Professional bird guide Gabriel Lugo was looking forward to another busy season of tours when Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. The Category 4 storm—the fourth costliest on record to hit the United States—caused more than 70,000 landslides, flattened homes, and plunged much of the island into nearly a year of blackouts. Immediately, all seven groups who were booked with Lugo canceled.
As weeks turned into months, Lugo picked up work in construction. Birding was starting to feel like a calling from a past life when he received a message that gave him hope: Two sisters from Brooklyn wanted to move forward with a January trip they’d planned months earlier. Would there be anything for them to see?
Lugo launched into action, visiting favorite spots to check how the birds were faring, and reported back with encouraging news: “Yes, we’ve got all the endemics.” The sisters, meanwhile, contacted hotels—which despite still relying on generators for power were booked almost solid by cleanup workers—and managed to secure a room. They spent several days with Lugo and saw 116 species. “It was pretty awesome, because I got to do what I like to do,” Lugo says. More importantly, though, “it kind of gave me a little sense of normality.”
Lugo was lucky to find other work until tourists started returning. Many have been less fortunate, and I have seen firsthand the devastation that can ensue when the tourism industry is pulled out from under a place that depends on it. I was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and I frequently travel for my journalism work and for pleasure, including to places that have recently experienced disasters. On trips to Nepal shortly after the 2015 earthquake and to Sri Lanka following the 2019 Easter bombings, I met people who, over and over, told me of their struggles after tourists disappeared virtually overnight. They implored me to send my friends. They told me they were desperate.
As global warming accelerates, climate-driven disasters are becoming more commonplace. This means tourists must increasingly grapple with difficult decisions about whether and when to visit affected areas—and how to do so in a way that helps rather than hurts. Heat waves, floods, droughts, water shortages, wildfires, and storms threaten the lives and livelihoods of Lugo and millions of others around the world who depend on tourism. And while the travel industry itself contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, the reality is that people are going to travel—and many local economies depend on us doing so.
Puerto Rico is a fitting destination for exploring these issues because the Caribbean is the world’s most tourism-dependent region. The island, which derives about 7 percent of its GDP from the industry, is popular with mainland Americans, and birders who seek some of the more than 350 species found there, including 18 endemics. Yet like many other travel destinations, Puerto Rico and the broader Caribbean face a future increasingly prone to disasters that may drive vacationers away. In 2017, for example, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate cost the region more than $1 billion in lost tourism revenue, including for islands that weren’t directly damaged. Yet tourism can also be a force for recovery. After the pandemic slump, Puerto Rico, for instance, saw a record number of visitors in 2021, generating about $98 million in tax revenue and support for many jobs.
Even in the best of circumstances, it is challenging to make genuinely beneficial vacation decisions. Greenwashing abounds in the travel industry, and ensuring your money flows into local economies isn’t nearly as simple as making a reservation at an all-inclusive resort. That process, I learned, becomes even more complex after a natural disaster.
Last fall, just weeks after Hurricane Fiona had hit Puerto Rico and caused significant flooding and blackouts on an island still reeling from the effects of Maria, I set out to plan and make such a trip. While taking in the stunning landscapes and birdlife that make the island a popular vacation destination, I wanted to hear directly from Lugo and others on the ground about what they need most from tourists like me. As climate change continues its insidious march, now is the time to reconsider how we travel so that visitors can try to minimize the harms we bring to places in recovery and maximize the much-needed benefits.
etermining when to visit Puerto Rico ended up being one of the easiest decisions of planning my trip. By November, six weeks had passed since Fiona hit, and news reports, as well as Lugo and others I was in touch with, reassured me that damage had been relatively minimal. My four-day trip would take place in early December, right after hurricane season officially ended and before tourism peaked. It seemed like an ideal window—so long as no off-season storms popped up, given that climate change is making long-standing annual weather patterns more and more unpredictable (fortunately, none did).
For any trip in the wake of a disaster, figuring out appropriate timing is key, C.B. Ramkumar tells me. He is vice-chair of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, a nonprofit that manages global standards for the industry, and one of several experts I called in my early planning stages. Come too soon and “you’ll get in the way,” he says. Yet he advises not writing off an entire country following a hurricane, flood, or wildfire. Once the dust has settled, your presence can be an economic boon to a place still in partial recovery mode. As important, he says, is that visitors help revive life. “Tourists bring an emotional quotient to the recovery.”
Experts I spoke with suggested looking into the specifics of what’s happening on the ground. While one region might be impacted, another might be totally fine. Setting a Google alert for the destination you want to visit can give you an idea of when it’s okay to go, Ramkumar says. You’ll get lots of irrelevant stories, but skimming over the daily headlines will lend a sense of how general recovery efforts are progressing. For more direct insight into when a country or area is ready to welcome visitors back, follow the social media accounts of local hotels and government tourism agencies. For places that are dealing with lasting impacts, making advance reservations for future trips, before hotels and restaurants reopen, can be a big financial and emotional help, too.
One of the most important steps is choosing accommodation that supports, rather than exploits, the place you’re visiting. For Puerto Rico, this means avoiding new beachfront hotels, because “almost 100 percent” are built on prime wildlife habitat that serves as natural buffers for hurricanes, says Adrianne Tossas, president of BirdsCaribbean and an avian ecologist at the University of Puerto Rico. “If people coming here were knowledgeable about this, they could make better decisions on where to stay.”
Paloma Zapata, chief executive of Sustainable Travel International, a mission-driven organization committed to transforming the impact of tourism on nature and people, also encourages travelers to look for places that give some indication of their commitment to their employees and to the environment. “If they don’t talk about it, probably they’re not doing much about it,” she says.
Booking accommodations that meet these criteria can be challenging, though, and climate-driven disasters can make it even harder by, for example, limiting the hotels in operation. In my case, laborious online searches, an outdated Lonely Planet, and weeks of emails with a Puerto Rico tourism representative yielded just a few properties that specifically talked about sustainability. Almost all were either permanently closed or under repair, mostly thanks to Maria, or fully booked for my dates. This is typical for a place in recovery and illustrates the need to be flexible and patient, says Ramkumar. “If you’re not capable emotionally of treading softly, then don’t go—it’s not for you.”
After several weeks of searching, I finally found what seemed like the perfect accommodation: Casa Grande Mountain Retreat. The hotel, which stands on the site of a former 20th-century coffee farm, was almost completely demolished by Maria and took nearly four years to reopen. The restaurant serves only vegan food made from fresh, local ingredients (a rarity in Puerto Rico, which imports more than 80 percent of its food thanks in part to long-standing U.S. colonialist trade policies). Other environmental perks include a spring–fed pool, eco-friendly soap and cleaning products, on-site composting, and motion-activated outdoor lamps. Reservations come with complimentary yoga but no Wi-Fi. “It’s like a reset,” María Victoria la Tanamá, the hotel’s general manager, later tells me. “There’s so few places left like this in the world.”
Casa Grande only lost electricity temporarily, but Fiona still scared some guests away. “We had people canceling for events in March,” la Tanamá says with a sigh. “We’re like, ‘We’re fine! We’re open! You can get here.’”
Reaching Casa Grande requires following a tight, winding trail of a road that snakes through Puerto Rico’s dramatic Central Mountain Range, whose sharp limestone cliffs are covered by careening billows of mosses and ferns. Rustic homes precariously cling to slivers of land like nests on a precipice, and bright orange gashes, the remnants of landslides from Maria and Fiona, occasionally run down the mountainside. By the time I pull up at Casa Grande—a series of simple but elegant casitas nestled into the greenery—the valley is cloaked in early evening shadow, and the coqui frogs are beginning to chirp. How utterly black the nights must have been in the long year after Maria, I think.
With logistics settled, I’m finally ready to see some birds.
he next morning, I meet Lugo for breakfast on the hotel’s expansive open-air patio. It’s 8 a.m., but Lugo has been up for several hours already, listening to the dawn chorus and filming time lapses of the sunrise (it looked incredible, based on his footage; I was still dreaming when he shot it). Before our coffee arrives, he points out a male American Kestrel snatching up a lizard. By the time our breakfast is served—vegan omelets and chia pudding decorated with edible flowers—he’s entered eBird records for a Venezuelan Troupial, a Loggerhead Kingbird, a Puerto Rican Bullfinch, a Puerto Rican Spindalis, several White-winged Doves, and two Smooth-billed Anis. “With that soft light, the beauty comes out very well,” he says with delight, peering through binoculars at the anis, which resemble ravens with flamboyantly long tails and extra-thick beaks. “This is a bird people overlook, but they’re beautiful!”
Lugo got into birding by chance about 17 years ago, when he was working as a water treatment plant operator. Members of the Puerto Rican Ornithological Society (SOPI) visited the facility for the Christmas Bird Count, Audubon’s annual community bird survey.
“I’d never heard about anyone who goes and counts birds, but I’d always loved nature,” he says. “I asked if I could go with them, and that was it.” He joined Wildside Nature Tours a few years later, after he met its owner, Kevin Loughlin, while both searched for the Elfin-woods Warbler, an endangered endemic. Today Lugo leads tours in Puerto Rico, three other Caribbean islands, and the mainland United States.
Choosing a local guide rather than someone who parachutes in helps ensure your dollars are assisting with recovery—and that you’ll have a rewarding trip to boot. Local guides take clients to locations off the beaten path, Lugo explains, to places they know will be great for birds and where they can “support people normally not supported by the crowds.” They’re also aware of conditions on the ground, so they’ll know which areas to avoid after a disaster, and they’re the best people to have around should something go wrong, like an unexpected road closure due to flooding or a landslide.
For these reasons, Lugo always works with a local partner when he leads trips outside Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Ian hit Cuba in September, for example, Lugo’s Cuban counterpart was able to quickly verify that the accommodations they’d booked all had power, allowing a birding trip in November to move forward.
Lugo took me to one of his favorite exclusive birding spots, the home of bird lovers and Puerto Rican Tody experts José “Pepe” González and Felisa Collazo. Three decades ago, they turned their yard into a paradise for hummingbirds, setting up feeders and landscaping with nectar-rich plants. When I arrive, seven Green Mangos and one Puerto Rican Emerald are vying for space at the feeders—a squeakfest of tiny, luminous bodies with big attitudes.
The couple’s home served as a lifeline for many nectar-feeding birds after Hurricane Maria. The landscape impacts, González recalls, “were like a bomb.” Not a single flower seemed to survive. He counted more than 50 birds visiting his feeders the day after the storm.
To better understand how birds respond to hurricanes, I head to a can’t-miss spot for many travelers. El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, and its 1.2 million annual visitors account for 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s tourism economy. Its popularity likely put pressure on the agency to seek congressional funds for restoration and repairs after Maria, says Joseph Wunderle, a Forest Service emeritus research scientist.
For a quick lesson on climate disasters’ double threat to tourism and biodiversity, Wunderle and Laura Fidalgo De Souza, president of SOPI, bring me to the forest’s Yokahú Tower, a popular stop for day-trippers. Atop the 69-foot-tall structure, I’m rewarded for the StairMaster-like workout with a view of lush green that stretches all the way to the sea. After Maria, I’m told, all of this was brown. “Imagine you go from summer to winter overnight, with not a green leaf left,” Wunderle says. “The shock is just that.”
Based on decades of study in El Yunque and elsewhere, scientists now know that hurricanes don’t impact all Caribbean species equally. While many birds survive the wind and rain, “the problem is afterwards, when starvation can take place,” Fidalgo De Souza says. Fruit, seed, and nectar feeders suffer most, and imperiled species confined to small patches of habitat are at the greatest risk of all. This is because storms uproot trees—Maria killed or severely damaged an estimated 30 million to 40 million in Puerto Rico alone—and strip surviving ones bare. Predators and insectivores, conversely, tend to do better. After Maria, SOPI distributed seeds, sugar water, and more than 100 hummingbird feeders to local partners. Wunderle says the efforts were likely lifesaving for some of Puerto Rico’s five hummingbird species, plus other nectar feeders like Bananaquits: “Did it pull them through the bottleneck? We suspect so.”
From the tower, Wunderle points out a Red-tailed Hawk circling overhead. The species weathered Maria better than most, he notes, and also eats the critically endangered Puerto Rican Parrot, one of the birds hit hardest by the storm. The parrots numbered around 55 in El Yunque prior to the hurricane, but after the direct impact, scientists observed only two survivors. With sparse fruit and seeds to eat in the weeks following, those two went down to zero, likely from starvation and predation.
Fortunately, another population of wild Puerto Rican Parrots survived elsewhere on the island, as did those in the two aviaries—including the one at El Yunque rebuilt in 2006 thanks in no small part to $750,000 in international donations. An estimated 200 wild parrots now live on the island, and with Lugo, I had the privilege of seeing some at Río Abajo State Forest.
When we arrive, ethereal light is filtering through the trees like a nature-made cathedral. We’re power-walking down a cracked asphalt road, on a mission to find the parrots before night descends, when Lugo suddenly stops. A flutter of wings behind us indicates that we just missed a parrot. We backtrack and stand, frozen and waiting. “They’re never alone,” Lugo says.
Sure enough, a second Puerto Rican Parrot bursts from the forest and perches atop a tree. For a good 30 seconds it stays there, silhouetted against the golden evening light and vocalizing in trios of high-pitched squawks. Admittedly, it’s not the most beautiful of calls. But a feeling of awe washes over me as I realize how close this loudmouthed bird, which numbered just 13 wild individuals in 1975, came to disappearing.
After Maria, private donors helped get the parrot program back in the air by providing funds to pay for things like new cages and cameras for monitoring the birds. Similar aid has helped pull other Caribbean islands out of the financial hole left in the wake of storms. When Maria seriously damaged the offices of Dominica’s wildlife department, BirdsCaribbean helped organize donations of computers and other equipment. Sending funds or supplies to support unemployed local guides can also be of service. After Maria, for example, Wildside Nature Tours gave Lugo a generator, allowing him to restore power to his home. “Anything speeding the return of tourists can help small island economies recover,” Wunderle says.
ey, your other left! Your GPS is broken!” a tour guide calls out, trying to corral a group of kayakers as they paddle into mangroves, spin in circles, and ram into one another like they’re playing a game of aquatic bumper cars. I’m in Fajardo, at the eastern end of the island, to see Laguna Grande, one of Puerto Rico’s three famed bioluminescent bodies of water.
Aside from the antics of the novice kayakers, it’s smooth sailing tonight under a bright moon. But this isn’t always the case. Misael Cruz Rivera, the lead guide at the kayak company, Eco Action Tours, tells me that annual outbreaks of sargassum seaweed—driven in part by warming ocean temperatures—have started to clog waterways here in the summer, smothering wildlife and snuffing out tourism. Cruz Rivera recalls what happened last summer: “All the seaweed stopped the entrance to the lagoon, and that’s how she breathes. We started to see fish floating and dying.”
The lagoon is vital for many people living nearby. “It supports their families,” Cruz Rivera says. So when the seaweed struck, tour guides and locals banded together to painstakingly clear the lagoon, and a group of tourists from Jamaica and elsewhere even pitched in. “They were on vacation, and they just wanted to help us,” Cruz Rivera says.
For now such scrappy problem solving is assisting Puerto Rico’s nature, and the tourism and livelihoods it supports. But as climate-related stressors build, the future looks more uncertain. It’s not just smelly seaweed that’s proliferating or hurricanes that are becoming more intense and frequent. Sea level around the island could rise up to three feet by the end of the century. Drought is also a growing concern; in 2015 Puerto Rico suffered a crippling dry spell, killing and stressing wildlife and spurring water rationing for people. “We’re talking about ecosystems that are very adapted to disturbance,” Fidalgo De Souza says. But if habitats continue to be pummeled without having the chance to recover, “then we have a big problem that could make the ecosystem collapse.”
Puerto Rico is a microcosm of problems happening across the globe. Last year alone saw severe flooding in Pakistan, India, South Africa, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Brazil; drought in East Africa; and a deadly tropical storm in the Philippines—not to mention the now usual spate of extreme wildfires in the western United States and an assortment of less deadly disasters around the world. For many of these places, the return of tourism has been, or will be, an essential component in their recovery. As climate-driven disasters become ubiquitous and inescapable, Ramkumar would like to see the global travel industry take a more direct hand in funneling tourists to affected areas to help with that process. Large travel companies and booking platforms, for example, could create “recovery tourism” packages. “It would have a phenomenal effect,” he says.
For now, though, it’s up to individual travelers to decide when and how to visit such places, and for the people living there to cope as best they can. Most Puerto Ricans I spoke to said they would deal with future challenges as they come. Ada Ramona Miranda Alvarado, the owner of Hacienda Las Malcriá, a bucolic hillside coffee plantation overlooking a lake, embodies this spirit. A former teacher who also has training in solar panel installation, recycling, bird identification, and regenerative tourism, Miranda Alvarado feels her whole life has led up to growing coffee. “I love to protect my island, and I love to protect everything that’s concerned with the environment,” she says. Coffee, she’s discovered, perfectly melds these passions.
Miranda Alvarado—whom Casa Grande Mountain Retreat recommended I visit—started her plantation in 2019, after Maria, from scratch, learning from her coffee-growing neighbors and through trial and error. Today she has around 1,000 coffee plants interspersed through native trees. She planted additional landscaping to attract birds. When I arrive, she is preparing for a Christmas Bird Count group, and she regularly hosts campers. “Mostly, people come here to connect with nature,” she says. The dollars they spend and the future visitors they send her way through their glowing reviews support not only her farm, Miranda Alvarado adds, but also her community.
In September, the importance of community came into focus when Fiona took out around 30 percent of her coffee plants. Miranda Alvarado is rebounding from that setback, however, scraping together funds through tourist visits and donations from friends, family, and Puerto Rico’s tight-knit network of artisan coffee growers, since she, like other small coffee farmers, receives no government support. In restoring her land, she’s not only rebuilding her own small business but also adding resilience against future storms—resilience that will benefit more than just her. Research shows, for instance, that pockets of undamaged or partially damaged coffee plantations can provide important refuges for birds after hurricanes, and with each tourist who swings by, Miranda Alvarado’s neighbors benefit as well in the meals, drinks, and craftworks they buy.
Despite the bumps, Miranda Alvarado still considers the farm to be her “happy place”: “It’s a regenerative place, not only for me, but also my family, friends, visitors, and our environment.” Over a cup of the most delicately flavored coffee I’ve ever had, made with beans Miranda Alvarado harvested and roasted a few days before, she explains that she chooses not to worry about the future. “Hurricanes will have an impact,” she says, shrugging and smiling. “But I just love each day at a time.”
This story originally ran in the Spring 2023 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.