Puerto Rico May Have Some Good News for Its Tourism Industry

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.

From Suburban Lawyer to Jibaro Hotelier

The fantasy of packing up everything and moving to a tropical island is a common story that many of us can relate to. Leaving behind all the stress, the traffic, the bills, and especially the snow and the ice to lie down on a beach somewhere has a certain appeal. Some have definitely followed through with the fantasy: every time I head down to Puerto Rico, I find several second or third generation Puerto Ricans from the Bronx, Queens, Jersey, or wherever else, that had only been to the island once or twice before deciding to give up everything to settle there. I’ve also met quite a few white and black Americans who could barely speak Spanish, but nevertheless left their lives behind for Puerto Rican living. However, unlike most of those people, Steven Weingarten never had the dream of retiring to a tropical island.

Steven was a lawyer with a private civil law firm in Great Neck, Long Island, when he decided to explore Puerto Rico. He had been to the island at least twice before, staying with family at one of the Condado hotels, and traveling with a special summer camp program that brought kids from Connecticut all the way down to Bayamon, PR, as a camp counselor. Though he enjoys warmer weather, Steven isn’t all that fond of the beach, and the campers and counselors got themselves lost in the hilly, muddy terrain. Both were so long ago that Steven can’t even remember the name of the hotel or the program. So, what prompted Steven to just return to the island after decades had passed?

As he recalls, he was sitting in his law office “on a gloomy November afternoon in 1995…watching the large snowflakes float towards the cold concrete below. I feel the chill in my bones and the need to get warm soon.” He went to the local library to pick up some guidebooks, and eventually discovers that the island of Puerto Rico has a mountain chain in the central region that he’s never been to. Not being the biggest fan of “just lying on the beach for a week,” he decides that a little change of scenery for a tropical vacation would be the perfect escape from the chilly climate.

Steven looks into the system of Paradores in Puerto Rico, a special type of hotel established by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, a government agency created in the 1970’s. The Parador program was a special initiative based upon a similar system in Spain of luxury hotels, though in Puerto Rico they’re privately owned “country inns” that were converted from older buildings, like coffee plantations. Unfortunately, focus for some Paradores has been less on the “luxury.” Steven tried for three Paradores, but two were overbooked so he settled on Parador Casa Grande up in the mountains of Utuado. Those of you who’ve seen our photography of the modern Casa Grande Mountain Retreat may be conjuring images right now of the renovated hotel, but as Steven describes it the place was nowhere near the picturesque hideaway it is now.

The Parador Casa Grande was in such disrepair that Steven still remembers the details vividly, 20 years later. The pool was a “dark soupy green” color and had not a single piece of furniture in sight, so that Steven had to bring one of the rough, scratchy towels from his room to lie down next to the mucky water. The guest rooms weren’t much better, with wall-to-wall carpeting – a big, BIG no-no in the humid environment of Puerto Rico, especially high in the rainforest – and bedsheets Steven describes as having a “nubby, sandy feeling.” The bathrooms had poorly glued-on tiles, tiny industrial sinks with bare piping, and rusty tubs that still had stains in them. The parking lot’s asphalt was broken up and there was barely any room to park. The walkways were made of rotting wood (unlike the concrete used now) and the hacienda was dimly lit and all the furniture was dirty.

Steven begins chatting up the staff and gets the full story on the deplorable conditions. The disinterested owner was already using money from refinancing his mortgage on the hotel to invest elsewhere. He hadn’t paid taxes on the place for years and foreclosure was soon to follow. The staff’s checks had already begun bouncing. While going over everything with Steven, the front desk manager quips that he should buy Casa Grande, possibly as a joke but maybe also a bit of a desperate plea. Steven’s a little shocked, but he takes the suggestion to heart as he continues his trip in Puerto Rico, eventually arriving at a much nicer hotel on the west coast of the island. He, as he puts it, “cornered” the owner and asked him if buying a small hotel up in the mountains was a crazy idea. “I don’t think you’re crazy,” he answers, “but you’re in for a lot of work.”

20 years later, and Steven’s gone from “being a suburban Long Island lawyer, to a Puerto Rican hotelier,” as he so aptly puts it. For over two decades he’s put his heart and soul into repairing and renovating Casa Grande, and it shows. “It’s unrecognizable from what it was,” says Steven. New, painted rooms, with beds that I personally can attest to are very comfortable, refurbished bathrooms, a clean, freshwater pool – with ample furniture – that’s being renovated yet again to improve it even more, walkways made out of solid concrete of course, and a redone hacienda where guests can sit and eat for breakfast and dinner, as well as attend yoga classes. There are even some beautiful hiking trails on the property, and Steven also added hammocks for all the rooms.

Steven transitioned to his new life gradually, commuting to Puerto Rico from New York for four years before settling in. Though it could have potentially been a system shock for an outsider, he’s adapted quite well to his new home. Even if he’s not that keen on beaches, Steven loves warm weather and says he also loves the landscape and fauna of the Puerto Rican mountains. He also says that he loves the people, calling them “very warm and very friendly,” noting that there’s less “pretentiousness,” “materialism,” and “social climbing,” than in the cities. “It’s very appealing to me, there’s a lot to be said for this lifestyle. That’s why I’ve been here for 20 years, no one forced me to stay…I get to live and work to in paradise.” Seeing Casa Grande Mountain Retreat now, it definitely does seem like a paradise within a paradise.