SAN JUAN -- No one seems to have told tourism officials in Puerto Rico that the U.S. economy is sluggish.

With 21 new hotels under construction -- and three properties due to open by the end of the year -- Puerto Rico's lodging sector paints an optimistic picture.

And that's just the way officials want it.

"Powerful Dynamic Evolution" is the theme of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.'s (PRTC) recently launched initiatives that cover financial incentives, research and development, promotion and marketing.

"We want to enhance the overall tourism experience and introduce programs that convey the diversity of Puerto Rico," said Jose Suarez, the PRTC's deputy executive director. "We want a stronger tourism industry that will contribute to our economic development."

Hotel boom

The new hotels, which represent an investment of more than $560 million, will add 2,261 rooms to Puerto Rico's inventory (a 15% increase in total capacity), for a total of 15,218 rooms.

Projects under way include:

• Cayo Largo InterContinental, with 350 rooms spread over 600 acres and two nature reserves. It will be located in Fajardo, an hour east of San Juan. Opening is set for December.

• Rincon of the Seas-Grand Caribbean Hotel, a four-star, 112-room property on Puerto Rico's west coast, aimed at the family market. The first phase of the resort is set to open later this month.

• Marriott Courtyard Isla Verde, the former Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza located 15 minutes from the airport in San Juan. The property plans to open Dec. 16.

• Caguas Hampton Inn, south of San Juan. It will debut next summer.

• Paradisus Puerto Rico Beach & Golf Resort, in Rio Grande, east of San Juan, will be Puerto Rico's first inclusive resort and will carry the Sol Melia brand. A November 2003 opening is planned.

Blueprints for more

Suarez said up to 56 more properties, totaling 8,627 rooms, are being considered.

Puerto Rico's hotel boom includes the island's west coast, where the Horned Dorset Primavera in Rincon, above, is located. "The total investment in present and planned projects is more than $2.2 billion, resulting in a 56% inventory increase," he said.

Major projects now under development include the 412-room Fairmont Coco Beach Resort in Rio Grande, which begins construction Dec. 15.

In the Condado area of San Juan, both the historic Condado Vanderbilt, built in the early 1900s, and La Concha, constructed in the 1950s, are under renovation.

When completed, both hotels will flank the new Ventana al Mar urban waterfront plaza, which will form the centerpiece of a major renovation along Ashford Avenue on the site of the old convention center.

The new Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan, targeted for a spring 2005 opening, will include 580,000 square feet of meetings space, a 159,000-square-foot exhibit hall and a 40,000-square-foot banquet hall.

Suarez said an anchor hotel with 850 rooms is expected to open in 2006. The second phase will include another hotel and more meetings space, he said.

Hospitality program

Running hand in hand with the PRTC's emphasis on customer service is the launch of its SuperHost program.

Suarez said the program, licensed by the Vancouver Convention & Visitors Bureau, "is an established set of tourism hospitality guidelines that will train and educate our service industry personnel."

Puerto Rico is the first Caribbean destination and the first Spanish-speaking country to implement the program.

Training started this month in Culebra and will move to other groups in Rincon and Mayaguez on the west coast.

The island's west coast figures prominently in the PRTC's plans in other ways.

A new strategic branding plan, called Porta del Sol-Puerto Rico, includes marketing and development initiatives aimed at building a stronger tourism infrastructure and increasing awareness about this section of the island.

Kiosks and signage

The first tourist information kiosk opened in Fajardo, and eight more will be available at convenience stores in gas stations by December.

Tourists will have online access to maps and information about nearby attractions, accommodations and restaurants as they drive around the island.

In addition to the kiosks are new international signs that soon will go up on major highways to make it easier for tourists to locate attractions and recognize geographical features.

The PRTC created several surveys to analyze cruise visitor satisfaction, hotel occupancies and visitor statistics.

Suarez said the studies supplement existing exit/entry surveys conducted at the airport.

Cruise marketing

On the cruise front, the PRTC negotiated a marketing agreement with the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association.

"We now have an eight-minute video about Puerto Rico in each passenger's cabin, we distribute island brochures at the pier and we provide scripts and guidebooks to the ship's crew so they can advise passengers about Puerto Rico," Suarez said.

In addition, the PRTC promotional staff board the ships while in port to talk with passengers. Youngsters, part of a Puerto Rico, Young at Heart program launched by the PRTC, welcome cruise arrivals with live music and dance at the pier.

To contact the PRTC, call (800) 866-7827 or visit www.gotopuertorico.com on the Web.

Island to open eco-parks

SAN JUAN -- Nature tourism figures high on the priority list of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.

The PRTC is launching Ecoterra, a nature reserves project that will create ecotourism parks from existing nature reserves. The new parks will have specialized guides and facilities for biking, climbing, trekking and kayaking, while adhering to ecological guidelines set by the National Park System.

The first park will be at the Reserva de Humacao on the island's east coast and will include parking facilities, welcome centers, tour guide programs and equipment rental facilities.

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