San Juan's La Perla neighborhood Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

Life support

Tourism recovery well underway in St. Thomas, Puerto Rico

ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands -- Richard Doumeng's family has owned Bolongo Bay Beach Resort here since 1974; his son is now the third generation to help run the beachfront property, which is perhaps most beloved for its Iggies Beach Bar.

Iggies was one of many structures destroyed in September when this island became one of very few places in the world ever to be ever hit by two Category 5 hurricanes in a two-week span. In a turn of luck, the hotel itself sustained very little damage, and it has been housing displaced island residents and relief workers for months now, along with Doumeng's family and staff members who lost their homes.

Iggies was not only popular with tourists; after 40 years, it had become a local institution as well. So in October, the Doumengs opened what they describe as a pop-up version of the bar, Iggies Oasis, on the site where its Lobster Grille restaurant once stood overlooking Bolongo beach, and next to its newly refurbished pool.

On an island where there has been so much loss, the opening of a new but familiar spot literally felt like an oasis amid a sea of destruction.

Iggies Oasis is a pop-up version of a popular St. Thomas bar and grill destroyed by the storms.
Iggies Oasis is a pop-up version of a popular St. Thomas bar and grill destroyed by the storms. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

The open-air bar is covered with a temporary plywood roof and offers a casual menu. On a hot Sunday last month, a sizable crowd was gathered there, drinking cocktails in the pool as football games played on TVs over tables where unreasonably large burgers inspired Instagram moments.

Bolongo Bay's story and many like it throughout the Caribbean reflect the resiliency and determination to move forward that have enabled the region to begin recovering as quickly as it has, in many cases against all odds.

Having visited both St. Thomas and Puerto Rico in December, I can reliably report that in both places, a vacation experience is likely to be a good one. Certain activities and areas will remain unavailable, such as Puerto Rico's popular El Yunque rainforest park. And on St. Thomas, a dearth of lodging options remains a huge problem. St. Thomas' largest hotels are still closed, and the Elysian Beach Resort, Sugar Bay and the Ritz-Carlton are not projected to reopen until 2019.

Those are the worst cases. Marriott's Frenchman's Cove, Margaritaville Vacation Club, the Wyndham, Emerald Bay and Bluebeard's Beach Club are among the properties hoping to open in February, Bolongo Bay by June.

A street in Old San Juan.
A street in Old San Juan. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

In San Juan, many beach hotels, including Hilton's El San Juan, the Ritz-Carlton and the Marriott, were still closed. But more than 120 hotels are open, and that number grows every day. 

During my stay in Old San Juan, I was able to visit its famous forts, walk its cobblestone streets and visit the newly popular La Perla neighborhood (the filming location for the uber-popular music video for the song "Despacito").

My San Juan tour guide, Leo, lamented that the hurricanes stopped a surge in tourism momentum to the island inspired in part by the song and the most-watched YouTube music video of all time, which showed La Perla's colorful streets, its culture and beautiful coastline.

Limitations to the San Juan experience in mid-December included some stores still without power, open but unable to accept credit cards. Other places were open with limited hours or services because so much of their staff had left the island. That was an even larger problem for places that employ specialized workers such as spa aestheticians and cooks. But every merchant I spoke to was planning to be fully operational by Christmas.

In Old San Juan, I stayed at the boutique Villa Herencia, which was full of guests and showed no signs of damage. I arrived on a day that three cruise ships were in town, and their passengers were buying souvenirs and walking the streets.

The visual remnants of the storm -- broken traffic lights hanging over intersections, damaged structures, detritus of vegetation pushed to the side of roadways, construction workers and power-line crews throughout the country -- have no real impact on the visitor experience, but they do serve as a potent reminder of how much the locals have endured.

Conversations with smiling restaurant and hotel workers and guides revealed that, almost 80 days after Hurricane Maria passed, many homes still had no electricity or WiFi. Yet, to a person, they all said their lives would improve if more visitors started arriving.

 Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill">

'We need tourist dollars'

In conversations with friends and family back home, it became apparent that some people think it would be almost cruel to vacation on an island where people are living with no power or hot water and where many are still homeless.

Residents of the island would tell them to put their guilt aside and that, in fact, the best way to help them is to visit.  

Many people on both islands spoke of a third hit after the one-two punch from hurricanes Irma and Maria: the perception that the islands are worse off than they actually are, an image perpetuated by the daily stream of bad news and images of destruction that news media beams back to the U.S.

It's not that the images aren't real; it's that they are limited to certain parts of the island and don't show the vast areas that have recovered.

Brian Page, who moved here from the mainland U.S. and lives near Aguadilla's Crash Boat Beach in northwest Puerto Rico, lamented the damage being done by what he considers the lopsided media portrayal.

"It's still a beautiful place," he said. "The sun is still shining, the water is still crystal clear. We are recovering, and we need tourist dollars."

Vanessa Dejesus, of Omaha, Neb., vacationing with her family in nearby Rincon, had booked the trip prior to the hurricanes. The family said they never considered canceling, and they were glad they came.

"We've had no problems doing anything," she said, adding they'd been to the beach almost every day. "The media is only showing the most damaged areas and not what else is going on."

Dejesus said the restaurants and bars were open, and the locals seemed thrilled that they were there. The family brought an extra suitcase full of toys to donate to local children, along with Home Depot gift cards, that they dropped off at the Rincon Beer Co., which had been transformed into the RBC Maria Relief Donation Center.

The Dejesus family from Nebraska dropping off donations at the Rincon Beer Co.
The Dejesus family from Nebraska dropping off donations at the Rincon Beer Co. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

Elyse and Nick Ament also returned from St. Thomas raving about their vacation experience.

"It was lovely and restful and well worth the effort," Elyse Ament told me from her home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "The water was soft and warm, the sun lovely. The views not so much due to the ripped trees, but flowers were gorgeous."

The Aments had not planned to visit the island this year, but they decided to go just to support the locals. They stayed at the Sapphire Beach Condo Resort, found plenty to eat in Red Hook, and spent most days snorkeling and swimming off the resort's beach. They even made it to St. John, which had been heavily damaged and where almost no hotels have yet reopened, ate at a favorite restaurant of theirs, the Banana Deck, and bought jewelry at Freebird.

"The people were kind and gracious and let us know over and over how happy they were to see us," Elyse Ament said of both islands, adding that the locals were also honest about their frustrations and living without power for so long. "I was glad we saw that and talked to them, as living like that for three months is their reality. Buying water, cooking on propane stoves, taking cold showers, doing laundry by hand -- that would wear anyone down."

It only made Ament more bullish on the importance of traveling to the region.

"Take a trip to the Virgin Islands," she now tells people. "They need your help, and you need their sun and sand. And rum!"

Tour operators are trying to convey the same message. Breakaway Charters runs tours on three boats in St. Thomas and would normally have been doing daily boat excursions on each vessel in early December, said reservationist Carol Tuohy. Up to that point, they had only done one.

"We're up and ready to go," Tuohy said. "People hear what they hear on TV, but we're ready."

Salvation arrives on cruise ships

One group of tourists who have already been coming back in droves is cruisers.

Cruise ships began docking in Puerto Rico and St. Thomas in early November, followed weeks later by a return to St. Maarten. For islands like St. Thomas, especially, with so little hotel availability and with airlift half of what it was a year ago, the cruisers have been a godsend.

Dave, my taxi driver on St. Thomas, said, for example, that many restaurants and businesses are still closed on days no ships are in port, adding that cruise passengers are keeping many restaurants and stores afloat right now.

With about 60 ships calling there last month, cruise passengers also support the tour operators running excursions and beach businesses like the Coki Dive Center, which was open and busy working with passengers from a Celebrity Cruises ship.

Cruise passengers enjoy St. Thomas' Coki Beach.
Cruise passengers enjoy St. Thomas' Coki Beach. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

Prior to the cruise ships, visitors on both islands were almost entirely limited to relief workers, who helped fill hotels and villas that were not destroyed. But unlike cruise passengers, relief workers don't shop in the jewelry stores in Charlotte Amalie, take Bacardi Rum distillery tours in San Juan or Vieques snorkeling tours. 

For an industry that has always benefitted from being able to easily move its ships away from poor-performing regions, whether because of terror attacks, natural disasters or political strife, supporting these ports went far beyond cruise lines' interests.

"Our name is Royal Caribbean," said Michael Bayley, CEO of Royal Caribbean International. "We've been in the Caribbean for 50 years. We would not have been able to look at ourselves in the mirror if we'd taken our ships and run away and hid somewhere."

Given the islands' economic dependence on tourism, Bayley said, "it's kind of ironic that the best thing we can do for people is start coming back to these destinations."

It was a theme echoed by all the major cruise lines.

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"The biggest thing we can do to help them is to get tourism going again," Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald told CNN in late December. Noting that the cruise lines have all delivered relief in the form of dollars and supplies, Donald said, "What they need, of course, in the end, is the economic benefit of people having jobs ... and that's a role we can play."

The cruise lines have also poured money into island recovery.

Josh Carroll, normally Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.'s associate vice president for global revenue management, became project manager for the company's island recovery support program. Along with the company's chairman, Richard Fain, Carroll began working with island officials almost as soon as the hurricanes passed to figure out ways to help them get up and running again.

One of the results was playing a major role in bringing back Magens Bay, the famed St. Thomas beach and one of its most popular destinations for cruisers. The beach had been rendered unusable, littered with storm debris, its bar and bathrooms destroyed, its trees ripped away.

"While we definitely made contributions and did things in other islands, Magens Bay was by far the most extensive and involved and exciting," Carroll said, adding that the company decided not only to restore the beach but to make it better than it was before the storm, "which we definitely accomplished. We did a makeover of the entire park."

One feature that Royal Caribbean built is a colorful artwork installation made from the reclaimed wood of hurricane destruction.

"It was very symbolic, and the local community is really happy with it," Carroll said. "That was my measuring stick: how the locals felt about what we were doing."

Paradoxically, the satisfaction scores that Royal Caribbean passengers have been giving ports, including St. Thomas and San Juan, have been better post-hurricanes than pre-hurricanes. Carroll attributes that to two factors.

"The communities in those islands are so elated to have the cruise guests back and the commerce they rely on so heavily, that I think people are getting one more smile, that customer service is just better," Carroll said. "It's also a function of their expectations. News sensationalizes greatly the conditions in these places. They're expecting it to be way worse than what it is, so they are pleasantly surprised."