As a tourism destination, Puerto Rico has nothing to envy any place else. However, the island still has a ways to go when it comes to making itself known, especially in Europe, a high-ranking Hilton Worldwide company executive said during a recent visit to the island.
Ian Carter, president of global operations and development for the hotel chain, said Puerto Rico’s key advantages — language, natural beauty, proximity to the U.S. mainland, a good mix of air travel options and year-round warm weather — need to be played up more to increase tourism activity from far-off locations.
“This makes Puerto Rico what it is. The idea that you have millions of people in the east of the United States suffering through cold and snow, who can get here quickly, is great,” said Carter. “But the point I was making is that it’s not just the U.S. that should be considered in the future, there are other doors waiting to open, to be exploited.”
Carter, who was on his fifth visit to the island this week as part of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association “World-Class Speakers” conference cycle, said it is important that Tourism Company efforts zero in on showcasing what the island has to offer to the European community.
“The natural ties in Europe are not to Puerto Rico, but to islands such as Barbados, Antigua…the islands that make up the Dutch Antilles. But the reality is that Puerto Rico is very easy for a European to get to,” he said.
Having said that, he said participation in events such as the International Tourism Fair held recently in Spain is a positive step toward driving that segment of the traveler to the island.
“Although from the perspective of Gross Domestic Product, tourism is still rather small, it should be bigger and could potentially double and be a mainstay of the island if everybody decided to make that happen,” said Carter. “We must promote tourism because it’s so crucial to the existence of a particular place.”
Hilton Worldwide has had presence in Puerto Rico since 1949, when the Caribe Hilton in Puerta de Tierra was built. That was the first Hilton property built outside the continental U.S. that is still company-owned, and has since become an iconic symbol of Puerto Rico’s tourism.
In the last three years, the company has invested nearly $300 million in the local market, where it operates 11 properties representing seven of its nine brands — Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Hilton, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, and Hampton. In all, the company employs about 4,000 people here.
During a meeting with members of the media following the presentation to the PRMA, Carter said that while hotel investments are pretty much at a standstill on the island, it has not stopped Hilton from building on the value of the properties it already has here.
“As things start to improve, it is an area where we want to increase the value of our assets, which all told is estimated at about $2.5 billion,” Carter said. “We see this as a very important part of our business.”
Barry Lewin, vice president of operations for Hilton Worldwide in charge of the Puerto Rico operations, said that although no capital investments are presently planned, the possibility remains for the hotel chain to enter into “conversion” projects of existing properties.
Doing that, Lewin said, would allow for the arrival of more Hilton brands — for example, Hilton Garden Inn — not currently represented on the island.
“That’s the one brand we don’t have here, which I think would do extremely well in Puerto Rico,” Lewin said.