Tradition dictates that when a plane lands in Puerto Rico, most passengers—if not all—erupt in a round of happy applause. For new arrivals to the Island of Enchantment this is just the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a truly fun and unforgettable vacation, one they’ll want their travel agent to book again and again.
It’s common knowledge the island was devastated after Hurricane María. Today’s headline news is that Puerto Rico is roaring back to life with renewed vigor and a stellar marketing campaign, led by its fairly new destination management company, Discover Puerto Rico. And one of their coolest calling cards is their dynamic new interactive website, www.discoverpuertorico.com, a smorgasbord of breathtaking images, videos, and stories that will leave you smitten, never mind your clients.
But the magic of this surprisingly diverse destination must be experienced first-hand, because there’s so much more to Puerto Rico than just another quick stop on a Caribbean cruise.
Of course, everyone knows that Puerto Rico has beautiful beaches as do many islands, but it’s that rich, vibrant culture that really distinguishes it,” said Discover Puerto Rico CEO Brad Dean. “I think travel agents and travel advisors understand better than anyone the transformative power of travel. They’ve done this for their careers and their lifetimes really, it’s all about selling experiences. Puerto Rico is made for the traveler looking for that unique experience. I think that’s really what differentiates it.
While just about everything came to a screeching halt nearly two years ago, today the island’s tourism infrastructure is up and running. “The pace of recovery is impressive and that’s a testament to the resiliency of the people of Puerto Rico,” said Dean. “Puerto Rico is not just coming back: it’s coming back bigger and better. When you look at the product that’s returning, it’s a lot of refurbished, renewed product. We’re seeing the emergence or perhaps reemergence of a luxury segment, which is going to position Puerto Rico in that arena at a much more competitive level.”
As of press time, there were 139 endorsed hotel options open and accepting reservations, including well-known international luxury brands such as Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve; St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort; El San Juan Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton; the Condado Plaza Hilton; and the way-fun Pitahaya Glamping Eco-Retreat on the island’s southwest coast.
Plus, there are an additional 4,000+ rooms being revamped and reopening this year in top properties such as The Ritz-Carlton San Juan; Meliá Coco Beach; El Conquistador, A Waldorf Astoria Resort and Spa; and the iconic Caribe Hilton San Juan—a rite of passage for many a chic Puerto Rican—along with a laundry list of other properties appealing to just about everybody on any agent’s client database.
One of the biggest upcoming developments, however, is bringing with it more than just a hotel. District San Juan—set to open by the end of 2019—is a five-acre hospitality and entertainment destination being promoted as the “hub of all things fun and entertaining in San Juan.” State-of-the art everything includes a new Aloft hotel, restaurants, a showroom with space for more than 6,000 people, 8 premium movie theaters, restaurants, bars, lounges, fitness areas, laser tag, zip lines, (see Jimmy fallon zipline through the forest in Puerto Rico) the first day/night disco, and so much more it would need its own article.
The San Juan International Airport (SJU), once ground zero for relief supplies and construction material, has recovered its flight capacity and numbers are on the rise: currently the island is receiving an average of 110 daily flights via 28 airlines bringing in over 682,500 passengers and growing. While a lot of the connectivity is centered around the eastern United States, there’s strong interest from consumers in the Midwest and West Coast, and airlines are taking note.
We anticipate a continued increase in airlift and are very hopeful that soon the connectivity out of the Midwest and Western United States will increase as well,” said Dean. “It’s interesting to note that California is currently our fifth largest origin market. Airlines don’t miss that. At the rate Puerto Rico is recovering and with the strong demand out of California, we’re hopeful we’ll see service out of Los Angeles and other western markets soon.
They’re also coming by sea: projections for passenger arrival at the San Juan Port for the 2019 fiscal year is at 1.7 million. New cruise ships like Celebrity Cruise’s Celebrity Edge, Holland Holland American Line’s MS Nieuw Statendam, the Viking Sun, and MSC Cruises’ MSC Magnific are joining massive ships like the Anthem of the Seas and MSC Seaside. The activity, though, isn’t limited to San Juan: the southern port of Ponce has received calls from Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, and Holland America within the last year.
Puerto Rico—literally, “Rich Port”—does indeed offer visitors a wealth of experiences. “What we found in the research is what really accentuates the Puerto Rico experience extends beyond the beaches into the arts, the history, the culture, the music, the dance and of course, the food,” said Dean. “We’re not going to ignore the beaches and the historic attractions like El Morro and El Yunque [rainforest], but there’s so much more to Puerto Rico than old San Juan. We’re finding more and more as we share the details of that rich, vibrant culture and the experiences that are available that people who have never been here before are intrigued and excited.”
And these experiences are as varied as they are extraordinary, from browsing through world-class museums to zip-lining through the rainforest on the longest zipline in America at Toro Verde or trekking through the trails in the mountains of El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System. The PGA is partnering again with Puerto Rico, which has 17 state-of-the art golf courses, and visitors betting on a good time will find that and more at any of its 16 casinos, including the Casino Metro at the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, soon to be the largest in the Caribbean after its $2M expansion. Then there are the gorgeous outlying islands of Culebra and Vieques with their crystalline turquoise-tinted water and white sand. The latter, for example, is home to the brightest of the island’s three bioluminescent bays (there are only five worldwide).
Gastronomy is another huge draw. According to Dean, the food scene is alive and well and leaning towards locally owned and locally grown. “Puerto Rico’s dining scene is vibrant and rapidly growing, and you see this in some very eclectic restaurants,” he said. “Of course, we’ve got some famous chefs, but there’s a lot of unrecognized heroes in the dining sector. I love the fact that they are intrinsically partnering with the agricultural sector.” Have foodie clients? There are over 4,000 restaurants open island-wide, with over 1,800 located in the San Juan Metro area. Hotspots like La Placita in Santurce and the bustling Calle Loiza are open and hopping with both locals and tourists.
Many people step off a cruise ship and travel throughout San Juan, and think they’ve seen Puerto Rico when in fact they’ve seen just one part of the island,” added Dean. “We’re really focused on promoting the whole island. In fact, if you look at our new website, you’ll see a very robust representation of the southern coast, the western coast, the northern region, and the mountainous region. That gives the visitor a reason to recognize that Puerto Rico is more than just a two or three-day getaway.
Ready to become a Puerto Rico expert? According to Dean, Discover Puerto Rico is “ready to align with industry experts—the travel agents and advisors who know better than anyone what the consumer’s looking for and how to match up the expectations with the experiences.” They’re currently updated their online educational platform for travel agents through travAlliance’s Travel Agent Academy and creating a whole new set of programs and initiatives to showcase all that the island has to offer.
Many people may or may not realize that Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, but too few recognize the unique experiences that await them when they come to Puerto Rico. For us, we feel as if we’re painting on a blank slate, but with Puerto Rico, we have a beautiful picture to deliver,” said Dean in closing. “Travel has never been more important to this island than it is today, and we’re excited about the future of Puerto Rico and how far it’s come, but more importantly, how far its position can go as a premier leisure travel destination.
¡Bienvenidos al paraíso!
Travel to Puerto Rico requires no passport, currency exchange or international phone plan—and most people speak English. “In Puerto Rico, your vacation starts from the minute you step off that plane or cruise ship,” said Dean, “and the fun just builds from there.”
By: Lydia Gregory