While many headlines continue to depict Puerto Rico in tragic terms, and there certainly are plenty of areas that are still struggling, many hotels and restaurants are back on their feet and better than before Maria. The island's tourism industry is on its way to real change as it tries to put the hurricane behind it.
More than 1,100 of travel's most forward-thinking insiders will gather for our annual Skift Global Forum in New York, September 27–28. In just a few years, Skift's Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”
Skift Global Forum 2018 will take place at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York. This year's Forum speakers include CEOs and top executives from Uber, Airbnb, Delta Air Lines, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Marriott International, and many more.
Puerto Rico was dealt one of the worst hands a destination could ask for in September 2017 when Hurricane Maria, one one of the most destructive Atlantic hurricanes on record, tore through the island and killed nearly 3,000 people during the storm and in its aftermath, according to the most recent government estimates.
But just like New York City after 9/11 or New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Puerto Rico saw an opportunity to change its image and rebuild better than before, and it’s made progress towards that goal in the year since Maria hit. Carla Campos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, didn’t waste any time using Puerto Rico’s time in the spotlight post-Maria to its advantage to craft a comeback story that travelers and investors would revel in.
Campos, who became executive director earlier this year, will speak at Skift Global Forum in New York City on September 27. She is responsible for destination planning, development, policy, management and collaborating with Discover Puerto Rico, the island’s new destination marketing organization that began operations in July. The Puerto Rico Tourism Company was previously responsible for promoting leisure travel and meetings and events but has handed that off to Discover Puerto Rico.
Plans to create a new destination marketing organization that would be separate from the island’s government were in motion before forecasters were talking about Maria, but the storm certainly exacerbated the need for such an organization to take charge of the destination’s branding that hadn’t changed in decades. As a member of Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s cabinet, Campos has spearheaded the design and implementation of Puerto Rico’s Tourism Recovery Plan after hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Campos will join other global travel industry leaders on stage at Skift Global Forum in New York on September 27–28, when she will talk about seizing the opportunity to create a next-generation tourism industry. We recently spoke to Campos to find out where Puerto Rico stands and where it’s going.
Skift: What’s different this time around with the current government that makes you believe the island’s tourism industry will finally grow and evolve?
Carla Campos: I first started to engage with the Puerto Rico Tourism Company in January 2017. When the government has the will to power the private sector you can really do this kind of thing in record time. We have 80,000 employees on the island in hospitality and that includes in our restaurants. There are about 40,000 employed in hospitality jobs specifically and we will have new training programs as we open more hotels and hire new staff.
Seeing the DMO own that message also opened the way to focus on recovering our airlift and cruises. We’re already seeing record-breaking cruise passengers this year. Just as one example of where things stood before, I found a 1940s flyer for the promotion of the island while scrolling through Google the other day. We had been using the same lines and branding for decades.
Skift: Part of the problem is that Puerto Rico hasn’t been able to attract as much investment as compared to other Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Cuba. How is that changing?
Campos: I feel it’s exciting to be in government and when you’re in the public sector you’re able to enact reforms. I now feel empowered to interact with investors interesting in investing in hospitality in Puerto Rico. I’m now able to do things like attending investor conferences.
Billions will be invested in Puerto Rico in the next few years and it needs to be invested properly. Right now it feels like we’re on a roller coaster because you know what’s coming is truly exciting. But through structural reforms, knowing about all the resources coming our way, we will become a world-class destination. We have a new AM Resort and will have a new Four Seasons on the east coast of the island opening in the fall. The Marriott in San Juan was recently purchased by Chinese investors. You have very attractive incentives in Puerto Rico not available elsewhere such as tax breaks and tax credits. People who live in Puerto Rico six months a year essentially don’t have to pay taxes.
Skift: How do you move forward as a destination when headlines pop up every few weeks about new death toll estimates from Hurricane Maria and the federal government’s response?
Campos: For starters, we need to stop talking about the hurricane. We need to make a conscious effort to focus on how we’re building back rather than on the disaster. Part of the disconnect in the story is how we tell it.
New Orleans is a destination everyone knew before Katrina, but now New Orleans positions itself as a much more cultured destination.
Skift: What will travelers learn about the new Puerto Rico as Discover Puerto Rico works out new branding and shows travelers untold sites and stories?
Campos: We will be looking inside the island to our vibrant communities. People don’t realize the number of experiences that we have beyond our beaches and golf courses. I think our hotels are also realizing they need to be attentive in telling travelers about hidden treasures.
The Daily Newsletter
Our daily coverage of the global travel industry. Written by editors and analysts from across Skift’s brands.
Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch
Photo credit: Carla Campos, pictured here at the right, will speak at Skift Global Forum in New York City on September 27. Puerto Rico Tourism Company