Puerto Rico Tourism Co.’s new exec. director taking 3-pronged approach to recovery
Carlos Mercado, the newly named head of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., said the agency has a three-pronged approach to working with the industry as it begins recovering from the COVID-19 business downturn.
The official is hitting the ground running, as he had already built a relationship with members of the sector while acting as the agency’s deputy secretary prior to being named head of tourism by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi this week.
First, he said there is an ongoing campaign to address health and safety-related protocols at the different hotel properties, which have received financial incentives to purchase equipment and implement strategies.
“There have been two disbursements of $50 million each, which we’ve been coordinating with the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF, in Spanish) and the Treasury Department,” he said. “The first disbursement was pretty strict in terms of its use, but the second was more flexible. It’ll take about a month to get companies validated to receive more funding.”
The first money was assigned to cover operational costs: to buy protective equipment and establish cleaning protocols to curb the spread of the virus. The second round of allocations, approved a few weeks ago, will go toward covering business interruption losses and related expenses, Mercado said.
Depending on how the disbursement process goes, Tourism Co. officials could approach AAFAF again for a possible third round of funding, he said.
The second aspect of his strategy has to do with tourism development, which includes what he called a “robust pipeline” of projects for the next 24 months. New projects, groundbreakings, a number of expansions, and moving ahead with approving permit requests that may have been stalled are in that plan.
“This gives us a healthy timeline in which we’ll be increasing the number of available rooms, not just in the San Juan metro area, but throughout the island as well,” he said.
The agency is also eyeing commercial relationships with airlines and cruise lines and their return to market.
“Right now, in terms of air traffic, Puerto Rico is 10% above the average traffic being reported at US airports,” he said.
While domestic flights have not stopped since the pandemic was declared in mid-March 2020, international carriers are just a month or two into their return to the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.
Avianca and Copa Airlines, with routes to Colombia and Panamá, respectively, were the first to resume service.
“We’re in talks with Iberia to renew at least one route to Spain in the next weeks or months,” he added.
Meanwhile, he said the agency met last week with the heads of the different major cruise line operators to assess their plans. However, most of them have put off re-starting their schedules until at least summer.
Lastly, Mercado said the agency is working on its third comeback strategy, which calls for reopening key tourist attractions — such as the Camuy Caves — which “have to reopen in the next few months” so that visitors have somewhere to go when they are here.
The tourism official also put high expectations on the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine, which he described as a “milestone” in the recovery plan.
“There’s a before and after. We know this won’t be immediate, but at least there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and the more people get vaccinated, the better we can protect ourselves and hopefully, the same will happen as the process begins in other countries,” he added.