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Tourism execs: Puerto Rico needs to pump millions into infrastructure to compete

Puerto Rico has all of the attributes needed to compete with the most popular tourist destinations in the world, but it needs to make significant investments to attractions islandwide and its capital city of San Juan, tourism executives agreed during a panel discussion at the San Juan Economic Forum.

“Tourism is based on experiences and San Juan can be the best city in the United States and the Americas, and we’re pushing for the government to invest $500 million in federal funds in the city’s infrastructure to make it a more contemporary, more modern city facing the future,” said Federico “Freidel” Stubbe, chairman of PRISA Group, which is the owner of the Distrito T-Mobile entertainment venue in Miramar.

That attraction — whose opening was delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown orders — is looking to compete with similar attractions in Florida.

“I studied Florida’s economic development closely and I saw that it was based on first attracting people as visitors, who then realized that they could spend the cold winters there because life there was great. We can be better than them because we have a gorgeous island, and good people,” Stubbe said.

But, he said, to excel in tourism or to attract new permanent residents, “you have to have a safe, clean, beautiful city and we have all of the elements in San Juan to make that so.”

“We cannot compete with third-rate infrastructure,” Stubbe added.

Puerto Rico Tourism Co. Executive Director Carlos Mercado agreed, adding that getting Puerto Rico in shape requires improving roads, safety and cleanliness, which must include other government components, such as the Department of Transportation and Public Works (DTOP, in Spanish), into the mix.

“If, for example, we want to develop an area in the mountains of Orocovis, we have to have access to transportation, we have to be responsible with the environment and we have to support the town mayor who may be receiving thousands of visitors during the weekend, but who lacks the resources to handle that volume,” Mercado said.

“So beyond supporting the municipal office, for example in San Juan, we’ve also begun to focus on other areas that may need a push, like what we’re doing now by developing and presenting initiatives for the Las Curías sector in San Juan, which is rural but has many attractions,” he said.

Stubbe said he is also recommending that the central government pump $2 billion in infrastructure islandwide, “to have an awesome place to live and visit.”

Another aspect is the need for more marketing dollars to position the island as a destination to visit.

“Puerto Rico has been spending $25 million a year on advertising and marketing. Florida spends $320 million. Of course, there’s an issue of scale, but to be able to compete in the big leagues, you must make real investments,” Stubbe said, noting that the lobbying efforts by the tourism sector succeeded in getting that budget up to $70 million this fiscal year.

Discover Puerto Rico is the agency responsible for marketing Puerto Rico as a leisure and business destination, mostly in US mainland markets.

“We’re recommending spending $150 million a year to advertise the island, and I guarantee that if we can take away 5% of Florida’s market, we will see our economy grow by 50%,” Stubbe said. “We’ve already seen it in Dorado, for example, where people are moving to from states like California. And the Dorado Beach hotel is making its best numbers ever.”

jetBlue passenger traffic ramping up again
Creating a buzz for Puerto Rico is also beneficial for the airline sector, which has taken a beating in the last 18 months, while COVID-19 restrictions have been in effect across the globe.

Robert Land, head of government affairs for jetBlue, said following one of its busiest years in its 22-year history, things “almost went off like a light switch” when the pandemic hit in March 2019.

“In a period of four to six weeks, our business went from carrying close to 40,000 to 50,000 people a day with more than 1,000 flights, to some days having between 30 and 40 flights,” he said. “Here in Puerto Rico, we went from more than 1,000 employees to under 40 in four weeks.”

“The good news for JetBlue here in Puerto Rico is that we actually have more destinations today than we had before COVID,” Land said, comparing the 11 daily nonstop flights it had in 2019, to its current scheduled 13 a day.

As stateside residents, and the Puerto Rican diaspora again make plans to travel, jetBlue is banking on the island’s attributes to ramp up business.

“With the help of the Tourism Co. that growth has come naturally,” he said. “San Juan is one of jetBlue’s six focus cities, so everything that happens on this island is very important to us.”

The forum sponsored by the San Juan municipal government is part of its year-long celebration of the city’s 500th anniversary of its founding. To mark that milestone, jetBlue will be adding the celebration’s official logo to its “Blue Rican” aircraft, which was dedicated to the island a few years ago, Land said.

For now, jetBlue will not be adding more routes out of San Juan, where it already serves key markets with a significant Puerto Rican presence, Land said.

Author Details
Author Details
Business reporter with 27 years of experience writing for weekly and daily newspapers, as well as trade publications in Puerto Rico. My list of former employers includes Caribbean Business, The San Juan Star, and the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, among others. My areas of expertise include telecommunications, technology, retail, agriculture, tourism, banking and most other segments of Puerto Rico’s economy.
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