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Puerto Rico tees up to attract new crowd

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico

This seaside stretch, a half-hour drive east of the airport in San Juan, is not placid in midday. Construction equipment rumbles through the beachfront while workers sweat out installing the marble floors and granite countertops in developer Donald Trump's latest Caribbean venture.

The 700-villa Trump International Golf Club and Residences is among several golf resorts on this Caribbean island that are either under construction or getting upscale makeovers.

Golf is one of three tourism niches being targeted for promotion here, along with water sports and food, said Mari Jo Laborde, deputy executive director of marketing and promotions of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. Golf is a big part of the island's "Explore Beyond the Shore" campaign highlighting activities outside beaches, she said. Puerto Rico has long been a golf destination, but there is now a new emphasis on luxury.

This might seem like a risky approach given the current economic downturn. Puerto Rico, like many tourism destinations, is experiencing a drop in visitors, with a 3 to 5 percent decline projected for the near future.

But hoteliers and course owners are hoping that a more affluent crowd will be less vulnerable to the economy's swings than the package-tour-and-cruise market concentrated around the port of San Juan.

High-end projects can also take years to come to fruition after they are planned and financed. "They are definitely an investment in the future," said Peter Finch, senior editor at Golf Digest magazine.

Not far from the Trump villas, St. Regis Hotels & Resorts in 2007 opened the Bahia Beach golf course, designed by Robert Trent Jones; a luxury hotel and spa are scheduled to open in 2010. A 369-room J.W. Marriott hotel is expected to open in early 2011 next to the Trump property. Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and Regent Hotels & Resorts will open new luxury hotels in 2011 in Palmas del Mar, a resort southeast of San Juan with championship golf courses. Existing hotels are also renovating and adding amenities.

Next door to the Trump course, the Gran Melia Puerto Rico Golf Resort and Villas was recently upgraded. All rooms in the 486-suite hotel were redecorated, restaurants were upgraded to focus on fine dining and staff were retrained.

The Trump course last March hosted the inaugural Puerto Rico Open, a PGA tournament it will host again this year. The clubhouse and course underwent a $4.5-million renovation and the course was updated to meet PGA standards.

The 750-room El Conquistador Resort & Golden Door Spa in Las Croabas just completed a $120-million renovation that added 237 rooms, restaurants and a convention center. The latest addition is a seaside water park with slides, an infinity pool and activities. There are plans to add a second golf course.

The 600-room Wyndham Rio Mar Beach Resort in Rio Grande, formerly a Westin hotel, is now in the midst of a $40-million renovation, including nearly $4-million in improvements to the clubhouse and two 18-hole golf courses designed by pros Tom and George Fazio and Greg Norman.

Puerto Rico tees up to attract new crowd 01/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 9:02am]

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