The fact that Puerto Rico's governor dragged out his resignation in such painstaking fashion didn't help the island's tourism prospects. Now it's back to business for the island's hotels, meetings venues, and attractions. It's tough to take a punch in the gut, though, just when you got up off the mat.
Following the announced resignation of Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló on Wednesday after days of protests over corruption, the government’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and leaked messages disparaging hurricane victims, the island’s tourism authorities hope that it can bounce back fairly quickly.
Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, the U.S. Caribbean territory’s year-old destination marketing organization, said in an email interview that the governor’s resignation “is a turning point for the island and its people.”
Dean conceded that the protests and turmoil “created a sense of uncertainty for travelers, planners, and investors,” noting that four cruise ships bypassed Old San Juan and that there were “limited interruptions to tourism.” He estimated the adverse economic impact from the four missed port calls at $2.5 million.
That may be downplaying the impact in terms of ongoing travelers’ perceptions about the island just as Puerto Rico tourism is getting back on its feet post-Maria.
Still, it’s telling that the destination marketing organization — which has steadily kept partners advised of the turn of events, including the fact that the hashtag #RickyRenunciaAhora (Ricky Resign Now) had been trending on Twitter in the run-up to the much-anticipated resignation — compared the fallout from the situation in Puerto Rico to that of the Las Vegas mass shooting of 2017 and the wildfires that wreaked havoc in the western part of the U.S., in terms of destinations recovering within three months or so in the wake of such horrid events.
Unlike those events, however, in Puerto Rico there were no deaths attributed to the protests, which were mostly peaceful.
There are plenty of issues that come to the fore with the governor’s resignation. How quickly can the island’s tourism recover? With federal funding pending and Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts still stilted in some respects, can there be an improved relationship with the Trump administration? Will the ascension of a new governor really do anything to deter the corruption that has been endemic on the island, absent of major structural reforms? In other words, will this really be a turning point?
The following is our question-and-answer interview with Brad Dean of Discover Puerto Rico on some of these topics.
Skift: So what does Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation mean for Puerto Rican tourism?
Brad Dean: This is a turning point for our island and its people. Puerto Rico remains open for tourism, and changes to government leadership on the island do not change this. The industry plays an integral role in strengthening the economy and creating jobs, with 83,000 employees in tourism working every day to ensure visitors have a positive experience. The recent events taking place in Puerto Rico have been historic but also created a sense of uncertainty for travelers, planners, and investors. Knowing tourism is the way forward for Puerto Rico, we can now focus our attention on growing travel to the island, creating more jobs and new business opportunities.
Skift: Will it be a setback as far as travelers’ perceptions go?
Dean: We’ve seen limited interruptions to tourism, mostly in traffic in and around San Juan, and four cruise ships that canceled their stops in Old San Juan this past week as they were scheduled to arrive during times of scheduled protests, but we are not expecting major setbacks to tourism. We know from other destinations that the impact of recent events is likely to be short-lived. Flights, ports, hotels, airports, restaurants, shops, attractions, and taxis are operating normally.
Businesses that closed during protests have reopened. The reality is, this will not impact the experience tourists have, nor the incredibly memorable experience we have to offer. The unique cultural offerings and standout experiences visitors can have in Puerto Rico remain, and safety is not a concern as federal laws and regulations apply in Puerto Rico, and we have been assured by authorities that safety measures, as always, are in place despite who is in office.
Skift: How much of a financial hit do you think Puerto Rican tourism took? Didn’t all this occur at a terrible time?
Dean: The biggest financial impact were those four canceled cruise stops, which represent $2.5 million in economic impact. Other than that, we’re still on track to have a record-breaking year in tourism. Our hotels partners have reported minimal interruptions, as well. The same goes for the Puerto Rico Convention Center, with no scheduled cancellations of events. Hotel demand in Puerto Rico, last week, was down less than 1 percent from the week before the protests.
And, the independent rental market is currently booming in Puerto Rico. With the inclusion of these properties through June, we are only 1.8 percent off the record high in 2017 — Puerto Rico’s tourism continues to thrive. Knowing tourism is the way forward for progress in Puerto Rico, there’s no good time for any economic disruption, but we’re thankful that most of those who took to the streets in protest did so lawfully, and peacefully, all the while thousands of hospitality employees were working to make sure our visitors enjoyed a great experience regardless of what was taking place on the island.
Skift: Is the new governor, current Justice Secretary Wanda Vázquez, committed to tourism?
Dean: Discover Puerto Rico was established through bipartisan legislation to ensure continuity in tourism and grow the tourism industry on the Island, as political leaders, mayors, principal business organizations, and the people of Puerto Rico agreed that tourism plays an integral role in strengthening the economy and creating jobs. We’re optimistic that our new governor and any new leaders in government will have the best interest of the island in terms of its economic development, an area where tourism plays a huge role.
Skift: What happens to Discover Puerto Rico funding?
Dean: Changes to government leadership in Puerto Rico will not impact our current funding status. We are also pending additional federal funding, and any changes to governance in Puerto Rico will not impact our status with this.
Skift: What will you do to bring back tourism, including the cruise ships? When will you drop your travel advisory?
Dean: Cruise ships continue to home port and make stops in Puerto Rico. We did have four canceled tour stops that were scheduled to arrive into Old San Juan during scheduled protests, but all others have resumed normal activations. We plan to drop the travel advisory when the protests come to an end. We will also be reaching out to every meeting planner, past and present, that has interest in Puerto Rico, to ensure they know we continue to be ready and eager to host them.
In 2019 tourism in Puerto Rico is on track to achieve record-breaking, historical numbers — a tourism comeback never seen before. The industry is united and working closely together, including the 83,000 employees in tourism who work every day to ensure visitors continue to have a positive experience. We have confidence that the island will unite behind our new governor and move forward, together, to mitigate the possible adverse impact this situation may have had on the record-breaking tourism activity we have experienced in the recent months.
While we certainly hope this marks a needed turning point for the people of Puerto Rico, perhaps some of our fellow American citizens in the mainland will be encouraged by seeing so many Puerto Ricans take to the streets in a peaceful, lawful manner that they’ll be more aware today of the good nature of our people. Tourism has never been more important to Puerto Rico than it is today, and with more travel to the island, our economic outlook will continue to improve.
Disclosure: The author attended a Discover Puerto Rico advisory board meeting in 2018, and Skift founder and CEO Rafat Ali has a seat on that board.
Photo credit: Protesters calling for the resignation of the governor of Puerto Rico. Discover Puerto Rico CEO Brad Dean called Ricardo Rosselló's exit a "turning point" for the island. Associated Press