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Fatal Attractions

Puerto Rico must reinvent itself as a tourism destination. For starters, it must improve its existing attractions and develop new ones to enrich visitors’ experience.


August 12, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

So much to see and do, but also so much to lose

Puerto Rico has a long way to go in protecting and promoting its cultural heritage and natural attractions

Last year, at least 50% of Americans said they had taken a trip of more than 75 miles during the previous 12 months, which required overnight accommodations; 92% of those who traveled did so for leisure purposes. According to Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell’s 2004 National Leisure Travel Monitor, the most desirable attributes they will seek in a travel destination are safety, proximity, and new attractions and activities.

Tourism experts, tour operators, hoteliers, and managers of attractions concur that Puerto Rico has unlimited possibilities in terms of cultural and natural attractions for its visitors. All agree, however, that the island’s attributes have for the most part been underestimated, underutilized, badly maintained, and poorly promoted for decades, and there are potential attractions whose real value hasn’t been developed and exploited yet.

"Puerto Rico has many potential attractions to suit the interests of many different visitors, but it seems they aren’t given priority," said William Chavez, superintendent of the San Juan National Historic Site, which oversees the Old San Juan fortresses San Felipe del Morro (known as El Morro), El Cañuelo, and San Cristobal.

"Puerto Rico is a mature tourism destination that needs to renew itself constantly. A large percentage of our visitors repeat or are friends or family of residents. To keep them coming back, we need to keep our product exciting and fresh, and the best way to do that is to introduce interesting, well-conceived and well-executed attractions," said Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association executive vice president Erin Benitez.

Benitez said destinations become boring and visitors will not return unless there is something new to experience. Although PRHTA doesn’t endorse any specific projects, the organization that groups over 500 businesses in the hospitality and tourism industries, believes many attractions can be developed on the island, such as theme parks, aquariums, IMAX theatres, a natural history museum, underwater snorkel trails, and salsa dancing classes, among many others.

"We need to address many issues regarding attractions in Puerto Rico, including good signage, easy directions for driving, inconvenient hours of operations; dirty or broken restrooms. Our guests expect such facilities to be well-maintained and of a standard that people would want to use them, especially when they are touted in our guidebooks," added Benitez.

Island’s cultural, natural attractions at risk

One example of this negligence is the San Geronimo Fort, behind Caribe Hilton hotel in Condado, which is severely deteriorated and has been closed for nearly a decade.

The main exhibit hall of the Museum of Art & Anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, home of the valuable "El Velorio" painting by Puerto Rican artist Francisco Oller, has been closed for four years since construction at the nearby Urban Train station affected the building. The campus theater, which along with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Tower is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, has been closed for six years, and repairs began only four months ago.

La Parguera in Lajas, once considered among the most beautiful bioluminescent bays in the world, has lost its splendor because of unsupervised construction in the area, the indiscriminate use of boats in the sensitive waters, and the development of water sports and boating activities in the area.

For nearly three years, music lovers have been unable to appreciate the great contributions of Pablo Casals, who was considered one of the best cellists in the world, at the Old San Juan museum named after him. A tour guide at the museum, in the Juan Ponce de Leon Plaza, said the music room was closed to the public three years ago because structural problems with the roof might pose a danger to visitors.

San Jose Church in Old San Juan, the second-oldest in the Americas, has been closed for three years while it undergoes repairs.

The Catholic Church needs around $15 million to restore the chapel. San Juan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez Nieves said he also wants to transform the Archbishop’s Palace into a museum, since the Archdiocese owns the island’s richest religious collection, but another $2 million is needed to repair the century-old structure.

Several attractions in Puerto Rico have been shut down because of poor upkeep, insufficient funds to restore the properties, or lack of attendance. Such was the case in the 1970s with an aquarium in Piñones and Safari Park, a zoo and amusement park that was one of Bayamon’s most popular attractions.

In the 1980s, the water parks Plaza Acuatica in Hato Rey and Las Cascadas in Aguadilla were the hot spots. The first closed in the mid-1990s and was demolished in 2002. The second was acquired by the municipal government and continues to operate seasonally.

Studies indicate Puerto Rico has failed to adequately protect and develop its cultural and natural attractions, a costly oversight considering they are key to the island’s success as a tourism destination.

¡Qué Pasa!, Puerto Rico’s government-sponsored travel magazine, lists nearly 100 attractions for tourists, including museums, plazas, beaches, parks, historic sites, nature reserves, and forests.

Five federal and state government agencies, including the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Puerto Rico Department of Natural & Environmental Resources, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, the Historic Preservation Office, and the Puerto Rico National Parks Co., operate these attractions. Municipalities also run some attractions, particularly public beaches, as do private entities and community organizations such as the Conservation Trust Fund, the steward of Las Cabezas nature reserve in Fajardo and Hacienda Buena Vista coffee plantation in Adjuntas.

CARIBBEAN BUSINESS discovered, however, that most of the island’s attractions aren’t subject to inspections, and rarely must they comply with standards for quality, cleanliness, and customer service. If data on the attractions are collected, they aren’t centralized, and the economic impact of the facilities is unknown. Other problems affecting Puerto Rico’s leisure offerings include inconsistent operating hours, a lack of integrated efforts to promote them, poor communication between managers of attractions, and insufficient funds to maintain the facilities in optimum condition.

Tourists rate Puerto Rico’s attractions

In 2002, the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. sponsored the first formal evaluation, as far as is known, of the island’s inventory of attractions. It hired local marketing & research firm TransNational TradeWays Inc., which interviewed 2,910 visitors at 44 points of interest during a six-month period for the study, called "Puerto Rico’s Points of Interest Quality of Service & Customer Satisfaction Study."

The study is the brainchild of Ivan Irizarry, an agronomist and professor of business administration who believes Puerto Rico’s numerous cultural and natural attractions are the keys to creating more tourism-related businesses, more jobs, and a superior experience for visitors.

Visitors were surveyed on cultural, historical, and natural attractions such as Serralles Castle in Ponce, the Hacienda Buena Vista coffee plantation in Adjuntas, the Arecibo Observatory, the Rincon Lighthouse, El Yunque rain forest, the Guanica Dry Forest Reserve, and the Camuy Caves. Irizarry said 15 people conducted a 10-minute face-to-face interview with each of 2,910 visitors, who rated the attractions, on cleanliness, knowledge of the attraction and friendly service, overall organization, and infrastructure.

The respondents gave the best ratings (four or five points) to the Puerto Rico Museum of Art in Santurce, the Casa Blanca Museum in Old San Juan, Guajataca Lake in San Sebastian, Porta Coeli Church in San German, Hacienda Buena Vista in Adjuntas, the Mayaguez Zoo, and the Bacardi Factory in Cataño. Least favored (with ratings of one or two points) were the Botanical Gardens in Rio Piedras, La Guancha in Ponce, the Coamo Hot Springs, Humacao’s waterfront, Carite Forest in Cayey, Cambalache Forest in Barceloneta, and Guilarte Forest in Adjuntas.

The study also revealed how attractions fared by region. Only the San Juan metro area received a rating of more than four points. The north came in second with 3.99, followed by the west with 3.78, the south with 3.32, and the east with 3.28. The southeast trailed with 1.44 points.

The survey respondents also gave their opinion on what is needed to boost the island’s attractions. What they most requested were brochures, adequate signage, and maps. They also asked for new restrooms and for more general maintenance, snacks and beverages, tour guides, safety and security, activities, and attractions.

"Infrastructure is the most frequent complaint of visitors. We cross-referenced some of the variables, and maintenance is the strongest issue we must deal with," said Irizarry.

Irizarry said it is necessary to measure the performance of these tourism attractions and facilities to improve them. Restaurants, tours, and taxis also should be evaluated, and Puerto Rico’s government agencies and citizens must change their perception of tourism. They must appreciate tourism’s importance to the local economy.

"Tourists are the ones who know what they are looking for. Through this kind of study, tourists can give us lifesaving advice. We should ask them...if we are meeting their demands," said Irizarry. "We have good attractions. What we need to do is organize them and staff them correctly, tighten all those loose ends in terms of maintenance. We need to conduct unannounced inspections like we do at hotels."

Challenges to tourism

More of those facilities and activities is precisely what tour guides and operators, 240 of whom are authorized to do business on the island, have been asking for.

"Right now, two of the key attractions in Old San Juan are closed to the public: San Jose Church and the Casa Blanca Museum. Imagine tourists’ reactions when they learn these two attractions are closed," said Maria Alexandra Pla, owner of Colonial Adventure in Old San Juan.

Pla has been in business for eight years and employs 10 licensed tour guides. Her company is exclusively dedicated to offering tours of the historic district. Many of the customers are cruise passengers, but they also include other groups such as students.

"Old San Juan itself is beautiful; there are so many things a visitor can do," said Pla, who mentioned Paseo La Princesa and the trail surrounding El Morro as two of the most impressive attractions on the tour.

She noted, however, a number of challenges for both tourism businesses and visitors in Old San Juan, including construction on Norzagaray Street to repair a fortress wall that has crumbled, an increasing number of homeless people on the streets, the constant turnover of retail establishments, and the lack of maintenance at some of the parks and plazas.

"We [tour guides] feel a little ashamed because of the condition of the Old City. Education is essential for tourism; people need to conserve what we have," said Pla. "When we’re escorting a group, you will see us cleaning up if it is necessary. So, when we program a tour, we go to the places beforehand and do whatever possible so they are in presentable condition."

"Puerto Rico has numerous attractions, and that is what we want our visitors to experience," said Andy Jimenez, general manager of United Tour Guides. "There is much more than El Morro and El Yunque. There is nothing like kayaking in the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo, nothing like the Museum of Ponce or the Puerto Rico Museum of Art. Nothing compares to a helicopter ride over San Cristobal Canyon [in Barranquitas]."

Jimenez, who has dedicated his entire life to the tour business, said United Tour Guides offers 15 tours to customers, mostly cruise passengers. These include a tour of Old San Juan, sailing by catamaran to and snorkeling off Icacos Island, near Fajardo, and horseback riding in Humacao.

In recent years, said Jimenez, business has been more difficult for the cooperative, which was founded in 1977, groups 24 tour operators, and employs 20 people. "Our sales have dropped significantly, around 60%, in the past three years," he said.

Many factors have contributed to the decline in the local tour business, according to Jimenez, including the recession and the short time cruises stay in port. On average, nearly 20% of passengers boarding a cruise ship pay for an excursion.

"Cruise lines stay too little time in port, which prevents us from offering more tours. Every year, we propose new tours to cruise lines. We have designed tours for Cabo Rojo, Ponce, and the island’s central region, but the cruise lines don’t accept those tour proposals because of distance. Cruise lines want passengers to spend their money on board, and the time for a tour is limited," said Jimenez.

InterVistas Consulting Inc., which the Tourism Co. contracted to develop a strategic plan for the island’s tourism industry and which recently completed a study on the economic impact of cruises on Puerto Rico, noted the wide disparity in spending between passengers who visit on a ship for which the island is a home port and those whose ship is making a port-of-call visit. Home-port passengers spend only $0.79 on sightseeing, whereas transient passengers spend $8.81. Transit passengers spend $25.87 sightseeing or on shore excursions in Ocho Rios, Jamaica; $17.68 in Aruba; and $13.73 in the Bahamas.

Another factor that has been hurting the tourism business is the lack of upkeep at some attractions. "The amount of trash along the Piñones bicycle trail is unbelievable," said Jimenez. "We’ve talked to the government agencies in charge, but the problem remains. Picture a tour guide explaining to cyclists about the different species of mangroves in Piñones surrounded by all kinds of trash. At the end of the tour, some visitors ask for a refund."

According to published reports, the 11-kilometer bicycle trail will close this month for a year while it undergoes repairs. The Department of Transportation & Public Works invested $7 million to create the attraction in the late 1990s, but it was never clear which government agency would be in charge of its maintenance.

Jimenez added that Fajardo’s bioluminescent bay is also at risk, in part because some people act carelessly and pollute. "If the government doesn’t do something soon, the Fajardo bay will suffer the same fate as La Parguera," he said.

"We are the ones who develop the tours; we visit the places to see if they are suitable for tourists. We make sure the attraction has restrooms and a place to eat or vending machines, and only then do we offer the tour to our customers," said Noel Crespo, vice president of Tour Coop de Puerto Rico, which represents 24 tour guides. The cooperative offers nearly two-dozen tours and other activities. Nearly 80% of its customers are cruise passengers; each week, it serves up to 7,000 cruise passengers, he said.

Crespo said Tour Coop’s guides identify which areas, facilities, or activities could be attractions. Government-owned attractions head the list of possibilities, but the constant need to offer fresh attractions pushes them to look elsewhere.

"A few years back, we identified the Cibuco Indian park in Corozal as an attraction. The mayor was interested in developing an attraction, and we told him that was a very nice place. Caguana Ceremonial Indian Park in Utuado is too far away, and Cibuco gives tourists a taste of the Indian culture," said Crespo, who has worked as a tour operator for 13 years.

Like other tour operators interviewed by CARIBBEAN BUSINESS, Crespo noted the difficulties presented by construction, particularly in Condado, and the ensuing traffic congestion. Crespo said he and other tour operators have made various recommendations to law-enforcement authorities, including allowing the shuttles to use the bus lane, to no avail.

"Sometimes, a shuttle can spend 45 minutes in traffic while trying to get out of San Juan. Dealing with traffic is very important because travelers aren’t visiting the island to be stuck in traffic," he said. The obstacles have caused Tour Coop to eliminate some tour stops. "We had to eliminate the University of Puerto Rico [in Rio Piedras] because of the Urban Train construction. It blocked Ponce de Leon Avenue, and the university set new rules so that shuttles aren’t allowed on campus. In addition, the theater is closed, as is the museum [in the main hall]," said Crespo.

Other stops removed from the itinerary are the Botanical Garden at the University of Puerto Rico and the Luis Muñoz Marin Foundation, both in Rio Piedras, as well as the Camuy Caves. Ponce also has been ruled out as too far away.

"The Camuy Caves Park is great, but it is too far from the San Juan metro area. In addition, tourists aren’t a priority for the park managers. The park gets a lot of visitors, including students and other locals. It is common to arrive only to find the park has reached its capacity and can accept no more people for tours. We can’t take that chance," said Crespo.

Another tour operator, Encantada Tours President Isaura Diaz, regrets the local government abandoned the program of panoramic routes around Puerto Rico. "The panoramic routes offered spectacular views of the island, but unfortunately, they weren’t developed and maintained appropriately. We had to stop offering those tours because there were no observation posts along the routes, so people couldn’t stop and take pictures," said Diaz.

Diaz said Encantada Tours has suffered since the recession and 9/11. Now, the company focuses on local groups.

She is optimistic, however, that the transfer of tour operators from the Public Service Commission (PSC) to the Tourism Co. will improve visitors’ experience and increase demand for excursions. "The PSC didn’t give tour operators the attention we need, but the Tourism Co. inspects our buses from a visitor’s perspective," said Diaz.

"I also think the Tourism Co. should endorse the island’s attractions as it does hotel rooms. That will enhance the quality of the attractions and instill a degree confidence among tourists," said Diaz.

What are travelers looking for?

According to the 2004 National Leisure Travel Monitor by Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell (YPBR), travelers look for a safe and close destination. They also look for beautiful scenery; beaches; nightlife; theme parks; spas; art, architectural, and historic sites; and physical activities involving outdoor adventures and watersports.

YPBR President & CEO Peter Yesawich said Puerto Rico is a strong market for business travel, but its possibilities for growth lie in the market for leisure travel. "Puerto Rico is very well-positioned because travelers are looking for a beach experience, nightlife, and new activities. The island is unique in that it possesses a rich cultural history, great art, and great music. People are intrigued by the marvelous shopping in Old San Juan; its duty-free shopping is an asset, as are the great restaurants," he said.

Yesawich said Puerto Rico should strive to create an exciting urban experience for travelers like that in South Miami Beach, which he said offers a great beach experience during the day and plenty of music, dining, and shopping at night.

What’s more, he said, creating regional brands in Puerto Rico is a smart strategy that will alleviate congestion in the urban areas. The Tourism Co. has already come up with a regional brand for the island’s western region, Porta del Sol.

It is of the utmost importance to get visitors to come back to Puerto Rico. "That is the biggest challenge, giving tourists a reason to return," said Yesawich.

Paul Ouimet, InterVistas’ senior vice president for strategic planning & analysis, noted that other Caribbean destinations offer sun and sand. Puerto Rico can’t rely on its nice weather and clear waters, he said; other attractions must be developed.

Ouimet, who has visited Puerto Rico more than 40 times in the past three years, said developing world-class attractions is critical since the island is a relatively expensive destination.

"Travelers are becoming more sophisticated, and my sense is that having other attractions such as an IMAX theater and aquariums would satisfy their needs. Ecotourism is an emerging market that is worth pursuing since it is a positive spin dealing with environment," he said.

Ouimet noted that although the government’s traditional role is to promote the development of such attractions, it is the private sector’s role to collaborate with the government to ensure that any new attractions follow the trends and comply with operational standards.

Reinventing Puerto Rico’s attractions

The local government has been answering the call to improve the island’s attractions, establishing performance standards, implementing procedures for regular evaluations, and investing nearly $40 million in renovating existing attractions and building new ones.

Puerto Rico Tourism Co. Executive Director Jose Suarez said the study commissioned from TransNational TradeWays Inc. clearly indicates a tourism destination’s need to focus on maintaining and developing attractions. "There is nothing for Puerto Rico to market if we don’t develop new attractions and adequately maintain existing ones," he said.

He acknowledged the task is difficult since the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP by its Spanish acronym), which cares for many historic monuments and operates 16 museums throughout the island, has encountered budgetary cutbacks for decades.

Nevertheless, the Tourism Co. has invested in the $1.5 million renovation of the Coamo Hot Springs (CB June 10) and in the certification of local beaches under the Blue Flag program. It has also entered into an agreement with the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture to provide landscaping services at the Casa Blanca Museum and created an ecotourism reserve in Humacao. These are just a few examples, said Suarez, of the Tourism Co.’s desire and intention to improve the island’s attractions.

"We need to pay serious attention to our attractions. The Tourism Co. needs to assume a proactive role in monitoring the satisfaction of tourists visiting the island’s attractions," said Suarez. "We must also provide support to the managers of these attractions. We need to help them focus on providing what tourists are looking for; we can offer them guidance to improve their services, and we can provide maintenance."

"The study revealed that attractions such as the Casa Blanca Museum [in Old San Juan] and Porta Coeli [in San German] have been managed adequately. These don’t need infinite resources but regular allocations to ensure their continued operation," added Suarez. "Many of these attractions need only organization and minor work such as painting and landscaping."

Suarez plans to follow several of the recommendations in the 72-page study, including developing a methodology for evaluating the island’s attractions and sharing the study’s findings with the managers of attractions. He said the evaluations could serve to improve operations and to recognize those who perform outstandingly. "Managers whose attractions performed well according to the study might share their strategies with their peers in an effort to improve Puerto Rico’s offerings," he said.

Suarez agrees with tour operators that attractions should be inspected and endorsed by the Tourism Co., as is the case with hotels. "A rating system for attractions could be as effective as it has been for hotels. Many hotel properties are looking to improve their facilities in order to receive better ratings," he said.

One of the greatest challenges for the Tourism Co., he said, is to create a network of core and supporting attractions in every tourism region to encourage repeat visits, increase the island’s room inventory, and create much-needed jobs. For example, the recently created Porta de Sol tourism region on the west coast has plenty of potential attractions. At least 38% of the west coast can be developed into public beaches, and the former Ramey Air Force Base in Aguadilla could be turned into a tourism spot. The region has many historical tidbits to offer visitors, including stories of pirates during the Spanish colonial era, and film buffs might like to visit the places where major films such as Jodi Foster’s "Contact" and Pierce Brosnan’s "GoldenEye" were shot.

National Parks Co. takes charge

Another step toward maintaining and developing the island’s attractions came in 2001 when the Calderon administration created the National Parks Co. to replace the Recreational Development Co. (CB June 14, 2001).

Since then, the National Parks Co. has invested $15 million to renovate attractions such as the Camuy Caves Park, Sun Bay Beach in Vieques, and Luis Muñoz Rivera Park in Puerta de Tierra (which includes the Spanish colonial-era fort El Polvorin). An additional $25.4 million has been invested in seven attractions that are currently undergoing repairs.

"We have world-class attractions, but Puerto Rico can’t depend on what it has accomplished," said National Parks Executive Director Samuel Gonzalez. "The Dominican Republic and Cuba are emerging as strong competitors in tourism. Their products seem so striking that even people from Puerto Rico are spending time and money vacationing there."

The National Parks Co. has engaged in a re-engineering that includes new uniforms for personnel, new signage at attractions, personnel training on customer service and maintenance, and new standards of quality at attractions.

"We have established clear rules so people can visit and enjoy the attractions and have trained our personnel to intervene when people engage in improper behavior," said Gonzalez.

"We have had to ban large events, especially at the public beaches, because of the risks they pose. The waste generated during these crowded events is unbelievable, so we are also educating people on how to protect the attractions."

For decades, said Gonzalez, people didn’t fully appreciate the value and potential, both social and economic, of Puerto Rico’s natural and cultural resources. Today, however, the National Parks Co. is investing $7 million in three public beaches alone: Seven Seas in Fajardo, Cerro Gordo in Vega Alta, and Tres Hermanos in Añasco. Other projects include the renovation of the Monte del Estado recreation center in Maricao and the expansion of the Mayaguez Zoo.

"We have just completed the bird exhibits at the zoo and added more animal exhibits," said Gonzalez. "We’re also working on a butterfly exhibit and have formed an alliance with the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez so students can use the zoo as a research lab."

Gonzalez said the National Parks Co. intends to create more attractions, including a new recreation area in Karst Country, in the northern region. It will also develop as an attraction the Tanama River, already visited by adventure and ecotourism fans. The project’s first phase entails a recreational area, parking, and restrooms. The nature reserve occupies 3,600 cuerdas (nearly 3,500 acres) and includes flora, fauna, and rock formations that are unique in the world.

U.S. National Park Service: Setting the benchmark in the management of recreational attraction

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service (NPS) has been the custodian of 384 natural and human-made wonders for nearly a century, including the Old San Juan fortresses in the San Juan National Historic Site.

William J. Chavez, superintendent of the San Juan National Historic Site, said taking care of the ancient forts, which the United Nations declared among the World Heritage Sites in 1983, is a never-ending job that requires dedication, lots of economic resources, and abiding by performance standards to protect the facilities and their visitors. In 2003, visitors to the military strongholds numbered slightly over one million.

"Our duty is to ensure this site, which has a 500-year history, can stay up for another five centuries," said Chavez, who in the past 29 years has worked at many NPS sites on the U.S. mainland.

Fulfilling that mission isn’t cheap. The NPS invests some $2.5 million in operating the Old San Juan fortresses lying on 75 acres.

Chavez said another $2.5 million is needed every year to run and safeguard the oldest European-style military installations in the U.S. and to protect the collection of nearly 265,000 artifacts. Most of these artifacts, which are stored in a newly renovated area, aren’t available to the public for security reasons and because they may be damaged by the humidity and sea salt in the atmosphere.

Chavez and his team strive to make the best use of their resources. They have implemented cost-reduction strategies such as investing in energy-efficient equipment, limiting new hires, and cutting back on certain maintenance activities.

Within the next six months, the San Juan National Historic Site will initiate a five-year improvements plan at an investment exceeding $3 million. Recent work at the forts includes a new visitors’ center at San Cristobal, a new audiovisual room at El Morro, and repairs to the museum’s air-conditioning system.

Chavez also aims to increase the government’s and the private sector’s contributions to the sites. These include monetary assistance to restore the San Jose Chapel and an educational campaign with insurance company Triple-S. He also hopes to attract more volunteers, who might participate in dramatic presentations, storytelling programs, or recreational activities.

Setting an example

The NPS has long set the standard for how to manage attractions. Countries such as Costa Rica have adopted NPS’ model and performance standards, as the Calderon administration did when it created the National Parks Co. in 2001.

"Each park or site manager is required to develop a general management plan. The process requires conducting an in-depth analysis of the site, whether it is a cultural or a natural attraction, and designing maintenance and improvement projects," said Chavez. "It allows us to prioritize and to plan for the long term."

The NPS takes various factors into consideration when deciding whether to transform a cultural, historic, or natural wonder into a park or an attraction, including the site’s national significance, feasibility, and management alternatives. It establishes standards for quality and customer service; inspections and constant training are also musts. The concessionaires at NPS facilities must comply with standards and regulations as well, applicable even to what kind of items they may sell.

The NPS operates 385 parks throughout the nation, including its territories. Through an in-house media team (at the Harpers Ferry Center in West Virginia), the agency designs and produces brochures, exhibits, and audiovisual presentations; offers guidance on the conservation of artifacts; and trains park personnel. This ensures conformity within the park system and instills in visitors a sense of confidence and safety.

Forthcoming Projects at the San Juan National Historic Site

  • Offering a shuttle or trolley to transport visitors between the San Cristobal and El Morro forts.
  • Continuing the construction of the sea-level trail from El Morro to San Cristobal Fort.
  • Opening restrooms on the grounds at El Morro, which are frequented by nearly 300,000 people each year.
  • Offering new brochures, exhibits, and a nighttime tour by candlelight.
  • Providing access to and new activities at Fort San Juan de la Cruz (El Cañuelo).
  • Creating an annual visitor pass that includes access to El Morro, San Cristobal, El Cañuelo, and El Yunque rain forest.

Bacardi: the art of distilling rum turned into a tourist attraction

For over 150 years, Bacardi has been a master at distilling rum. Now, the largest rum distiller in the world seeks to master the art of luring tourists after investing $8 million in a new visitors center, which opened in 2003.

The Casa Bacardi Visitor Center in Cataño received 154,800 visitors last year, and it expects to receive 200,000 annually by 2005.

"Bacardi is an example of what Puerto Rico should be doing in terms of attractions," said Puerto Rico Tourism Co. Executive Director Jose Suarez.

The Casa Bacardi Visitor Center is a tourist attraction that tells the story of the Bacardi family and of the rum brand it created. Today, Bacardi generates $3 billion in revenue a year and distributes more than 70 million cases of alcoholic beverages around the globe.

"We began doing some research; we visited one of our plants in Scotland and noted how the company maximized the value of the product by remodeling one of the exhibit areas. Then, we visited other companies at different destinations that offered similar tours," said Marie Estela Cestero, Bacardi’s vice president of communications.

Cestero said Bacardi decided to reinvent the tour that it had been offering for 60 years. It hired firms from Scotland and California and artists and architects from Puerto Rico to develop the visitors’ center, including the nearly 90-minute tour component.

The new tour offers visitors an interactive experience. Using state-of-the-art technology, it presents a replica of Bacardi’s first distillery, in Santiago de Cuba, and recounts the evolution of the distillation process.

Visitors tour the facility with a device that, when a code is pressed, provides a bilingual (English / Spanish) narrative on the place they are in or the thing they are looking at. They can smell and sample some of the company’s products and send a video-card to any location in the world; a bartender can give them recipes for the Cuba Libre and the Mojito, the famed drinks for which Bacardi is known all over the world.

Cestero said everything in the visitors’ center is a symbol or replica of a place relevant to Bacardi’s history. The auditorium’s roof recreates, through the use of fiber optics, how the sky looked on the night of Feb. 4, 1862 when Antonio Bacardi originated his rum. The replica of the distillery in Cuba includes a main office, medals, and original corporate documents with music and the sounds of horses playing in the background.

Bacardi developed performance standards for the visitors’ center; cleanliness and customer service are the top priorities. Cestero said she worked with local authorities to place signs along the main roads to direct tourists to the Casa Bacardi Visitor Center, something the government should do for other attractions. The company also developed a brochure, postcards, a gift shop, and a virtual tour (accessible at

"The tour is certainly an important part of the tourist experience. We’re glad to contribute to the island, not only as a manufacturing plant but also as an attraction. Some business travelers don’t have time to visit many attractions, and our tour is a great option," said Cestero. "We have been able to lure tourists in general, but government agencies and private companies have also used the place to greet dignitaries and other visitors."

Bacardi hopes to collaborate with government agencies, community organizations, and the municipality of Cataño to try to enhance tourists’ experience in the area beyond the distillery. One of the efforts involves developing Las Cucharillas nature reserve, where the community’s plans include opening a butterfly exhibit.

Renovation projects at government-owned recreation facilities & attractions

Recreation Area / Attraction: Investment

  • Cerro Gordo Public Beach, Vega Alta: $3.4 million
  • Coamo Hot Springs: $1.5 million
  • Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo, Mayaguez: $12 million
  • Humacao Nature Reserve: $3.3 million
  • Isla de Cabras: $3.4 million
  • Las Nereidas Square, Condado: $600,000
  • Monte del Estado Vacation Center, Maricao: $1.5 million
  • National Gallery, Old San Juan: $2 million
  • Peace Pavillion-Luis Muñoz Rivera Park, San Juan: $2.4 million
  • Seven Seas Public Beach, Fajardo: $1.1 million
  • Tanama River Visitor Center: $7 million
  • Tres Hermanos Public Beach, Añasco: $2.5 million

Top 25 Puerto Rico Attractions*

Attraction: Location

  • Arecibo Radio Telescope / Observatory: Arecibo
  • Bacardi Factory: Cataño
  • Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park: Utuado
  • Camuy Caves Park: Camuy
  • Casa Blanca Museum: Old San Juan
  • Christ Chapel: Old San Juan
  • Dos Bocas Lake: Utuado
  • Dr. Juan A. Rivero Zoo: Mayaguez
  • El Yunque Rain Forest: Rio Grande
  • Guajataca Lake: San Sebastian
  • Hacienda Buena Vista: Ponce-Adjuntas
  • La Fortaleza: Old San Juan
  • Las Americas Museum: Old San Juan
  • Las Cabezas de San Juan: Fajardo
  • Ponce Fire Station: Ponce
  • Ponce Museum of Art: Ponce
  • Porta Coeli Church & Museum: San German
  • Puerto Rico Museum of Art: Santurce
  • San Cristobal Fort: Old San Juan
  • San Felipe del Morro Fort: Old San Juan
  • San Juan Cathedral: Old San Juan
  • Serralles Castle: Ponce
  • Susua Forest: Sabana Grande
  • Tibes Indian Ceremonial Park: Ponce
  • UPR-Mayaguez Tropical Agriculture Research Station: Mayaguez

*Based on overall performance; attractions listed in alphabetical order.

Source: Puerto Rico’s Points of Interest Quality of Service & Customer Satisfaction Study

Visitors to Recreational Areas & Attractions*

  • Recreational area or attraction: No. of Visitors
  • Beaches: 2,803,299
  • Vacation centers: 220,967
  • Special parks (Mayaguez Zoo & Camuy Caves Park): 234,954
  • Recreational areas (Isla de Cabras): 396,000
  • Urban parks 583,650
  • Total: 4,238,870

*Managed by P.R. National Parks Co.

Source: Puerto Rico Budget for National Parks Co.

What Do Leisure Travelers Most Want From a Destination?

Attribute: % of responses*

  • Beautiful scenery: 86
  • Safety of hotel: 84
  • A place never before visited: 81
  • A beach experience: 66
  • An opportunity to eat different / unusual cuisine: 59
  • Night and live entertainment: 52
  • Theme parks: 43
  • A remote and untouched destination: 43
  • A spa: 34

*Percent of those surveyed who said the attribute is very / extremely desirable

Source: Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell’s 2004 National Leisure Travel Monitor

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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