Puerto Rico: Lessons in Resilience

Puerto Rico
Old San Juan (Photo credit: Discover Puerto Rico.)

Discover Puerto Rico brought together representatives from various travel sectors for a virtual panel this week to discuss what they learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Puerto Rico has a Ph.D. in resilience,” said Jose M. Suarez, board of directors chairman, Discover Puerto Rico, adding that after going through political unrest, hurricanes, and earthquakes, the island had an idea of how to handle a crisis. When COVID started, his office met weekly with the Puerto Rico health department, the airport manager and the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.

However, while COVID-19 was the focal point, it wasn’t the only crisis the island was still working to recover from. “We were still dealing with the earthquakes of the south and the hurricanes,” said Manuel Laboy, executive director at COR3 (Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resilience). “When it comes to Puerto Rico having a Ph.D. in resilience, let’s not take that lightly. In three years, we had a record-breaking hurricane, and a pandemic that reshaped the globe. At the start of COVID-19, we made a tough decision to proactively lock down the island and establish a curfew. We were one of the first jurisdictions in the U.S. to do that. For the first time in our modern history, we had to lock down the economy.

Laboy said he’s learned three lessons during the pandemic. “One: We are humans. At the end of the day this affected us at a very personal level despite our jobs. So, how are we going to move forward? Two: In my current role, I’m responsible for billions of dollars for recovery in the next couple of years. But I have to remind myself that there will be a next disaster—we don’t know when or what shape or form, but we need to understand that regardless. This pandemic put us in the position of continuity. Three: Puerto Rico is very lucky. We have Discover Puerto Rico; our leadership has had to go through the toughest of challenges. We have the most equipped DMO in the world, I would say, with lessons learned, tools, experience, and knowledge, to get us to the next phase in growing tourism. But we have to do it mindfully because there will be disasters in the future.

“The message from last year, which is the message today, is that Puerto Rico wants to be, and is, a safe destination,” said Laboy. “The marketing that has been going out is a message to attract responsible travel. You can do everything to enjoy the destination, but you have to follow the rules to be safe. There are task forces from different government agencies working together, putting together strategies that if you don’t follow the rules, there will be consequences.”

Reopening and Communicating

Suarez added, “We learned during Maria times to let the public know what was closed and what was open. We have applied that to the current crisis. Most businesses are open, but we do have special hours. It’s all constantly reported on the Discover Puerto Rico page. Visitors should expect an island where everybody is wearing a mask, there’s no exception. People are following the rules. We invite you to have fun and enjoy the island, but follow the rules.

“Vaccinations are key,” he said. “We have to continue to communicate to our visitors that we want you to visit, but you need to be a responsible traveler. There are still some restrictions—restaurants have an 11 p.m shutdown, bars are still closed. You can come and see people having a great time on the island, but with restrictions still in place.”

Laboy added, “Resiliency has to have a new purpose and you need to connect that to the visitor experience in the destination. That’s one thing—progress. When you show progress, you need to communicate that progress, but it also needs to be real. Back during Maria, people started visiting in November 2017, and six months later those people came back and they saw progress. Now we have a new reality and that new progress needs to be communicated. People are going to be looking for outdoor activities now. We need to connect and communicate that progress, and the progress needs to be real.”

This article originally appeared on our sister site, Recommend.com.

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