Why Maria’s wrath isn’t the end of the story

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Puerto Rico’s disaster that killed around 3,000 people might yet have a happy ending. Martin Lewis met Visit Puerto Rico’s Brad Dean at Imex America to talk about the island's progress...

When Hurricane Maria’s wrath laid waste to Puerto Rico, it had a devastating impact on the infrastructure and killed 2,975 people, according to the latest independent estimate.

But the truth is that we will never know the exact figure killed by the storm that passed over the island a little more than a year ago. Many died in the six months following the event as a result of poor healthcare provision and a lack of electricity and clean water. Power cuts also led to deaths from diabetes and sepsis. Puerto Rico has struggled to repair its infrastructure and power grid since the storm, and is asking US Congress for US$139bn (£108bn) in recovery funds.

The political friction between Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico is not a state, but rather a US territory with commonwealth status of the USA but no vote in Congress) and the Federal Government isn’t over, with differences of opinion continuing over the number of casualties and the severity of the storm and the way President Trump handled the aftermath. But independent experts say it was the worst impact in the region since 1900.

We look forward to many continued milestones of progress that truly illustrate the heart and soul of our comeback story – particularly for our world-class hotels and resorts that, in many ways, act as the heartbeat of our tourism industry.” Brad Dean, CEO Discover Puerto Rico

A year later, the island and its people are rebuilding for a brighter future with 100 per cent of power and communications claimed to have been restored. Earlier this year ‘Discover Puerto Rico’ was formed as the first of several efforts to privatise government operations. The new agency is a privately-funded, non-profit destination marketing organisation. According to CEO Brad Dean, the Puerto Ricans “recognise that the future of Puerto Rico is dependent on a vibrant tourism industry. They want to use this crisis to reimagine the destination and rebuild it. It has been a challenging time but already we are seeing tangible results.”

Dean points to a US$1.9 billion investment in new development generating 2,900 new jobs locally and added:

“By 2019 we will be back to pre-Maria times in terms of hotel inventory with demand severely reduced. The increase in inventory is a real gift to the consumer with prices reflecting this. New developments are under construction and this is an exciting time for us. We are writing a comeback story and the story doesn’t end with Maria.

“With more than 189 tourist attractions open – everything from salsa tours to the Bacardi Distillery – it’s incredibly rewarding to see the momentum that continues to benefit hotel development and its continued growth,” he added. “We look forward to many continued milestones of progress that truly illustrate the heart and soul of our comeback story – particularly for our world-class hotels and resorts that, in many ways, act as the heartbeat of our tourism industry.”

These include:  

  • 3,800 new hotel rooms bringing 25 per cent more capacity thanks to new hotel developments that include JW Marriott in Dorado, Mall of San Juan Hotel and the Four Seasons Cayo Largo Resort.
  • The debut of the 5-acre District San Juan in Q4 of 2019, a hospitality and entertainment district designed to be the Caribbean’s most vibrant and popular setting for events, conventions and performances of all types.
  • The opening of the new ALOFT Hotel at the Convention Center at District San Juan featuring 175 loft-like rooms over seven storeys.
  • The Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve is once again welcoming guests after the 110-room resort expanded and improved facilities.
  • The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort is targeted to reopen in December following the completion of a US$60 million renovation.
  • El San Juan Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton will reopen on Isla Verde Beach this winter following a significant restoration.
Additionally, 480 new rooms will be available in December at Meliá Coco Beach. Additional revamping includes El Conquistador Resort, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, Caribe Hilton and The Ritz-Carlton San Juan. Also fueling continued growth for the hospitality sector are the more than 4,000 diverse restaurants now open. The San Juan area, including Condado, Old San Juan and Santurce, has 1,885 operating restaurants alone. The Island also offers 13 professional golf courses, 16 casinos and numerous nightlife options. The island has excellent air access with 110 daily flights served by 28 airlines from the USA and no passport requirement for USA citizens. Dean pointed to direct flights from Madrid and Frankfurt as a way to avoid transiting through Miami for international event organisers.

[caption id="attachment_3683" align="alignnone" width="300"]

Brad Dean[/caption]

Dean was predictably sanguine about the relationship between the islanders and the Federal Government and avoided blaming President Trump for a slow and inadequate response, according to many. He said: “It’s less about the politics and more about the progress. Both the public and private sectors recognise that we have to grow the tourism destination and also become a great meetings destination. We want to position PR as a global destination and not rely on the USA to the same extent as we did previously. We have a partnership with Brand USA which will help us change our marketing emphasis and be more international in approach.”

Old San Juan is a great destination for incentives with a mixture of African and Spanish cultures and great salsa bars and Puerto Rico also boasts the best convention centre in the Caribbean. I visited for the International Congress & Convention Association congress a few years ago and loved the flavour of a Caribbean destination with a unique history and culture. Now Brad Dean and his team have a chance to take the new-look Puerto Rico back to market while the private sector rebuilds its tourism infrastructure. They and all the islanders deserve every success.

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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