Este informe no está disponible en español.


American Paradise: Puerto Rico U.S.A.

Slow but sure: Local hoteliers expect a weaker winter season but not a devastating one


November 29, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

As the local tourism industry started to recover from Sept. 11, another air disaster threatens the winter season. But hoteliers are confident that Puerto Rico’s unique mix will attract stateside visitors willing to travel within the U.S.A.

Just as it began experiencing a rebound after Sept. 11, Puerto Rico’s tourism industry must appraise the effects of the crash of a passenger jet bound from New York to the Dominican Republic.

The accident, three weeks ago, has renewed apprehensions about air travel among Americans but these are not expected to last long.

It is normal for bookings to drop after an airplane crash, while consumers overcome their fear of flying. This time, however, it’s coupled with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and with the nation’s economic slowdown.

And the timing–just before the peak of Puerto Rico’s busiest travel season (Dec. 15 through April 15)–could not be worse for the industry.

"Fear of flying was already the No. 1 reason people gave for canceling travel after the recent attacks," said Peter Yesawich, president & CEO of travel consulting firm Yesawich Pepperdine & Brown. "This is just going to exacerbate that."

Confidence was on the rise

Confidence was growing by early November and it appeared the winter season might end up weak compared to last year–because of discounted hotel rates that will offset revenues–but not devastating. That’s due in part to Puerto Rico having pumped millions of dollars into efforts to lure vacationers this winter.

"The hottest promotional effort yet for Puerto Rico has been its Fly Free program, in which the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. purchased 10,000 airline tickets from key U.S. gateways to use them as an incentive for travel wholesalers, travel agents, wholesale operators, and hotels. As part of the package, tourists who book a five night minimum stay on the island from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15 will receive two airline tickets free of charge," said Greg Thorne of Inter-Island Tours in New York. "The airline-ticket promotion has stimulated business for Puerto Rico. We receive close to 200 calls a day from potential visitors requesting information about the package."

Reinhard Werthner, managing director of The Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Country Club & Ocean Villas in Rio Grande, believes it’s a buyers market now.

"Negotiations are back on the table," Werthner said. "The issue of supply and demand has switched, with the consumer now having the upper hand."

Another marketing tool designed to boost the island’s tourism industry is the Tourism Co.’s latest $14 million stateside advertising campaign "You’re not dreaming. You’re in Puerto Rico," which introduces various fantasy-like adventures and cultural events U.S. mainland tourists may wish to experience when visiting the island.

Hotel occupancy for October at the island’s hotels and paradores (country inns) was just 7.2% below the numbers registered for the same month in 2000.

"Even though occupancy was still down, we don’t think it was that bad considering all the circumstances," said Milton Segarra, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. "I know of other islands and U.S. travel destinations that are posting double digit decreases in occupancy." (See related story.)

Industry experts interviewed by CARIBBEAN BUSINESS attribute the limited drop in occupancy to the advantages Puerto Rico has over other Caribbean destinations. The most important of these is that North American tourists know the island is an extension of the U.S. mainland.

Puerto Rico is closer to home

"We must really emphasize that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory because it sends a subliminal message of safety to Americans," said Rick Newman, president of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association.

Since Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., American citizens entering the island feel more secure and comfortable than they might in foreign countries. The same Federal Aviation Administration security regulations and vigilance applies. Entry to Puerto Rico does not require a passport. There’s no need for currency exchange. There is not the hassle of passing through U.S. Customs. And, once here, they find many of the amenities of home–such as eateries, shopping malls, recreational facilities, and services–available locally.

But the competitive advantages are broader still.

Puerto Rico is an ideal travel destination because of its ample and accessible air service from anywhere on the U.S. mainland.

"Puerto Rico happens to have the best airline connections in the Caribbean which provides a certain confidence level for tourists," added Newman, referring to the fact that Puerto Rico is less than four hours by plane from major cities on the mainland.

Total passenger movement through Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport during fiscal 2001 was 10,314,300 visitors, representing 5,130,350 inbound flights and 5,103,000 outbound flights, according to Puerto Rico Ports Authority statistics. The Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) has long been known as local tourism’s bread-and-butter market, representing 85.6% of the island’s visitor market share. The southern region of the U.S. makes up 25% of the island's visitors, followed by the west coast with 20.9%.

"Puerto Rico is also the most complete and balanced Caribbean island. One that caters to leisure and business travelers as well as group and convention business," said Segarra,. He added that this advantage will be augmented with the construction of the new Convention Center in San Juan, for which construction will start next year, scheduled for completion in 2004.

Jorge Pesquera, executive director of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau, believes the government’s increasing realization that tourism is a major economic development segment is another advantage.

"The island is expected to add 4,000 new rooms to its existing hotel room inventory by 2004 as well as boasting the largest convention center in Latin America at the same time," Pesquera said.

Nature and adventure, culture and nightlife

Besides easy access, Puerto Rico is a tropical hideaway for North Americans to escape Old Man Winter. The temperature never drops below 68 degrees in San Juan in the evenings and daytime temperatures average 82 degrees. Puerto Rico also offers its visitors a diversity of tourism attractions unlike those of any other Caribbean location.

"Old San Juan is one of the main jewels in the Caribbean," said Ivette Gonzalez, sales & marketing director of Hyatt Resorts in Puerto Rico. "Visitors are blown away by the Old City’s 500-year-old cultural ambience, architectural beauty, exquisite shopping, centuries-old massive Spanish fortresses, and superb and varied dining--catering to every level in terms of food and price." Old San Juan showcases cobblestone streets, sherbet-colored colonial buildings, and museums overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

"There are not many islands that are as geographically interesting as Puerto Rico," said Esther Cohen, a marketing consultant in New Jersey specializing in tour and travel. "It offers prospective visitors beaches to enjoy on the Atlantic Ocean or the Caribbean Sea as well as a combination of both. There are also fresh water rivers. Puerto Rico is an island which is unique in providing its visitors with everything a nonisland destination has to offer."

Some say Puerto Rican hospitality is considered an attribute that keeps tourists coming back. Most of the employees at local hotels, restaurants, stores, nightclubs, and casinos speak Spanish and English, fluently.

"The fact that the Latin culture has emerged and been embraced in the U.S. also lends itself to another appeal," said Robert "Bob" Lawrence, vice president of Caribbean marketing for Go-Go Worldwide Vacations in New Jersey. "Puerto Rico is also one of the more sophisticated vacation destinations in the Caribbean that still retains its natural tropical beauty."

Puerto Rico, measuring 100 miles by 35 miles (roughly the size of Connecticut), is filled with numerous historical landmarks and places of interest. Where else in the Caribbean can tourists explore a 28,000-acre rainforest (El Yunque Caribbean National Forest)--the only one within the U.S. National Forest System--or visit a 268-acre underground cave network (Rio Camuy Cave Park)--one of the largest river cave systems in the world--or visit the Arecibo Observatory, which features the world’s largest radar/radio telescope?

"People nowadays, don’t just travel for sun and surf, it’s a complement to the other amenities the destination has to offer," said Rob Gunthner, general manager of Wyndham El Conquistador Resort and Country Club in Fajardo. "A vacation today has to encompass a variety of activities such as touring the rainforest, visiting the bioluminescent bay, participating in full moon yoga exercises, shopping in Old San Juan."

Puerto Rico is more than sun, sand, and surf

Another feature that makes Puerto Rico unique is the quality and diversity of its hotels and resorts.

"Puerto Rico has more brand name hotels than any other Caribbean island as well as budgetary requirements to visitors," said Lawrence, implying that most tourists who visit the island are brand-driven.

The island has 124 small, mid-sized, and large hotels (which are members of the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association) and 24 paradores or country inns endorsed by the Tourism Co. Daily rates this winter range from $75 per night to $250 per night.

"There is a perception for many that Puerto Rico is an expensive travel destination, but this conclusion really depends on your point of view," Tourism’s Segarra said. "If you get quality infrastructure and top of the line amenities, then you are paying for exactly what you are getting. We do have high-priced benefits, but we also have a complete line of mid-priced options for those looking for budget vacations."

Local hotel occupancy rates are currently fluctuating between 50% and 60%, compared to 20% to 40% experienced after the Sept. 11 attacks. Most local hotels have had no choice but to lay off staff, but many are hopeful they will rehire for the winter high season.

Hotels and airlines have cut their rates even more steeply, offering 20% to 50% discounts off the usual prices for November and December--even if it means losing money--to encourage visitors to come to Puerto Rico.

"The local tourism industry is slowly getting back to normal, but I don’t think business will be back to where it was during this period last year," Newman said. "Competition is stiff right now and we probably won’t meet projections this year."

Cohen, who has spent years selling Puerto Rico and has clients on the island, believes Puerto Rico offers visitors everything they can look for, except a Disneyland.

"People have more vacation choices than before, it’s not only the Caribbean but in the world," Lawrence said. "The challenge for Puerto Rico is to maintain the quality of its product and its visibility in the market. I do think this is critical because of competition."

Others believe that Puerto Rico should expand its tourism product lines, in other words, bring in new attractions to create excitement and a unique experience.

"Puerto Rico needs Wet & Wilds, aquariums, a Coco Walk similar to the one in Miami, unique discos for young adults or unique shopping experiences," Newman said. "There is a need to come up with creativity and dynamics in a central location accessible to tourists that will lure investors." He also added that the island needs to create and host more major events like the Heineken Jazz festival, regattas, and the opening of a baseball series so that tourists have more options than visiting the rainforest.

Gunthner says the key to success is accessibility.

"We must improve our infrastructure, it’s a critical focus for us in the future," Gunther added. "The easier we make it for the customer to get here, the more popular the destination becomes."

In the end, success breeds success. If a strong local tourism environment is created, it will definitely attract tourists and investors alike.

. Color Shop ‘til you drop, dine in style, and party!

Tourists visiting Puerto Rico have endless options of entertainment and nightlife, from dancing salsa or merengue at a nightclub to shopping in exclusive boutiques, from watching theatrical productions to hitting the blackjack tables.

Shop, shop, shop

For shoppers, there is an array of designer stores on Ashford Ave. to choose from including Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Mont Blanc, and S. Villar Jewelers. Puerto Rican designer Nono Maldonado’s boutique is close by, along with many other exclusive boutiques like E’Leonor, Mercier, and Jacardi.

For those who prefer malls, there’s Plaza Las Americas–the Caribbean’s largest shopping center with nearly 200 establishments–and a seemingly endless list of malls and shopping centers islandwide, including two new factory outlets malls.

Dining capital

Puerto Rico is known as the dining capital of the Caribbean. The island offers everything from traditional local dishes and specialty criollo cuisine to more than a dozen worldwide specialty cuisines.

Visitors can eat just about anything they please–be it the world-famous local rice & beans or a wide array of delicacies from the island’s Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Arab, Spanish, French, Greek, and Indian restaurants. Noveau Latin cuisine has also gained popularity recently.

Night life galore

After dinner, Puerto Rico’s nightclubs and discos in Old San Juan, at most major hotels, and throughout the island invite tourists to dance the night away.

If not, tourists may opt to test their luck at one of the many local casinos, located mainly in major hotels.

Performing arts is also an option for visitors looking to experience a cultural night on the town. Santurce’s Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferre has a festival hall, drama hall, and experimental theater. The historic Teatro Tapia, built in 1832, hosts a variety of staged productions and cultural events.--E.G.F.

Sightseeing is an important element of the tourism industry

Puerto Rico is more than just a sun-and-fun destination.

"Prospective visitors can get to know the island by driving from San Juan to Ponce, from Rincon to La Parguera, or from Rio Grande to Patillas," said Milton Segarra, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.

There are numerous attractions in Puerto Rico that tourists can visit such as the Old City, museums, art galleries, rainforests, underground caves, fortresses, or bioluminescent bays.

If water sports are the visitors’ passion, there are catamaran and kayaking tours as well as deep-sea fishing or scuba diving. An array of activities is also offered to nature-adventure tourists, including bird watching, horseback riding, rock climbing, coastal biking, and traditional eco-tourism.

Whatever your tropical desire is, it can most likely be fulfilled.

"Sightseeing is an important element of the tourism industry," Segarra added.

Some 20 years ago, only two tours were offered to visitors–the traditional City Tour, which visited the University of Puerto Rico and museums, and the Rainforest Tour, in which drivers took tourists to Coca Falls and the Observation Towers in El Yunque.

Nowadays, Travel Services Inc., headed by Paul Ferguson, has transformed the original City Tour into the City North Coast Tour, starting at Boca de Cangrejos and ending in Old San Juan. The City Tour has also added the Bacardi Rum Distillery in Cataño.

"Two years ago, the municipality of San Juan threatened the City Tours by attempting to close the streets to some vehicles," Ferguson said. "And the Rainforest Tour now takes tourists hiking through the trails."

The City Tour and the Rainforest Tour continue to be the island’s two most requested tours.

"If a group of tourists come from the U.S., they don’t want to learn much about the history of Puerto Rico in a City Tour, they just want to shop," Ferguson said. "On the other hand, tourists coming from Spain, Japan, or Europe request in-depth walking tours."

New tours now being contemplated include culinary excursions.

Travel Services is planning to soon offer a Saturday afternoon cooking course with world-class chef Wilo Benet, operator of Picayo Restaurant. A less expensive cooking class will also be offered in Old San Juan.

"Tourists get tired of doing the same things in a destination. That’s why a variety of unique offerings must be delivered," Ferguson said.

For example, Ferguson offers tourists photographic treasure hunt tours for incentive groups in Old San Juan to overcome the "been there, done that" feeling. The tourists are divided up into teams and are handed copies of a mission statement, where they will have to put together a final presentation for the final night of their stay. Judging is based on best completion of the mission statement, best humor, and photography.

"Tourists get a better feeling for the island, its people, culture, and history by participating in these types of games," Ferguson said.--E.G.F.

The spa industry is a major player in the hospitality sector

Contrary to popular belief, spas were not invented by spoiled Hollywood celebrities. Their credit belongs to another earlier group: spoiled Greek celebrities.

Baths of mineral and thermal water can be traced back to 500 BC in Greece. That’s BC as in "before chlorine."

The word spa, defined as the cure of water, derives from the name of a town now in east Belgium, which at the time was part of the Roman Empire. Spa, the town, remains a popular resort known for its baths and mineral springs.

In the modern age, spa vacations are for those seeking rest and renewal, not to mention fitness, wellness, and weight-loss as well as an array of soothing and revitalizing body treatments.

Spa business takes off

The spa industry has been in a period of rapid expansion for a number of years in the U.S., including Puerto Rico.

The International Spa Association’s 2000 Spa industry study conducted and prepared by Pricewaterhouse Coopers revealed an estimated 5,689 spas in the U.S., which have generated $5 billion in revenue and employed 151,000 people. The largest spa category, accounting for over three-quarters of locations, is day spas–which typically provide beauty, health, and therapeutic treatments which can be started and completed in a single session, either by hour or by the day.

Resort/hotel spas–those owned by and located within resorts or hotels–are the second largest group, followed by club spas, medical spas, mineral-spring spas, destination spas, and cruise-ship spas.

A hotel without a spa is like a room without a bed

The spa is considered a major player in the hospitality and leisure sector and is well positioned to compete against other leisure industries for the consumer’s disposable dollar.

Much of the boom is in hospitality, since adding spa services equals more guests.

Major hotels and resorts in Puerto Rico offer guests spa services including the Wyndham El Conquistador Resort and Country Club in Fajardo, Caribe Hilton, Copamarina Beach Resort in Guanica, Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach Resort & Casino, The Ritz-Carlton San Juan Hotel, Spa & Casino; the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, Inter-Continental San Juan Resort & Casino, and the Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort, Country Club & Ocean Villas. Many of these also have a fully equipped gym.

While Ritz-Carlton, a name associated with luxury, has developed its own brand of spa services, hotels are looking for long-established spa industry players to set up shop under their roof. This trend is serious business.

"Our company specializes in providing our guests with excellent service by focusing on satisfaction, well-being, and comfort," said Laura Font, public relations director of The Ritz-Carlton San Juan Hotel, Spa & Casino. "There are people who will not go to a destination if there isn’t a Ritz-Carlton hotel. It definitely must be because we surpass our guests’ expectations."

That’s what two major local resorts–Wyndham El Conquistador and the Caribe Hilton–have done.

In 1998, after the Wyndham chain bought the Golden Door franchise for $28 million, Wyndham El Conquistador opened a 26,000-square-foot Golden Door Spa at Las Casitas Village. The newly refurbished Caribe Hilton opened its 12,000-square-foot Olas Spa and Health Club in 2000. As a result, the two resort spas--which offer a wide-range of services–have converted themselves into resort destination spas, their purpose; to provide guests with lifestyle improvements and health enhancements through professionally administered spa services, physical fitness, educational programming, and on-site accommodations.

This year, the three-story, plantation-style Golden Door Spa at Las Casitas ranked seventh on the list of Top 15 best resort spas by Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Founders Edmond and Deborah Szekely opened the original Golden Door just six miles north of Escondido, in Southern California. Since then, people have pursued the Golden Door program and the owners have set a standard for luxury spas worldwide.

"The spa has exceeded our expectations," said Rob Gunthner, general manager of Wyndham El Conquistador. "The spa is a huge focal point for us and the name Golden Door itself brings new dimensions." Golden Door at Las Casitas, which is visited by 32% of Wyndham El Conquistador’s guests (not including those local residents who are club members), has 24 treatment rooms specializing its services on treatments using local herbs and plants grown and blended exclusively for the spa.

The welcome area of Golden Door Spa at Las Casitas reflects the tranquil features of a sanctuary in a Caribbean setting. Natural elements of earth, fire, water, and air are represented in soothing earth tones, the murmur of flowing water, natural sunlight and cascading fountains on each landing of the stairway that lead to the Vitality (exercise area) and Tranquility (treatment area) levels above.

"We begin our guests on a journey by offering yoga, breathing, and stress management classes," said Lawrence Biscontini, group exercise coordinator and nutritional counselor at Golden Door Spa at Las Casitas. "Spas are no longer just for women. More men are losing fear of getting treatments."

At the Hilton, Las Olas Spa & Health Club is operated by the owners of Zen Spa & Health Studio in Condado, one of the most popular day spas on the island. A day spa typically provides beauty, health, and therapeutic treatments.

Olas Spa, the island’s first beachfront spa, is located in a stand-alone building on the premises of the Caribe Hilton.

The spa offers massages on a secluded beach, couples massages, and an abundance of other treatments utilizing natural tropical ingredients that are indigenous to the island. Olas Spa’s signature treatment is the Olassage, a four-hands mind and body therapy using a eucalyptus steam canopy and a combination of massage techniques performed by two therapists.

"Some people travel all over the world to visit these type of spas, now they don’t need to," Rosy Ward, public relations director at Caribe Hilton said, adding that the spa gives the hotel a way to market itself as a spa destination.

Olas Spa has 15 treatment rooms, a full-service hair salon, and state-of-the-art gym. To satisfy a healthy appetite, guest can indulge at Olas Spa Health Bar Café.

Puerto Rico showcases 18 golf courses

Puerto Rico is the home to some of the finest golf courses in the Caribbean and Latin America.

The island boasts 18 golf courses, including 12 championship-level courses and three new courses–Dorado del Mar, the Flamboyan Course at Palmas del Mar, and the Coamo Springs course.

Some of the courses garner designer names such as Greg Norman, Gary Player, Robert Trent Jones Sr., George Fazio, Rees Jones, and Arthur Hills.

The Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Country Club & Ocean Villas in Rio Grande has two world-class courses to test the skills of even professional golfers. Greg Norman designed the River Course, which is within walking distance of its Ocean Course designed by George Fazio.

"The Westin Rio Mar is a true destination resort that provides guests with a variety of amenities such as eight restaurants operated by the hotel, 13 tennis courts, and two championship golf courses," said Teresa Martinez, director of public relations at The Westin Rio Mar. "The resort also has a state-of-the-art clubhouse with over 300 golf club members."

Rio Mar Country Club is the island’s first property to modernize its golf carts by installing the Global Positioning System (GPS). The GPS ParView system, which is available to the general public, features a graphic hole and green overview for each of the golf course’s 18 holes and offers exact distances to any hazards.

Side by side in Dorado are two Hyatt hotels, the Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach Resort & Casino and the Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort & Casino, and four challenging courses designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr.

"Basically we have two resorts in one, which means our customers get more for their dollar," said Ivette Gonzalez, sales and marketing director of Hyatt Resorts in Puerto Rico. "Besides having four golf courses and seven restaurants, we accommodate the needs of our repeat guests by offering a quiet hotel for relaxing and an active one for those in a more festive mood."

In 1993, Wyndham El Conquistador Resort & Country Club had Arthur Hills redesign its scenic, 6,662-yard course. The course’s 200 foot changes in elevation provide breathtaking views.

At Candelario Hotel at Palmas del Mar in Humacao, Rees Jones designed the 18-hole Flamboyan course.

Puerto Rico also has various private and public golf courses. Bahia Beach Plantation is the nearest public-play golf course to San Juan. This 6,735-yard course features three beachfront hotels set along two miles of beach, 75 acres of lakes, and views to El Yunque.

In the south, outside of the city of Aguirre, the Aguirre Golf Course is nestled in an old sugar cane plantation. Its popular nine-hole course is a favorite of many golfers. The nine-hole Club Deportivo Del Oeste course in Mayaguez has a challenging first hole, and golfers find themselves in a downhill or uphill lie almost all the time.

The 18-hole Punta Borinquen Golf Club in Aguadilla is noted for its long, windy fairways and the Coamo Springs Golf Course is the only 18-hole, par-72 championship golf course in southern Puerto Rico. It is designed by Ferninand Garbin, who is a renowned architect from the school of legendary golf course designer Donald Ross.


This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
For further information please contact

Self-Determination Legislation | Puerto Rico Herald Home
Newsstand | Puerto Rico | U.S. Government | Archives
Search | Mailing List | Contact Us | Feedback