds," he said, adding that people who had lived self-centered lives reconnected to communities, and a growing awareness for greater self-sufficiency drove an increased interest in agriculture, which in turn spurred the creation of "a parallel tourism."

On the final morning of the conference, several people talked about what they had gotten out of the gathering. Molly Murphy, a young travel advisor with Vitamin T Vacations in Auburn Hills, Mich., said she felt very empowered by her time in Puerto Rico.

"You're often thinking, 'I'm just one person, how can I make a difference?'" she said. "But I really saw how one person can make a difference. A lot of little things can become powerful."

"And cut! That's a wrap."

For more information on Tourism Cares, visit TourismCares.org.

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