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It was a Thursday night, and a coterie of well-dressed diners were savoring gourmet cuisine at Oliva, the Mediterranean-infused restaurant at the Olive Boutique Hotel, a brand-new member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Since opening earlier this year, Olive has drawn visitors and locals alike with its luxurious ambiance.
The 15-room Olive Boutique Hotel, which is decorated with original photographs and artwork from around the Mediterranean, is just one example of Puerto Rico’s increasingly upscale scene. Hotels including the W Vieques and St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort are already open, and more are on the way.
According to Luis G. Rivera Marin, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the growth of the luxury segment in Puerto Rico “really helps to improve the image of our Island. For the first time, we have a truly complete luxury product to sell, with all the top brands present on the Island — W, St. Regis, Waldorf Astoria and Ritz-Carlton.”
Less than a block away from the Olive sits the Condado Vanderbilt, a property that helped strengthen the Condado district’s international allure when it first opened in 1919. Slated to fully open in 2013, the original structure is being renovated and recast as a 21st-century luxury destination, with the addition of two new towers and modern amenities.
“For years we have tried to position Puerto Rico as a luxury destination, but I think the message was distorted,” said Jose Suarez, president of International Hospitality Enterprises, which owns the Condado Vanderbilt. “I recall a travel expert telling me a while back [that] ‘Puerto Rico charges like a luxury destination, but it's not one.’ Brands like W, St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton Reserve help strengthen our positioning as a luxury destination and add instant credibility. The opening of the Condado Vanderbilt, Ritz-Carlton Reserve and others will help us become a true luxury destination.”
Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, is set to open this year along three miles of coastline west of the capital city. The 1,400-acre property will have 100 guestrooms, 14 one-bedroom suites and 13 private residences; the original plantation hacienda, which dates back to the 1920s, is being restored to serve as a five-bedroom beachfront villa. A botanical spa and eco-adventure center will be among the on-site offerings.
The new properties are also good news for existing hotels, according to Julian Cable-Treadwell, director of sales and marketing at the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, which recently unveiled a refurbished lobby and will be adding more dining options in the coming months.
“Having a world-class luxury segment allows Puerto Rico to introduce itself to a guest that it may not have been able to before, which is good for the entire destination,” said Treadwell. “It also allows potential guests to differentiate between products on the Island to ascertain exactly what accommodation product they would like to experience.”
Treadwell is not the only hotelier to appreciate the advantages of welcoming more hotels to the island.
“There is a lot of emphasis on diversifying the overall hotel product on the island and fortifying our natural competitive advantages, in order to elevate Puerto Rico’s positioning as a luxury destination,” said Mirem Ubarri, director of sales and marketing at the Ritz-Carlton, San Juan, which recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation. “The island is essentially undergoing a renaissance, with a new portfolio of hotels opening throughout the island targeting affluent consumers.”
Also sporting new upscale options is the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel (originally known simply as The Water Club), which has opened a trendy new restaurant called Zest as well as a stylishly redecorated rooftop lounge.
The variety of upscale and value-priced lodging is a big selling point for Puerto Rico, according to Chad Myerson, director of global sales at JetBlue, now the largest air carrier on the island, which moved into a brand-new terminal at San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in June.
“One of the broader appeals to us in Puerto Rico is the shear breadth of hotels,” Myerson said. “If you had too much on either [the luxury or budget] side, it wouldn’t be beneficial. The mixture allows us to serve a larger segment.”
Rivera agreed that diversity is a plus. If a visitor can’t afford top-of-the-line luxury, there are options available.
“They can always access other properties that provide similar services and amenities that compete at a lower cost,” said Rivera. “For example, we have also seen a resurgence of new formats such as Hyatt Place, which is family-oriented. Hyatt had abandoned Puerto Rico 10 years ago, and now they are coming back with new developments.”
But given the slow economic recovery, the time may be perfect for selling up, according to Shimmy McHugh, president of S Collection, which operates entertainment venues and restaurants around the island.
“Travelers should take advantage of the soft rates,” said McHuge. “Check out these properties before the demand picks up in the future.”
Olive Boutique Hotelwww.oliveboutiquehotel.com