Puerto Rico Is a Tourism Case Study in Overcoming Setbacks

Rebounding from previous challenges, Puerto Rico offers hard-earned advice in how destinations can make an effective comeback

Puerto Rico has learned how to react faster and more effectively in a crisis. © 2020 Getty Images

Puerto Rico has learned how to react faster and more effectively in a crisis. © 2020 Getty Images

If experience is the best teacher, then Puerto Rico’s tourism industry should be in an especially good position to confront the coronavirus pandemic that’s currently threatening the world tourism industry. After all, the so-called “Island of Enchantment” managed to score impressive growth just a short time after disastrous hurricanes and earthquakes, making its strategy for rebuilding an interesting case study in recovery.

“I don’t think any other destination in the world has had to face as many obstacles as Puerto Rico has had to face over the past 3.5 years,” said Carla Campos, executive director of Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC). “That acquired knowledge of crisis management — and experience in crisis management — uniquely positions us to overcome the adversity that the world is facing now.”

Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, the island’s nonprofit destination marketing organization, agrees that the destination benefits from its hard-won expertise.

“The island is resilient, and as a destination, we have carefully taken our learnings and applied them to all future situations, including, of course, the current situation that the entire global tourism industry is facing today,” he said. “This has allowed us to react faster and more efficiently, every time. We’ve put into place a robust crisis plan in order to be prepared and to safeguard the welfare of the general population, as well as any visitors to the island.”

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The historic Caribe Hilton hotel is set on a 17-acre peninsula. © 2020 Caribe Hilton

The historic Caribe Hilton hotel is set on a 17-acre peninsula. © 2020 Caribe Hilton

“The island is resilient, and as a destination, we have carefully taken our learnings and applied them to all future situations, including, of course, the current situation that the entire global tourism industry is facing today. This has allowed us to react faster and more efficiently, every time.”
Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s ability to deal with challenging situations is born out of necessity. The arrival of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, as well as a series of earthquakes earlier this year, have given the island’s tourism industry plenty of practice.

“Over the past few years, Puerto Rico has been working to improve its infrastructure,” Dean said. “In fact, $413 million was allocated to address storm-related damage to the island’s roadways, bridges and ports, and $180 million for architectural and engineering designs to water infrastructure.”

Puerto Rico has recovered quite well from hurricanes Irma and Maria, with completed hotel renovations and more than 90% of the hotel inventory operational and working, notes Clarisa Jimenez, president and CEO of Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association (PRHTA).

“This year began with the tremors that took place in the southwestern part of the destination — which stopped economic activity in that region — but the rest of the island continued operating, business as usual,” she said.

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Communication Is Key

Yaucromatic is a colorful public art project. © 2020 LatinFlyer.com

Yaucromatic is a colorful public art project. © 2020 LatinFlyer.com

Renovations and rebuilding are crucial for Puerto Rico’s tourism industry, of course.

But just as important is getting the word out — and PRTC’s efforts were boosted by the creation of Discover Puerto Rico, which began handling marketing for the destination in July 2018.

“We realized that after both natural disturbances on the island, we were faced with misperceptions regarding the degree of impact,” Dean said. “Understanding that the realities in Puerto Rico weren’t being accurately depicted, we felt it was our duty to push beyond these misconceptions to highlight the true impact. The most important strategic decision we made after both Hurricane Maria and the recent earthquakes was to educate travelers about the realities, and that the island was open for tourism. We also emphasized that the best way to help was to visit and support the local communities, as tourism is crucial to the island’s economy.”

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San Juan is Puerto Rico's capital as well as its largest city. © 2020 Getty Images

San Juan is Puerto Rico's capital as well as its largest city. © 2020 Getty Images

That strategy has included several innovative initiatives.

“In the case of Hurricane Maria, we launched the #CoverTheProgress campaign at the one-year mark of the hurricane, aimed at highlighting the destination’s milestones and letting media and travelers everywhere know that the island was ready and eager to welcome visitors,” Dean said. “The campaign was incredibly successful and contributed to a record-breaking 2019. Through our efforts, lodging revenue and supply were at an all-time high in 2019 and surpassed the island’s past high in 2015, which demonstrates the positive impact the entire industry has.”

Dean notes that Puerto Rico also saw a record-breaking number of passenger arrivals: The island received 5.2 million arrivals across its San Juan, Ponce and Aguadilla airports — the highest number of airport arrivals since 2015.

“From an early stage, Discover Puerto Rico was able to leverage a positive growth trend and exponentially use the resources at its disposal to roll out the most effective marketing,” PRTC’s Campos said. “We’re not only seeing results in the short term; we also think this is going to be a way for Puerto Rico to consistently be top of mind moving forward.”

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Changing the Experience

El Morro (also known as Castillo San Felipe del Morro) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. © 2020 Discover Puerto Rico

El Morro (also known as Castillo San Felipe del Morro) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. © 2020 Discover Puerto Rico

In addition to increasing arrival numbers, Puerto Rico’s tourism industry aims to entice travelers with novel ways to experience the island.

“PRTC put together a meaningful travel campaign with the launch of a series of ‘rebuild days’ at multiple attractions, from parks to historic sites,” said Jimenez of PRHTA.

She points to businesses such as Local Guest, as well, which offers volunteer and community-based tourism experiences by working closely with local communities and entrepreneurs to build a new tourism ecosystem based on sustainable development practices.

Indeed, suppliers large and small have made it easier for travelers to connect with Puerto Rico in memorable ways. At Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, for example, chef Juan Jose Cuevas offers a daytime farm excursion, where he harvests ingredients for a private tasting menu experience back at the property’s 1919 Restaurant.

Meanwhile, tour operator Purple Coqui Tours, which launched last year, offers experiential, lesser-known activities such as art classes, mountain camping and festival visits.

Puerto Rico's El Yunque National Forest is nearly 29,000 acres in size and incredibly biologically diverse. © 2020 Edwin de Jongh

Puerto Rico's El Yunque National Forest is nearly 29,000 acres in size and incredibly biologically diverse. © 2020 Edwin de Jongh

Educating travel advisors about these new options will help increase visitor awareness, according to Sarah Ratliff, owner of Purple Coqui.

“As far as helping agents promote a more meaningful experience, I think it’s just a matter of having the details in front of them,” she said. “Most advisors don’t know about the many off-the-beaten-path things to do on the island. I believe if they did, they wouldn’t have a hard time selling them at all.”

Among the most colorful post-hurricane, pro-tourism developments is Yaucromatic, a vibrant public art project that now includes 56 works of art stretched across various downtown buildings and surfaces in the southwestern town of Yauco. Organized by nonprofit arts group Arte Para Unir, the project has attracted some 300,000 visitors since first launching in 2017, according to organizers.

“We’re very excited about that,” Jimenez said. “There are a lot of small operations that have been extremely creative when it comes to excursions and experiencing what the island has to offer.”

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Diverse Appeal

Yaucromatic currently features 56 pieces of art across Yauco. © 2020 LatinFlyer.com

Yaucromatic currently features 56 pieces of art across Yauco. © 2020 LatinFlyer.com

As Puerto Rico rebuilds, hoteliers and tourism officials are playing to the destination’s multifaceted strengths, according to Dean of Discover Puerto Rico.

“Puerto Rico is a diverse destination, offering products that appeal to many audiences — history buffs, adrenaline junkies, foodies and more,” he said. “Within, there are sub-audiences, including luxury travelers, who we target specifically due to Puerto Rico’s offerings in that sector. For luxury clients, we have resorts such as Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve and The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Puerto Rico, which both have a variety of offerings. Additionally, Puerto Rico has 17 golf courses at 13 properties, making it the ultimate destination for golfers in the Caribbean.”

And, as Puerto Rico is the LGBTQ+ capital of the Caribbean, Dean adds, another key demographic of the destination’s marketing strategy is LGBTQ+ travelers.

“We ensure that these travelers are aware of the island’s gay-friendly bars, nightlife and activities,” he said. “Throughout the year, there are many events that we highlight, including San Juan Pride, Cabo Rojo Pride and the Puerto Rico Queer Filmfest, among others.”

Pablo Torres, general manager of the recently renovated Caribe Hilton, one of the island’s most legendary properties, agrees about the strength of Puerto Rico’s diversity.

“Puerto Rico truly offers something for everyone — from families and small friend groups to couples, newlyweds, solo travelers, LGBTQ+ travelers and larger corporate groups,” he said. “Agents should be aware of the island’s incredible versatility when it comes to our culture, gastronomy, topography and destinations there are to enjoy, including the rainforests of El Yunque National Forest, the mountains of Orocovis, the beaches of Rincon, historic Old San Juan and everywhere in between.”

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Aguadilla is known for its beautiful beaches. © 2020 Discover Puerto Rico

Aguadilla is known for its beautiful beaches. © 2020 Discover Puerto Rico

Encouraging Awareness

The historic and UNESCO-protected Old San Juan has been carefully preserved. © 2020 Discover Puerto Rico

The historic and UNESCO-protected Old San Juan has been carefully preserved. © 2020 Discover Puerto Rico

As recent statistics show, Puerto Rico was gearing up for what should have been an excellent 2020. Then the coronavirus put the world’s travel plans on hold. It’s not surprising that Puerto Rico’s tourism officials and suppliers aim to regain their positive momentum once the current threat passes. To do so, they’re relying heavily on education. Discover Puerto Rico, for example, offers travel advisors the opportunity to become a Puerto Rico Travel Expert, which helps keep them up to date on the latest developments.

“There is good awareness of Puerto Rico, but it could — and should — be stronger,” Dean said. “Growing awareness of Puerto Rico is an ongoing effort, and we continue to remind travelers of our unparalleled offerings and the island’s eagerness to welcome them through different initiatives and campaigns.”

One thing is for certain, according to Campos: Tourism will play a crucial role in Puerto Rico’s continued growth and recovery.

“We can transform communities through tourism,” she said. “Puerto Rico has been able to show that, after crises, tourism has been at the forefront of the destination’s resurgence. Likewise, we are confident that after the pandemic, we will be able to showcase the transformational power of tourism.”

“Puerto Rico has been able to show that, after crises, tourism has been at the forefront of the destination’s resurgence. Likewise, we are confident that after the pandemic, we will be able to showcase the transformational power of tourism.”
Carla Campos, executive director of Puerto Rico Tourism Company

Torres of Caribe Hilton is optimistic about the future.

“Puerto Rico’s people are incredibly resilient,” he said. “Our strong community and rich local culture allow the island to persevere no matter what we come up against. Whenever we face challenges, our community is great at banding together and supporting one another to accomplish our goals and overcome any obstacles that arise. Our industry has been a leader in the recovery, providing shelter and food, propelling relief drives and delivering the goods to those in need. Hospitality is in our DNA.”

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Coronavirus in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has reported far fewer cases of the coronavirus than many tourism destinations, but the island is feeling negative effects just like everyone else.

“All travel organizations here in Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association, Discover Puerto Rico and Puerto Rico Tourism Company — are working as a united force with the local and U.S. governments to help our people,” said Clarisa Jimenez, president and CEO of Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association. “Once the emergency has passed, we will all work to jump-start tourism activity on the island.”

Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, outlined the island’s current approach to controlling the situation, which includes safety guidelines as well as incentives for future visits.

“The safety of Puerto Rican residents and visitors on our island is our priority as the world comes together to minimize the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “Despite the single-digit number of cases on the island to date, Puerto Rico has put an island-wide issues management plan in place as a preventative measure much earlier than other parts of the world. We are exercising an abundance of caution, with new policies in place for residents and tourists to avoid the spread of COVID-19. We understand the impact these measures might have on the island experience, so the government has decided to provide complimentary excursions on future travel for current visitors.”

He notes that for more information, travelers can email [email protected]

“Although it is too early to estimate the impact COVID-19 will have on the our tourism industry, we are confident that the measures we are taking will benefit us in the long run and allow us to welcome back visitors as soon as we’re ready,” Dean said. “We are dedicated to ensuring future guests are inspired by the unique characteristics and world-class experiences that Puerto Rico offers. However, the reality is that we cannot deliver these experiences under current global circumstances and local mandates. We certainly encourage travelers to dream about, plan and book travel to our beautiful island when the time is right.”

Read TravelAge West's coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Hotels on the Rise

With a variety of new hotels, as well as the reopenings of several renovated hotels, Puerto Rico’s hotel supply has increased 11.1% from its previous high in 2017, according to Discover Puerto Rico.

InterContinental San Juan and Caribe Hilton recently reopened following multimillion-dollar renovations, for example, while Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico, Fairmont El San Juan Hotel and Serafina Beach Hotel all debuted following massive overhauls and rebrandings of existing properties. Marriott, which recently opened Aloft San Juan, now has plans for a 221-room Residence Inn, while The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan remains closed and has not yet announced a reopening date.

JW Marriott and Four Seasons are among the brands being discussed for future debuts on the island.

© 2020 Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico

The Details
Discover Puerto Rico
www.discoverpuertorico.com

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