Last updated: 05:22 PM ET, Tue September 29 2015

Healthy Puerto Rico Tourism Avoiding Island's Economic Ills

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | September 29, 2015

Healthy Puerto Rico Tourism Avoiding Island's Economic Ills

PHOTO: Old San Juan gives Puerto Rico a distinct advantage over other Caribbean cruise ports, according to Ingrid Rivera Rocafort, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. (Photo by Brian Major).

The economic woes lapping at Puerto Rico’s shores have not dampened the island’s tourism industry on land or at sea. Puerto Rico’s annual arrivals are up solidly in 2015, hotel development remains strong in several districts and Puerto Rico’s cruise industry is in the midst of an impressive expansion, with nine new vessels scheduled to visit the island during the 2015-2016 season.

In fact despite its economic struggles, Puerto Rico’s hotel occupancy has increased 6.1 percent year-to-date, said Ingrid Rivera Rocafort, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC).

Puerto Rico also hosted 656,912 overnight land arrivals between January and April, a 4 percent increase over the same period in 2014, according to Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) statistics. Cruise ship passengers from January through March of this year grew 26 percent in number. The island’s tourism sector is clearly thriving in spite of its financial issues.

“We are all aware of the fiscal situation in which Puerto Rico finds itself,” said Rivera Rocafort. “Yet the tourism sector and our visitors’ experience continue to benefit from investments and developments that enhance our island’s attraction[s].”

On land, several new hotels have opened in San Juan’s Condado and convention districts over the past two years, while other new projects are nearing completion. They include a $29.7 million Hyatt Place San Juan hotel located in the city’s convention district. Groundbreaking on another convention district hotel, a Marriott property, will begin within a month, Rivera Rocafort said.

PRTC is also working with a local developer on a $30 million project to demolish two buildings on Ashford Avenue, the Condado district’s main street, to make way for a new 164-room hotel. The project is the latest in a series of restorations at historic and landmark properties along Ashford Avenue. “These eyesores need to be removed to make sure the Condado district is completely revitalized,” said Rivera.

The new hotels follow the debut of the historic Condado Vanderbilt earlier this year following a $220 million renovation. Also recently launched are a 126-room Hyatt House San Juan that opened in 2014 and a Ritz Carlton Reserve in Dorado that opened in 2012. “Investors are leveraging the growth in Puerto Rico’s tourism industry,” she said.

Puerto Rico’s cruise industry is running full steam ahead. The island will also host nine new cruise ships during the 2015-2016 season including both of the industry’s largest ships, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.’s Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas.  

“We’re doing well in the traditionally low season of the summer, from June through September,” said Rivera Rocafort. “With the world’s largest cruise ships its 8,000 people getting off, so it’s very exciting.”

She said Puerto Rico’s development as one of the Caribbean’s busiest cruise ports, after a down period at the beginning of the decade, came after Puerto Rico’s tourism stakeholders sought measures to reverse the downward trend.

“We sat down with cruise line CEOs two years ago and said, ‘What can we do better? What can we improve?,’” Rivera Rocafort said. “And out of those conversations we worked on infrastructure to improve the pier. So we fixed pier three. We were ready for the mega-ships.”

PRTC also offered incentives to cruise companies to bring ships into port earlier, keep them there longer, and have them depart later. “We made Puerto Rico easier to work with and more attractive,” Rivera Rocafort said.

San Juan’s fourth cruise pier will also receive extensive renovations over the next 18 months and is the subject of negotiations with other cruise lines, she added.

San Juan has a distinct advantage over virtually every other Caribbean cruise port, said Rivera Rocafort. “In Puerto Rico, you land in a historic area,” she said. “The appeal of Old San Juan is spectacular. You don’t have that anywhere else.

“Think about the other piers in the Caribbean – they take a little longer to get somewhere, they’re smaller,” she continued. “The grandeur of Old San Juan – a city surrounded by 500 year-old walls, the restaurants, the boutiques, the bars – all of which you experience by walking. You don’t need a taxi.”

Yet Puerto Rico also offers relatively close options for travelers whose desire is to explore beyond San Juan.  The attractions range from Toro Verde, an ecological adventure park in the country’s Central Mountain Range, to El Yunque Rain Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System.

“You can have Old San Juan but there are other options, said Clarissa Jiminez, president and CEO of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association. “You can go anywhere in a short period of time, nothing is too far. In 45 minutes, you are at El Yunque. You can have that experience and then come back.”  

Puerto Rico’s air accessibility is among the Caribbean’s best. The island is served by 26 airlines, including major carriers American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines.

The main airport, Luis Munoz Marin International, is implementing a $750 million renovation and expansion designed to ease travelers’ transport through the facility, while adding new cuisine and shopping options and services. “Puerto Rico has been number one in the Caribbean in air service for many years,” said Jiminez.

PRTC and San Juan officials are also making it easier for visitors and residents to walk what is already a very walkable city. Construction on a new pedestrian and bike path that connects the adjacent Condado and Convention districts with Old San Juan is about 50 percent finished.

“The governor runs every day so he is supervising the construction,” said Rivera Rocafort. “I hear about it every Wednesday,” she joked.

Puerto Rico’s tourism business on the other hand is serious business and a key economic engine in a difficult time for the destination. “The message we want to send is that we are open for business. We are operating. Tourism is a key to Puerto Rico’s economic revival.”  

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