Puerto Rico diversifies its tourism
AL DÍA spoke with Carlos Mercado Santiago, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, about the current outlook for the sector.
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Puerto Rico was present at the Tourism Showcase of the Colombian Association of Travel and Tourism Agencies (Anato), held recently in Bogota, presenting the industry's plans, destinations and strengths. AL DÍA spoke with Carlos Mercado Santiago, who was on hand as a representative of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, where he's the executive director.
Puerto Rico was hit hard by the force of the hurricanes, coupled with the economic effects, but it is getting back on its feet. What is the island offering the world's tourists?
We have had almost six or seven years of almost annual crises. We had Zika, then two hurricanes in a period of a month and a half. And obviously the pandemic, which has hit us all. Although we have had all these situations, tourism has been the most resilient sector in our country. To such an extent that it has been the one that has recovered the fastest and has remained working continuously during all these situations. The pandemic was no exception. We never closed our airports, did not close our hotels and quickly started working on a mitigation plan that incorporated a lot of domestic tourism, since we had very restricted travel options.
What did you do to achieve this?
Puerto Rico took on the task of discovering its island, of visiting every corner and that helped us maintain a base. Our tourism is highly decentralized, which helped us to have some kind of recovery everywhere while the pandemic was going on. We then set about the task of going out to participate in events like this one. We participated in Spain, we participated in cruise ship conventions and we managed to get people to see Puerto Rico as a safe, responsible destination, where they could vacation with their families without risk. We never had to close any hotel or tourist attraction because of an outbreak or a major situation. That practically put us in the showcase of many people when deciding where to travel.
What are the figures for the sector?
2021 and 2022 have been record highs and 2022 surpassed 2021. In terms of hotel taxes the historical average has been $75 million. In 2021, it was 100 million and in 2022, 116 million. We have had a growth in tourism activity and we broke record in number of passengers in 2022, with 10.3 million passengers in our international airport. And also the regional ones have had an increase in tourism activity.
What have you rediscovered in terms of what tourists want?
The new profile of the tourist going to Puerto Rico is the one who stays one or two nights in San Juan, to visit old San Juan and all the beach activities. But then they rent a car and move around the island and stay in different spots, either in the mountain range, in the mountains or on other coasts in the east or west area. So we have seen that tourists have also lengthened their stays. Usually it was an average of four days. We are now talking about 6 days, which is obviously extremely positive. This tourist profile is looking for more outdoor activities, more contact with nature. And, obviously, Puerto Rico has a lot of resources in this area.
How is the hotel structure?
We have 15,000 rooms and we are in the process of building some 3,000. The shortfall in infrastructure has been made up for with the emergence of short-term rentals, and we practically have between 20,000 and 25,000, which has helped us manage the demand for rooms. The good thing is that in Puerto Rico the growth has been island-wide.
How much does tourism weigh on Puerto Rico's income?
It must be around 7.5%. The reality is that we have a very strong pharmaceutical manufacturing sector, which represents 55%. But tourism has been one of the most resilient sectors among all these situations. And our governor, Pedro Pierluisi, has kept it as a priority. The investment made by the government has been historic.
What percentage of tourists is foreign and local?
In domestic terms we include the United States and it must be 85%. The other part is from abroad, between Europeans and Latin Americans. Our biggest and strongest connections are Madrid and Bogota. Those two destinations represent the biggest growth in terms of tourists from abroad.
After San Juan, what is the most popular destination for tourists?
When people come to Puerto Rico they usually go to San Juan and then they go to Ponce, a city in the south, very colonial. They also go to Culebra Island, which has one of the three best beaches in the world.
An important part of tourism is human talent. How is Puerto Rico doing in that respect?
The same thing that happens to almost all destinations is the lack of labor. Before the pandemic, in 2019, Puerto Rico directly employed 85,000 people in tourism. Right now we are almost at 94,000, but due to the demand for tourism activity we are below 10 to 15%. This sector is pure service, those who work in the hotel, in the restaurant, in maintenance, the maid. Obviously, in this new reality, with so many virtual jobs, tourism is one of those things that needs people to provide the service in person.