On September 18, 2017, Hurricane Maria became the first Category 5 hurricane to strike the island of Puerto Rico. Noted as the deadliest storm to hit the Atlantic last year and the most intense tropical cyclone worldwide, Maria is now regarded as the worst natural disaster on record to have affected both Dominica and Puerto Rico.
The hurricane caused catastrophic damage and numerous fatalities across the northeastern Caribbean, though no concrete number was ever agreed upon, as up to thousands of residents went missing.
Much of the housing stock and infrastructure in Puerto Rico was destroyed beyond repair, and its lush vegetation was practically eradicated. Total monetary losses from the hurricane are estimated at over $91 billion, ranking it as the third-costliest tropical cyclone to date. But the island was not only left with physical damages; it was tasked with a humanitarian and environmental crisis as well. In the weeks immediately following Hurricane Maria, the majority of the population suffered from flooding and a lack of resources, which compounded the imprint left on the land.
In response, the Puerto Rican Tourism Board, alongside several tourism companies, launched a number of “Meaningful Travel” programs to encourage travelers, locals, and Puerto Ricans living elsewhere to help its people and rebuild some of the island’s most beloved natural attractions. The initiatives were founded in response to travelers’ growing desire to aid the local community during this time, and took off in a matter of weeks due to the growing global interest in “voluntourism.”
Defined as “the volunteering of one’s time, skills, and energy to an organization, an issue, or a cause to help make a difference in communities around the world while on vacation,” voluntourism is becoming increasingly popular in the travel space — and is a practice that has the potential to bring individuals from any country and culture together in pursuit of a common goal.
But the beauty of voluntourism in Puerto Rico is that it combines these relief efforts with support of the territory’s tourism sector. Since tourism makes up such a large percentage of the island’s GDP, planning a trip is actually one of the best things you can do to help the island rebuild.
Research from the World Travel and Tourism Council indicates that the amount of time travelers avoid a destination can be longer after a natural disaster (up to 24 months) than after a terrorist attack (13 months) or public health event (21 months). But in Puerto Rico, this hasn’t been the case — both hurricane and global-perception recovery proceeded rapidly because of the island’s willingness to ask travelers for help.
Although several Meaningful Travel programs have been phased out since the height of the post-hurricane rebuild, there are still several companies that have implemented their own voluntourism opportunities on the island. Para La Naturaleza (PLN) is one such initiative. Connecting travelers with transformative experiences linked to the protection and management of ecosystems, PLN aims to strengthen Puerto Rico’s conservation efforts and expand the environmental and social services offered in the territory’s Protected Natural Areas and local communities. What’s more, their programs offer a bit of adventure — whether that includes rappelling down San Cristobal Canyon to support conservation efforts in the area, snorkeling to a coral reef or mangrove forest to collect data on local flora and fauna, or night-kayaking to the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay to help fund initiatives to reduce light pollution. For more traditional hands-on volunteering, though, PLN also offers a number of free programs that educate both visitors and residents on the local environment, showing the simple steps anyone can take to help hurricane-damaged areas recover. Such programs include tree-planting, coastal cleanup, endemic species recovery efforts, or native fauna support.
But PLN isn’t the only travel organization helping visitors support the Puerto Rican community. Explora PR, an adventure travel company, and Vámonos, a student-centric tour operator, both offer volunteer opportunities, while Local Guest, an experiential travel nonprofit led by a team of Puerto Rican women, leads excursions that pair cleanup efforts with off-the-beaten-path adventures, like exploring the Cabachuelas cave system. Or, for those who have a number of vacation days to spare, All Hands and Hearts offers flight vouchers to Puerto Rico in exchange for two-week volunteer commitments at their sites in Barranquitas and Yabucoa.
Although there is little sign of Hurricane Maria’s devastation in tourist areas like San Juan, and although many travelers may not notice the lingering effects of the natural disaster, significant parts of Puerto Rico are still recovering. Mountain villages are still without power, coastal preserves are still flooded with waste, and many residents are still facing homelessness.
In short, there is still work to be done. And tourism is providing a means to do just that.
Header image by Kasturi Laxmi Mohit