How Visiting Puerto Rico Can Help Rebuilding Efforts—One Year After the Devastation of Hurricane Maria
As Puerto Rico continues to struggle in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the thought of sipping bottomless mojitos and laying out on the island’s pristine beaches while thousands remain without power seemed, in the words of my therapist, effete. I felt like I'd be grave-dancing on the detritus of a natural disaster that's left entire communities devastated. But when Bacardi invited me to witness first-hand how Puerto Rico has been reviving its homegrown tourism—including an opportunity to put on a pair of utility gloves, grab a 100-gallon industrial garbage bag, and volunteer to pick up as much trash as I could on the shorelines of Puerto Rico—I was all in.
Hailing from the Bronx, Roberto Moreno has been a host for more than 20 years with Local Guest, a Puerto Rico-based organization dedicated to experiential tourism. He led us on a hiking tour through the rainforest to explore just a few of the 60-plus subterranean caves of Cabachuelas de Morovis, where we encountered prehistoric cockroaches, giant spiders, curious crabs, and many, many bats.
On the hike down, Moreno mentioned that the trail was painstakingly cleared with the help of a partner non-profit organization called Love in Motion, whose mission statement is to “provide the necessary tools and empowerment through hope and education for the development of community-based tourism in the Caribbean.” Moreno points out that tourism conditions won't improve if visitors spend their entire stays on the beach—with guides, hosts, and tour operators left out of profits made by airlines and hotels, it's important to step off the beaten path to support smaller businesses by actually doing stuff. And there's a lot to do.
For instance, not only does Love in Motion help clear hiking trails: it also helps facilitate community service with help from Corporacion Piñones se Integra (COPI), a nonprofit that's been active on the island since long before Maria. Social worker and sociologist Maricruz Rivera Clemente founded the organization in 1999 in order to help improve quality of life in the community of Piñones, which is about a half-hour drive east of San Juan. Natural disaster or no natural disaster, the hard truth is that parts of Puerto Rico have always struggled: the hurricane just made things worse.
As I picked up trash on the beach in Piñones, I found straws, bottle caps, cigarette butts, and plastic bottles—all of which I could easily find on the shores of my own local beaches here in Southern California. In the shadow of the wreckage of various beachfront businesses, it became clear that the garbage I was picking up wasn't due to the hurricane, but has been there, in some form, all along—and that's not something that's specific to Puerto Rico. It can be found all over the world. The difference in geography only means that my home hadn’t fallen prey to an unprecedented disaster.
Local hubs of international corporations, like Casa Bacardi, have also played an instrumental role in serving the community and reinvigorating the tourism industry post-hurricane. "All of our team members, including the tour guides [at] the visitor center, received full time wages even if they were not working," says General Manager Wesley Cullen. "On site, one of the unused aging warehouses was converted to a Stop and Go Relief Center. In partnership with the government, the space offered warm meals, medical assistance, FEMA orientation, access to electricity for charging phones, and mental relief— entertainment such as movies for all of the families to have some distraction while parents could take care responding to the crisis. Bacardi also implemented caravans— mobile relief efforts that visited rural towns, sometimes being the first to arrive with water, warm meals, and relief services."
In the end, whether it's a multinational spirits company, a local tour guide, or a disaster-spawned ad-hoc community service organization, it's safe to say that visiting a place like Puerto Rico after a major crisis can really help out—especially if the tourists themselves find a way to get involved, too.