As the owner of Water Sports and Eco Tours on the southeastern tip of Puerto Rico, Christina Vazquez wears many hats — from running the daily operations of the guided walking and kayaking tour company, to marketing and business development. The Humacao Natural Reserve where she runs her tours is a popular tourist destination for its beautiful lagoons, mangroves, estuaries and beaches, and in the winter high season they can expect to serve around 4,500 visitors.
Unfortunately, this past year, her business only served 464 tourists — a 90 percent year-over-year decrease, and an 88 percent decrease in revenue.
A look at Water Sports & Eco Tours entry. PHOTO: Christy Delafield/Mercy Corps
While Puerto Rico’s infrastructure continues to recover from the massive destruction caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, small business owners like Christina Vazquez are witnessing firsthand the devastating impact on the tourism industry. Each of these factors makes it challenging for Puerto Ricans, especially small business owners, to rebuild and recover.
In partnership with Google, Mercy Corps is working to change that by helping small business owners to recover, jumpstarting tourism through cash grants and technical assistance, rehabilitating natural areas, and designing and implementing the Vamos a Puerto Rico! outreach campaign to spread the world that Puerto Rico is "open for business."
As part of this effort, at the end of May, 35 Google employees from HOLA, Google’s Latino employee resource group, traveled with Mercy Corps to Puerto Rico to provide training on online tools and marketing for small businesses around the island. The Google volunteers brought their various business and digital tools background and expertise to design workshops to help Puerto Ricans market their businesses and build back tourism to improve their economic outlook.
Roberto Silva has worked in the fishing industry his entire life. To supplement his fishing business, he ran guided fishing tours for the many tourists that flocked to Punta Santiago’s pristine waters. After Hurricane Maria hit, not only did he lose his fishing equipment, but the plummeting tourism numbers meant that he had no means of income.
Prior to the Google workshop, Roberto promoted his business through traditional word of mouth and other non-digital means, but with the help of Google volunteers, he told us he now understands “the different ways to position myself [online] effectively” to draw tourists in and help rebuild his popular fishing charter business.
Juan Uribe, a Google volunteer, and Yvette Nuñez, a Mercy Corps Puerto Rico staff member, train small business owners in Humacao on how to use Google tools to promote their business online. PHOTO: Lyndi Liersemann/Mercy Corps
"One out of three workers in Puerto Rico is employed by small and medium businesses," says Hector Mujica, Google.org's regional manager for Latin America. "When we decided to return to Puerto Rico to offer support tailored to this stage of its recovery, we pursued an approach that looked not only at what funding could do for small businesses, but how our own in-house resources could amplify the impact."
In addition to the onsite volunteering and small business recovery partnership, Google announced a company match of up to $2 million to help accelerate the recovery of small to medium businesses in Puerto Rico through an online fundraising campaign. Along with the Hispanic Federation, Mercy Corps will oversee the distribution of money raised to reinvigorate businesses and promote tourism to Puerto Rico while supporting agricultural and fishery industries that are pivotal to Puerto Ricans’ economy.
Mercy Corps' Puerto Rico Program Director Jeronimo Candela addresses a group of small business owners at a Google training in Vieques, Puerto Rico. PHOTO: Minnie Cruz/Mercy Corps
“We’ll provide cash grants, technical assistance and training to get small business owners back on their feet,” says Jeronimo Candela, Mercy Corps Puerto Rico director. “As we do in every recovery and relief effort we undertake, we’ll be working with local partners as we believe communities are the best engines of their own change.”
Google’s focus and commitment to helping Puerto Rico build back stronger will play a critical role for thousands whose lives and livelihoods were destroyed by Hurricane Maria. “This reserve is my family’s backyard,” says Vazquez, owner of Water Sports and Eco Tours. “I was here with my kids and our dogs when the storm hit, and we spent months cleaning out the trails after Maria. It’s beautiful here. We want everyone to know they are welcome to come back and enjoy it.”