Though Puerto Rico is technically an unincorporated US territory, it feels a world apart. Wedded to its Caribbean roots and distinctly Latino in flavour, the island is a tantalizing melting pot of cultures, rhythms and foods. Charming colonial towns, white-sand beaches, raucous festivals and lashings of rum complete the picture. But how has Puerto Rico coped with coronavirus? We caught up with the CEO of Discover Puerto Rico to learn more, and to find out what travel to this intoxicating island might look like in the future.
Talking with Brad Dean, CEO, Discover Puerto Rico
Q: What’s been Puerto Rico’s experience of coronavirus? What lockdown restrictions are still in place?
A: Our Governor, Wanda Vázquez Garced, was quick to act, closing nonessential businesses, enforcing the use of facemasks in public spaces and placing restrictions on the movement of vehicles and people. A 7pm–5am curfew allowed residents to leave their homes to purchase food, medicines and other basic goods, go to a health facility, or care for a family member or friend in need. People with medical emergencies and those providing essential services were exempt from the curfew, which was effective in stemming the spread of COVID-19, particularly during the Easter holy week (Semana Santa), when domestic movements would usually increase.
Q: Puerto Rico took much swifter and more precautionary action that most of the mainland USA. Has this managed to somewhat protect the population? Are you proud of the island’s response?
A: Like so many countries, states and regions across the world, it has been a case of managing a delicate balance between protecting the health and safety of our people whilst safeguarding the island’s economy. The decision was taken to continue the curfew but extend the timings to 10pm–5am to protect the population, which we believe is helping to reduce the spread of infection. I am certainly proud of the response of our local communities who accepted and followed the rules that were implemented and supported each other through this difficult time.
Q: Can you tell us a bit more about how Discover Puerto Rico been keeping in touch with visitors virtually during this time?
A: At the end of March, Discover Puerto Rico invited the world to escape to the island, virtually, through the launch of our Virtual Vacation online series. The series allowed people across the globe to experience performances by some of Puerto Rico's best local talent and immerse themselves in our culture through workshops, virtual events and classes, including an online salsa lesson with Tito Ortos, the director of the San Juan City Salsa Dance Program, via YouTube. To date, outreach resulted in 480+ media placements and 1.1 billion impressions. The series was extremely well received, and we were delighted to be able to bring a taste of Puerto Rico to people’s living rooms.
Q: Has there been any positive news emanating from the island during these difficult times?
A: I believe the sheer resiliency of the Puerto Rican people, who are no strangers to emerging from challenges even stronger than before, has really shone through during this time. As I mentioned, the spirit of collaboration has been strong throughout. Our Virtual Vacation online series also served to showcase local businesses across the island as a way for Discover Puerto Rico to support the tourism community while most were out of work or their businesses were shut down.
We’re also continuing this outreach to support our local LGBTQ partners and businesses during Pride month to raise awareness of their offerings to our large social audience and help local businesses stay top of mind amongst consumers ready for when they are able to visit Puerto Rico again.
Q: Many attractions on the island – including public beaches, nature reserves and golf courses – began a phased reopening in late May. How are attractions being opened on Puerto Rico, and what new safety measures are in place?
A: As part of the island’s responsible four-phased reopening plan, the easing of business restrictions began on 26 May while Puerto Rico will formally reopen for in-bound tourism on July 15, when tour operators on the island will resume operations. Within the last four weeks businesses including golf courses, travel agencies, faith-based institutions, spas, museums, theatres, restaurants, agricultural markets and retail stores have been able to reopen outside curfew hours with some limitations on capacity. As of 16 June, sunbathing and other recreational activities on beaches have been allowed so long as group gatherings are limited to only those within the same household.
The health and safety of visitors and residents remain a top priority. A curfew on the island remains in place between 10pm and 5am, facemasks are mandatory when in public and social distancing is enforced with floor plans and capacities adjusted island-wide. Furthermore, recognizing the importance of hygiene and disinfection, the island of Puerto Rico is applying locally enforced measures developed by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC), alongside U.S. Travel Association (USTA) guidelines, to safeguard the wellbeing of both residents and visitors.
Q: At the moment, all travellers to Puerto Rico must quarantine for 14 days on arrival. When do you think these restrictions are likely to be lifted? And who are they likely to be lifted for first?
A: At present, arriving passengers may be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days regardless of symptoms but the Governor’s office continues to monitor the situation to assess when it is safe to lift this measure. Puerto Rico is committed to providing a safe travel experience and the National Guard will continue to assist with the enhanced health screening of all arriving passengers, including offering rapid COVID-19 testing. Visitors can stay informed by checking the latest travel advice in advance at DiscoverPuertoRico.com.
Q: What new safety measures and changes can travellers expect when they return to Puerto Rican shores? How will the visitor experience change at hotels, bars and restaurants?
A: All certified tourism businesses are required to follow strict health and safety protocols, which includes face coverings being mandatory in public spaces. Hotel and lodging properties are following PRTC standards and are certified with island-specific health certification seals. Guests will also receive a Health & Safety guide detailing the specialized measures implemented by each property individually. Hotels and resorts will also conduct temperature checks, screen symptoms and disinfect luggage while following high standards of cleanliness and housekeeping procedures in accordance with CDC and EPA guidelines.
In terms of getting around the island, certified transportation carriers will properly disinfect vehicles and drivers will wear gloves. Guests staying in private rental properties will be required to complete a Travel Declaration Form and will be provided with the PRTC Health and Safety Guide detailing local measures being implemented. They will also be encouraged to make a claim to the PRTC should they find a property does not meet these requirements.
Meanwhile, restaurants are operating at fifty percent capacity with temperature checks performed on arrival and floor plans laid out to maintain distancing protocols. Buffets, salad bars, self-serve options and reusable menus are prohibited, with gloves mandatory for staff to wear when serving guests.
Q: What are your predictions for the travel industry in Puerto Rico for the rest of the summer, year and into 2021?
A: Like so many destinations, our summer season has shifted this year and we are anticipating the key recovery phase for domestic US visitors will take place in Q3 with international visitors expected to return in Q4 and early 2021. This is why it is so important to communicate the measures we have put in place to protect and reassure both visitors and citizens as well as continuing to review these measures to ensure they are being followed correctly, and remain necessary and effective.
Q: What lessons will Puerto Rico take forwards from Covid-19? How can we work together towards a brighter future?
A: As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must write yet another comeback story. And while many challenges lie ahead, I have no doubt that together we are going to show the world that nothing can keep Puerto Rico from reaching its potential. For the sake of the 80,000 people who work in the tourism industry in Puerto Rico, this comeback is crucial.