SAN JUAN -- Air access expansion, cruise line incentives and hotel development are the priorities of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. (PRTC) in coming months, according to executive director Terestella Gonzalez Denton.

The moves should bolster the already impressive growth of Puerto Rican tourism: The destination registered a 4% overall increase in arrivals through September over the same period a year ago, Denton reported, and is well on its way to setting records this year.

In fact, Puerto Ricos travel and tourism demand is expected to grow at a solid annual pace of 3.8% over the next decade, according to World Travel and Tourism Council research.

To further shore up those visits, the PRTC unveiled a $21 million advertising and promotional campaign on Nov. 3 with a theme that encourages travelers to Explore Beyond the Shore.

We want visitors to know all of Puerto Rico in terms of nature, heritage, culture, cuisine and attractions, Denton said. Our focus will be to improve the infrastructure so our visitors have easy access to whats out there.

The theme evolved based on input from the PRTCs travel agent and hotelier advisory board.

Heritage tourism is one of our attractions, and we have to focus on the uniqueness of our culture and our people, Denton said.

The biggest tourism happening in the island this year will take place Nov. 18 when the Puerto Rico Convention Center (PRCC) officially opens as the centerpiece of a $415 million waterfront development project in San Juan.

The facility will have 580,000 square feet of exhibition space able to accommodate more than 10,000 attendees.

The centers benefits will spread ripples throughout the entire Caribbean, Denton said.

The first major event to be held at the convention center will be the Caribbean Marketplace (formerly known as the CHA Marketplace), to run Jan. 15 to 17.

Next spring, the PRCC also will host the Caribbean Tourism Organizations 8th Annual Caribbean Conference on Sustainable Tourism Development, April 25 to 29.

Construction also started on the Sheraton hotel, which will be the anchor property for the center.

Growth cruising along

On the issue of air access, the PRTC in June launched a comprehensive Air Access Program -- an update of an earlier plan from 2003 -- to increase the number of nonstop flights and routes and seat capacity between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland, Europe, Latin America and Canada.

Puerto Rico currently is served by 23 airlines offering 15,000 flights a year.

Despite this existing level of service, improved air access is a key strategic issue to grow our tourism industry, Denton said.

In other aviation-related developments, a new tourist information center opens this month at Luis Munoz Marin Airport in San Juan to provide tourists with resources and trip-planning guides.

As for regional airports, the Puerto Rico Airports Authority is investing $2.5 million to renovate Ponces Mercedita Airport, with completion by February.

On the cruise-line front, new incentives already are in the works, Denton said.

Were adding more specialized land tour offerings for cruise passengers, going beyond El Yunque, Old San Juan and the traditional tours. We need to give our visitors more.

In addition, waterfront entertainment has been added, and a port rebuilding program is ongoing, she said.

In the accommodations sector, Puerto Rico will have close to 14,000 hotel rooms by the end of this year.

Other hospitality developments include a new paradores marketing campaign to promote the islands smaller, family-run inns in both local and mainland U.S. markets.

Through this coming April, select paradores are offering two-night stays priced from $299, based on double occupancy, with accommodations, breakfast and dinner, and a 25% auto-rental discount from Hertz.

A list of participating properties is available online at www.gotoparadores.com.

Ecotourism beachhead

In ecotourism news, seven more beaches in Puerto Rico are under review for Blue Flag environmental certification, which they could win by the year-end.

Puerto Rico already has four such beaches: El Escambron and Carolina in the San Juan area, Montserrate in Luquillo and Flamenco Beach on Culebra Island. 

And to enable agents to better participate in its destination specialist program, the PRTC put its Puerto Rico Travel Expert program on line at www.gotopuertorico.com/travelagent.

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

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