Puerto Rico has had an even tougher year than most, after being hit hard by earthquakes in January, followed by the global pandemic before the island had a chance to fully recover. The tourism industry has struggled mightily since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017, but locals are optimistic for things to pick up by next spring.
“As 2021 approaches and travel sentiment improves, we have many things to look forward to,” says Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico. “But for now, we will continue to focus on responsible travel and the limitless options readily available when travelers feel comfortable traveling again and restrictions are loosened.”
Testing Is Required
First off, Puerto Rico’s travel guidelines require a negative molecular COVID-19 test (nasal or throat swab) no more than 72 hours prior to visiting and travelers will need to complete a Travel Declaration Form through the Puerto Rico Health Department’s online portal. Keep your QR code handy on your phone to show airport personnel in full protective suits once you pass baggage claim. They’ll verify your identity and you’re on your way.
If you don’t have a test result back in time, they’ll let you in but you’ll need to quarantine for 14 days or until you can demonstrate a negative COVID-19 test result. Concierge Medical Services has doctors on-call who can test you in your hotel room, but the fee is several hundred dollars.
Once you arrive, you’ll receive a Sara Alert text message each day inquiring if you have any Covid symptoms. All travelers are asked to please complete the daily report via text. It takes just a moment to respond “yes” or “no” and is crucial to monitor public health and allow Puerto Rico to continue welcoming travelers.
Locals Are Being Careful
When Puerto Rico first reopened for tourism this summer, low airfares and reckless behavior resulted in a spike in cases, but at this point in the pandemic, despite increasing cases, those working in hospitality feel more prepared.
Roberto Rodriguez works as a chauffeur with First Class Destination and says that he feels safe going to work. “We are being tested every two weeks and thankfully none of us have gotten Covid,” he says. The company went from employing 34 full-time drivers down to just six right now, along with some independent contractors.
“We are coming into what would normally be our high season,” says Julie Miller, director of sales and marketing at St. Regis Bahia Beach. “We’re hopeful but being very careful for the safety of our guests and staff.” This year, the St. Regis has planned new, socially distanced outdoor programming for the festive season, and is capping occupancy at around 70% to allow for manageable distancing. They’ve also suspended some of their signature services, like turndown and butler packing, putting safety first.
Businesses And Beaches Are Open
Public beaches and nature reserves are open for individual exercise – walking, yoga, paddleboarding, snorkeling – but lounging and group activities on beaches are not permitted.
Most businesses, including museums, supermarkets, gyms, restaurants and retail stores are open at 30 percent capacity while bars, cafes and discos remain closed. World famous La Factoria is classified as a restaurant and still open daily. In Old San Juan, some businesses like Café Cuatro Sombras have pivoted to pick-up orders while Chocobar Cortés has expanded seating to their second floor art gallery to allow for social distancing. Chocobar donated more than 10,000 meals to local residents in the beginning of the pandemic in order to keep employees on payroll during the lockdown.
“I’m high-risk with diabetes,” says 32-year-old local Michelle Burn. “I am a foodie though and have been out several times to eat. I feel very safe with the spacing and sanitation measures. Local restaurants are taking things very seriously.”
An island-wide curfew is in effect from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. (until January 7th) but there are still people dancing in the streets of La Perla (the Puerto Rican barrio where the ‘Despacito’ music video was filmed) each evening. Masks are the norm and Rodriguez says that locals will gently remind visitors to wear their masks if necessary.
More Travelers Are Staying on Property
At some of Puerto Rico’s sprawling resorts like Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, many guests are choosing to spend their entire vacation on-property because they feel safer in a resort bubble and find that there’s plenty to do without leaving the grounds.
Some visitors are loving the resort life so much that they’re moving in. The newest collection of St. Regis Residences at Bahia Beach are flying off the shelves according to Heidi Souffront, the director of residential sales, with a lot of buyers from California in particular. “Sales have been incredible,” she says. “It’s in part driven by more people working remotely and moving from states with high taxes. The housing stimulus benefits have been very attractive.”
Stick to Outdoor Activities
There’s so much to do outdoors in Puerto Rico, where social distancing comes naturally. Bioluminescent bay night kayaking tours are popular, departing from the small fishing village of Las Croabas. Play it safe with private tours when possible. Rodriguez recommends deep sea fishing for tuna, wahoo and marlin along the Puerto Rico Trench and taking a sunset cruise in San Juan Bay.
El Yunque National Forest is a must visit – it’s the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system and boasts more biodiversity than all other national forests combined. There are giant ferns, bioluminescent fungi, several species of coquí frogs and the Puerto Rican parrot, one of the most endangered bird species in the world. You’ll need to make a reservation in advance at Recreation.gov to guarantee entry, and St. Regis Bahia Beach can arrange private tours of El Yunque with an environmental scientist for guests.
Dining al fresco is comfortable and common in Puerto Rico too. St. Regis Bahia Beach introduced a new private cabana dining option for groups of up to five people in response to the pandemic. For a $250 food and beverage minimum, guests can reserve a poolside cabana for dinner including Puerto Rican favorites like chicharrones and pasteles beef stew by chef Maraimer Garcia.
It hasn’t been easy, but Puerto Rican hospitality is ready to welcome leisure travelers once more, so long as they respect the local rules and follow social distancing and masking guidelines. “Puerto Ricans are so resilient,” Miller says. “We will get through this.”
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