Puerto Rico

A Cultural Gem Reels From Natural Disasters, Tourism Drop

Ponce, one of the region’s cultural cornerstones, has seen earthquakes, a hurricane and the coronavirus crisis threaten the architecture that has attracted visitors for decades. As the historic district crumbles, tourism professionals aim to reinvent the industry from the ground up.

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A Cultural Gem Reels From Natural Disasters, Tourism Drop

Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

Two earthquakes and aftershocks damaged more than 100 structures in Ponce’s historic district this year, including museums, businesses and houses. The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and city officials are working on a recovery plan for the district.

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PONCE, PUERTO RICO — Taxi driver Raúl García used to count on this city’s historic downtown for steady income. He sometimes earned $100 a day.

But no more, as tourism downtown has dried up in the last couple of years.

Now García stands near a parking space where he used to pick up passengers. It’s full of bricks that have tumbled off the walls of a crumbling old shop.

“Since no one comes downtown now, we don’t have many passengers,” he says. “Now if I get $40 [a day], that’s a lot.”

The tourism crisis in Ponce is the result of a chain of disasters in recent years, including a hurricane in 2017, earthquakes and aftershocks earlier this year, and the coronavirus pandemic. The string of calamities threatens the very identity of this 150-year-old city, which holds a signature place in Puerto Rican history and culture.

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Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

Taxi driver Raúl García, who once did a thriving business in Ponce, looks across the street at a parking space where he used to pick up passengers. The space is now full of bricks that have fallen from an adjacent building.

Today cracks spiderweb across the facades of Ponce’s colorful historic buildings. More than 100 structures are seriously compromised, and orange caution tape encircles about 30 of them as they wait to be restored.

The city is scrambling to boost tourism, but a historic district without historic buildings to visit makes that difficult.

“Architecture is the only art in the world that you can enter,” says Andy Rivera, founder and president of the Puerto Rico Historic Buildings Drawings Society, which documents the heritage of buildings in the region.

Tourists can enter a dwindling number of historic buildings in Ponce. Many historic sites and businesses are locked up, and several museums are closed.

For decades, residents and tourists have strolled around this southern coastal city of about 132,000, drawn by its sophisticated architecture, gentle mountains and the brilliant blue waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Ponce’s buildings, many constructed in the 1800s, showcase an array of architectural styles, from Spanish colonial and neoclassical to art deco and art nouveau. There are fountains, churches, museums, hotels and historic houses, and together they form a feast of color –vibrant pinks, powder blues, sunflower yellows. A 138-year-old structure, now a firehouse museum, is painted in red-and-black stripes.

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Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

Melina Aguilar and Ernie Rivera, co-founders of tourism business Isla Caribe, stop in front of Parque de Bombas, a museum that honors the city's firefighters. It has traditionally been one of the most popular attractions in Ponce’s historic district.

Ponce is the only Puerto Rican city on the Art Nouveau European Route, a guide that spotlights cities, such as Vienna and Barcelona, with buildings that feature the elegant lines, bright colors and detailed craftsmanship of the late 19th-century art nouveau style.

“The city of Ponce is one of [Puerto Rico’s] greatest jewels,” Rivera says.

It’s unclear whether Hurricane Maria led to tourism’s decline in Ponce, but experts agree it didn’t help, as it pummeled Puerto Rico in September 2017 with 155 mph winds and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Then a major earthquake in January rattled 34 historic buildings in Ponce, including three museums, which had to close.

Aftershocks followed, and another earthquake struck in early May. The quakes and temblors weakened a dozen structures listed on the federal government’s National Register of Historic Places.

Then the coronavirus pandemic all but crushed the city’s tourism industry. Ponce has confirmed 285 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Health. Puerto Rico, with a population of about 3.2 million people, counts more than 31,000 confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases and 424 deaths. Several high-ranking officials recently contracted the disease, shutting down the Senate for more than two weeks.

In July 2019, about 7,500 tourists registered in hotels and guesthouses along Puerto Rico’s southern coast, where Ponce is the main attraction. At the same time this year, the streets, restaurants and shops here were nearly empty.

It was a sad scene for Melina Aguilar, co-founder of Isla Caribe, a tourism business that focuses on the historic area.

In a typical week, Aguilar says, 350 people tour the historic district. This year, during the summer season, she had two tours with two people each.

“Everything has stopped,” she says. “Everything related to tourism has been paralyzed.”

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Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

Orange tape surrounds the Museo de la Masacre de Ponce, which highlights the massacre of Puerto Rican nationalists before a march in 1937. It's one of several museums closed as a result of damage from this year’s quakes and aftershocks.

The earthquakes, aftershocks and pandemic combined to delay the start of repairs and renovations of tourist attractions, says Crystal Bell, director of the Ponce Office of Touristic, Industrial and Economic Promotion.

In addition, Aguilar and Rivera say Ponce’s tourism challenges included the museums’ poor maintenance and irregular schedules.

Bell says officials will conduct an in-depth study of the commercial sector, as the city seeks to jump-start tourism, find more funding for small businesses and strengthen the area’s economy.

The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture is working with Ponce officials on a plan to rebuild the historic district, while the city has hired a private company to examine abandoned buildings, including houses, to decide which ones should be torn down.

Rivera worries that Ponce will raze some of its most distinctive homes, many of whose designs – with their generous curves and soaring roofs – are unique in Puerto Rico.

Between the passage of time, lack of upkeep, and natural disasters, Rivera says, “we’re [already] losing them little by little.” That means a huge loss of tourism dollars and economic opportunity, he says.

Bell says this may be a moment to reimagine Ponce’s tourism industry.

“It’s a real challenge because first we want to identify what funds we have, and from there work collectively to implement a strategic plan, taking into account the new realities we’ve faced since Hurricane Maria,” she says.

Aguilar sees opportunity too – in virtual tourism. A digital solution may help Ponce address some longtime challenges, she says, including a lack of promotional funds and no mass transit. A taxi or ride-sharing service from San Juan, about 117 kilometers (73 miles) away, can cost about $125 per trip.

Her company’s virtual tour offers a history of the region’s coffee industry and sells products such as coffee, mugs and handmade sweets.

“More than anything, we want people to understand and acknowledge this history, and participate in keeping that legacy alive and active,” Aguilar says. “We want them to love our city.”

Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.