Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
“Every time there’s a hurricane we have to educate people about the Caribbean,” quipped a journalist colleague from Trinidad, lamenting over the way international media covers tropical storms with little regard for geographic details.
In the weeks leading up to this year’s Caribbean Travel Marketplace, the fate of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association’s (CHTA) annual conference and trade show from Oct. 3-5 hung in the air due to this year’s host location: San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Two weeks before the event, which brings together tourism boards, suppliers, wholesalers and media, headlines announcing that Hurricane Fiona was “ripping through" and “pounding” Puerto Rico rattled the newswires.
From the outside looking in, one might be led to assume the entire island, based on headlines alone, was facing mass devastation after Fiona made landfall in southwestern Puerto Rico on Sept. 18 as a Category 1 storm.
Yes, the hurricane brought heavy rain to Puerto Rico, resulting in floods and power outages – largely in rural and remote parts.
The capital city of San Juan, a major tourism and cruise hub located in the northeast, was mostly spared, says the destination's tourism authority.
“You might have been somewhat surprised when you arrived in San Juan to see everything up and running,” said Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, addressing international media outlets – PAX included – at a press conference last Tuesday (Oct. 4).
Indeed: while transferring from San Juan Airport (SJU) to the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel on Oct. 1, the (perhaps ignorant) expectation was to see flattened palm trees and torn-away rooftops along San Juan’s coastal roads and highways.
READ MORE: Caribbean should be multi-country destination like Europe, says CHTA; agent program launching
But there was none of that. Everything in San Juan, at the time of CHTA's event, looked tropically normal – save for a few inactive traffic lights.
Fiona did not yield the same level of destruction caused by Hurricane Maria – a Category 5 storm in 2017 that caused island-wide havoc and, not to mention, a major humanitarian crisis.
Within 24 hours of Fiona’s landfall last month, Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport was back up and running, Dean told reporters. By Sept. 23, cruise ports were also back in action.
While rural areas are “bouncing back” (there’s still reports of power outages), most hotels, businesses and attractions in Puerto Rico “were largely spared any serious damage,” Dean said.
“We have extensive experience in managing through adversity and coming back – not just coming back, but coming back stronger and better prepared for the future,” Dean said.
Puerto Rico is now in damage control as it recoups losses from the cancellations Fiona caused and restores its image as a safe destination with an open-for-business message.
“This is a setback, not a reset for the island of Puerto Rico,” Dean emphasized.
This year’s Caribbean Travel Marketplace, now in its 40th year, marked a return to in-person programming– the last face-to-face event was held in Nassau in January 2020, two months before the COVID-19 pandemic closed borders.
The CHTA holds its conference in a different destination each year, giving tourism boards opportunities to showcase local gems and assets.
On this year’s host island of Puerto Rico, which has both urban areas and mountainous rainforests, there’s been a shift in how the destination positions its brand.
At the forefront of Puerto Rican tourism is a campaign called "Live Boricua.”
Boricua refers to a person of Puerto Rican descent, and the branding highlights how to enjoy life the Boricua way, tapping into the authenticity and connection that travellers, today, are craving.
Local voices were tapped to communicate this spirit, heritage, flavour and rhythm shared by Puerto Ricans, the diaspora and travellers who visit.
“It's a mindset,” Dean said. “The invitation to "Live Boricua" is to not just visit our island, but to truly discover who we really are.”
The campaign, which launched in May, aligns with consumer trends Discover Puerto Rico has been tracking.
“Many travellers are looking for deeper connections and meaning,” Dean said. “A chance to not just to see beautiful scenery and enjoy unique experiences, but to also engage with local culture, artisans, historians, flavours, and of course, the people.”
As for COVID-19 recovery, the U.S. territory continues to see progress.
Puerto Rico saw a 23 per cent increase in passengers through SJU in July 2022 compared to 2021, and the destination continues to grow with new hotels.
Marriott, for example, opened its first Residence Inn in San Juan's Isla Verde neighborhood earlier this year.
San Juan’s new Distrito T-Mobile, a retail, dining entertainment district adjacent to the Puerto Rico Convention Center (which hosted this year’s CHTA event), has also been a “game-changer” for the meetings and events market, Dean said.
The complex is about a five to eight-minute Uber ride from San Juan’s cruise terminal.
Fun for foodies
In between CHTA press conferences, PAX dove a little deeper into the “Isla del Encanto” – a nickname for Puerto Rico that means "Island of Enchantment” in Spanish.
Last week, we hit the cobbled streets of 500-year-old Old San Juan, a “walled” city full of colourful buildings that date back to the 16th century, historical landmarks – like the San Felipe del Morro and San Cristóbal fortresses – open plazas, restaurants and bars.
The latter was showcased on a five-stop food tour hosted by Flavours of San Juan, which introduced us to local bites and eateries, from carne frita (fried pork seasoned with spices) at Patio de Sam to mofongo (fried plantains with garlic and olive oil) at Casa Luna.
Let's just say we came hungry…and left as a San Juan foodie insider.
Food (good food) is a reoccurring theme in Puerto Rico.
At Cocina Abierta, of Cincosentidos Culinary Group, Chef Stephanie Haddock led a cooking class where we prepared sofrito (a flavourful base of herbs and flavourful seasoning) for a rice and pernil (slow-roasted pork) dish – wine parings included.
Chef Haddock’s ingredients were the epitome of freshness, and there’s even a growing movement in Puerto Rico to eat local thanks in part to an app called “PRoduce,” which connects customers with farmers who have produce to sell.
Another culinary highlight was dinner at Marcella Orquidea Violeta, where Chef Jose prepared creations like the “Butter Shank” (braised lamb), duck and oysters and braised goat stew. Each dish was a showpiece (and worth the wait!).
Puerto Rico is also famous for its rum distilleries. From Casa Bacardí to Hacienda Santa Ana, local distilleries offer guests lessons on the spirit’s history and how it’s made.
And yes, expect a sample. Or two.
From Vanderbilt to Wyndham
Puerto Rico’s hotels are as diverse as the food.
In the neighbourhood of Condado sits the Vanderbilt Hotel, which has attracted A-listers, from Hollywood stars to heads of state, since opening in 1910.
The Vanderbilt – part of Preferred Hotels and Resorts’ portfolio – is considered the first luxury hotel in Puerto Rico.
Its salmon-coloured, Spanish-revival architecture exudes high-end sophistication, and the beachfront property has, over time, undergone restoration and expansion.
The hotel reopened in 2015 after 15 years of careful renovations.
It’s also easy to see why the Vanderbilt is wedding central. With on-site restaurants (including an STK steakhouse), spa services, butler-equipped suites and grandiose spaces, the hotel is made for picture-perfect occasions.
For a more large-scale resort experience, there’s Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Golf & Beach Resort, which sits on 600 acres of leafy landscape, including two miles of buttery beachfront.
It also boasts views of El Yunque National Forest – the only tropical rainforest in the United States.
Located about 30 minutes from San Juan, the 400-room EP-plan property has nine restaurants, two championship golf courses, two tennis courts, lagoon-like pools, a spa, casino and about 100,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space.
It’s invested in sustainably, holding regular fundraisers for local communities and for the preservation of its surrounding green foliage.
There’s also a tropically-colourful Margaritaville Vacation Club on site, serving as a breezy reminder to guests that it’s always five o'clock somewhere.
Speaking of adult beverages: Wyndham Grand Rio Mar has its very own premium beer, Rio Mar Lager, which is produced on the island and offered exclusively to guests.
We chugged a bottle. And it’s spectacular.
Direct to Canada?
While there is currently no direct lift to Puerto Rico from Canada, Brad Dean said he senses enthusiasm from Canadians, as well as a commitment from Canada-based carriers, to return to the island.
“As cruise lines start resuming service, we feel the Caribbean is very well positioned to not only get back to pre-pandemic levels of travel from Canada, but to grow to new heights,” he said.
Dean is also “very encouraged” by the recent launch of Canada Jetlines, which will position itself as a leisure sun carrier once it acquires more aircraft and its required permits.
“We anticipate seeing service from them,” he said.
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