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Puerto Rico update for travelers: What to expect on the island one year after Hurricane Maria

The island is welcoming tourists back with new and renovated hotels, plus improved storm preparedness.

The Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Juan, Puerto

The Ritz Carlton Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo Credit: Alamy /Arco Images GmbH

“Resilience!” could be the new cheer in Puerto Rico. The United States territory has bounced back after last fall’s devastating storms — including a deadly Category 4 hurricane named Maria and islandwide power-grid failures. But now with most hotels and attractions open, optimism pulses as strong as those beachfront sunbeams.

After Puerto Rico officially reopened its doors to tourists in late December 2017, businesses continued with renovations and revamps while the island worked on repairing its infrastructure.

Among the bright spots: Carnival, Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines resumed service two months after the storm. In April, Frontier Airlines started daily nonstop flights from MacArthur Airport in Islip and Miami, Florida, to San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín Airport. Trendy oceanfront Serafina Beach Hotel moved forward with its spring debut; the Ritz Carlton Reserve, El San Juan Hotel and St. Regis Bahia Beach are to open this fall and winter, and 28 new resort properties are under construction.

Discover Puerto Rico, a new destination marketing organization, booted up July 1. Blue tarps or sturdier plastic sheets installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are still widely visible around the island, though FEMA and local government agencies say they can’t be certain how many roofs still need to be replaced. Power-grid problems have continued, but there are hopeful statistics —such as the single day in April when the island received 17,000 cruise passengers.

The pickings and prices are attractive now for travelers planning fall and winter trips. Here’s an update about Puerto Rico’s recovery and what visitors can expect.  

ATTRACTIONS

Some beaches opened just weeks after Hurricane Maria as community organizations cleaned up debris and fallen trees, said Discover Puerto Rico’s CEO Brad Dean. All beaches are getting normal traffic from locals and visitors. Snorkeling, surfing, kayaking and paddleboarding are ever-popular. Tourist areas, including the small islands of Vieques and Culebra, are open, as are an estimated 189 attractions. They include Old San Juan walking tours, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo San Cristobal, Bacardi Rum Factory Tours, Cueva Ventana, Hacienda Campo Rico, Toro Verde zip lining, Camuy Caves, La Placita De Santurce, the Observatory of Arecibo and the three bioluminescent bays.

EL YUNQUE NATIONAL FOREST

Hurricane Maria made landfall in the island’s southeast region, throttling El Yunque, the island’s spectacular rainforest, said Xiomara Rodriguez, Discover Puerto Rico’s communications director. Part of El Yunque is open, with limited access to recreation sites, roads and trails.  

 NEW AND RENOVATED HOTELS

Of the 147 hotels endorsed by the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., 132 are open, said Dean, of Discover Puerto Rico. As of August, 10,806 rooms are available, with 4,218 more being revamped. October will see 657 new rooms at Dorado Beach, a Ritz Carlton Hotel; El San Juan Hotel, and St. Regis Bahia Beach Hotel. In December, 480 new rooms open at the Gran Melia Hotel; in January, 652 new rooms at the Caribe Hilton. Revamping continues at Ritz Carlton Reserve, El Conquistador and The Ritz Carlton San Juan. The island is adding 25 percent more rooms (3,800) at new developments including JW Marriott in Dorado, District Live & Aloft Hotel Convention Center in Miromar, the Four Seasons Cayo Largo Resort, Mall of San Juan Hotel, Aloft Ponce Hotel, Ashford 880 in San Juan, Rincon Blue Water and the Barceloneta Resort, Casino and Convention Center.

POWER AND WATER

The government of Puerto Rico posts updates to the statusPR website (status.pr) related to ATMs, electricity and water. The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority continues to work on the stability of the power grid, said Ramón Rosario, Puerto Rico’s secretary of Public Affairs and Public Policy. As of August, 99 percent of clients on the Island have electricity. Hotels and tourism attractions have generators to ensure operation during any potential temporary outage.

Hotels and the general population are not experiencing water supply, water pressure, or contamination issues.  

AIRPORT

Luis Muñoz Marín Airport in San Juan has about 110 daily flights, with seat capacity comparable to pre-Maria levels, said Rodriguez.

HURRICANE SEASON

Brad Dean, of Discover Puerto Rico, said the tourism sector learned many lessons.

“One, hotels, restaurants, attractions and other businesses must have a preparedness plan and to train all employees on that plan,” said Dean. “Second, prepare for a communication outage, not only power outages. Third, have an adequate supply of resources, fuel, generators and potable water, for extended operations after a storm. Fourth, make collaboration plans. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Based on conversations with corporate-owned and small businesses, Dean believes these plans have been widely adopted.

Hotels, restaurants and attractions now have not only backup generators but also added mobile generators and adequate fuel supplies, vital when guests are displaced around large properties. FEMA, Dean said, waived its requirement to allow rebuilding only to pre-disaster criteria, so structures have been rebuilt to higher standards, with materials and best practices, to withstand future storms.

Airport improvements by Aerostar included upgrading the HVAC system to prepare for mass strandings of fliers and improving radar systems to withstand storms. “When you’re living on an island, the airport is critical to disaster recovery,” Dean said. The state-of-the-art convention center proved up to the task of housing displaced islanders as well as residents who fled the Virgin Islands.

Dean noted that $4.5 billion has been committed to power grid improvements to ensure reliable power when storms hit. Five dozen investor-owned electric companies and public power utilities sent personnel to Puerto Rico to help repair and improve the island’s aging power distribution system.

“Puerto Rico has an amazing comeback story, a recovery within months due to the resiliency of its people” said Dean. “Other destinations are learning from our lessons learned.” Some 77,000 residents depend on tourism for their livelihood. “Nobody wants a hurricane, but we used it to make the island better than ever.”  

WHY PLAN A TRIP NOW?

“Every dollar spent here feels well-spent,” said a couple on their way to kayak the bioluminescent bay at Laguna Grande Nature Reserve recently. Surrounded by the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, Puerto Rico wants travelers to witness its comeback all around the island: more than 250 miles of beaches, Old San Juan’s historic churches and colorful shops, Santurce’s bold street murals, music-filled Condado clubs, bars in La Perla (the barrio where the music video for “Despacito” was filmed), the vast family-friendly lawn at Castillo San Felipe del Morro, overlooking its historic harbor. And, as always, U.S. citizens don’t need a passport.

ONE HOTEL’S STORY

Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort reopened in 2018 after restoring and improving the property, and it also helped a neighbor with cleanup — that neighbor being El Yunque, the island’s oft-visited rainforest.

Hurricane Maria damaged 40 percent of the resort’s guest rooms, an outdoor dining area, all signage, the landscaping, the pool area, tennis courts and conference center. The golf courses were functioning a month after Maria’s devastation.

The hotel was closed for leisure bookings until March 1, but during that time housed the island’s first responders. Understanding travelers’ concerns, the resort allowed guests with future reservations to cancel or rebook for a later date without penalty.

During March and April, the resort collected donations and contributed one dollar from every room night booked to aid in the recovery of El Yunque. The resort exceeded its $10,000 goal, raising $16,000 for the National Forest Foundation.

“We knew that a big part of the island’s recovery would be in providing aid to our neighbors,” said Nils Stolzlechner, the resort’s general manager. — Robin Soslow

PLAN FOR THE UNEXPECTED

Hurricane season for Atlantic and Caribbean locations lasts until November 30. While you need not skip a wonderful fall getaway, some planning can help. The National Hurricane Center website can keep you up to date: nhc.noaa.gov.

TRAVEL INSURANCE If a storm compels you to cancel a trip, having travel insurance can be a wise move. Many companies make it easy to order insurance online, but it pays to compare plan features and read the fine print. Some plans provide reimbursement for delayed flights, canceled flights and/or hotel closures. One service that helps you compare plans is insuremytrip.com. Other websites that provide comparisons and quick rate quotes include generalitravelinsurance.com.

WATCH FOR ADVISORIES Check the new, enhanced U.S. government travel advisory system, which replaced “Travel Alert” and “Travel Warning” designations with a four-tiered system, at travel.state.gov/traveladvisories.

STORM POLICIES Ask about hotel power outage measures and storm policies. Many cooperate with refunds and rebookings in the event of a hurricane.

Hotel Package Deals

DORADO BEACH, RITZ CARLTON RESERVE Rediscover Dorado Beach packages through December include room discounts, waiving of the $95 daily resort fee and daily continental breakfast. INFO ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/puerto-rico/dorado-beach

HOTEL EL CONVENTO The Romantic Memories package includes room upgrade with views of Old San Juan, wine and chocolate truffles in-room upon arrival, rose petal turndown. From $360 per night. Ends Dec. 31, 2018. INFO elconvento.com

CONDADO VANDERBILT HOTEL The Fall Breeze package offers daily breakfast for two, 20 percent off any spa treatment, 20 percent off food and beverage, and a welcome gift. From $459 per night. Ends Jan. 15, 2019. INFO condadovanderbilt.com

LA CONCHA RESORT With the San Juan Cruising package, arrive early for a cruise or stay afterward. Daily breakfast buffet for two, buy one and get one free half-day tour of Old San Juan, dedicated concierge. From $319 per night. Ends Dec. 23, 2018. INFO laconcharesort.com

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