The images coming out of Puerto Rico over the past week and a half haven’t been the stuff of travel campaigns: packed streets, protesting crowds, tense politicians. Even as more cruise lines canceled stops on Monday amid ongoing demonstrations, tourism officials and safety experts said the island was safe for tourists — but they warned that some precautions are in order.
Matt Bradley, regional security director of International SOS, said tourists should avoid all protest activity to stay clear of unexpected action by police or any other flare-ups of tension.
“Any civil unrest has the opportunity to escalate very quickly and very unexpectedly,” he said, noting that his advice did not apply to locals with a stake in the issue. “I’m telling lookie-loos that this is not something that you need to go check out so that you can say you were part of history. This is not your fight. You avoid it, because you don’t know what can happen.”
Protests demanding the resignation of Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló after the leak of hundreds of pages of offensive private messages have been raging for more than a week and have occasionally turned violent, like when police used tear gas and pepper spray against crowds last week. But demonstrations have more often taken on an optimistic atmosphere, with music and dancing amid the chants. Celebrities have joined the marches in Puerto Rico and afar.
Anthony Tipping, regional intelligence analyst for the Americas at risk management firm WorldAware, said larger protests have been publicized well in advance, so travelers can seek that information out and plan to avoid the areas.
“If a sporadic protest does occur, avoid the area immediately,” he said. He cautioned that it’s not clear yet how long the demonstrations will last or how far they’ll spread.
Most of the protests have congregated around La Fortaleza, a national historic landmark in Old San Juan that serves as the governor’s residence. On Monday, an estimated tens of thousands of people flooded a highway in what was expected to be one of the island’s largest demonstrations ever.
Two cruise ship calls scheduled in San Juan on Monday were canceled. Celebrity Equinox headed to its next scheduled port of St. Thomas because of the protests, according to Owen Torres, spokesman for parent company Royal Caribbean Cruises. The same company canceled two stops last week.
“Concern for the safety and well-being of our guests and crew members is our top priority,” Torres said in an email.
MSC Cruises extended a stay in St. Maarten for one of its ships, MSC Seaside, rather than send it to San Juan. But other services — flights, hotels, airports, attractions and taxis — were operating normally, Discover Puerto Rico CEO Brad Dean said in an emailed statement.
“We are encouraged by the accounts of travelers who are arriving on the island each day, and many have expressed support for those peacefully protesting,” he said. “Puerto Rico remains very much open for tourism.”
The destination marketing organization issued a travel advisory urging travelers to check with businesses and travel companies about their operations, allow extra time for travel around the island and to and from the airport in San Juan, and to avoid areas where protests were scheduled.
Dean said that so far, the canceled cruise stops have dealt the biggest blow to tourism. The Puerto Rico Tourism Company said in a statement that the economic impact of the cancellations could amount to $2.5 million.
Tour guide Debbie Molina Ramos was supposed to meet a group of 18 people from the Empress of the Seas cruise ship last week, but the visit was canceled. She is based a couple hours from San Juan and has mostly been away from the protests, but she wrote a message to visitors on her Facebook page Sunday: “Puerto Rico is in reconstruction. You are always welcome to our home. Do return when we are done cleaning, reorganizing and have new leaders working for us.”
Paulina Salach, co-founder of Spoon Food Tours, said in an email that her business has received fewer inquiries and seen a sharp drop in bookings since the protests started. The company, which closed Monday in solidarity with the rest of the country, initially suspended afternoon and evening tours on days when protests were scheduled.
“After observing the protests for the first couple of days, we reinstated afternoon/evening tours and will continue to carefully monitor things, ensuring the safety of our guests and team,” Salach said in the email. She is reassuring travelers who call that the protests have been largely peaceful and tours are running on schedule.
”Business will bounce back, just like it did after Hurricane Maria,” she wrote. “I believe that the vast majority of business owners and people are more concerned about changing Puerto Rico for the better rather than losing money.”