Even as Puerto Rico welcomed new airlift from low-cost carriers Southwest and Allegiant and more cruise ship calls in 2016, the Zika virus delivered a bite to tourism.
Numbers flattened: The island registered just 26,100 more visitors in 2016 than in 2015, when 5.07 million visited.
"We had to get creative with our tourism product last year, so we launched a comprehensive educational campaign for travelers with updated warnings [from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to help offset their fears of Zika," said Carla Campos, chief marketing officer of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.
The good news this year is that Zika is on the retreat in Puerto Rico.
In a June 5 media briefing on Zika in pregnant women in the U.S. territories, CDC officials said there had been a "substantial decrease" in the number of new reported cases. "We were pleased to see the new cases decrease, that the epidemic wave, that peaked last summer and fall is over," said Anne Schuchat, the acting director of the CDC.
But Zika transmission is still ongoing, and the CDC has not changed its travel advice: pregnant women should not travel to Puerto Rico, it says. The CDC continues to focus on work with the Puerto Rico Health Department to support Zika surveillance and prevention efforts.
From the tourism perspective, things are looking up, Campos said.
"Our group business is on the rise, and investor confidence remains strong," she said. "We have 50 properties in different phases of permitting, financing and construction. Our goal is to add 3,200 rooms to Puerto Rico's 15,000-room inventory by the end of 2020."
Among the properties under construction is the $230-million, 140-room Four Seasons Cayo Largo in Fajardo, the first of the brand in Puerto Rico, opening in mid-2018.
Dreams Puerto Rico Resort & Spa on the island's south coast will be the first fully all-inclusive resort on the island when it opens in April 2019.
Existing properties are putting money into renovations, including the Caribe Hilton, which recently renovated its meeting and event space, and the iconic El San Juan Hotel, which reopened in February under Hilton's Worldwide's Curio collection following a $65 million renovation.
By the end of this year, 822 new rooms will be available in a range of accommodations, from bed-and-breakfasts and guest houses to condo hotels, hotels with residences and full-service properties.
The meetings and group market, which had dropped off due to the expiration of a U.S. tax incentive that had made doing business on the island attractive, is picking up as well, according to Campos. The Convention Center will be the venue for the annual Caribbean Marketplace event in January, sponsored by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.