PUERTO RICO — It’s a crystal-clear afternoon on the northwest tip of Puerto Rico and the view from atop the 60-metre cliff just off the dramatic 13th hole at Royal Isabela golf course is both sensational and serene. Native birds peacefully circle above in the radiant blue sky, while the relatively calm waves gently crash into the banks below.
As Puerto Rico native Gerardo Valentin gazes north across the Atlantic Ocean and takes in this gorgeous setting he is so familiar with, he shakes his head in disbelief.
Valentin, the course superintendent who has worked in the Puerto Rico golf industry for more than two decades, is explaining to a visitor what this very same scene looked like in late September, 2017 — almost a full year to the day I visited — when the devastating Hurricane Maria slammed into the island.
The Category 4 storm brought heavy rainfall, 250km/h winds with gusts up to 182km/h, and caused extensive damage throughout the 9,000-sq-km Caribbean island that sits about 1,600 kilometres southeast of Miami. Hitting closest to Valentin’s heart was not only the destruction of his golf course and the loss of more than 1,000 trees, but the flooding and structural damage suffered at his house, just a few kilometres away, and, most painfully, the tragic death of a close friend.
“It’s something like I’ve never seen before,” Valentin says softly without looking up. “And I hope I never see it again.”
While the hurtful memories of the historic natural disaster are still vivid for folks like Valentin and the tens of thousands of others who lived through it, the optimism and sense of pride regarding how the island and its people have recovered is equally as strong.
Above: It's been a tough fight but Puerto Ricans are standing tall again after their beaches and homes have been returned to normal after Hurricane Maria.
Enter Leah Chandler and the newly established destination marketing organization called Discover Puerto Rico, a non-profit group created to market the brand of Puerto Rico as a premier global tourism destination.
Chandler, the former chief marketing officer for Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Convention & Visitors Bureau in Missouri, took on the same role for Discover Puerto Rico back in May. She says she made the move, in part, because of the “embarrassment of riches” the island has to offer when it comes to tourism.
“When I first visited the island, I was blown away and so excited about the potential and opportunities here,” explains Chandler, who has joined forces with another longtime, game-changing tourism professional, Brad Dean, Discover Puerto Rico’s CEO. “And since I’ve been here and had a chance to get to know the people and the product even more intimately, I’m even more confident that not only is Puerto Rico back in business, but it’s better than ever.”
A major objective for Discover Puerto Rico has been to educate travellers about the recuperation of the island since Hurricane Maria. Within two weeks of the storm, cruise ships began returning to Puerto Rico. The increase in home porting and transit visits puts the destination on path to hit a record 1.7 million passengers during the 2018-2019 season. More than 110 flights on 28 airlines — including from Montreal and Toronto — land at San Juan Airport and once those visitors hit the ground there are a wide array of almost 200 attractions to choose from.
A trip to this unincorporated territory of the United States is fairly seamless, especially for U.S. residents who don’t need a passport and can use their U.S. currency.
“Because of the volume of negative media coverage we received post-Maria, we are still receiving a lot of questions, but we’re here to say that Puerto Rico is thriving and open for business,” says Chandler. “While some of our natural resources take more time to get back to pre-hurricane grandeur, the infrastructure, electrical grid and transportation on the island are all completely up and running and reliable.”
Chandler points out that the hotel product, in particular, has been completely “reimagined” with a number of luxury properties spending millions of dollars on renovations. An estimated 4,000 guest rooms are currently being revamped from properties such as El San Juan Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton, The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan, Meliá Coco Beach, El Conquistador, a Waldorf Astoria Resort and Spa and Caribe Hilton San Juan. By mid-2019, total room inventory will reach 15,000, back to pre-Maria levels.
Above: Tourists are quickly returning to Puerto Rico to enjoy all the aquatic pleasures the island nation has to offer.
In addition to a thriving hotel product, Puerto Rico offers a laundry list of other unique attributes and amenities, beginning with its distinguished roster of beaches, most notably Flamenco Beach, ranked a Top 10 beach in the world, and found on Culebra, one of two small islands — the other being Vieques — just off the main island in which tourists can make day trips via airplane or ferry.
“Having world-class beaches is expected for a Caribbean island and Puerto Rico most certainly delivers,” Chandler says. “But what makes Puerto Rico unique from the other islands is what we also have, like scenic mountains and rainforests that provide incredible, natural scenic beauty, alongside those beaches.”
That beauty is not more evident than at the glowing bioluminescent bays in Mosquito Bay, Laguna Grande and La Parguera. There are only five in the world and Puerto Rico has three of them. There are also caving systems in Cueva Ventana and Toro Verde Adventure Park, and the El Yunque rainforest is the largest of its kind in the U.S.
In addition, Puerto Rico is considered the Rum Capital of the World, with Casa Bacardi, the second most visited venue in Puerto Rico, offering tours of the distillery, mixology classes and tastings. The aforementioned Royal Isabela, a stunning 18-hole links course built along rugged cliffs, canyons and sand dunes, is one of 17 golf courses to choose from on the island, with a wide variety of price points and designs, including Coco Beach Golf & Country Club (formerly Trump International Puerto Rico), where the annual PGA Tour Puerto Rico Open is played in the spring. The nightlife on the island is vivacious with 16 casinos, and hundreds of bars and clubs for salsa dancing, tapas and more.
Speaking of food and beverage, there is an eclectic choice of restaurants on the island with strong Spanish, Mexican, African and American influences. Chandler says the culinary scene is “very aggressively growing and becoming more renowned by the day.”
But above all, it’s the history and culture that Discover Puerto Rico is banking on as a true differentiator.
Above: Puerto Rico's world class resorts and golf courses and its stunning typography is what tourists love about this Caribbean beauty.
Cultural experiences include walking, gastronomical and salsa tours through Old San Juan, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristobal; street art, museums, music and historical sites such as the San Juan Bautista Cathedral, the second oldest cathedral in the Americas.
“As we move to reposition the brand of Puerto Rico tourism, we’re confident we can pull away from the pack by focusing on the culture that is found here throughout the island and truly cannot be found anywhere else in the world,” she says with a rise in her voice.
“We want to make people aware of all that Puerto Rico has to offer, and not just in San Juan. It’s a relatively small island and it’s very easy to get around and that’s what we want people to do. You can go to different regions of the island and get a completely different experience. That’s what makes Puerto Rico so special.”
Adds Dean, “Our mission is to create a much healthier tourism industry and a global brand for Puerto Rico. Travel and tourism can fuel ongoing recovery, and we will change lives if we do this right.”