After a particularly destructive hurricane season last fall, two of the Caribbean’s most highly trafficked cruise ports — San Juan, Puerto Rico and Philipsburg, St. Maarten — are still recovering. Cruise lines resumed service to the ports in December — a surprise to many following the news coverage. But for both, cruise ships are a major life-line.
In a single year, cruise ships are responsible for nearly half of tourists arriving in St. Maarten and Puerto Rico — with a single cruise visit generating around half a million dollars in revenue. While other popular attractions, like Puerto Rico’s El Yunque rainforest and Grand Case waterfront on the French side of St. Martin, remain out of commission, the turquoise water is sparkling and the port cities are largely up-and-running.
As of December, cruise lines have devised new excursions (or modified old ones) to accommodate the islands’ limitations as well as provide a much-needed boost to their economies. We visited both islands recently aboard the Celebrity Equinox. Here’s what to expect, and what you can do to help, on your next trip.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Cruisers arriving in Old San Juan will be surprised that they are looking at an island that’s still roughly a third without power. The colonial capital is back to business as usual — albeit with 20 percent fewer businesses than before Hurricane Maria — and visitors can go shopping, have a bite to eat, and sip piña coladas with ease.
However, that's not the case everywhere in Puerto Rico. At the request of humanitarian-minded passengers, Celebrity partnered with San Juan-based tour company Get Shopped to create a voluntourism excursion specifically in response to the hurricane. The outing enlists passengers to help rebuild the historically marginalized neighborhood of La Perla. Located just outside the walls of Old San Juan, the colorful barrio sits along the rocky Atlantic coast — occupying the city’s most breathtaking and most vulnerable real estate. When Maria hit, the storm ripped the roofs, windows, and walls off of homes that have been in families for generations. And the community center — a large, yellow historic building with wood-slat windows that open to the crashing waves — had to close.
Due to the community’s tenuous relationship with outsiders (for years, the government and investors have attempted to redevelop the barrio into a resort), it took Get Shopped 10 months to build enough trust with residents to get permission to help; it remains the only tourist organization that the people of La Perla allow in. There have been 14 volunteer groups since the cruise line launched the excursion in January.
While some voluntourism projects have a questionable impact, we found this one to be well-executed. Each day, Get Shopped founder Michele Lllamas calls La Perla’s community leader and asks exactly what they need; then — working with the local non-profits — they figure out how the tour group can respond directly to those needs. Past projects have included planting vegetables in the community greenhouse, removing storm-debris from the shoreline, and (while we were there) packaging clothing for La Perla’s shower program, which provides a place for homeless and displaced people to bathe and change into clean clothes. Afterward, the group has dinner at a local restaurant. The best part: 100 percent of the sales from tour tickets go back to the community.
Even if you don't volunteer with La Perla, spending money in San Juan is just as good for the local economy, says tour guide Zayda Goyoco. “All of the businesses here are mom-and-pop, and they all had to close for three-and-a-half months — many of them never reopened. Any sales help them make up for that loss.”
Philipsburg, St. Maarten
Upon arrival in Philipsburg, on the other hand, the damage left from Hurricane Irma is more visible and ubiquitous. Just a couple of minutes outside of St. Maarten's port, long stretches of powdery coastline are buried under mountains of debris. There is not a car on the island without at least one missing window — replacement glass is one of the more expensive and slow-to-arrive imports.
The Dutch side of the island, where cruise ships typically come into port, faired better — around 80 percent of restaurants have reopened and about 39 percent of hotel rooms — while on the French side, less than 18 percent are back in business. A few casinos have reopened in and around the Dutch capital of Philipsburg, but the hotel casinos have not. In the French capital of Marigot, many of the popular sidewalk bistros and boutiques are still boarded up, and in Grand Case, the once-vibrant strip of oceanfront restaurants and bars are skeletal — reduced to wooden frames.
As a result, Celebrity has made modifications to approximately 60 percent of its shore excursions on the island. For example, for the St. Martin Beach Rendezvous, the popular Orient Beach — where wrecked bars and shops still lay waiting to be cleared off the sand — has been replaced with Kim Sha Beach. On the Chef’s Market Discoveries tour, guests accompany Celebrity chef Shane Straik — who spent nearly a year living and working on the island — to the spice market to fetch ingredients for a private lunch and eight-course dinner. However, when we arrived at the open-air market, just a few stands were operating, and the scenic waterfront restaurant in Grand Case where the group normally has lunch had to be moved inland.
While the island has a long road ahead to rebuild, many of its beaches and views are as pristine as ever, and on-water excursions — including catamaran cruises, diving, and snorkeling — are largely back to normal.
Overall, the storms last fall took a major toll on both Puerto Rico’s and St. Maarten’s largest industries, so the best way you can help is to visit.