Puerto Rico's tourism industry is in a state of expansion, according to officials from the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.

That expansion is being fueled by massive hotel development and investment; increased airlift and improvements to airports; an 8.2% jump in cruise ship passengers this fiscal year; and increased marketing spending on destination promotion and niche market development.

Visitor figures are forecasted to top 5 million in 2007, representing a 5% increase in Puerto Rico's gross domestic product and an economic benefit of more than $3.4 billion to the island's economy, according to Mari Laborde, deputy executive director of the Puerto Rican Tourism Co.

"More than 80% of our visitors are from the U.S., with the Northeast being the strongest market," Laborde said. "Based on first-quarter 2008 bookings, we expect to see a visitor growth of 3% or more next year across the board."

The following are highlights in tourism development on Puerto Rico:

" With 21 airlines offering service from 62 destinations, new flights and route expansions have increased available seats by 2% this year.

Through 2011, $400 million in 13 capital improvement projects are pegged for Luis Munoz Marin Airport in San Juan, including reconstruction of an 11,500-foot runway, the second-longest in the Caribbean (Curacao has the longest), and renovations to Terminal A, which is served by American Airlines.

On Puerto Rico's west coast, Aguadilla's Rafael Hernandez Airport recently opened a $10.1 million international terminal. Passenger traffic spiked 40% in fiscal year 2006, to 356,100 passengers.

The Puerto Rico Ports Authority has invested $2.5 million in renovations at the Ponce Mercedita Airport in the south, where passenger traffic rose 15% in fiscal year 2006.

" New air service from Orlando includes JetBlue's twice-daily flights to San Juan, a daily flight to Aguadilla and seasonal service to Ponce. Also, JetBlue has seasonal, nonstop service from Boston to San Juan.

Spirit launched nonstop service from Fort Lauderdale to Aguadilla five times a week and seasonal service to San Juan from Atlantic City, N.J., and Tampa.

Continental has daily flights to Ponce and Aguadilla from Newark.

" Investments in the cruise sector include a $6.5 million drainage project at two piers in San Juan in order to accommodate the largest cruise ships.

The Port of the Americas in Ponce and the Port of Mayaguez welcomed cruise ships this year for the first time. Holland America and Royal Caribbean will make four calls each in 2008 in Mayaguez.

" In the hotel sector, more than 5,359 rooms will be under construction by June 2008, totaling $1.3 billion in new investments and generating more than 3,700 new jobs.

Hotels that will open in the next several years include a St. Regis at the Bahia Beach Resort on the island's northeast coast in 2008, the 500-room Sheraton Puerto Rico Convention Center Hotel in 2010, the 300-room Condado Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan in June 2009, the 264-room Plaza International in San Juan in 2010, the 474-room Renaissance La Concha Hotel & Casino in San Juan in November, the 160-room Courtyard by Marriott in Aguadilla in November, the Fairmont CoCo Beach Resort & Residences east of San Juan in 2009 and the 314-room InterContinental Cayo Largo Resort in Fajardo in 2010.

Reflagged hotels include the Wyndham Rio Mar, formerly a Westin property, which invested $36 million in renovations and $350 million to build 871 timeshare units; the Gran Melia Puerto Rico, formerly the Paradisus Puerto Rico, 30 minutes east of San Juan; the W Hotel, formerly the Normandie in San Juan, which will open in 2008; and the W Resort on Vieques, formerly the Martineau Bay Resort, which will open in 2009.

El Conquistador & Golden Door Spa in Fajardo will open a water park in January.

The Horned Dorset Primavera, on the island's west coast, has opened its new Moroccan-style villas.

" New marketing initiatives include the launch this month of a salsa music program for visitors, the debut of the Puerto Rico Coffee Trail in central Puerto Rico and the addition of EyeTour Puerto Rico, a series of free, interactive guides to the island available on MP3 players.

" Niche marketing campaigns will focus on 10 specific markets: history, girlfriend getaways, vacations for men, gastronomy, gay/lesbian, destination weddings, family travel, eco-adventure, spa/wellness and luxury resorts.

" Ana-Marie Viscasillas, president and CEO of the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau, reported that the 113-acre Convention Center District "will be the new business district of Puerto Rico. It will be 15 years in the making and will include hotels, spas, restaurants, shopping and prime office space."

" Taking shape adjacent to the convention district is the San Juan Waterfront Project, a $1.5 billion initiative that "will transform the waterfront area with hotels, parks, residences, commerce, recreation and a mega-yacht marina, linked throughout the area by a series of walkways and canals," according to Viscasillas.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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