As international media, suppliers and buyers gathered under the roof of the Puerto Rico Convention Center last week in San Juan, Puerto Rico for the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s 36th annual Caribbean Travel Marketplace, it was hard to imagine just four months ago that the city was in an entirely different state.
The Caribbean Travel Marketplace was a chance for several islands highly-impacted by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria to provide crucial updates to members of the travel and tourism industry, as hotels steadily re-open, and cruise ports welcome visitors once more. Hurricane Irma first made landfall in Barbuda on Sept. 5th, 2017 and left behind catastrophic results. As Puerto Rico welcomed residents with open arms, they were hit next, with winds lashing out at approximately 220 kilometres an hour; flattening houses and threatening mass flooding. Just over one week later, Hurricane Maria paid a visit, and when both storms were over, at least 64 were dead and power was knocked out across the island, severing communication and electricity for those living there.
The convention centre itself actually transformed into a shelter for the people of Puerto Rico, making the location an incredibly fitting place to discuss the island’s astounding recovery amongst residents who had seen the damage first-hand, and visitors laying eyes on the destination for the first time.
This year's Caribbean Travel Marketplace, hosted by the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, took place at the Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan.
Bouncing Back from Devastation
Today, power has been restored to San Juan, but 35 per cent of the island is still in the dark, meaning that some residents in Puerto Rico’s mountainous regions near the El Yunque rainforest have seen more than 120 days of darkness. However, as many Puerto Ricans echoed throughout the conference, it’s time for the media to quit re-circulating photos of Puerto Rico days after devastation hit, and start showcasing a unified picture of strength and resiliency from the Puerto Rican community and the Caribbean people.
With all eyes on Puerto Rico last week, the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Convention District Authority, Omar Marrero, and the Secretary of Economic Development Manuel Laboy Rivera took turns addressing Puerto Rico’s comeback during the CHTA’s Travel Marketplace.
“This has been an incredible opportunity to convey the right message to the world, which is that Puerto Rico is open for business,” Marrero said. “Our ability to transform in light of the circumstances as Irma came to Puerto Rico has been amazing. We had to transform this convention centre into a centre of relief for our brothers and sisters of the different Caribbean islands who were hit by Hurricane Irma. We were able to serve the people of Puerto Rico and the people of the Caribbean in another fashion, and that’s essentially what we want to convey, is that we are able to transform and adapt and come back.”
Secretary of Economic Development Manuel Laboy Rivera, Omar Marrero, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Convention District Authority; Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State, Luis G. Rivera-Marín.
2018: Diversifying the Economy
Creating new jobs and promoting new economic opportunities has been at the heart of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce of Puerto Rico as the island continues to rebuild.
“Tourism is a major component of our strategy, and I think there are two main reasons this is so important: one is the fact that 2018 is the year of recovery and transformation of the government of our economy, and therefore starting the year with an event like this one is really magnificent; there’s a lot of hope and high expectations for the year and for the things that are yet to come,” said Rivera. “Number two, I think that the fact that we have 29 countries represented here, and close to 280 suppliers, 113 buyers, and more than 1,000 delegates altogether at this event is really a testament that we are open for business.”
Omar Marrero,Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Convention District Authority.
There have been varying accounts on the state of Puerto Rico, but during the CHTA’s Caribbean Travel Marketplace, a series of hard facts were delivered that discuss the most recent updates to the travel and tourism sector, delivered by Carla Campos, chief marketing officer for the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. The following categories were discussed:
- Incredibly promising for 2018.
- Resumed operations 2.5 weeks after the passing of Hurricane Maria.
- Post Maria: hosted 410,000 through the San Juan Port since Oct. 7, and set to welcome 633,000 more by June 30, 2018. Expected to hit 1,00,000 by end of season, representing an increase of 3.3 per cent.
- Four more home-porting ships this season than last year, bringing the number up to 14 from 10 for the season in San Juan.
- Forecasting next season 2018/2019 record-breaking; 1.7 million passengers to Puerto Rico this season, shattering 2015 record of 1.5 million passengers, representing $250M towards the local economy.
- Two weeks after Hurricane Maria, San Juan received 20 flights per day; flights have increased to 110 daily flights on average.
- Receiving 391 seats this January; expecting 81,000 more in July which means natural loss in air capacity after a hurricane hasn’t stopped Puerto Rico from receiving flights and international visitors; recovering at record speed.
- Capacity levels will be on par to 2017 levels by early summer - Hurricane Katrina took 10 years to get back to capacity levels, and San Juan reports by May, they’ll be on par with 2017 levels.
- More than 120 properties currently operational out of the 150 properties reported.
- 12,458 rooms currently available in the inventory, representing more than 80 per cent of inventory stock.
- Remaining hotel stock (2,670 rooms) are undergoing renovations, expected to be finished by Q3 and Q4; properties include Ritz Carlton Reserve and Old San Juan Hotel.
- 22 attractions opened shortly after the hurricane; now, tourists and leisure travellers are enjoying more than 120 attractions.
- 13 golf courses that are operational and 15 casinos.
- 4,000+ restaurants open for business, with 1,500 in San Juan alone.
- Old San Juan is as beautiful as ever; no major debris or damage.
Attractions like the community of La Perla, where the hit song Despacito was recorded, are still as beautiful as ever in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“This is about recovering better and stronger, and a really great way to do both those things is to really seize, overhaul, and revamp our product,” Campos said. “A lot of destinations have done this, and we’ve done a lot of benchmarking to ensure we’re on track to reveal our renewed and revamped Puerto Rico.”
Rebuilding to Rising
Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State, Luis G. Rivera-Marín, joined Omar Marrero and Manuel Laboy Rivera on stage to reveal even more updates on what Puerto Rico has in store for 2018. Not only is the Puerto Rico Tourism Company currently revamping its entire inventory, but it’s excited to announce that there are 25 per cent more rooms in the pipeline that will be built and developed in Puerto Rico, representing approximately 3,830 new jobs.
Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State, Luis G. Rivera-Marín
Properties under this umbrella include the J.W. Marriott, the Serafina Hotel Ponce, the Four Seasons Cayo Largo in the east, and new rooms at the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort and the San Juan Marriott.
“This is an investment of $1.7B in hospitality and development in the pipeline in Puerto Rico, and that’s extremely significant,” Campos said. “By the end of Q4, our current total inventory will be completely revamped, but we’re also working to ensure that in three to four years, and maybe sooner, we’ll have 25 per cent new rooms in the inventory, and $1.9B as an investment, and more than 3,000 jobs created. Our government bet on tourism as the plan for economic growth and they had a plan to make sure that was the case. Now with the hurricanes, it’s not about making the goals that were previously established, it’s about actually improving on all of those goals, and those numbers speak for themselves.”
Crisis as Opportunity
Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria were devastating storms to say the least, and a huge loss of life and loss of land were recorded. However, both the Puerto Rico Tourism Company and the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association continue to look to the future, and work together to ensure September’s course of events do not repeat themselves.
“We have prepared contingency plans, and just five days after the hurricanes, we released our recovery plan to the entire industry, with specific goals and milestones mapped out along the way,” Campos said. “Strong partnerships have been key, not just with media who have been fabulous with us as we try to relay the different story of Puerto Rico, but also with airlines, who have allowed us to strategize in terms of capacity; and with the cruise lines, who were here just two weeks after the hurricanes, who continue to bring their vessels in bigger and better ways and continue to normalize Puerto Rico in terms of its cruising activities. In government, we’re working closely with different agencies to work together and to plan together to make sure that we’re on track.”
The waters of Puerto Rico are bluer than ever, and the sand is even whiter in some places like Cardona Island, a deserted island located just off the shores of the mainland.
Puerto Rico has enacted a forward-looking approach, looking beyond crisis management to map out a more sustainable future for Puerto Rico.
“We needed to look to the future to understand the opportunities we had at hand, and that’s how we were able to understand that we needed to revamp our product,” Campos said. “Puerto Rico is recovered and ready to host you, and we’re expecting growth and an increase in visitors; we’ve revamped our offer for even better experiences, and we’re excited to revamp our existing collaborations and create new jobs.”