Almost three months after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico as a nearly Category 5 storm, a third of the island is still without power. Roughly two-thirds of its 45,000 small businesses suffered closures, with as many as 10,000 planning never to reopen their doors. Just 129 miles away, the British Virgin Islands has begun to shift from crisis mode to recovery following earlier devastation by Hurricane Irma, with cleanups still underway on land and along coastlines.
But in recent weeks, a beacon of hope has arrived on each destination’s harbor: cruise ships. With no real need for on-land infrastructure, the first three vessels to pull into Tortola and Virgin Gorda since Irma — the 62-passenger Crystal Esprit, the 112-passenger SeaDream, and the 2,076-passenger Marella Discovery — dropped anchor in the first two weeks of December. The BVI’s most prominent yacht companies, Sunsail Ltd. and the Moorings, also restored their charter services on Dec. 9.
Meanwhile, in Old San Juan, a welcoming celebration was held on Nov. 30 as a reminder — to locals and the first 7,000-odd, post-storm cruisers — that Puerto Ricans are proficient in both willpower and complex rhythms. Following that day’s twin arrivals of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.’s Freedom of the Seas and Carnival Corp.’s Conquest, the port has resumed its full cruise operations, with regular calls from more than 10 companies.
“If there is something that distinguishes Puerto Ricans, it’s our spirit of hospitality,” said Carla Campos, chief marketing officer of Puerto Rico Tourism Co. From now until the end of January, locals will continue greet ships arriving in San Juan with “music and traditional performances on the streets,” Campos said.
She expects cruises to have a total economic impact of about $25 million in November and December. That represents 58 cruise arrivals and 110,000-plus visitors — numbers that don’t deviate significantly from Puerto Rico’s norm, she said.
In Puerto Rico — which was on the brink of bankruptcy before the storms — tourism has always been an economic silver lining, accounting for as much as 15 percent of gross domestic product. In the British Virgin Islands that figure shoots to as high as 30 percent.
BVI’s tourism office estimates that cruise passengers spend an average of $89 onshore — a number that added up to $45 million in 2015.