SAN JUAN -- Puerto Rico's visitor figures are inching up this year, and that makes Milton Segarra, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. (PRTC), very happy.

"Although the overall increase from January through June was just 1.5% over the same period a year ago, June's increase was 6.9%," he said.

Hotel occupancies averaged 67% for the first six months, down from 70% a year ago. However, hotel occupancies at San Juan's 10 largest properties in mid-August topped off at 85%.

The destination, like most of the Caribbean, has struggled for a comeback since last fall. But Segarra said he sees light at the end of the tunnel and many reasons for optimism.

Hotel development continues at a rapid pace, with 24 projects totaling 2,340 new rooms and an investment of $580 million expected on board by the end of 2003.

"Our inventory will total 15,292 rooms in properties ranging in size from 15 rooms to 314 rooms," Segarra said. This figure does not include the convention center in San Juan and its anchor hotel, which should open in early 2005.

Construction on the convention center is temporarily halted while an environmental impact issue is resolved, but Segarra is confident construction will resume by Octoober.

Meanwhile, other venues are hosting the convention crowds. Coming up Jan. 19 to 21 at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum is the Caribbean Hotel Association's annual Marketplace, which Puerto Rico last hosted in 1996.

"We are going the extra mile for this meeting," Segarra said. "It represents a great opportunity to showcase the destination and our tourism product."

The PRTC's successful Fly Free program, first launched last fall and again in February, was brought back in late August to boost fall traffic.

Seven operators offered five-night packages with free air from 10 U.S. gateways to 53 islandwide hotels and paradors.

Segarra's efforts to develop an awareness of Puerto Rico as a brand include a major ad campaign in October that will again feature the high-season theme of "You're Not Dreaming. You're in Puerto Rico."

Ads will concentrate in the the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area but will, for the first time, include newspapers and TV in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale and Miami, Fla.

Testimonials from successful Puerto Ricans now based in the mainland U.S. will be a component of the campaign.

Agent involvement -- a key PRTC focus this year -- will feature frequent newsletters with updates and incentives.

Puerto Rico's annual series of road shows and agent seminars this fall will focus on the eastern, central and western U.S.

In all, $14.9 million is allocated for Puerto Rico's fiscal year promotions.

"The U.S. is our No. 1 market, but our branding efforts also will reach out to other markets," Segarra said. "We have to diversify our dollars for key return on our investment."

In line with the desire to diversify is the PRTC's focus on creating new attractions for repeat visitors. "Nature and adventure travel is a high priority right now," he said.

"We have El Yunque National Rainforest, which many have already visited, so we are creating a network of 28 smaller national reserves where travelers can kayak, bike and bird-watch in conjunction with local tour operators."

Closer to San Juan will be new, one-day guided tours for visitors with less time. Another initiative will target nautical tourism, particularly on Puerto Rico's south coast, where charter boats and yacht excursions will be available.

A revised Web site also is planned in the next 12 months.

Another new program will target cruise ship passengers, who totaled 1.3 million last year. "We will have 20 musical shows a week at the piers this winter," Segarra said.

By December, three new electronic kiosks will be in place in Fajardo and Aquadilla, so that visitors can print out maps and road conditions.

For details, call the PRTC at (800) 223-6350 or visit www.gotopuertorico.com.

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