Could Cuba see tourism similar to Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico's tourism industry booming

By Carlos Suarez - Anchor/Reporter

MIAMI - The director of tourism says they hope to travel to Cuba in the coming months. The mission trips would include meetings with hotel companies in Havana that cater to European travelers.

Puerto Rico's bright spot is a booming tourism industry. Tourists contribute an estimated $7 billion a year to the economy with more than 3 million people visiting every year.

As the government figures out how to get its fiscal house in order, vacationers are spending more time and more money visiting La Isla del Encanto.

"It's natural to perhaps to become a little concerned, but when they read that the experience in Puerto Rico hasn't been touched, hasn't been in any way or form diminished, they understand that this is a tremendous destination," said Milton Segarra, president and CEO of Meet Puerto Rico.

Tourism experts said the weather forecast tops the economic outlook when companies decide to hold annual conventions in San Juan. In August and September alone, more than 30 groups booked 23,000 hotel rooms.

The island also boasts the largest convention center in the Caribbean.

"If you take a cruise in the Caribbean, you're all but guaranteed a few hours in San Juan, where all you need is your driver's license to clear the port," Segarra said.

Sixteen cruiselines in all bring an estimated 1.5 million passengers to the island yearly.

"Every year, we contribute $100 million to $150 million in our economy. For every $17 we invest in sales and marketing, we generate $561 to the local economy," Segarra said.

A recent increase in sales and resort taxes means tourists are paying more to visit, but few seem to mind.

"I think the island is beautiful," tourist Joshua Tabia said of his first visit. "It's been great to visit different stores and the culture. When you walk around and see people talking and playing music, you feel at home."

There are signs of the troubled economy in the heart of El Viejo San Juan. For sale signs hang on retail space nestled between the port and the historic "El Morro," but the recent U.S.-Cuba reset is a source of optimism on the island.

Tourism experts said they're eager to attract European travelers who have long visited Cuba. They're also excited at the possibility of partnering with Havana on marketing campaigns.

"I see it as a great opportunity for Puerto Rico," said Ingrid Rocafort, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. "The island knows very it the American visitor and we have that experience as a great destination for the East Coast. We see it as an opportunity to be able to work with Cuba and help them with the infrastructure process being partners in that development."

The biggest draw for U.S. tourists remains how easy it is to visit Puerto Rico. Travelers said leaving the passport at home and being able to use the dollar makes it an all too easy trip to take.

"I wouldn't say Havana is ready or mature to visit yet, but is the appetite there to go? Um, I wouldn't say just yet. Maybe in the next two to three years," Tabia said.

Tourism experts said similar to South Florida, the weather and beaches will still draw crowds, and they're banking on big hotel names including the Hilton and Four Seasons opening new locations in the coming months.

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