When it comes to destinations post-disaster, bad publicity can usually be flipped on its head and retooled to portray an encouraging comeback story. Puerto Rico's tourism industry is on its way to such a story, not letting disaster images and videos derail its progress.
Many travelers have probably heard a lot about Puerto Rico during the past year following Hurricane Maria, and the island’s tourism officials think that’s a good thing.
After Maria’s rain and winds left Puerto Rico, officials quickly realized that, when trying to get tourism roaring back, there’s usually no such thing as bad publicity, said Carla Campos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, speaking Thursday at Skift Global Forum in New York City.
Campos said Puerto Rico had a destination recovery plan five days after Maria hit on September 20, 2017. “Leading up to Maria, visitor and room tax records were broken,” she said. “A month before Maria, Puerto Rico had also officially been declared Zika-free and we saw demand go up.”
Nearly 3,000 people died during and in the aftermath of the storm, according to recent government estimates, but photos and videos still shown on the news don’t represent what the visitor experience is currently like a year later.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló also spoke on Wednesday at Skift Global Forum’s opening event about how tourism can help the island rebuild stronger. He was in the audience on Thursday for Campos’ talk.
Some 135 hotels are currently open for business (90 percent of total hotel inventory). More than 4,000 restaurants are currently open, along with 186 attractions. Puerto Rico also had 1.2 million cruise passengers during its last fiscal year.
Some 1,500 rooms are under construction and will help boost the island’s hotel inventory from the 15,000 rooms it’s had for decades.
In other words, things were going well for the island’s tourism before Maria and were no longer stagnant. “We were no longer buying full-page ads in mainstream media and were talking digital to our consumers to convince them to come to Puerto Rico,” said Campos.
Before Maria was forecasted, the island’s first destination marketing organization was in the works and taking shape, and officially began operations on July 1. The organization is working to finally launch a consistent, global brand for the island that it’s never had.
“We didn’t have time to position ourselves in a certain way in consumers’ minds because every four years when the government changed the campaigns changed as well,” said Campos. “For years I worked with DMOs and tried to get them to develop business plans to fund their operations. When someone tells me that there’s new, young leadership that wants to create an organization I supported for a while and there’s funding assigned to it, I signed up.”
Campos said the island’s private sector wanted a destination marketing organization for decades. “We started to rethink competitiveness,” she said. “We have a white canvas and we get to build stronger than ever before.”
Puerto Rico is on tap to get $140 billion in investment in the coming years, said Campos. “Tourism can be a force for good in Puerto Rico,” she said. “The government is $74 billion in debt. About 500,000 people have left Puerto Rico for better opportunities in the last 10 years. In the last five years, we’ve lost 40,000 jobs.”
But the island isn’t like anywhere else in the Caribbean, or at least that’s part of its message to travelers going forward, Campos said. Puerto Rico has plenty of sun and beaches, but the island’s inner and lush mountainous regions remain largely untapped and unexplored. Campos and other officials are working to bring more of those areas into the tourism economy to help them benefit from what they see is an oncoming wave and resurgence of the island’s travel popularity.
Photo credit: Carla Campos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, spoke at Skift Global Forum in New York City on September 27. Skift