On the frontline of climate change

On the frontline of climate change

Puerto Rico’s viral #CoverTheProgress campaign put it back on the road to recovery, after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Stuart Wood finds out how


In September 2017, the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria – the deadliest natural disaster it has faced in recorded history.

It killed 2,975 people on the island, and caused an estimated USD$91bn of damage across the Atlantic coastline, mostly in Puerto Rico. Maria was part of an unusually hyperactive hurricane season, which also included Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Nate.

The rise in the frequency and intensity of such natural disasters has been linked to changes in the Earth’s climate. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that sea surface temperatures worldwide have risen by an average of 0.1°C since 1970. While this may not seem like a lot, it is enough to create favourable conditions for strong storms to develop.

Puerto Rico, then, is a destination which finds itself on the frontline of climate change. While the major global powers are debating climate policies and emissions targets from the safety of their landlocked skyscrapers, it is the smaller island nations and coastal cities that are paying the price.

Inspiring change through positivity

Puerto Rico, whose capital San Juan also hosted the ICCA congress in 2012, has refused to let its image be defined by destruction. Discover Puerto Rico, the island’s destination management company, partnered with agency Ketchum and the community of Punta Santiago to deliver a campaign which aimed to promote stories of resilience and restoration.

#CoverTheProgress was aimed at international media, and encouraged them to post stories about Puerto Rico which didn’t focus solely on the damage done by Maria. Its positive message struck a chord, and with only a small amount of video and photographic material – and no paid advertising – it delivered over 14.5 billion media impressions.

Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, says: “Positive stories can profoundly inspire change and strengthen our resolve. While #CoverTheProgress focused on one community, it was symbolic for an island of people who refused to let Maria be the last chapter in their story. We heard from countless individuals who were supporting Puerto Rico in many ways, and this campaign let them know that one of the best ways to help the people of Puerto Rico was to visit the island.”

It isn’t just leisure tourism that has been given a boost by the campaign, either: the MICE industry has seen a huge boom in the wake of the coverage. Dean adds: “We are enjoying an unprecedented pace of growth in MICE business. In the first 11 months of 2019, we received more leads and booked more business events than any of the previous five years.”

It has been a dramatic turnaround for an island which counts tourism as one of its major industries: prior to Hurricane Maria, 83,000 jobs on the island were in the tourism sector. That figure is back on the rise again after a sharp decline, with leisure and hospitality employment increasing by 5.6% between July 2018 and September 2019.

The power of storytelling

The forecast looks clear for Puerto Rico’s future. New hotels are planned, and several refurbished hotels will reopen in 2020, including the Ritz Carlton San Juan and the El Conquistador. El Distrito, a multi-purpose entertainment district featuring shopping, hotels, and event spaces, is also set to open in San Juan next year.

The island’s latest campaign is a forward-facing one, too. ‘Have we met yet?’ is focused on promoting Puerto Rico’s image as a ‘friendly neighbour’, particularly for incentive and leisure travellers in North America. Dean says: “In 2020, the historic city of San Juan is preparing to celebrate its 500th anniversary. El Yunque, the only rainforest in the US Forest System, and all three bioluminescent bays, are open to visitors. We are excited about the future, as we believe the best days of Puerto Rico lie before us.”

#CoverTheProgress is a fascinating example of how a destination can change its fortunes with the use of some creative storytelling. Too often, reports in the media devolve into environmental fatalism which suggests we are powerless to change anything, or get stuck in a morbid fascination with death tolls and hurricane categories.

While it is important to recognise the damage done, it is arguably more important to give exposure to the people who are forging a path forwards and rebuilding. When talking about a topic as urgent as climate change, the best way to inspire action is with a carrot, not a stick.

As the MICE industry moves into the New Year, we would also do well to remember that #CoverTheProgress struck a chord because its story was specific. Greenwashing – the process of spreading vague platitudes about sustainability for the sake of good PR, will get us nowhere.

The way you choose to tell the sustainable story of your business or destination can make a difference in 2020. We look forward to hearing it.


Photography by Marianne van Wagner (mariannevanwagner@gmail.com) and Discover Puerto Rico

Stuart Wood is a news reporter across the Mash Media editorial portfolio. He writes for CMW alongside sister publications Conference News, Exhibition News, Access All Areas and Exhibition World.

Leave a Reply