SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — In early March, Jorge Montalvo Soto was busy giving tours to visitors in Old San Juan — the historic district in Puerto Rico’s capital and largest city.
As a professional tour guide and president of Patria Tours Puerto Rico, he would walk around the capital, hosting up to four groups a day during what was Puerto Rico’s high tourism season, from November to May. As many as 30 paying customers would follow him around the old city as he explained its history and interest points.
But that was before international travel slammed to a halt, cruise ships froze operations and Puerto Rico’s government instituted a curfew — all in response to the coronavirus.
Neither business nor life has returned to normal since mid-March, costing the region millions of dollars in lost revenue and thousands of jobs in the tourism industry. A new order, effective June 16, paved the way for the economy here to begin opening again, though a curfew will remain in place. Tourism businesses will be allowed to reopen in July, but there is no estimate for when tourism might resume again.
Ishbel Cora Rodríguez, GPJ Puerto Rico
As the coronavirus spread through the world, Puerto Rico felt the impact. Tour guides, shopkeepers and restaurant owners in Old San Juan and across the region say their businesses ground to a halt and have stayed that way.
Montalvo Soto likens the impact to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017.
“I feel like I’m in a very similar place as I was after Hurricane Maria in the sense that I don’t have a job. What there is, is uncertainty,” he says.
Tourism, particularly in Old San Juan, is among the sectors of Puerto Rico’s economy most affected by the coronavirus, says Rubén Gordillo González, a tourism expert.
Old San Juan depends heavily on the cruise ship industry; about 90% of all Puerto Rico cruise ship arrivals happen in its ports. But cruise ships aren’t sailing, and they’re unlikely to resume normal operations anytime soon, Gordillo González says.
Since March, there has been a total of 113 cruise ship cancellations in Puerto Rican ports. That represents approximately 334,000 passengers and economic losses of more than $37 million in Puerto Rico, according to data provided by Carla Campos, executive director of Compañía de Turismo de Puerto Rico (PRTC), a government entity responsible for managing the destination and promoting tourism.
And losses aren’t limited to cruise ships.
A survey by PRTC found that hotel occupancy rates in April were 4.8%, compared with 70% in April 2019.
“The reality is that the crisis is not yet over, and the emerging nature of the health crisis forces us to constantly gauge the economic impact and recovery plans,” Campos wrote in a statement to Global Press Journal. “To this end, although it is still too early to specify the full impact on the local tourism industry, we know that we will see multimillion-dollar losses.”
So local businesses continue to struggle.
“We depend 100% on tourism, be it local or international,” says Eddie Ramírez, co-owner of Casa Sol Bed and Breakfast.
Ramírez had to close his bed and breakfast and says his family is losing $35,000 a month.
“We’re worried because from the looks of it, it will be a few more months before [the industry] gets back on its feet,” says Ramírez, who plans to reopen on July 1.
Montalvo Soto, the tour guide, has started giving tours of Old San Juan online. He says he doesn’t make any money through these, but hopes to connect with potential customers. He plans to reopen on July 15, according to the new rules, but says reservations are slow to trickle in.
If things don’t improve, he says, he will look for another job. He has a master’s degree in microbiology and says he would consider returning to health sciences.
“Puerto Rico is where I want to be, so I will stay here, reinventing myself and looking for a way to keep moving forward,” he says.