Talking Puerto Rico Tourism With PRHTA President and CEO Clarisa Jimenez

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Above: PRHTA President and CEO Clarisa Jimenez at the San Juan Marriott (CJ Photo)

By Alexander Britell

SAN JUAN — What’s next for tourism in Puerto Rico? Armed with a new marketing campaign positioning the destination as the “All Star Island,” Puerto Rico is looking to take its tourism sector to the next level in 2014. And it will need to do so, with an economy facing serious debt and an uncertain future. To learn more about the state of tourism and Puerto Rico and how it’s moving foward, Caribbean Journal caught up with Clarisa Jimenez, President and CEO of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association at the San Juan Marriott.

Where do you see tourism in Puerto Rico right now, and how has it changed in the last few years?

With every administration, there are changes that come along. There’s a new team right now at the Tourism Company and they have been working hard to launch the new campaign, which they did in September. So we’re hopeful that the new campaign will create the demand that we need for the coming months. It’s very nice, so it’s a new concept. It’s different, and we’re hopeful that it will be good for the island in general. A lot of new things have been happening locally, new hotels — the Ritz-Carlton Reserve that recently opened, a few other projects on the way, the Hyatt Place in Bayamon and Manati. We’re excited and hopeful that this will be good for our tourism industry.

How would you compare what Puerto Rico is doing now to what other Caribbean destinations are doing?

That has changed so much. In the past, I don’t think we saw that aggressiveness from everybody. Now, a lot of destinations have realized how important touris is for the island. It’s fantastic for creating jobs. You have the demand, and you create a lot of jobs, and they’re good jobs with good benefits. I think that has changed a lot in the past few years, so competition is tough. Years back, when I started in this industry, there were one or two [destinations] that you were looking at. Nowadays, you have to look at everybody, because everybody’s been extremely aggressive working with their product, very aggressive in their marketing. So we’re hoping that with the new initaitives that the government has in place, that Puerto Rico will be able to stay on top.

How would you describe the awareness of tourism in Puerto Rico, both by citizens and the government? Has that changed, or is it something that should change?

I think everybody knows how important tourism is. I think this administration is committed to helping us, to continuing to develop the island and enhance the product, which is very important, especially with the kinds of properties that have been opening in Puerto Rico, very high-end. So we need to make sure the priority is at that level. We have been lucky because we’ve had a great infrastructure compared to many other destinations for many years. But we have to keep doing things better. I think the airport is a great example — it’s looking really good, and it’s undergoing a lot of changes that were much needed. I think it’s looking good in general. So I think there’s always something else to do. But I think we’re getting there.

We’ve seen films like “22 Jump Street” and series like Homeland recently film in Puerto Rico. How much does film production in Puerto Rico impact tourism? Is that something you work with the Film Commission on?

I think in that area, especially Puerto Rico, for decades, has been very active in pursuing that type of business, which I think is fabulous for the island. It gives exposure. We have great facilities here, we have technical equipment, we have the people to be able to do it. I think it really helps these companies when they come down, and we have seen an increase. Every day, more and more are coming to the island, like Crossbones on NBC, which is filming here. So I think it’s good for the island, and it’s good for business. Not only in tourism but in the business sense.

How is the PRHTA different from other hotel associations in the region?

For us in Puerto Rico, things are a little different. I talk to my counterparts on other islands, and a lot of them are more directly involved with the marketing of the destination. In our case, that’s not the situation. We are a not for profit organization, and basically, what we do is look after our members. We make sure that legislation that is against the industry is not approved, and promote the [legislation] that will help. That is something we do very aggressively. Even though we’re not involved with marketing, it’s through our association that all the entities that have something to do with marketing, like the Tourism Company which is responsible for the image of the island, the Convention Bureau, which handles conventions, get together on a monthly meeting to discuss plans and everything that has to do with the sales and marketing of the island. So that’s basically our function in that regard. We do a lot of education, too, and that is similar to some of my counterparts [in the region].

What are the initiatives you’ve been working on?

One thing we created seven years ago was a culinary event, I think the largest in the Caribbean right now, Saborea Puerto Rico. And we’re going to be doing that again on April 3 through 6. It’s a huge event — we have the participation of more than 60 chefs, local and invited chefs also. And in attendance we get close to 7,500 people during the weekend. WE have added new events to Saborea. Now it’s not only Saturday and Sunday but also evening events on Thursday and Friday. So that is something very important, because Puerto Rico has always been distinguished as the culinary capital of the Caribbean, since the early 1970s. I think it really is one of our advantages — anywhere you go here you can have a wonderful meal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hole in the wall or a fine dining restaurant. That is something we need to continue pushing, because it is one of our strengths — culinary and gastronomy in general. In the last few years, we’ve had an increadible number of chefs recognized in different parts of the world, and they’re very creative, great young people doing their thing.

Is tourism in San Juan different from the rest of Puerto Rico? How is tourism to the capital right now?

It’s stronger, of course. Many people come to San Juan, either for leisure, business or convention, and it’s much stronger than other areas. But, little by little, other areas are being developed in that sense. For example, Porta del Sol, on the west coast of the island, years ago was only for Puerto Ricans. Now, you see a lot of people visiting from other areas. In that sense, it’s still strong with the local market, but we see more and more people coming and wanting to visit other pats of the island, as well as Ponce and the southern part of the island, too. It’s one of those things where, once you have been to San Juan a few times, you really want to go and see other areas. And we have a very high percentage of repeat business historically. So it’s a good thing that people are starting to go around the island, and, of course, we need to continue pushing that, because we have some great facilities around the island, a lot of small properties that offer a totally different experience. So it’s a very complete experience.

The government recently announced plans to work to develop the small hotel and bed-and-breakfast sector. Is that something the PRHTA might work on?

We do our own thing, but we support all of the government’s efforts. We have a Web site just for the smaller properties here, with a booking engine, and that has proven to be very good, especially for the smaller ones that didn’t have the facility. So now we have it. But we have another one that covers everybody, the Web site that the association has, and we have a booking engine that goes directly. So the promotion is there — anything we can do to support them we will definitely do.

Regionally speaking, what is the biggest challenge for Caribbean tourism today?

I think we need to create a strong brand for the Caribbean. Even though it’s well known, you can always do better. Nowadays there is global competition. You’re competing against the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. So I think we need to work together. We are very much involved with the CHTA and we support their efforts as much as we can. I think our government will be working very closely with the Caribbean Tourism Organization. So that way we cover both the private and government sectors, and definitely, we all need to pull together. We need a strong Caribbean so we can all grow and benefit from it.