ETN: Please tell our audience who you are and your current position in Puerto Rico.
MARIO GONZALEZ LAFUENTE: Yes. I’m Mario Gonzalez Lafuente, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.
ETN: How long have you held this position?
LAFUENTE: I’ve been Executive Director since August 2nd of 2010. Prior to that, I was the Deputy Executive Director since January 6, 2009.
ETN: All right. I’m just going to ask some questions. What are Puerto Rico’s major industries?
LAFUENTE: Well, our major industries are manufacturing, our whole manufacturing sector, from pharmaceuticals to, you know, high-tech, high-tech industries.
ETN: How much impact does tourism have on your economy?
LAFUENTE: It’s approximately 6 percent of the island’s GDP.
ETN: So 6 percent of the GDP?
LAFUENTE: Approximately 6 percent.
ETN: Who are Puerto Rico’s visitors and how many visitors are there a year?
LAFUENTE: We receive approximately, and according to the World Tourism Organization’s records, we received approximately 4 million non-resident visitors. However, approximately 1.5 million visitors stay in hotels.
ETN: So they stay with family?
LAFUENTE: Right. Some either stay in places other than hotels, but others just come here to go to other islands or to take a cruise.
ETN: Every destinasion is a brand, an identity, if you may. Can you identify what’s Puerto Rico’s unique value proposition?
LAFUENTE: Unique value proposition is that we are more than sun and sand, which is actually one of our competitive advantages, our mountains, our natural resources. We have a beautiful tropical rainforest. We have the Camoway caves. We have a rich history, culture. So we have a diverse offer to our visitors that is, I guess, our competitive advantage to the other islands.
ETN: So exactly that was the next question. What sets Puerto Rico apart from other nations in the Caribbean?
LAFUENTE: Exactly that. Our diversity, our richness of natural resources that also serve as tourist attractions. For example, El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest protected by the United States Forest Service. It is one of the most-visited places in Puerto Rico, more than a million visitors go to El Yunque every year. We also have El Morro Fortress, which is also protected by the US National Park Service, and that also – we also get mover a million visitors per year. So one is geared towards the nature and adventure niche market, the other one is geared towards the historic niche market. So we have very diverse resources that are part of that rich offer that we provide to our visitors. I just gave you 2 very simple examples.
ETN: Has Puerto Rico seen an impact from the ongoing global economic meltdown? If so, how significant is the impact?
LAFUENTE: Well, when we came into office, along with Governor Fortuno in 2009, yes, we were foreseeing, and the industry was foreseeing, a very weak tourist season. However, working together with our industry partners, hotels, airlines, and travel agents, both online travel agents and traditional travel agents, we got to develop a very aggressive product, a very aggressive marketing campaign and promotional campaign, and that saved the season. So 2009, we had to – our goal was to save the season from what was projected to be a very weak one. 2010, we basically also was in – we were in a stabilization process, and we basically stayed the same in terms of occupancy and ADR, and now, 2011, we are seeing an increase now in occupancy. So we are seeing results from a very strategic marketing and promotions plan and now we’re seeing the positive results.
ETN: Can you name an example of something you guys did to actually just keep that?
LAFUENTE: Yes. In 2009, actually we met with some of our distributors, our partners, OTAs, and wholesales in our office in New York in the month of March of 2009, and we developed a very aggressive program called Big Thrill/Small Bill, and that we generated over approximately 100,000 room nights in seven-eight months period, and that was a very aggressive program where we included value-added. We included the third and a fourth night free, in addition to credits, debit card, and other additional value-added elements that were very enticing to the end user, to our consumers, and it resulted in a very positive production through nights, almost 100,000 room nights. So that was very, very productive for us. It was a successful program to, like I said, save the tourist season.
ETN: How are you meeting the demands of this impact, but you pretty much just answered that question.
ETN: On Puerto Rican crime and tourism, is there a connection?
LAFUENTE: There is no connection. Crime has – the government of Puerto Rico is battling crime very effectively and in terms of the tourist zones, we work together, the Puerto Rican Tourism Company, along with the Puerto Rico Police Department and the Municipal Police, City Police, from both San Juan and Catalina, which are the main tourist zones in the metropolitan area, and our private partners, the hotels, and develop plans of action, action plans, and, you know, we – Puerto Rico is a very safe destination for our tourists.
ETN: In the history of Puerto Rico, has there ever been an instance when a tourist or tourists have been involved in such a situation?
LAFUENTE: Yes, yes, there has.
ETN: How? You know, how many instances in, let’s say, the last six months?
LAFUENTE: Well, I remember in 2009 there was an isolated incident that took place with a tourist and just recently, there was an event that took place and the police [are] actually investigating right now. But these are – it is very important to stress out that these are very isolated incidents, you know. When you take a look at the number of tourists that come here, that stay here in the tourist zones, tourist-related incidents are very isolated.
ETN: Has there ever been a case when tourists have been hurt while on vacation in Puerto Rico?
LAFUENTE: I would have to – in terms of from an accident, from a fall, from –
ETN: Related to crime.
MR. LAFUENTE: I – well, I – like I said, in 2009, we remember a case of a lady that actually the crime that was involved was solved within a 24-hour period. And yes, the police department acted very rapidly and within a 24-hour period, the person who committed that crime against the tourist was apprehended and he is in jail. So the police acted very rapidly and the isolated cases have taken place with tourists are really solved within a matter of – within a – very rapidly.
ETN: As you know, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) market is considered as one of the most lucrative markets in the entire global travel industry. How does Puerto Rico feel about the niche market? Is the GLBT community welcomed in Puerto Rico?
LAFUENTE: They’re very welcomed in Puerto Rico. We are an inclusive society and we welcome all groups to Puerto Rico that actually create a positive impact in economic development.
ETN: What efforts are being done to entice this market?
LAFUENTE: Well, we – although we do not have a specific promotion or marketing to any specific group, the way that our marketing and promotions are made, our marketing and promotions program are enticing to all groups. So I am pretty sure that there are hostelries here that market to that specific group. So like I said, you know, we are very open and very inclusive for all groups to come to Puerto Rico.
ETN: So maybe on the private side there’s actually some efforts actually just marketing that niche?
LAFUENTE: I believe there is. You know, our vision in terms of government marketing and promotion is that we market a destination and then different hotels and properties right along that destination, our destination marketing and promotion plan and do their own specific promotions for certain groups.
ETN: ETN spoke to several people in January, one from the Hilton, Caribe Hilton, who voiced her concern about beach erosion. Do you feel that this is a problem? If so, what is the government doing to rectify the situation?
LAFUENTE: Yes. There is – it is a concern for beach erosion in – excuse me – in certain beaches. I have to state the fact that most of the beaches do not have a beach erosion problem or situation. However, there are a few that do have a beach erosion situation. What is the government doing? We are and we have met with community leaders, with scientific groups and other government organizations, and our private partners, some hotels and have created a group,I can say a task force, to fight or to engage in the situation so that we can either minimize it or stop the beach erosion, but it is a situation in certain beaches that, yes, it’s a concern, and we are taking action on it.
ETN: During the Bacardi tour, the tour guide talked about the dispute with the neighbor who is dumping trees and branches next to the property, thereby blocking the view. What is the real deal here concerning this matter of pollution?
LAFUENTE: The Bacardi, Bacardi neighbor was doing what?
ETN: Apparently one of the Bacardi neighbors, that was actually – they were blocking the view – because they were actually just dumping stuff near the Bacardi tour package.
LAFUENTE: Okay. They were cutting trees, is that it? No?
ETN: Actually, it’s just –
MR. LAFUENTE: Just dumping?
ETN: Yes. Just dumping like trash or trees.
MR. LAFUENTE: Okay. Well, I mean, we work very closely with, you know, all the government agencies, and we work actually in terms of cleaning up tourist areas. We’re taking the lead with communities and organizations. We have clean-up programs. We have a clean-up program in the beaches from Isla Verde to Cabello. We work together with the private organization called Scuba Tox where we clean up beaches once, twice a year. I know that the people, the organization from El Yunque Rainforest also – actually they just had a clean-up day at El Yunque on Saturday. So we are involved in educational programs for the community because tourism is everyone’s responsibility. So we develop a message. We send out the message about the importance of all of the aspects that involve tourism, you know. Tourism is not only hotels, it’s not only taxicabs, it’s everything is inter-related to what the destination is. It’s joined, you know, for tourism development.
ETN: Another tourism issue is pets. From your view as a tourism official, is there cause for concern?
LAFUENTE: Puerto Ricans are pet lovers. We’re pet lovers, and we also work together with some private organizations, like Save A Sato and others to also create awareness and educate the people about how they treat their dogs and pets, you know, in general, and that is something that we have also worked along with the Amigos de los Animales here in Puerto Rico and have created educational programs, awareness programs. So, you know, actually the people from PetSmart, you know, they are developing a few stores here in Puerto Rico, and we’re also working together with them. So, yes, the government is involved because, you know, it is a projection of what we are, but basically, you know, I can tell you that, and you know, that Puerto Ricans, in general, we are pet lovers.
ETN: This is very dear to me. For example, are you working with any no-kill animal shelters? I see a lot of kill animal shelters here. It’s very clear –
LAFUENTE: Kill animals?
ETN: Yeah. Animal shelter that, if a pet is brought in, it’s just – it’s not adopted in a certain period, it’s actually – they’ll put it down. Are you working with any no-kill shelters?
LAFUENTE: No-kill shelters or – well, you know, we work together with organizations that do awareness and education programs and when we educate people is for them to take care, tender loving care of their pets, so that they will not become stray. So that’s – you know, our role is to educate our people.
ETN: And what else is being done, because obviously, for example, there is a lot of stray dogs on the streets?
LAFUENTE: Well, again, you know, education, education, education, and create awareness to our people and our society so that they can know if you know, organizations, like Save A Sato, and others and the Calle Figueroa, the Vets of Puerto Rico, that also are involved in awareness and education. There has been some legislation that tried to be passed in terms of, you know, bringing chip into the dogs so they can – they know who the owner is and put responsibility in the owner, of the person who leaves a pet, you know, on the streets, but that is being worked on. That legislation has not been debated or – well, it was debated at some point in time but it has not become law. But, yeah, I mean, we work together. I mean, here it is a matter of creating awareness in the community. Like I said, you know, tourism is everyone’s responsibility.
ETN: Customer service is sometimes overlooked as a result of mass tourism, like it’s not given a priority. Is this the case for Puerto Rico?
LAFUENTE: The Puerto Rico Tourism Company has a quality program, and we do seminars. Actually, we used to have the Super Host Seminars, the Quality Awareness Programs that are geared, directed towards all of the professionals who work in the tourism industry, from the baggage handler to the taxi driver to the host and hostess in a restaurant to all of the segments of the industry. We continuously do that. We gave hundreds of seminars this past year and we continue that. That is something that we continuously do, Quality Awareness Programs. We gave out Quality Awards. Actually, we gave some Quality Awards two weeks ago to the different hotels and small-, medium-, large-size hotels in Puerto Rico. So actually we have a division that is called Quality of Service, the division that is part of the larger department, Tourist Products and Services. So, yes, it is very important, you know. Puerto Rico isn’t necessarily a mass-driven destination and should not be a mass-driven destination, but putting that aside, it’s just, you know, marketing for the type of product that we have here. In terms of quality, we are very, very aware of the importance of quality and service, and we are very focused on developing that important factor.
ETN: You mentioned about awards but on the other side, is there any monitoring to find out where [if] there[are] glitches or –
LAFUENTE: Yes. Yes, there are.
ETN: And what is done when there’s something there?
LAFUENTE: Yes. Actually, we have within company that quality division, we have officers that are continuously monitoring the different hostelries in Puerto Rico, not only the hostelries but also the Mesones Gastronomicos, which are a part of the culinary offer of Puerto Rico, and we go and there are certain elements and criteria, you know, from cleanness, service. There are a lot of criteria and every criteria has a point system. If they meet the criteria to continue being certified, then, you know, they continue to be certified by PRTC. Those who do not meet, then, you know, we give them certain warnings, and if they continue not meeting certain minimum criteria, then they do not get – they get their certification taken out. And it is – to be certified, for a program to be certified by PRTC, it is an incentive for them to be certified so they can continue to get certain incentives, such as promotions, and they can pass our magazine, and a property that is not certified is not able to get incentives, financial incentives from the Tourism Incentive Law.
ETN: There’s no doubt that Puerto Rico is rich in culture and heritage. What is being done to preserve the type of culture and heritage sites key on the island?
LAFUENTE: Working together again with private groups and government groups that are involved in the preservation of our culture. We work together with the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture and in programs that promote cultural tourism. We are the main sponsors of the Casals Festival. Casals Festival, which started more than 40-50 years ago, and has been the iconic event for classical music in Puerto Rico. That is part of our culture. We support local folklore groups, and we have a program called Little Eye. Little Eye supports and promotes in several parts of the tourist areas our different types of our folklore music, La Bomba, La Plena, you know, Groupas De Bomba e Plena from Puerto Rico, that we support and promote, that we promote. There is legislation where, if an organization receives X amount of funding from the state or the city or public funds, they need to – they are required to hire a minimum number of local groups that play folklore music. So on that end, we are – it is important and actually it is part of the government’s platform to support cultural tourism. So this is very, very important for us, the Museo de Arte de Ponce, what a symbol of our culture. It is ranked in the top four or five museums in Latin America. Museo de Puerto Rico, which is also full of our Puerto Rican painters. Actually here in the Puerto Rican Tourism Company, we have a very rich collection of Puerto Rican art from Puerto Rican artists and we promote them. We have a gallery here which we – I don’t know if you’ve seen what we’re showing downstairs, very famous artist from Loiza, showcasing his art. So we are constantly promoting our culture, our heritage. That is part of what we promote in our marketing campaign.
ETN: Puerto Rico Tourism Company has boldly claimed that Puerto Rico does it better. Let’s make this case in terms of tourism. What exactly in your view does Puerto Rico Tourism do better?
LAFUENTE: Well, we do many things better. Puerto Rico does it better. First of all, it’s started to – at the very beginning, it was back in the ’90s, was an educational system, educational program to promote awareness of the importance of tourism in Puerto Rico, creating awareness and pride from every single resource, every single person who works in that industry, so that they can become proud of their work, of what they do, therefore having a better human resource and more incentivized human resource so that their service could be better. That integrated into quality awareness and educational programs, like the ones that we’re doing. Actually, our educational program for quality of service is called Puerto Rico Does It Better, the Puerto Rico Does It Better Quality Program and Educational Program, and we do that with all or with most of the members of this industry in all of the regions. So that is the core, that is the base of the Puerto Rico Does It Better Campaign. In terms of manufacturing, Puerto Rico manufactures a great – a very high percentage of pharmaceutical products. So, yes, we do it better in manufacturing of pharmaceutical products. We do it better in terms of our products, like rum, which approximately 70 percent of the rum that is consumed in the United States is produced in Puerto Rico, and that creates a sense of awareness, therefore, you want to increase that – you want to maintain that quality, quality control. So in terms of tourism, as well, we’re the most diversified island in the Caribbean. In that way, we do it better. We have and will have won awards from the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, the culinary competitions. Our culinary team has won many awards, actually the highest number of awards among the other islands in the Caribbean. So it is not – I did not say that. It is validated by, you know, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. It is validated by, let’s say, some consumer travel magazines, like Frommer’s. Frommer’s ranked us the Number 1 Caribbean destination due to three things. Number 1. Natural diversity, showcasing El Yunque, the Camoway Caves. We were ranked Number 1, because of our gastronomy, our culinary, you know, our local cuisine, and we were ranked Number 1 due to for our nightlife. So Frommer’s ranked us Number 1. The World Economic Forum, a Competitiveness Report on Travel and Tourism, we went up 8 notches in 1 year, from the 53rd place –
ETN: What year was that?
LAFUENTE: The World Economic Forum.
ETN: What year?
LAFUENTE: This year.
LAFUENTE: Just recently. We just have the numbers from the 53rd ranked to the 45th. So, you know, these are validations, these are third-party validations that we are doing it better, because we’re very focused. We have a strategy. We have a very structured strategy into making tourism an important part of the economic development structure in Puerto Rico.
ETN:ASTA [American Society of Travel Agents] was in San Juan for its International Destination Expo, how did this project come about?
MR. LAFUENTE: It came about working together with the local ASTA organization and the ASTA nationwide, and we’re just thrilled. We’re thrilled to be hosting ASTA here. We have over 600 travel agents from all over the world. This is the first time that a US jurisdiction hosts this important convention and we are – I mean, we have worked so hard to make this a very – a great experience for our travel agents, for our partners, and they will certainly enjoy not only the metropolitan area, but we have made special excursions for them throughout the island. So that when they go back home, they will have not only – this is not only a fam trip, this is an educational experience for our travel agents, and we certainly hope to, you know, host it again because we really love our partners and actually we have some – we have integrated a special program called Puerto Rico Travel Expert. It’s an educational program that we do with our travel agents in the States, and by the time that they finish that program, they’ll be certified as experts in Puerto Rico and now that they’re here, they can experience everything Puerto Rico has to offer, along with the educational program. You know, we’re going to have 600 experts in Puerto Rico that will be great salesperson and great spokespersons for our destination.
ETN: How relevant is ASTA to Puerto Rican tourism?
LAFUENTE: Very relevant. They are an important part of our distribution channel and they are – the most – you know, a very important part of our distribution channel. They sell.
ETN: By hosting the meeting, San Juan gets to showcase its new convention center. What can we expect from Puerto Rico in terms of hosting international conventions in the future?
LAFUENTE: We are – actually, it is a very important market for us, groups and conventions. I can tell you that this year, during our low season, we’ll be hosting the International Federation of Library Associations. That will generate approximately 15,000 room nights. It’s a huge citywide convention for us. And also around that time, we’ll also be hosting the International Chemistry Convention where we’ll be receiving seven Nobel Laureates here in Puerto Rico. That’s never happened before. So we work very closely with the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau, which is the sales agent for the convention center, and, of course, together with the other government agency, which is the Convention Center District Authority. We have a great – it is a great venue, the Puerto Rico Convention Center, the largest convention center in the Caribbean. It’s a state-of-the-art venue and, you know, now with the new headquarter hotel, the Sheraton Puerto Rico, in the Convention Center District, we’re seeing an increase, a gradual increase in groups and conventions here now.
ETN: Let’s talk about Rums of Puerto Rico. What exactly is it and why is it important to the global tourism industry?
LAFUENTE: Well, Rums of Puerto Rico is a division of the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Corporation. It promotes – it’s very basic. It promotes rums from Puerto Rico, and it is important because, like I said earlier, 70 percent, approximately 70 percent of the rum that is consumed in the United States comes from Puerto Rico. So it is an important source of revenue for the island, the selling of that product, and it is – we work together in many promotional activities. Rums of Puerto Rico combine rum with our island, you have a great product.
ETN: One last question. What can the global travel and tourism industry look forward to from the PRTC?
LAFUENTE: Global and travel industry?
ETN: Global travel and tourism industry look forward to from the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.
LAFUENTE: Well, as a destination, Puerto Company Rico continues to be a – to take a leading role as a tourist destination in the Caribbean. We work –
ETN: I think this question is more directed towards the organization, not towards the whole – you know, the destination, more towards the company. What is this organization offering to the travel and tourism industry, in general?
LAFUENTE: Well, okay, but we represent the destination and we establish public policy for the destination in terms of tourism. We work together hand in hand with and we are members of the WTO, the World Tourism Organization. Actually, I am a product of the WTO. I was part of their – some of their academic programs for WTO, and so we worked very, very closely with them. We worked very closely with US Travel Agency, USTA. So again, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, as the government entity in charge of taking the lead role of the tourism development in Puerto Rico, we take a lead role into showcasing Puerto Rico as the leading tourist destination in the Caribbean.
ETN: Thank you, Mario, for taking the time.
This interview was conducted on April 14, 2011 in cooperation with Raul Colon from http://www.raulcolon.net