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A group of women at work during Tourism Cares for Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico project offers reasons to be cheerful

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postedJuly 22, 2019

One of my favorite musicians is David Byrne. The former frontman of the Talking Heads has always struck me as one of the most creative people on the planet, and in 2018 he began posting a group of articles on his website as part of a new initiative he called Reasons to Be Cheerful. The aim was to offer “good news as a remedy and kind of therapy to the state of the world,” and the stories told of people around the globe doing things big and small that were impacting their communities in positive ways.

During the recent Tourism Cares for Puerto Rico event, attended by more than 150 travel professionals, that phrase kept coming back to me. Even though there was a lot of talk about Hurricane Maria, a 2017 storm that left nearly all residents without power for at least three months, I heard plenty of tales of innovation and collaboration that fit Mr. Byrne’s theme.

Over the past couple of years, Tourism Cares has shifted the focus of its popular giveback projects at travel-related sites in different North American cities. The new-look events, branded as Meaningful Travel Summits (click here to read more on them) still contain a work day, but have been expanded to three days and include intentional cultural engagement and learning opportunities to better connect volunteers with the local communities.

While I’ve helped out with several single-day work projects in the past, this was my first experience with the amped-up version, which takes things up a few notches, totally in a good way.

The opening day featured two hour-long educational sessions that offered a detailed look into ways that local entrepreneurs are making a difference. As part of the first session, small groups of attendees met with representatives of eight local start-ups, whose businesses range from a teenager whose fascination with bees led her to start the Be a Bee program in her school to a couple that leads tours focusing on San Juan architecture.

After that busy and buzzy hour—sorry, I couldn’t resist—we switched places with the other group, who had just heard a panel discussion on food sovereignty in Puerto Rico. Increasing collaboration between small farmers, agricultural organizations and microbusinesses in the food economy—and helping them find additional markets—was a main point of discussion.

Tourism Cares for Puerto Rico
Chris Babb and Kami Risk during Tourism Cares for Puerto Rico (Photo by Jim Martin)

With all the talk of grassroots organizations doing big things, I’ll admit that I was taken aback to see Jose Gonzalez of Marriott Hotels as one of the panelists. But, as Gonzalez shared how the island’s three Marriott properties had shifted from importing 90 percent of the food they served to now working with area growers and vendors who provide more than 60 percent of what is served, it was evident that the movement wasn’t just for the little guys.

The work day took us to the south side of the island and the towns of Ponce and Yauco. All of the projects were based around Centro de Microempresas y Tecnologías Agrícolas de Yauco, a sustainable farm that became a community gathering place and beacon of hope to residents in the weeks and months after Maria.

Since this was my first time visiting Puerto Rico, I flew in three days before the Tourism Cares event kicked off so I could do more exploring. My activities were set up by longtime NTA member Vámonos Tours, and everything I did with them—from visiting different areas of the island and joining one of their student tour groups for a couple of activities to sampling a lot of tasty cuisine at local restaurants—just furthered the week’s theme of authenticity and local. (Click here to read more about these adventures.)

Since I returned, one of the most common questions I get is, “How is the recovery going in Puerto Rico?” While I had no base for comparison with what the island was like before Maria, that was a tough question to answer.

But, based on what I saw and experienced, I can say there are many reasons to be cheerful about what lies ahead for the diverse, friendly and beautiful destination.

Top photo by Tourism Cares