Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

The proverbial phrase about a glass being half full or half empty came to mind during a  recent conversation I had with Brad Dean, the CEO of Discover Puerto Rico.

People who are optimists see the glass as half full. An optimists looks on the bright side, seeing the world for what it has to offer, rather than the pessimist who focuses on what the world lacks.

Dean sees his glass -- Puerto Rico -- as more than half full, despite the challenges, crises, setbacks and frustrations that have beset the island since Hurricane Maria in 2017 (and preceeding the storm, the island had grappled with Zika and a debt crisis).

But he's a realist too, and one set of numbers tells that tale. Overall stayover numbers for all visitors to Puerto Rico from January through August 2018 fell 40.6%; arrivals from the the U.S. market contracted 45.6% in the same time period.

But an amazing thing happened in the fourth quarter as airlift began to regain pre-storm capacity, some hotels reopened, cruise calls ramped up and tourist confidence and  support of the destination began to overcome travelers' reluctance to visit and spend in Puerto Rico.

A closer look at other source markets for Puerto Rico shows a slight increase over 2017 for stayover visitors from the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and South America. Cruise numbers for all of 2018 were up 35%.

Dean was ebullient when I sat down with him at the Puerto Rico booth at the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association's recent Marketplace in Montego Bay.

"Travel is the key to recovery," he said. "We're experiencing a resurgence now that will serve to position Puerto Rico as a viable tourist destination in the minds of our visitors. We will emerge as a newly refurbished product."

He revealed that Puerto Rico is structuring a shift in its marketing strategy, from an emphasis on beaches and San Juan's metropolitan area to a broader focus on the destination's offerings in specific areas. 

Although the recovery of San Juan is well documented, Dean said that the entire island is ready to welcome visitors, such as Ponce in the south; he pointed to hotel developments in Rincon on the northwest coast, Humacao in the southeast and Cabo Rojo in the southwest.

Dean said that new marketing will serve as an antidote to overtourism, "marking a bold pivot to showcasing Puerto Rico's culture, art, music, dance and food, all of which are under-recognized and under-promoted now."

A new website, which will be launched shortly, will have an improved and bolder digital presence and is designed to reposition Puerto Rico as a cultural mecca to appeal to a broader base of traveler.

Dean cited the recent performances of the hit musical "Hamilton" at the Centro de Bellas Artes in San Juan as "the perfect launching pad for culture.

"The show served as both a fundraiser for arts organizations in Puerto Rico and as an attention-getter for the destination," he said.

Current numbers support his optimism: 4,000 restaurants, 141 hotels and 189 attractions islandwide are now open and operating. "Our cruise numbers remain strong, and we're on a path to hit the record 1.7 million passengers during the 2018-2019 cruise season, surpassing by 17.7% the record number hit in 2015," he said. "We're close to pre-Maria levels on air capacity and flight schedules. We will have 15,000 rooms open by the end of 2019.

"Hurricane Maria could end up being a blessing by elevating the brand."

What remains as Dean's top priority?

"We have to continue to convince travelers that we are ready and eager for their business."


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