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Leisure Travel News

Puerto Rico's Other Side.

by Kenneth Kiesnoski

December 18, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Gale Group Inc. Copyright © 2000 CMP Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CABO ROJO, Puerto Rico -- Stressing quality over quantity, tourism officials in Puerto Rico are stepping up efforts to promote the island's 22 "paradores," or family-run country inns, as regional alternatives to traditional stays at mega-resorts in the San Juan metropolitan area. The Puerto Rico Tourism Co. has unveiled a revamped program logo and spent $1.2 million on billboard, print and--in certain cities--television campaigns across the U.S. mainland, in addition to organizing road shows and familiarization trips to convince travel agents of their charms.

"Paradores are very important to us," said Marisol Dieppa, director of internal tourism at PRTC, who heads up the effort. "They promote our Puerto Rican culture, traditions and cuisine."

The term "paradores"--which originated in Spain in the early 1900s and today designates a chain of high-end rural and historical properties there--was adopted by Puerto Rico in 1973 to describe affordable countryside hostelries that catered mainly to local city dwellers. The properties can be found tucked away from Fajardo in the east to Rincon in the west.

In 1996, with an eye to deflecting inbound and local tourism to San Juan's environs farther afield, the PRTC composed a set of stringent qualification criteria designed to whip each parador into world-class shape, while maintaining their cultural distinctiveness, regional character and reasonable cost.


"The paradores are family-operated businesses," explained Rafael Bancorbo, owner of the Parador Posada Porlamar, founded 35 years ago by his father in La Parguera, Lajas. "We have all the services found in bigger hotels--such as room service--but because we're small we can give you personalized attention. What's more, our prices are lower--all year round." Nightly rates at paradores generally range from $75 to $125, according to the PRTC.

Paradores today must have between 15 and 75 rooms, be located near a cultural or natural attraction outside metro San Juan, be family-owned and occupied and have a restaurant either on premises or within a one-mile radius.

For example, Miguel Rosado's Bahia Salinas Beach Hotel at Cabo Rojo, on Puerto Rico's southwestern-most tip, is situated next to the desert area's famous salt flats and historic Cabo Rojo Lighthouse. The 24-room parador is also home to--besides Rosado and his family--the Agua al Cuello "meson gastronomico", or gastronomic inn. The mesones, serving traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, are also strictly regulated and widely promoted by the PRTC; many paradores seek meson gastronomico status for their restaurants though not required to.

Once designated a parador, a property is subject to at least four anonymous onsite inspections a year by independent analysts hired by the PRTC, and owners must attend training sessions similar to those given to resort and hotel managers.

"We continually evaluate parador services," explained Dieppa. "Our analysts are like anonymous shoppers who begin their evaluations the moment they call a property for reservations."

For instance, paradores are graded on how quickly telephones are answered, room cleanliness and wait staff efficiency. The PRTC grants "Puerto Rico Does It Better Quality of Service Awards" each year to the parador receiving the highest scores in four categories: overall excellence, rooms (including reservations and guest services), housekeeping, and food and beverage. Last year, the Bahia Salinas cleaned up, taking top honors in all divisions but housekeeping.

In general, the paradores, while still serving as getaways for local Puerto Ricans, also tend to specialize in certain activities in keeping with their locales, for mainland visitors. Hacienda Gripinas, in the forested and mountainous center-island district of Jayuya, offers horseback riding treks, while the whirlpool at Bahia Salinas is filled with mineral-rich, therapeutic and buoyant waters--reminiscent of the Dead Sea--from the nearby salt flats.

The Bahia Salinas, with its own boardwalk, is also a short hike from the dramatic limestone cliffs of Cabo Rojo and isolated Playuela Beach--a great spot for communing with the ubiquitous pelicans of the area. Nightly rack rates range from $80 for a standard room--at press time undergoing renovations--to $125 for a suite, including continental breakfast.

The Bahia Salinas pays agents 10 percent on packages and 12 percent on rack rates, according to Carmen Rosado, reservations supervisor. Bookings are taken by e-mail, phone and via Lexington Services (LM) on major GDS systems.

For its part, the Parador Posada Porlamar in La Parguera, a small seaside resort town set among mangrove islands, caters to large numbers of American scuba divers and snorkelers drawn to the area's coral reefs and Bioluminescent Bay, where phosphorescent plankton--much like fireflies--cover and illuminate nighttime swimmers plying its waters.

"We're very water- sports -oriented," said owner Bancorbo, who claims La Parguera is the third-best diving site in the Caribbean, thanks to the 20-mile sea wall just offshore. Some loyal divers seem to think so, too: The Posada Porlamar, with dive shop Parguera Divers of Puerto Rico on site, has seen steady growth of 2 percent to 3 percent per year for the last decade. "When we see guests returning for a second stay, it's a real plus," Bancorbo said.

The parador has 35 newly decorated rooms with private bath, color television and air conditioning; deluxe units come with minibar, cable television and ocean views. Year-round double occupancy rates range from $85 to $120 per night, including continental breakfast; honeymoon and weekend packages are also available. Bancorbo pays travel agents 10 percent commission, and takes bookings via phone, GDS and Internet.

Although the PRTC has worked with some tour operators to craft paradores packages, it is concentrating mainly on direct sales via travel agents, given the limited number of parador rooms available.

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