Ingrid I. Rivera Rocafort, Puerto Rico Tourism Company’s executive director, says that travelers come to Puerto Rico looking for an adventure. // © 2015 Hill+Knowlton Strategies
Feature image (above): La Bestia, dubbed the longest zipline in the world, will be inaugurated in Puerto Rico in January. // © 2015 Hill+Knowlton Strategies
Puerto Rico’s debt crisis hasn’t slowed down the Caribbean island’s tourism. With the number of cruise ship arrivals increasing by 26 percent and major renovations to the international Puerto Rican airport, the island remains a hot destination for adventure travelers, families and honeymooners alike.
Ingrid I. Rivera Rocafort, Puerto Rico Tourism Company’s executive director, discussed with TravelAge West the growth in Puerto Rico’s tourism industry, as well as the best restaurants for foodies, the island’s newest hotels and why the debt crisis shouldn’t scare off travel agents or their clients.
Puerto Rico’s governor recently announced that the commonwealth will be unable to pay off its $72 billion debt. Can you explain how this has affected tourism to the area?
Tourism is twice as foolproof in Puerto Rico. We have been able to see from the statistics how Puerto Rico has grown despite the fiscal crisis that has gone on for the past two years. To share some statistics, over the last two years, we have grown from 1 million cruise passengers to 1.2 million at the closing of the 2013-2014 fiscal year, and when we finish closing this fiscal year, we’ll have grown 26 percent, up to 1.5 million. We’re seeing the arrival of new cruise ships such as Royal Caribbean International’s Quantum of the Seas, which arrived last December, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Breakaway and AIDA Cruises.
This is the result of new incentive programs that we instituted in July 2013, as well as major infrastructure changes made to be able to receive the cruise ships that have begun to arrive. Compound this with the volume of travelers going through the airport: This fiscal year, we finished off at 8.7 million, from 7.9 million recorded in January 2013. We believe we’ll be ending at 8.9 million by December. Hotel registration has also grown 5.6 percent. People have not stopped coming to Puerto Rico because of the fiscal situation.
Can you go into detail about some of the changes that have been made to Puerto Rico’s airport?
In the last three years, we have been working hard to develop air access in order to make the airport better and bigger. For example, in a year in a half, Avianca airlines has increased flights from three times a week to five times a week due to the popularity of the Bogota to San Juan route. Another announcement, which took place on July 2, is the arrival of direct access from Mexico to Puerto Rico. We now have direct access from Cancun to San Juan. That makes it easier for the Mexican traveler to get to Puerto Rico.
The airport is large but needed some updates. What was needed was to make sure it was modern. There were replacements for gate connectors, computers and several redesigns. There are also new gastronomical and retail offerings.
What do travel agents need to know about Puerto Rico? What are travelers looking for when they go to Puerto Rico?
When people travel, they don’t check a country’s financial situation. They look for a sense of travel and how they can get there in an economical way. And with Puerto Rico, you don’t need a passport. As for new attractions in Puerto Rico, we have the longest zipline in the world and new hotels opening. There’s the beauty of the bioluminescent bay and our 22 award-winning golf courses; there’s El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in all of North America. Beyond the debt crisis, we continue to have investors come in and see the opportunity to develop.
There are also new initiatives being developed, such as the creation of the Beach Club for cruise-goers. For visitors who come on ships, they want to visit the beach. At the Beach Club, they’ll be welcomed with umbrellas, chairs and artisanal beers. Another important announcement is the largest zipline in the world, La Bestia, which is being inaugurated at Toro Verde in January.
The first International Tourism Expo - Puerto Rico was just held in May. What’s important for agents to know about this event?
We had more than 200 agents certify themselves as part of our program to become Puerto Rico experts. It brought together different travel agents from all over the world — a lot from the U.S. — to really get to know Puerto Rico and sell it. We had more than 100 exhibitors showcasing different areas of Puerto Rico and different hotels.
Most important, we took the opportunity to have appealing guest speakers that talked about service, the importance of social media and different ways to sell the destination. It was a combination of an expo and an important conference that travel agents could attend to improve their knowledge. Those are the things we’ll repeat for next year’s event in May.
Have there been any recent major hotel openings or refurbishments that agents should know about?
Condado Vanderbilt Hotel is our first five-star hotel. Several other hotel renovations have also happened in the Condado district. Recently, John Paulson, head of the Paulson & Co. investment management firm in the U.S., announced that he will be opening a new high-end luxury boutique hotel after renovations. The highest hotel in the world will also open in January. JW Marriott is in its planning and financing stages. There’s also the arrival of Four Seasons, which has already started construction.
Can you describe the typical client that goes to Puerto Rico? Are they looking for adventure or luxury?
That visitor is looking for adventure. They’re looking for unique experiences and staying in places that aren’t your typical, cookie-cutter hotels. For adventure, we have rivers to go kayaking, we have the ocean, we have underground caves, and we have rainforests and dry forests. Of the six bioluminescent bays in the world, we have three of them.
There are a lot of attractions that make it a unique place. You also have small islands near Puerto Rico, such as Culebra. You can also experience the flora and fauna of the wetlands or go bird watching.
Puerto Rico is quickly becoming a destination for foodies. Can you describe the change to the gastronomical landscape?
We have amazing up-and-coming chefs that have been highlighted in U.S. television shows and major food-focused magazines such as Food & Wine. Jose Andres is a well-known Spanish chef who has restaurants in New York, Washington, D.C., and Spain, and he just opened a restaurant at Dorado Beach. Jose Enrique has a small restaurant that has been featured in Food & Wine.
We also have different festivals highlighting chefs and gastronomy, such as Saborea in April and Festival Gastronomico. On the west coast, there are also a lot of amazing seafood restaurants.
Is family travel to the island big? What are some options for families?
In terms of family travel, Puerto Rico is very family-friendly. Again, you can travel with no passport needed. There are lots of things to do with kids, and a majority of our hotels are prepared for receiving children, such as El Conquistador Resort, Hilton and Marriott. They have kid-friendly menus and babysitting, and options will continue to grow.
A recent attraction that opened a few weeks ago was Surf ’n Fun, a theme park on the west coast, which is an important area for families. You can combine these experiences with nature-focused ones. In addition to the largest zipline in the world, Toro Verde will also be unveiling a labyrinth for kids, with mazes and areas to climb.
Destination weddings are a major trend in a lot of places. Is that true of Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico has become an important wedding destination. We had more than 850 weddings last year, and that has grown by 20 percent from the previous year. With Puerto Rico, there’s the ease of having the bride and groom be able to complete all their paperwork right after. Puerto Rico is now also an important destination for gay weddings and honeymooners.