LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Puerto Rico has declared itself open for tourism nearly three months after Hurricane Maria. But on an island where so many people still lack electricity, what does open for tourism mean? Jeff Cohen of member station WNPR recently visited Puerto Rico at the beginning of what would normally be high season.
JEFF COHEN, BYLINE: Old San Juan is a postcard of Puerto Rico, a hub of food, music and history. After the storm, it was dark and still. Since then, the lights have started to come back on. Restaurants began to open. And a couple of weeks ago, the once-empty streets were filled, if briefly, with a flash mob of thousands of tourists coming off two cruise ships. Ohioans Courtney and Eric Powell were two of them.
COURTNEY POWELL: We didn't think we were coming here until - what? - two weeks ago. They took it off our itinerary...
ERIC POWELL: They put it back on.
C. POWELL: ...And put it back on. So we were surprised.
COHEN: They came on an island-hopping cruise. When they woke up, they'd arrived in San Juan, but they weren't sure what they'd find.
C. POWELL: I even said I felt bad because - knowing that there are so many people still with nothing. And here we are, walking around and wanting to get a drink. And yeah. So it's sad, I think.
COHEN: But it's not sad for Victor Santiago. He's on the street, trying to get people inside the Cafe Fortaleza. For him, tourists mean income.
VICTOR SANTIAGO: They give me work (laughter). And I can convince them to go to my restaurant, taste the coffee and taste the delicious food we serve. We crumbled a little bit with the hurricane, but we're standing back up to receive you and give you a great treat.
COHEN: So to the tourists like the Powells who feel a little bit guilty about having fun in Puerto Rico...
JOSE IZQUIERDO: Don't feel guilty.
COHEN: That's Jose Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.
IZQUIERDO: As a matter of fact, feel like you're doing your part in helping our recovery.
COHEN: Izquierdo says the cruise ship industry is already picking up. He expects about 90 percent of the forecasted passenger load this year. As for hotels, three-quarters of the ones endorsed by his agency are open. And they're nearly at capacity, stocked with relief workers and contractors. As they start to leave, rooms are opening up for tourists. Izquierdo says restarting the tourism industry in Puerto Rico is going to happen in stages. While San Juan is ready, the rest of the island is not.
IZQUIERDO: We need to be cautious of not turning on that demand-generating button just too soon when there's an area that's not ready to welcome these tourists just yet.
COHEN: Take for instance El Yunque, the national forest famous for its tropical rainforest. If you want to see it, you'll have to do so from a distance. It's closed until further notice. And tourists usually come to the eastern part of Fajardo for boat trips and snorkeling and island visits. Jayanne McLaughlin has been in Puerto Rico for 23 years and runs East Island Excursions. She says her business has never seen anything like this.
JAYANNE MCLAUGHLIN: It means that we're really starting from scratch. I mean, we don't have any tourists coming here. And I don't think we're going to have any.
COHEN: So she's doing anything she can to keep her fleet in the water and her people employed, so that when tourism does eventually pick up across the island, she'll still have a business to run.
MCLAUGHLIN: If you see our advertising, you'd think everything was peachy keen because it's nice out there. And that's what we do. And so that's what we're telling everybody. Come on. Come out for the day. Forget your worries. Forget the cares. Go out there and put your feet in the clear water and sit on the sandy beach and have a pina colada.
COHEN: At least out on the ocean, it's harder to see the devastation Maria left behind. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen.
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Tourism in Puerto Rico attracted 3.7 million visitors in 2016 and 3.5 million visitors in 2015, a notable increase from the average of 2010-2014 at 3.1 million. Tourism has been a very important source of revenue for Puerto Rico for a number of decades given it is host to diverse natural wonders, cultural and historical buildings, concerts and sporting events. Visitors from the United States do not need a passport to enter Puerto Rico and the ease of travel attracts a large number of tourists from the mainland United States each year. Other groups of tourists that visit Puerto Rico in significant numbers include French, German, Spaniards, Canadians, Mexicans, Venezuelan, Brazilians and Asian tourists.
The inauguration of the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel on 16 October 1919 marked the beginning of upscale tourism in Puerto Rico.
The tourism industry experienced moderate levels of growth in 2014, driven primarily by the introduction of new cruise lines and airfare activity and the development of new hotels on the island. Nonstop flights to Puerto Rico from Frankfurt, London, Madrid, Bogota, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York are currently available. New direct routes from Europe and Latin America are in the works.
Cuba and Puerto Rico have perennially competed for the top tourist destination in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico's tourism has been helped by poor U.S. relations with Cuba. In 2015, the U.S. reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba and loosened the travel restrictions for Americans. This decision boosted Cuban tourism and surpassed Puerto Rico for total visitors, but in 2017, the U.S. government planned to re-enforce travel restrictions to Cuba.
Puerto Rico also competes with the Dominican Republic, Aruba, Jamaica and Florida for American and international visitors.
Tourists going to Saint Barthélemy catch a connecting flight from Puerto Rico.
The Puerto Rican tourism board spent $1 million in 2002, featuring celebrities, to advertise the tourism to Puerto Rico. In 2017, Despacito, a wildly popular song by two Puerto Rican artists caused a spike in tourism to Puerto Rico, especially to an area of San Juan called La Perla, featured in the song's video.
As of 2015, Puerto Rico had 19 casinos, mainly located in San Juan.
Located on the northwestern part of the island are Aguadilla, where the old Ramey Air Force Base is located; Arecibo, famous for its observatory and Rincón favored for its surf.
Bayamón has a Science Park. Cabo Rojo is famous for its beautiful beaches. Cataño has the Bacardi factory, the world's largest rum distillery.
Fajardo has the Fajardo Lighthouse and a luminicent bay, Las Croabas fishing village, the Paso Fino horse national competition ring, and the Seven Seas beach. On the northeastern side, beaches in Luquillo include Balneario La Monserrate, Playa Azul, La Pared, and La Selva - the last two, sandy bottom surf spots where leatherback turtles often nest.
In the southwest are Mayagüez, home of the Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo and the local beer, Medalla brewery; and Ponce with its 19th century historic district. There are over 1,046 restored buildings, plus the world-renowned Museo de Arte de Ponce, the imposing Castillo Serrallés, the nostalgic Hacienda Buena Vista coffee plantation, and its whimsical Parque de Bombas firehouse in Ponce.
San Juan has Old San Juan, with its cobble-stone streets and small alleys, the Puerto Rican Museum of Art, and the El Morro Castle, an old fortress. Near San Juan is El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. with 30,000 acres- a place to hike and see waterfalls. 
Trujillo Alto is home to Lake Carraizo Dam.
Two smaller Puerto Rican islands are Culebra island, with its solitary beaches such as Flamenco Beach is another popular destination spot; and Vieques with many beaches, two Spanish castles and lighthouses, eye-catching mountains and sought-after marine reefs.
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- ^Marcor, Leila (31 July 2017). "Tourists seeking Despacito" discover Puerto Rico's La Perla". Yahoo.
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