Published on August 23rd, 2012 | by Mark Chesnut
Luis G. Rivera Marín on the Future of Puerto Rico Tourism
Appointed this year by Puerto Rico governor Luis Fortuño, Luís G. Rivera Marín is a busy man, serving as executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company during a major period of change and evolution in the travel industry. In this exclusive interview, Rivera speaks with LatinFlyer about tourism trends, airport privatization, safety and Puerto Rico’s increasing allure as a Hollywood filming location.
What are your biggest goals for the Puerto Rico Tourism Company?
My most important goal is to build awareness of the destination and what we have to offer. People used to think of us as sand, casinos and nightlife, but we are so much more. We want people to know that this is a place where they can wake up in a 400-year old castle, go zip lining and then at night go to one of the best restaurants in the world. In terms of numbers, my goal is to move tourism from a 4.7 percent contribution to the economy (as measured by GDP) to a 10 percent contribution.
How would you describe Puerto Rico’s evolution as a destination for tourism and business travelers in the 21st century?
In the beginning of the century, we had a lot of manufacturing-related business travel. Now we are moving more to technology- and services-related business travel. In terms of leisure tourists, we were basically a beach and hotel product and we are moving more to becoming an all-inclusive island, where you can find much more than a beautiful beach in front on your hotel. You can play and explore and have adventures. That has brought a different type of tourist that requires a different type of hotel. We are adjusting our hotel portfolio to accommodate those needs.
Some travelers have heard concern about safety in Puerto Rico. How does this affect tourism and business travel?
Puerto Rico is a safe destination for tourism. We take public safety very seriously, and we employ a comprehensive approach to protecting tourists. We are constantly working with our travel industry partners to ensure that safety measures extend to hotels, local companies that cater to tourists and others. We closely monitor the tourist areas and have increased safety patrols in those areas. We also have increased spending on law enforcement and are working more closely with federal government officials to ensure we have adequate federal support. Puerto Rico has not seen a link between crime and changes in tourist arrivals.
How are tourism arrival figures looking this year, compared to 2011?
In the most recent report from Smith Travel Research (STR), the first three quarters of 2012 are even in terms of occupancy compared to the same period in 2011. At the same time, average daily rate (ADR), revenue per available room (RevPAR) and revenue are all up compared to 2011 and 2010.
End of year 2011 figures from STR show that hotel occupancy numbers were up 2.3 percent from 2010, the ADR was up 4.6 percent and room revenues grew 9.1 percent. RevPAR rose 7.1 percent — only New York City came in higher.
In the calendar year 2011, 92 percent of arrivals came from the United States and Canada. Of that, the Eastern region ranked most highly with 46.1 percent market share. The Southern region came in second with a 32.2 percent market share.
International arrivals accounted for 6.5 percent of market share in calendar year 2011 with the largest amounts of arrivals in terms of people coming from Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.
We do not yet have projected numbers for 2012.
Any specific groups of travelers that are growing fast?
We are seeing more visitors from Germany, which we attribute in large part to an increase in airlift from that country to Puerto Rico.
What are the goals with the privatization San Juan’s Luís Muñoz Marín International Airport?
The pending privatization will ensure that the airport will become the gateway to the Caribbean for both domestic and international travel. Visitors will have a more enjoyable experience with a newly renovated terminal with modern equipment. The cruise ship baggage is going to be automated, thereby guaranteeing a smoother flow. With a capacity for 3.7 million seats, this is going to be a world-class operation.
More movies than ever are being filmed in Puerto Rico. How is the government attracting this business?
Puerto Rico is making a real effort to attract filming to the island. Puerto Rico passed an incentives law in 2011 that is very aggressive and is attracting a lot of producers to the Island. The bill creates real jobs with the hiring of local workers and offers tax credits. Because of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure, we can represent many countries in the world. We’ve been Afghanistan in “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and Brazil in “Fast Five.” We’re like a chameleon in that we can represent many different “looks.”
We have a very diverse geography. Because we are bilingual, it’s very easy for producers to come to the island and hire workers.
In Europe, we market ourselves as “Isla de Cine” because in Europe, people like to go places where the celebrities go. And in the U.S., we’ve definitely seen an interest when people know the movie location they are seeing is Puerto Rico. For example, when the W Vieques hosted “The Bachelor” last year, the hotel saw sales go through the roof. So having people see Puerto Rico in this way definitely makes a difference.
What’s the status of the “Walkable City” proposal introduced by the mayor of San Juan, which includes massive development of the waterfront area on the bay in Puerta de Tierra?
The first phase, to substitute cobblestone in Old City, has almost been finished. We located exactly the same cobblestones in a Denmark factory, all utilities and infrastructure has been replaced and this monumental effort has been almost been finished. Some streets have been changed to pedestrian-only to better help make Old San Juan a walkable city.
In terms of the waterfront, the first phase will be delivered in October. It will have a metroplex similar to the one built for the Olympics in Barcelona. Other plans for the waterfront include a replica of Columbus’s ships and an elevated garden walk like the one in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.
Public investment is part of a major infrastructure effort under the initiative of Governor Fortuño. The renovations of Pier 3 will allow the new mega cruise ships to dock and will further the results which we have seen in the past year: more cruise lines making stops in San Juan. These infrastructure improvements will also allow cruise ships to dock in other cities such as Ponce and Mayaguez, which has never been seen before.
What’s the status of the light rail project that is to link the existing Metro with Old San Juan?
The design phase of the Sato Light Rail — about a $450 million project — has commenced and has been properly conveyed to the Authority. It’s well in progress and should start operations by next year. The light rail project is part of a greater effort around our Golden Triangle, physically joining and eliminating old barriers between Old San Juan, Condado, the Miramar area and the Convention Center.
Are there any plans for reopening of the historic Normandie hotel or the Regency Hotel in Condado?
Both of these hotels went through the legal processes in term of creditors. Right now they are owned by investment banks which have put out prospectuses to market the hotels. The Normandie has a party that optioned the property and they are financing the property. The plan is to completely refurbish and restore the hotel to the glorious old days.
The Regency is working on financing. In the meantime, PRTC has made a great effort in terms of improving the landscape in the Condado area. Right now we’ve wrapped the building and instead of eyesores, visitors see PRTC billboards that promote the destination.
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