Recently, inside Restaurante Raíces in Old San Juan, chef Joshua Gutiérrez paced back and forth near the kitchen, while speaking on his cellphone. He had just gotten the bad news from one of his suppliers that no plátanos — plantains — would be available for purchase.
This news put Gutiérrez, 35, in a complicated situation: The restaurant’s star entrée is mofongo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish with a fried mashed plátano base accompanied by fish or meat, usually pork. Shortly after finishing the call, Gutiérrez took inventory of the rest of his supplies. He was missing some ingredients, and the ones he did have were mostly imported. It all hardly seemed real: a traditional Puerto Rican restaurant serving traditional Puerto Rico dishes with ingredients from Costa Rica or Colombia.
Meanwhile, the restaurant, decorated to resemble a small wooden house in the countryside, was only half full shortly after lunchtime. Of these people, about half were locals and half were tourists.
In the area in front of the restaurant, a few curious tourists watched the traditionally dressed waitstaff animatedly talking to patrons. The female servers wore long skirts with puffy-sleeved blouses, their heads wrapped in white handkerchiefs; the men wore black suspenders over their white shirts, and straw hats resembling those worn by Puerto Rican farmers in the nineteenth century.
Nearly six months have passed since Hurricane Maria, and most of the tourists still haven’t returned. Figures provided by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company indicate that there are 12,458 rooms available in 80 percent of official hotels — which excludes such options as Airbnb — that have reopened. The Tourism Company, a government entity, also reported that registrations in endorsed hotels for January dropped from 131,639 in 2017 to 65,321 in 2018. For the fiscal 2017–2018 year (July–January), registration was down to 599,029 compared to 882,234 for the same period in 2016–2017.
Puerto Rico Tourism and Hotels Association (PRTHA) executive director Clarisa Jiménez admits that the recovery process might be long and complicated. But perhaps, she adds, many people who had not planned to travel to Puerto Rico will now want to visit to help the island recover.
Many hotels, such as the Wyndham Grand Río Mar, aren’t accepting tourist reservations since most of their rooms are occupied by federal and disaster response employees. Due to the nature of their work, these guests hardly have time for lavish dinners. So many local restaurants don’t benefit.
It’s nearly impossible to get accurate or reliable numbers on just how many local businesses have shuttered as a result of the hurricane, although El Nuevo Dia recently reported that more than 150 businesses have filed for bankruptcy since Maria. The total impact Hurricane Maria had on tourism will likely take months, if not years, to calculate. Mostly, we are left with anecdotal stories of empty streets, abandoned shops and restaurants, and taxi drivers with no one to transport.
“We go out in the street and sometimes make $30 or $40 a day,” Valentín Genaro, 64, a taxi driver born in the Dominican Republic who has lived in Puerto Rico for nine years, says in Spanish. “This is supposed to be the time of the year when you make the most money, so we are looking at a lot of loss. The good months are January, February, March, and until mid April. After that, tourism drops a lot. We hang on the rest of the year with the money we make during these months, but the way it looks right now, the numbers are not going to add up.”
In any other year, during this same stretch of time in late February, on this same sidewalk on Calle Recinto Sur, most of the restaurants on the block — including Raíces — would be full. But now, most of the visitors who pass through here are unlikely to stop; they are merely passing time before they return to their cruise ships. By June, island officials expect to have more than a million cruise ship passengers from the start of the year, the one bit of good news regarding Puerto Rican tourism. And yet, that isn’t likely to help many local businesses.
“We are still struggling,” Gutiérrez says in Spanish. “We’ve seen the situation improve with the cruise ships, but we just haven’t seen that translate to business being like it was before.”
After the hurricane, this branch of Raíces — there are three; the original opened in May 2002 — remained closed for nearly two months while waiting for power to return to Old San Juan. Gutiérrez, who has been a chef for eighteen years, was hired during this period to oversee the eventual reopening. He says the restaurant suffered water damage that needed to get repaired shortly after the power returned. It took a lot of work, Gutiérrez says, but it got done.
Now the main task is to keep prices low enough to attract tourists when they eventually, hopefully, return. The hurricane was such a catastrophic event, personally and professionally, Gutiérrez says, that it’s been difficult to remain positive during a time when nothing seems normal.
“The hurricane affected all of us,” Gutiérrez says. “To feel that everything is at such a standstill for so long.… We have to admit that we weren’t, and we still aren’t, prepared for such a catastrophe and it was worse than everyone had predicted. You have to fight to remain positive when nothing around you gives you reason to be optimistic.”
Staffing the restaurant has been one of Gutiérrez’s biggest challenges. At the end of last year, many of Raíces’s employees moved to the United States to find jobs. Gradually, Gutiérrez has been able to replace management and waitstaff, but the worker base in Puerto Rico has not yet reached pre-hurricane levels. Some estimates say that approximately 200,000 people have left the island.
Gustavo Vélez, president of the economic consulting firm Inteligencia Económica, says that a study commissioned by the PRTHA in January demonstrated that tourism is the industry with the highest capacity for growth in terms of job creation and return on investment. Its advantage is that it does not depend on federal funds to survive, as do the pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries, other important financial pillars of the island.
Jimenéz says that the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, with support from the PRTHA, plans to resume international promotional efforts in April, and adds that the Destination Marketing Organization, a nonprofit organization that merged a couple of government sponsored tourism agencies, will be in charge of creating long-term campaigns — scheduled to start in the summer — that will significantly boost the sector’s recovery.
“There are great opportunities. 2018 is a year of change. We must keep working to achieve everything we have set out to do, and by the end of the year we should be able to see that things are changing for the better,” says Jiménez.
But for now, Gutiérrez continues to wait for customers. A few years ago, he had his own restaurant in a residential neighborhood. He recalls agonizing over the day he had to shut it down, but now he feels he might have been lucky that it didn’t work out. Hurricane Maria tore apart the building where his restaurant had been. He says he cannot even imagine the difficulty of trying to restart a small business.
Shortly after the hurricane, Gutiérrez says he spent a few weeks as a consultant for a restaurant in Bayamón. But those efforts were unsuccessful because the power did not return there quickly.
Eventually, he was tasked with rebuilding and reopening Raíces. It’s been a challenge, from finding workers to finding Puerto Rican plátanos. But both are important, he argues. The supplier on the phone told Gutiérrez that tourists won’t be able to tell the difference between a Colombian plátano and a Puerto Rican one.
That’s not the point, Gutiérrez told him. “If this is one of our main dishes,” he says, “then we should be prioritizing our ingredients to help the country’s recovery go more quickly.”
To read the Voice’s complete coverage of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans six months after Hurricane Maria, click here.