After the Protests: What’s Next for Puerto Rico Tourism

Puerto Rico suffered a minor hiccup on its recovery from Hurricane Maria in July when protests broke out in San Juan with the goal of removing Governor Ricardo Rosselló from office. The protests lasted several weeks but ultimately worked, with Rosselló announcing his resignation on August 2. Now, the island is back on track to see a record number of visitors this year. Travel Agent caught up with Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, at Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas to get the latest from the island.   

First and foremost, the island is open for business, Dean says. Rosselló’s replacement, Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced has indicated she will stay in office through the remainder of the term, and this seems to have settled the unrest. With the protests behind them (there are none scheduled going forward), Puerto Rico can continue to make tourism its top priority, Dean tells us.

In addition to such luxury properties as Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve and The St. Regis Bahia Beach, which reopened in fall 2018, the island’s iconic hotels—Hotel El Convento, El San Juan Hotel and Condado Vanderbilt Hotel—are all also open. “Tourism in Puerto Rico is coming back quicker than people expected but it’s also coming back better,” Dean says. While we were at Virtuoso Travel Week, the network reported that Puerto Rico is among the top 10 hottest destinations for this fall

Good to know: The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan is set to reopen next year, as it is still undergoing renovations required due to the 2017 hurricanes. Further down the road, guests can expect a Four Seasons to open on the island's east coast in 2021, while a JW Marriott is planned for Dorado.

A little sooner, travelers will be able to enjoy El Distrito (“The District”), which will open later this year. Dean describes it as a “Latin version of L.A. Live.” It will be home to a craft rum distillery, numerous restaurants, an urban zip line, day club, salsa club and more. “We envision this as a game-changer for the entertainment scene, not just in Puerto Rico but in the Caribbean,” Dean tells Travel Agent.

However, the island is looking to expand its tourism offerings beyond San Juan and its beach resorts. Dean says the island has a long-term vision of using tourism as a transformative tool—and this means better dispersing visitors and tourism offerings throughout the island.

Discover Puerto Rico is actively promoting destinations outside of the metro areas, including the islands of Vieques and Culebra. In fact, Dean says these are ideal day trips for luxury travelers visiting Puerto Rico. Some travelers may be familiar with El Yunque rainforest but might not know it offers plenty of waterfalls and rivers for active water-based excursions. There are also several locations on the island that are home to bioluminescent plankton—one of only a handful of locations in the world that can make this claim.

“So much [of the island] hasn’t been seen. Puerto Rico is waiting to be on everyone’s bucket list,” Dean tells us.

The good news is that Puerto Rico is already seeing record levels of visitor disbursement on the island, Dean says, adding that this information is available by monitoring cellphone use (and the location of it). Dean also says that the current promotions are working: Visitors who have seen the campaign, on average, spend nearly three more days (70 hours) on the island than those who don’t. This offers more time to experience more of the destination. With that said, there is still a lot of work to get the island where it wants to be.

“We’re seeing travel throughout the island increase and those communities that have tourism products are the quickest to come back,” Dean says. One of the top resources for helping smaller towns and communities build successful tourism offerings is the Bottom-Up Destination Recovery Initiative.

And while overtourism may be a hot topic in other destinations across the globe, Dean says Puerto Rico doesn’t see it as a potential issue. In fact, he says the island is “well-prepared to be a poster child for using tourism as a transformative tool.”

Dean also says Puerto Rico is promoting itself further west in the U.S. and now has increased airlift from cities like Chicago and Dallas. Its advertising campaign is also running in Los Angeles, Denver and Seattle. Although he didn’t specify a date, Dean says nonstop access from the West Coast is not far off.

“Our goal isn’t to get tourism to pre-Maria levels; it’s to take tourism to the next level,” Dean tells Travel Agent. “Right now, tourism has never been more important.”

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