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We looked at Puerto Rico for a recent episode of the Skift Podcast, in which we asked how the country’s recent debt crisis and Zika outbreak have affected tourism to the island, which has historically been an easy getaway for Americans.
Our guests were Ingrid Rivera, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, and Clarisa Jiménez, president & CEO of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association. Rivera and Jiménez were joined by Skift podcast host Hannah Sampson and co-host Andrew Sheivachman.
Here are five takeaways from the conversation:
Rivera and Jiménez are sticking to their script: positive messaging about the impact of Zika.
Despite the CDC warnings and serious health risks for some family-oriented travelers, Rivera and Jiménez are focusing hard on the idea that Zika has not and should not significantly affect Puerto Rico’s tourism industry.
“There’s no place in our industry for the word ‘fear,’” says Jiménez.
Rivera offered her synopsis: “You can have a worry-free, five-star vacation in Puerto Rico.”
These spokespeople are also playing defense against Zika fears.
Rivera and Jiménez are aware that fear can prevent travelers from spending money, and their organizations appear motivated to make sure that fear doesn’t spread.
Rivera reassures listeners that Puerto Rico is addressing Zika by “making sure that you clean the streets and you’ve minimized places where actually mosquitoes can grow. All those efforts have helped mitigate the growth or the advancement of the mosquito breeding grounds.”
Rivera goes on to say “you really don’t have to worry unless you’re pregnant or about to get pregnant or planning to have a family, you can have a worry-free vacation using CDC’s recommendations. What you have to do now is you wear your sunscreen but on top of your sunscreen you wear your mosquito repellent.”
The official party line is that most Zika fears are based on myth, not fact.
The U.S. declared a public health emergency in August because of Zika and the Associated Press reported Friday that nearly 20,000 people have been infected in Puerto Rico. The CDC estimated in February that 20 percent of the population could be infected by the end of the year.
Rivera and Jiménez are pushing the idea that Zika-related fears are unfounded for the majority of travelers. This push includes “educating” travel professionals and suggesting that facts and projections might be diametrically opposed.
Jiménez says “one thing is projections, the other thing is reality… We understand the responsibility the CDC has in communicating but on the other hand, it’s not right to use projections that after a few months you know are not the reality. Those numbers were given in the worst case scenario thinking that we were going to stay still and do nothing about it… No more projections. I mean, we’ve been going on with this for a long time now. That’s been eight months already so it’s time to face the facts, not the fear.”
“We have information and hotel kits to actually educate concierges and educate hotels, [we have] op-eds, talks, and press kits related to third party endorsers like doctors,” explains Rivera.
However, travelers may be skeptical of “education” conducted by a biased source, i.e. a tourism agency that stands to lose money if visitor numbers drop. As a result, travelers may wish instead to do their own independent research and consult their doctors.
Rivera and Jiménez believe that tourism is largely unaffected by Puerto Rico’s financial crisis.
According to Rivera, Puerto Rico’s tourism is on the upswing and getting stronger by the year. “We’ve had in the last past three and a half years, year after year progress, growth, and strengthened tourism industry in Puerto Rico. In fact, it’s the only industry that’s gotten out of recession,” Rivera says.
Jiménez says about the country’s financial difficulties, “it’s the government’s thing and they are dealing with it. The private sector is investing in renovation. Everything is open for business.”
When compared to destinations like Paris and Istanbul, which have withstood recent terror attacks, Rivera and Jiménez see Puerto Rico as safe and welcoming.
Rivera laments “what other regions are going through, which are sad situations of terrorism and everything in Europe.”
Regarding Zika safety, Rivera said her organization has shifted some marketing efforts toward travelers for whom pregnancy is less likely to be a priority, including baby boomers and LGBT visitors.