Puerto Rico 'ready to enchant' as it emerges from tragedy

El Morro Fortress, San Juan
El Morro, San Juan's iconic fortress. Photo Credit: Gary Ives/Shutterstock.com

In the Hot Seat

Carla Campos, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, sat down with news editor Johanna Jainchill to talk about the PRTC's strategy to enable the island to emerge stronger than before. Read More

DENVER -- From New Orleans to lower Manhattan, many destinations have turned endured tragedy into prosperity, emerging stronger and offering a better tourism product. Puerto Rico plans to be the next name on that list.

In the words of Carla Campos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC), the destination is determined to not "let a crisis go to waste."

The crisis, of course, was the battering of the island by Hurricane Maria last September, leaving scores dead, destroying tens of thousands of homes and taking out the island's power grid.

"From the beginning, we said, 'How do we build back stronger and seize the opportunity?'" Campos said while in town for the U.S. Travel Association's annual IPW event. "We are using the opportunity to make sure that we can prepare to have a better product."

Campos said the PRTC's strategy emerged very soon after the storms barreled through Puerto Rico, when much of the island was still dark and it seemed that anyone who could leave was heading north. In October, the PRTC sat down with a group of developers and private-sector stakeholders. 

"We said, 'We know we're struggling, but what can we leverage and capitalize on to come out stronger?'" she recalled. "This was an opportunity to reimagine our destination, to be able to renew our inventory and strengthen our partnerships with companies that do business in Puerto Rico."

The plan, Campos said, was to create a "great comeback" and use the storm as an opportunity rather than a crisis.

The PRTC looked to New Orleans after Katrina, to Detroit after its financial meltdown, to Cancun after Hurricane Wilma, to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and to New York after 9/11.

"We reviewed a series of case studies and said, 'What do we want to learn from each one?'" Campos said. "From Detroit, the example of strengthened partnerships; from New Orleans, that we needed to renovate our product; from New York, that we needed a strong communication platform that allowed us tell the story of recovery."

And while it might seem counterintuitive, Campos said she believes even the onslaught of negative storm media has a silver lining: increased awareness of Puerto Rico.

"People now know where Puerto Rico is and that it's a U.S. territory and you don't need a passport to go there," she said.

What's more, the PRTC believes that people want to help. Last week, the group revealed the results of a survey it conducted that found that almost 90% of Americans like it when the money they spend on a vacation helps the local economy of a destination. When specifically asked about Puerto Rico, the survey found that a quarter of Americans wanted to help the island recover but weren't sure how.

"We want to tell these travelers who want to help that the best way is to visit us," Campos said. "Spend locally, stay at hotels, eat at restaurants. We don't need aid in the traditional sense anymore. We need the economy to flourish."

Campos said the plan to come back better is already unfolding. Of the island's 15,000 hotel rooms, most of the 3,000 rooms that are not yet operational are in hotels that are using the recovery to renovate and offer a better product

"They are all remodeling so that we can rebuild and relaunch the destination," she said.

Popular attractions will also emerge in better shape, Campos said, including El Yunque National Forest, the United States' only tropical rainforest. Parts of El Yunque are still closed, but the product will ultimately be better when it completely reopens after a renovation that will include an upgraded visitor information center. 

As with New Orleans after Katrina and other islands in the Caribbean damaged by storms last year, such as St. Thomas, the cruise industry has played a major role in helping to revitalize Puerto Rico, and it was the first tourism sector to get up and running after the hurricanes. But cruise lines have gone even further.

This year, 14 cruise ships will homeport in Puerto Rico, up from 10 in 2017. They will bring an expected 1.7 million passengers to the island, up from 1.2 million last year, and ahead of the record of 1.5 million in 2015. Norwegian Cruise Line also is doubling its homeport presence on the island this year.

"The cruise industry has bet on Puerto Rico," Campos said.

Airlines also see the island recovering more quickly than they had expected. JetBlue said last fall that it did not think demand would recover before 2019, and it reduced its capacity to Puerto Rico significantly. JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said on the carrier's April 24 earnings call that it would return its number of departures to pre-hurricane levels this summer.

"It's a testament to increased demand and recovery at an accelerated pace," Campos said.

Here in Denver, destination marketers who have been in the situation in which Campos now finds herself had some advice on emerging from tragedy.

"We learned very quickly that we had to be completely, 100% honest about our condition," said Kristian Sonnier, New Orleans & Co. vice president of communications. "We could not promise it would be the most comfortable vacation, but it could offer a chance for people who were interested in coming to help and rebuild a great American city -- and create memories that would be more memorable than a vacation."

Sonnier recalled New Orleans ads that approached the city's condition in a tongue-in-cheek way, such as one tagline saying, "Soul is waterproof" and another with a photo of people toasting a drink with the tagline, "We were never dry."

Puerto Rico has also slightly changed its slogan, which had for a long time been "Island of Enchantment."

Now it's "Ready to enchant you."

Fred Dixon, CEO of NYC & Co., said that communication is key.

"Communicating in real time with trade partners, the travel and lifestyle media and ultimately consumers will reinforce that Puerto Rico is open for business," he said. "Launching a new marketing and communications campaign is also recommended to be able to showcase the vibrancy of Puerto Rico to strategic markets. Employing social media as part of the initiative is essential to success." 


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