Carolina León and her husband are frequent flyers and are always planning trips to different locations from their home in New York City. For their next adventure, the Leons were considering visiting Puerto Rico, but the high costs on airfares changed their plans. “It’s out of our budget,” said León, who opted for a $125 round trip flight to Mexico instead of a $250 fare to San Juan.
After reaching a peak in 2005, the number of airlines in Puerto Rico declined, due to the financial crisis that started in 2009. Devastation caused by Hurricane María on September 2017 led to a bigger reduction, affecting the tourism in the island. A month before the storm hit, flight frequency at Luis Muñoz Marín International airport was at 4,659, while on the first anniversary of the hurricane, the number was at 3,369.
Last year, tourism declined 21% compared to 2017’s non-residents room registrations, according to the Tourism Company of Puerto Rico. Although data recently published says that tourism increased 9% on a month-to-month basis, this number is a result of boosts from a New York Times tourism publication, Lin Manuel Miranda’s performance of the musical Hamilton, and the special show hosted by Jimmy Fallon.
While the island is still battling high airfares and limited services in hotels, the demand of people like Carolina León who want to visit Puerto Rico is more than clear.
In the same week, Expedia and Kayak registered an increase of people looking for deals in the US territory. While Kayak registered a growth of 115% in their search engine, Expedia had 440% increase. “It’s clear San Juan is making a comeback,” says Kayak on a blog post. Although the publication added that the capital of Puerto Rico is an accessible option, specially for spring break, Puerto Ricans in the mainland say that the amount of money they’ve paid to go back to their hometown has been higher than usual.
“It’s ridiculous,” expressed Maria Victoria Torre, a Puerto Rican college student that lives in Washington DC, and usually visits the island two to three times a year. For Spring Break, she paid $500 for a roundtrip ticket, when on a good scenario she normally pays $300. Torre, who generally takes the 8am flight because it’s the only non-stop daily trip JetBlue has to Puerto Rico, says the plane is always full-on capacity, and in some cases it’s oversold. The lack of flight availability has forced Torre to travel long hours to get to Puerto Rico. “One time it took me 12 hours to get home.”
The spokesperson of the American Association of Travel Agency Chapter of Puerto Rico, Ángel Alverio, confirmed that flight frequency has decreased within the years. He also explained that travel agencies have experienced a sustained increase of 6% year-over-year in the cost of airfare, which he attributes to the low frequency.
Vianca Pérez is one of the thousand Puerto Ricans who left the island after Hurricane María. Every time she gets a chance, she goes back home to visit her family and friends; especially during the holidays. But last Thanksgiving, she didn’t make it due to pricey fares. “It didn’t make sense to pay that much money for the amount of days I was staying,” said the nineteen-year-old.
Advocates for the industry point out that cruises to the island have increased 17%.
This type of tourism has influence in the economy, but the impact is not the same. “It’ doesn’t benefit all business equally,” informed economist Martha Quiñones, while explaining that the economic contribution a cruise tourist leaves in the island, depends on how much time the ship stays in the local port. “Air tourism is more beneficial,” added Quiñones.
León who’s never been on a cruise before says that she has always preferred to air tourism. “I feel that I might not have time to explore the island if I go on a cruise,” said the 30 year-old-woman, who doesn’t lose the hopes on having the chance to visit Puerto Rico.
Even though Puerto Rico’s Tourism Company is working on ways to expand the tourism industry, there is no sign of an increase in flight frequency in the near future. “It might take one year, top two years,” said Ángel Alverio, explaining that the increase in frequency will not be immediate.