The designated executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. (PRTC), Carlos Mercado, describes the island's historic scenario as an ideal opportunity to renovate infrastructure and the tourism ecosystem, and boost its competitiveness over other destinations.
COVID-19 has blundered this industry, which employs nearly 80,000 workers. As such, Mercado believes that promoting tourism to reactivate it with a sense of urgency —to the extent allowed by the spread of the coronavirus— could reestablish the economy of this sector and others that benefit of tourism activities.
"This is the time to focus on the preparation and maintenance of the sector's infrastructure. We have to rethink what we want to do in the next 50 years. Rediscover the attractions of the island, what Puerto Ricans have been doing when being unable to travel. Decentralize tourism; look beyond the metropolitan area," Mercado said, adding that there has been a rise in requests for certifications as tour operators and talks for the opening of national parks.
The current challenges, he stated, have also brought opportunities because travelers see the Iisland as a safe place to vacation, which he understands must be used to capture the tourist, both for leisure and business.
"Health is the priority. We are going to emphasize how safe the destination is, how prepared we are and that we do not have a saturated health system. We have these things on our side. We were one of the first destinations in America with security protocols in their hotels, which protect visitors and employees," he said.
As for how he sees the future of the island and what he seeks to achieve in the long term from his new position in Tourism, he replied that he wants to restore Puerto Rico's position as a top destination of Americans and visitors from other countries.
"This is the worst tourism crisis in Puerto Rico, but this sector is nurtured by many committed people and that led me to accept this task. We have been stumbling for five years with Zika, hurricanes, earthquakes and the pandemic, but tourism has always strengthened. In 2019, we had a record of passengers in air and cruises; we have to recover that and improve the things that were not attended to on a day-to-day basis or by working on new projects," Mercado affirmed.
He deemed necessary supporting municipalities to improve their tourism offer, make capital improvements, promote recreational projects —such as the upcoming reopening of the Camuy Caverns— and continue with hotel developments in different parts of the island, among other factors that he thinks will enhance the visitor experience. He also pointed out that it is necessary to work to increase the quality of services, which is part of his plans to have greater competitiveness in other markets.
Part of Mercado's agenda will be to give continuity to the projects started, measure the standards of the lodgings, and provide support to the tourism business ecosystem through the aid of the Affordable Care Act program and other incentives that will be announced in the next 30 days.
"We are going to develop an incentive package to promote sustainable tourism projects throughout the island. We want to give these businesses a reinforcement, a business push. Medical tourism is also part of economic development strategies with new offerings, such as El Dorado Beach Health," he said.
Hotels, Flights and Cruises
Mercado said that he maintains communication with the directors of cruise lines such as Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean, which provide him with a periodic update to let him know when the routes will resume.
Compared to the U.S. mainland, he pointed out that Puerto Rico is 10 percent above the flow of airports, which maintains the routes and the frequency that it seeks to strengthen, as well as groups, conventions and new hotel constructions.
"The Convention Center is fed by the room tax and there has been a decrease of between 50 percent and 60 percent. We seek to save the conferences scheduled for the end of this year and present ourselves as an option to capture the conventions that do not yet have destinations. The calendar is full of hotels that will begin construction, some have used this time to accelerate their remodeling or expansion projects," he asserted.
Regarding short-term rentals, Mercado expressed his support for the sector because it has a great demand, but conditioned it to regulations that ensure quality service. "It is worth promoting the development of new offers of this type, but tied to quality regulations," he underscored.