With all the bad and potentially worrying news spreading currently about Puerto Rico, we try our best to try to find the more positive pertinent bits where we can. Despite some ongoing scares, certain types of tourism of the island are still holding strong, namely cruise ship stopovers. The Port of San Juan saw a record-breaking 1.5 million customers in 2015, and it looks like that record might be broken again by at least another 100,000 more cruise ship passengers in the 2017-18 season. This is a complete reversal from the decline experienced between 2008 to 2013. According to Fox Business News, the appointed head of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) as of 2012, Ingrid Rivera Rocafort, made it her mission to increase cruise traffic to the island’s capital. Coupled with other good news, such as United Airlines expanding its number of flights from Newark to San Juan and new and promising types of tours in Puerto Rico, it would seem there’s a ray of light in all the darkness.
Of course, a quick search on the subject will link you to a repeated story hosted by several sites that regurgitate press releases, and chances are you’ll be targeted by some variation of “visit Puerto Rico” ads afterwards. Obviously, the PRTC is carrying out another aggressive public relations campaign to combat the negative impact of the Zika press and bring in much needed money from tourism by using the tools at their disposal. The cruise tourist sector brought in an estimated $225 million in 2015, and the last marketing campaign that the PRTC put forward was able to generate between 7 to 10 percent increases in room bookings for certain hotels. With the massive debt Puerto Rico owes, growing revenue streams are desperately needed. However, the PRTC is still focusing on the same narrative of the island as an exotic escape which focuses almost solely on the upper scale sections of San Juan. We think that this not only a wasted potential, but that it will ultimately only lend to the indifference and ignorance in the mainland U.S. of Puerto Rico. I personally spoke to past cruise passengers who stopped over at San Juan, and one was particularly adamant that he wanted to nothing to do with the rest of Puerto Rico – a sentiment that I’ve unfortunately heard more than once. This continued framing of Puerto Rico only seems to reaffirm to its visitors that the island is just a place to have a few drinks and then forget as soon as you leave.
We realized that we are biased observers, but we also like to think of ourselves as informed observers. We’ve seen the effects of poverty in Puerto Rico firsthand, and spoken to the food vendors, hotel owners, artists, and everyone else with something to hock – they all want more mainland Americans to come their way. The difference can be seen when leaving San Juan between the capital and the rest of the island, and counting on a few hundred million coming to one port may not do much to pay the billions owed by the entire island. Puerto Rico needs capital from the more financially robust mainland to cycle through its local economies to make municipalities self-sufficient, and it needs it regularly. Focusing on one target audience for temporary services may not bring in that repeat business, or speak to the key influencers needed to bring that capital flow.
We’ve already pointed out recently the unique story about a certain New York lawyer who would not have returned to Puerto Rico if he had not been able to find out on his own that it was more than beachfront hotels. That lack of information almost prevented the arrival of a man who now employs several local Puerto Ricans at a revamped mountainside resort that has been labeled one of the best hotels in the whole world by one of the founders of Expedia. It was the only hotel in Puerto Rico, and in Latin America, that made the list. Steven Weingarten is a job creator, a businessman, and – most importantly – a member of his community in Utuado. When I was interviewing him, he was on his way to grab a pincho from a local kiosk – the man’s become more of an authentic Puerto Rican that some even on the island. He’s exactly the type of person the PRTC should be reaching out to more: someone who’s willing to actually engage in Puerto Rico, with Puerto Ricans, and spend some actual time there. While the current promotional campaign seems to be making an impact, there’s no telling what the future will hold. Puerto Rico needs to revamp its image as more than a tropical getaway if the country is going to have any future.