This International Women’s Day is dedicated to celebrating women and their resilience. The global tourism industry has been hit hard by the COWID-19 pandemic, and dozens of women in the industry have faced unprecedented challenges.

Despite the layoffs, closures, budget cuts and uncertainty, there is still hope. That’s why we look at Paulina Salah and Melina Aguilar Colon, two entrepreneurs in Puerto Rico who have had to adapt their businesses to difficult times, both before and during the pandemic, and who are working hard to strengthen their communities.

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Paulina Salah is the co-founder of the Puerto Rican travel company Spoon. After moving to Puerto Rico over a decade ago, Paulina fell in love with the food and the foodie community that supports the island’s culinary heritage.

My partner and I built the company with our savings and without help from the government or startup incubators….. We followed our passion, learned a lot along the way and almost a decade later, we are still making a positive impact on tourism in Puerto Rico through Spoon. In mid-March, we became one of the first companies to offer virtual cooking and cocktail classes in partnership with local chefs, bartenders and brands. We are also in the process of establishing a sister company that will offer conscious consumers around the world consistent coffee from sustainable sources, Salach says.

Spoon gives travelers a real taste of Puerto Rico, from cooking classes where guests learn to prepare traditional Puerto Rican dishes to private dinners and tours of the island. The creative experience is sustainable and helps the local economy. We work with dozens of restaurants, bars, cafes, farms, chefs, bartenders, shops, baristas, farmers, artists and local small business owners all over the island. Our company has a direct impact on the economy, supports sustainable tourism and creates jobs, both directly and indirectly, said Paulina Salah.

Melina Aguilar Colon is the founder of Isla Caribe, a truly unique travel agency based in Ponce. A former Fulbright Scholar, Melina spent ten years living and working in Asia in the field of international development: When I went back in 2017, Puerto Rico had been in an economic crisis for more than 10 years, and that same year it was hit by Hurricane Maria. Mass migration and lack of opportunity have affected the entire island, but especially places like Ponce, because migration is first from the rest of the island to the capital and then to the states. I knew that my community needed jobs, new ideas for economic development and a boost of positivity; I also knew the tourism potential of my city and the Puerto Rico region. I decided to come home and work for it, starting with Caribe Island in December 2017.

Proud of its passion for history, Caribe Island strives to offer tours that reflect the incredible history of Puerto Rico. The aim of each visit is to create an emotional bond with the island and its people, introducing them to places they would not normally visit. Guides study history, research local archives, and work with local communities and businesses to bring the best knowledge and skills to tour participants.

Melina Aguilar Colon, founder of Caribe Island, with her band on tour in Ponce. (Photo via Discover Puerto Rico)

Our guides are history buffs who enthusiastically recount the events and people that shaped the place they visit. Our tours also focus on lesser known historical events or lesser visited places; for example, we have a tour called Ruta De Las Mujeres, a tour dedicated to the women who shaped the history and development of Puerto Rico. We also offer virtual tours and pit visits, so people from all over the world can connect with each other and experience some of the boxing action. For example, the Ruta De Las Mujeres includes a box of products made by local women’s businesses. The visit will take place this month during Women’s History Month, according to Melina Aguilar Colón.

Karibe Island has had to adapt to enormous challenges, from lack of transportation to lack of water and electricity to damage to local monuments after several earthquakes. Last year was the toughest test: … we were hit with a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in the first week and then a pandemic. That said, 2020 has been our most creative year yet. After losing all orders for the year twice, we launched our first virtual tours and a virtual tour with experience boxes. This has become an important part of our services and we intend to develop it further.

On this International Women’s Day, we pay tribute to the women who work to improve our society through tourism, both at home and abroad.

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