For Brad Dean, Optimism Is the Name of the Game
By Verónica de Santiago (special from London)
Brad Dean, CEO of the Discover Puerto Rico DMO, is in London attending the Brand USA Travel Week 2021, an event that targets the European outbound market, one that would hopefully help the U.S. travel industry get back on its feet following an 18-plus-month standstill worldwide.
Mr. Dean sat down once again with Caribbean News Digital in London to talk about the recovery efforts of both Brand USA and Discover Puerto Rico.
After 20 years of your tourism experience. How do you feel in terms of the tourism sector with the pandemic?
I am optimistic. And I think today more so than ever before. We appreciate the importance of travel, and that's especially timely as we reunite the world through travel and tourism. And in Puerto Rico, travel, of course, is an important economic source for our island. But more so it's the way that we connect through shared experiences. And we're excited about the opportunity to welcome visitors back, to show them some of the historic, natural assets that have always been there and some of the new development and restaurants that are opening up.
So, for us in an exciting time, anxious to welcome visitors back and eager to show them how they can travel safely and get back to enjoying all the world of travel and Puerto Rico offers.
The U.S. is opening again. And after Biden's words that they are going to open on November 8, what are the expectations for travelers in Puerto Rico?
President Biden's announcement is a major accomplishment not only because it helps to reopen the borders, but it signals a very profound shift in American policy. Up to now, we've been choosing which nations we were welcoming back. We're now graduating to a risk based model, which means that we, as destinations, can become more consistent and hopefully be able to welcome visitors back who can travel safely. So what they can expect in Puerto Rico, which of course, we are a territory in the Caribbean, but we use all of the same entry guidelines as every other airport in the United States. Vaccinated travelers are welcome and simply have to upload their vaccination cards.
There will be more detailed announcements in the next few days about which vaccines, but we do know we'll use combination vaccines and the vaccines accepted by the World Health Organization, not only the United States.
We also know that for some travelers who are children or others who are exempt from vaccinations, that those will be accommodated in the new policies. And in Puerto Rico, we take it very seriously. We're also wearing masks indoors, and that's one of the reasons why our vaccination rate is so high.
89% of our population have received at least one vaccination, 81% are fully vaccinated. So Puerto Rico is actually leading the United States in vaccinations. And that's because we've taken this so seriously. So those guidelines and protocols will now be aligned with the new federal policies announced by President Biden. And we're excited that now means we can make it clearer and simpler for our global travelers to begin traveling to the United States and Puerto Rico again.
In figures, how many tourists do you expect for 2021?
You know, interesting enough, 2021 has been the all-time record year in tourism for Puerto Rico. That's largely domestic visitors. So we're going to set a new record this year but it's just not a full recovery without the global traveler. And we, prior to the pandemic, enjoyed visitors from the UK, from Germany, from Spain and other parts of Europe and South America. And that's very important not only because the international traveler stays longer, but it helps remind us of just how important travel is to connecting the global community.
So we know that in 2021, we're setting a record with domestic travel. But beginning November 8th, we can begin working on setting new goals and records in 2022 by welcoming visitors back. And the good news in Puerto Rico is we've maintained all of our air service. So it's as easy today as it's ever been to connect through all of the gateway cities in the Eastern United States as well as Iberia out of Spain, Condor in Frankfurt. And soon we hope direct service from London.
This is also a celebrating year for Puerto Rico’s San Juan because of the 500th anniversary, right?
That’s right. You know, Puerto Rico was the gateway to the Western Hemisphere back in the days when transatlantic travel wasn't British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, it was Christopher Columbus and Ponce de León. So, we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the historic city of Old San Juan, which means, for the next six or seven months, there will be an endless array of events and festivals celebrating Puerto Rico's cultural heritage, which, of course, comes from Spain, Africa, and the Taino Indians.
But what's really interesting is at the same time, we're celebrating 500 years of history, we've also just opened up the most extraordinary entertainment dining district in the entire Caribbean, a five-acre extraordinary complex called the Streeto T Mobile. It's a high energy experiential complex with uniquely Puerto Rican restaurants but also a large performance venue, huge video screens, indoor and outdoor music.
So, what it provides is an amazing compliment. You control the cobblestone streets, feel like you're in colonial Spain, and then go to this high energy district that's like a slice of New York Times Square with a Latin feel and a Caribbean flavor, something nobody in the Caribbean has ever been able to offer. We're also very excited that our restaurants have reopened. In fact, today we have over 4000 restaurants open. So the cultural favorites, the ethnic foods sold by street vendors and several Michelin Star rated chefs who have reopened their fine dining restaurants. So, today, perhaps more so than ever before, the gastronomy is really flourishing as we explore new cultural horizons and the gastronomy offerings.
As you said before in the press conference, cruising is a key sector for Puerto Rico. Are there any expectations for recovering new lines?
Puerto Rico is a cruise destination both for those who start their cruise in Puerto Rico, but also for many whose cruise includes Puerto Rico as one stop, it's been a very challenging situation for the cruise lines. First, they had to manage with the government's restrictions from the United States. But then they also have to manage the restrictions of several different nations that they're visiting in the Caribbean. It's one of the reasons why we took the protocols so seriously and made sure that we're able to implement those not only at their airports, but also our cruise ports.
So, today Puerto Rico is ready to begin welcoming cruises. And in fact, we've already seen the first cruise lines return to Puerto Rico. What we understand from our partners in the cruise line is that the cruisers are ready to return. But the challenge is we all have to manage this intersection of public health and travel. So, it's certainly going to be phased reopening.
But I think one of the great things that's come out of this is that Airlines, cruise lines and destinations all recognize that we have a moral responsibility and a responsibility to build trust with the consumer and that includes cruisers to make sure that we're making the protocols and guidelines simple, clear, and easy to follow.
So we're excited about the reemergence of cruises. It may take a while before they get back to pre-pandemic level, but already we're seeing cruise passengers return. And that's a great thing not only for Puerto Rico, but for our entire industry.
Is Puerto Rico ready for welcoming business and MICE travel?
Our convention center was one of the first to receive the Global Bio Risk Advisory Council designation. We also added a broadcast studio so that meeting planners who are handling hybrid events know that we can produce the virtual part of the meeting as well as in person. And interestingly enough, we're seeing more leads and inquiries about meetings in Puerto Rico than before the pandemic.
Part of that is because of the new dining and entertainment district, which is located next to the convention center. But also there's a lot of meeting planners that want to ensure a safe meeting environment. So, they want to meet outside of the Metropolitan area.
Some of the resorts that offer meeting facilities but aren't maybe as congested as an urban hotel. So, we've actually seen a lot more meetings interested in Puerto Rico. And right now, 2022 looks very, very encouraging for corporate meetings, incentive meetings, and also international groups that are coming to Puerto Rico.
Yes, for example, the Connect Marketplace?
You’ve done your homework. We're hosting the largest gathering of meeting planners ever in the history of Puerto Rico and will occur in mid-2022 with Connect Marketplace. And what's really interesting about this meeting is that historically, we've talked about education, networking and training. Now, what we're hearing from meeting planners is they want to talk about sustainability, regenerative travel. So, for example, Puerto Rico installed 20,000 solar panels on our convention center so that we can demonstrate that when you're meeting in Puerto Rico, you're actively limiting your carbon footprint. We think that's a trend that's going to continue long past the pandemic.
So, we know that the cruise lines and the meeting planners, it's going to take a little longer for them to come back. But right now, we're very optimistic that 2022 will not only be another great year in tourism, we're going to see the return of meetings, the return of cruise line, and what we hope to be a record year for international travelers who are looking for that unique cultural experience, the beautiful weather and beaches, but also the conveniences of traveling within the United States.
Puerto Rico is culture. It is food. It is rum as well. But for Europeans, what do you think you have to promote for travelers?
Puerto Rico is the rum capital of the world, and we think rum is going to have its day. One of the great things about Puerto Rico and being the rum capital of the world is you not only get to taste great rums, but you also get to see them made at the various distilleries like Bacardi and Don Q.
So, you can actually see the art and history of rum-making. And those are great experiences that everyone enjoys. We're also noticing with some of our best and most talented chefs, they're taking great pride in not only increasing the farm to table connection, but finding creative ways to use locally sourced products, including rum.
So for us, the cultural infusion of rum into the food, the history, the experience, as well as offering a great attraction, is certainly everything. We also think the same thing happens with our coffee culture. For centuries, coffee was a major cash crop for Puerto Rico, and then we lost the coffee crop years ago in the Hurricane. It has now flourished and come back amazingly well.
But one of the unique experiences that people are really enjoying today, more so than ever before, is visiting the coffee Haciendas, these little Haciendas in the mountains, just a few minutes from the beaches where you go into the Hacienda, you see the coffee being harvested, you experience it, of course, taste the rich aroma of the coffee made there, and it makes you appreciate the importance of the conservation efforts and all the work that's being done to protect that product and help the delivery experience.
So, I think more so today than ever before, we're able to offer experiences that lend themselves to regenerative travel and also remind us of just how important it is to protect our natural assets.
Of course, the most precious natural asset we have right now is the bioluminescent bays. It's an extraordinary experience. And they are shining as bright as they've ever shown. And so we're watching more and more visitors explore that, but also with the right protocols in place to make sure that we protect that very special part of the island.
Which countries in Europe are the focus of your promotion for 2022?
We're actively promoting in the UK, in Spain and Germany. We also are exploring the opportunities in Italy, where we think there are extraordinary opportunities to travel.
We're really excited about some of the new initiatives that Brand USA is opening up, which gives the island of Puerto Rico much lower barriers to entry. So for right now, the core markets that we've always welcomed, like the UK, Spain, Germany and perhaps Italy. But we see a massive expansion of opportunity courtesy of Brand USA and our partners.