Two things astonished me about Puerto Rico’s second annual ETI, or Expo de Turismo International: 1. More than any other Caribbean meeting that I have attended, this one seemed to be aimed at travel agents; there were 400 of them there. 2. The Puerto Rico Tourism Company takes a big-tent approach, so I met attendees and even speakers from the Bahamas, Curaçao, Aruba, and other countries. Can you spell “inclusive”?
But back to Puerto Rico: What do the hosts have to say about their own tourism business? This:
- When I asked Luis D. Muniz-Martines, Esq., deputy director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, about his island’s all-inclusive hotels, he replied, “We are not an all-inclusive destination, but we are the all-inclusive destination because we can provide everything.”
- “Everything,” explained Ingrid I. Rivera Rocafort, executive director, it “starts with Puerto Rico’s different environments: a world-class city like San Juan, rural towns, Blue Flag beaches, tropical rainforests, three of the world’s six bioluminescent bays, championship golf courses, pristine islands like Vieques and Culebra, underground caves…the list goes on.”
- This diversity is great for niche markets: adventure seekers, golfers, families (remember, no passports required for U.S. citizens), wellness tourists, wedding parties (passports redux, plus, both conventional and LGBT weddings are legal), history and architecture buffs, heritage tourists, aficionados of art and music, night owls, nature lovers, culinary travelers, and shoppers.
- As another official told me, Puerto Rico wants visitors to get out of their hotels, explore and experience.
- There’s one other niche market, though, that’s not necessarily about exploring: weekenders, because of the many inexpensive nonstop flights from North American cities. (Indeed, thanks to the growth in hotels, and foodie-oriented restaurants and lounges in San Juan, some locals name Miami as the chief competitor.)
- To make flights even more pain-free, Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport (SJU) is undergoing a $300 million renovation. Rivera describes San Juan as “the hub of the Caribbean,” and SJU is determined to maintain that position.
- But, I asked Rivera Rocafort, what about the budget crisis? “Despite the government’s financial situation, we have broken all records in arrivals,” she said, noting that arrivals even grew in January 2016, a month when other Caribbean islands’ business was hurt by warm weather in North America.
- “There is a disconnect between what is happening in government and what is happening on the outside,” she added. Not only has there been enormous growth in cruising, but developments on land include the imminent opening of the Ambassador Plaza in Condado, the Ciquala Luxury Home Suites, the Four Seasons Fajardo (summer of 2018), the Vivo Beach Club in Isla Verde, a new entertainment complex at the Convention Center (2018), and—a first for Puerto Rico—an AMResorts Dreams all-inclusive. All told, 3,850 rooms are in the pipeline.
- This is happening in spite of Zika virus fears, and Rivera Rocafort predicts those fears will soon fade anyway. “We are working to eliminate breeding grounds, help hotels train their people, and answer visitors’ questions. Remember, Zika has been around 70 years, and now it’s in 40 states.” (The morning after the meeting ended, The New York Times reported a case of microencephaly in the stillborn child of an infected Puerto Rican woman. According to Dr. Ana Rius, the island’s health secretary, “..sixteen infected women have given birth so far, and the babies are progressing normally.” These children will be monitored for three years.)
- Finally, it’s no coincidence that this conference is targeted toward travel agents. “Our Open House Special Rate for qualified agents allows you to create your own FAM trip in a very attractive way at $69 or $79 a night,” said Rivera Rocafort, “and our sales reps in multiple parts of the U.S. are there to help you. They can tell you what’s new, answer questions, update you on events, and give you the tools you need.”