Tourists are increasingly choosing cruise ships and short-term rentals to visit Puerto Rico

Hurricane María was particularly harmful for one of the key economic sectors of Puerto Rico, tourism. After one year and three months, the tourist sector is showing positive signs of growth and encouraging new dynamics. The traditional hotel sector is rapidly moving towards pre-hurricane business levels, the cruise ship industry is booming, and tourists seem to be increasingly relying on short-term rentals to visit Puerto Rico.

The number of passenger arrivals to Puerto Rico airports has recovered since Hurricane María, evidenced by the year over year change in number of passengers which has improved steadily from -47% in September 2017 to -4% in August 2018 (see Figures 1 and 2, use cursor to see each monthly number). Similarly, total employment in the Leisure and Hospitality sector, which dropped from 80.4k in August 2017 to 67.8k in September 2017, reached 79.9k in September 2018 and 80k in October 2018, very close to pre-hurricane levels (see Figure 3).

A look at the cruise industry as well as the hotel and short-term rental sectors can help us further understand the performance of the tourism sector in Puerto Rico after María. As can be observed in Figure 4, the number of cruise ship passengers has not only recovered since the hurricane, but performed better than in 2017. In the period from May 2018 to August 2018 the number of cruise passengers was consistently above 2017 each month. Out of the 94k cruise passenger increase year on year in the May to August period, approximately 14k was related to home port cruises and 80k to cruise ships in transit. Based on government officials’ statements, the cruise passenger increase has been driven by large cruise ships like the "Anthem of the Seas", the "Allure of the Seas", the "Carnival Horizon", the "Harmony of the Seas" or the "MSC Seaside", as well as by new ships like the "Viking Sea" or the luxurious "Silver Muse". On December 5th, the "Symphonie of the Seas" which is the largest passenger ship in the world and can accommodate 9,300 passengers, arrived at Pier 4 of the Port of San Juan. In order to cope with the increasing demand from cruise operators, Puerto Rico needs to enhance and expand its cruise ship infrastructure. The local government will rely on Public Private Partnerships to enhance and operate the cruise ship infrastructure, with the goal of increasing the number of cruise ship passengers from 1.4M to 2M in 5 to 10 years.

Unlike the cruise industry, the hotel sector is still struggling to recover from María. The number of guests in lodgings endorsed by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) is well below pre-hurricane levels. In August 2018 (last available data point) the total number of guests reached 473.5k, 163k below August 2017 (see Figure 5). While the occupancy rate increased artificially after María driven by the scarcity of rooms available and the arrival of reconstruction and recovery workers, it remained below 2017 levels in June, July and August of 2018. However, the number of hotel visitors has probably picked up after August 2018 with the reopening of large hotels like the Dorado Beach Ritz Carlton or the St. Regis. Based on Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) executives’ statements, Puerto Rico currently has 12,000 hotel rooms available, 80% of the total 15,000 rooms available before Hurricane María.

On the other hand, the short-term rental industry has offset part of the reduction in hotel tourists. Based on AirDNA, a company that collects data from properties listed in short-term rental platforms, the cumulative number of properties they have collected data on since they started collecting data in Puerto Rico (cumulative rentals, see Figure 6) has increased from 66 in 2010 to 15,299 in 2018. Out of these properties, 7,644 were active short-term rentals in November 2018. As can be observed in Figure 7, rentals are concentrated in San Juan, with 26.4% of the active short-term rentals, followed by Carolina (9.5%), Rincón (8.9%) and Río Grande (5.6%) (use cursor to see each municipality share in Figure 7).

The number of active short-term rentals is not negligible. Based on Airbnb available information (https://www.airbnbcitizen.com/data/#/en/puerto-rico), there were 290k guest arrivals in Puerto Rico Airbnb listings from 126 different countries in 2017. And despite the average daily rate of short-term rentals is substantially below that in the hotel industry (between $105 and $130 in San Juan in the Jan-Oct. 2018 period vs an average of $174 in 2018 for the hotel industry), the revenues from this business go to Puerto Rico residents mostly.

In conclusion, we believe the tourism sector has fared better than expected after Hurricane María. There is momentum and great growth prospects in the cruise industry, the hotel sector will soon be back to pre-hurricane levels, and the short-term rental business is growing rapidly. The question is whether Puerto Rico is prepared to bring tourism to the next level, to make this economic sector the engine of growth it is in other Caribbean countries.

In other words, is Puerto Rico’s tourism ecosystem ready to make this sector flourish? This ecosystem includes an appropriate infrastructure to receive and accommodate more people coming by air or sea, the trained professionals to provide leisure and hospitality services, the assurance that touristic areas are safe, reasonable costs of doing business (e.g. energy, permits, construction materials), an adequate transportation network to move tourists around at reasonable prices, and an appealing set of tourist attractions. Some of these growth levers are obviously not where they should be yet and, in general, benefits from improvements in these levers will not be achievable in the short-term. But Puerto Rico could, at least, leverage the post María reconstruction and recovery resources to prepare for and capitalize on the tourist sector growth potential. This includes a better transportation system and a better and more efficient energy infrastructure and power supply.

The recently created Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) is also a move in the right direction by channeling all the marketing efforts in a professional manner and by inserting key strategic questions on the policy making table. Some of these strategic questions include what geographical areas and tourist segments should marketing efforts be targeted to? Is Puerto Rico prepared or willing to continue expanding the short-term rental industry? If so, what legislative changes are required? Is the cruise ship port infrastructure ready to absorb the increasing demand from cruise ship operators? Is there a strategy that encompasses all the cruise ship ports in Puerto Rico? Do hotel visitors and cruise ship passengers have an appealing set of tourist attractions beyond the beaches and the rainforest?

During 2019 we will see whether Puerto Rico is prepared to capitalize on both the post hurricane reconstruction efforts, and the momentum present in the tourism sector to finally advance this important economic sector to the levels where it should be.

Notes

Sources

Puerto Rico Tourism Company, Puerto Rico Ports Authority, AirDNA, Airbnb Community Data, Puerto Rico newspapers articles.

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