Undaunted By Puerto Rico’s Financial Mess, Hospitality Industry Blazes Ahead

Bisnow Article by deirdra.funcheon@bisnow.com July 24

“As you can imagine, things are a bit crazy here,” said Emilio Colón-Zavala, president of ECZ Group and head of the Puerto Rico Builders’ Association, this month — even though it has been almost a year since Hurricane Maria slammed his homeland.Puerto Rico is still recovering from hurricane-related infrastructure failures (the water system was long-neglected and the electric company has had five CEOs in a year) as well as a decade-plus financial crisis.

The commonwealth owes creditors a whopping $124B, and bondholders are fighting over who will be repaid. Investors are looking to scoop up distressed properties or take advantage of generous tax incentives, and cryptocurrency entrepreneurs have invaded with a vision to remake the island and run it on bitcoin. Meanwhile, residents still struggle; the average family income is about $20K.  Amid these challenges, the hospitality industry is putting on its best face and charging sunnily ahead. Most hotels in the commonwealth are back open or will resume operations by the time high season begins in September; some already had record occupancy for spring break.  Colón-Zavala and other experts will discuss these converging factors — and the state of the hospitality industry throughout the Caribbean — at Bisnow’s Caribbean Hospitality and Investment Summit in Miami Aug. 23.


Carla Campos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (a government agency), said the hospitality industry was seizing this moment to come back better and stronger. As of May, she told Travel Weekly, 12,000 of Puerto Rico’s 15,000 hotel rooms were operational and the other 3,000 were being remodeled. She said the reopening of the St. Regis, El San Juan and the Ritz-Carlton in October would be recovery milestones. The hurricane made Americans more aware that Puerto Rico is “a U.S. territory and you don’t need a passport to go there, that there is easy access from U.S. cities,” Campos said. “That puts us in this position to seize the opportunity to capitalize on this increased awareness and convert it into awareness in travel.” In addition to her agency, a Destination Marketing Organization — a private nonprofit corporation responsible for the promotion abroad of Puerto Rico as a tourist destination — was established with legislation last year and will be funded with $25M annually. Brad Dean, the former head of Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, will run the DMO and recruit both leisure and business travelers. 

Colón-Zavala said in addition to remodels, new construction is on tap. A JW Marriott, Aloft San Juan Convention Center, Aloft Ponce and Four Seasons Cayo Largo are all in the works. “We have already like $1.9B in projects in the pipeline,” Colón-Zavala said. “It’s going to be like a 4,000-room increase — like 5% of hotel inventory. We have 15,000 hotel rooms in Puerto Rico and the pipeline is almost 25% more.” That means builders are in high demand — “You get proposals left and right,” Colón-Zavala said — but contractors are being selective about which jobs to take for fear of not getting paid in a timely manner. Private insurance has been slow to pay claims, and some government agencies don’t have funds due to the commonwealth’s financial crisis. FEMA is still active, and is siphoning workers from other jobs by paying 25% to 50% more, Colón-Zavala said.From an investment standpoint, Colón-Zavala said people from around the world have been interested in Puerto Rico; there is a lot of interest from China. Investors should look not just at hotels and resorts, but also at public-private partnerships in infrastructure, Colón-Zavala said. He said private companies have recently been awarded concessions to run a ferry service, a major highway and airport operations. 

Numerous solar companies have also descended on the region. “A year ago, people would not buy solar with batteries because of the expense that it represented,” he said. “This year, it’s the other way around — you would be crazy not to buy a battery with your solar panels.”    Sion Capital founder Jonathan Kracer, who advises real estate investors and will also speak at next month’s event, wrote recently that there is forward momentum pulsing through the 30 major Caribbean islands. All-inclusive resorts are doing brisk business, and low-cost airlines from all around the world have increased flights to the region. Kracer told Bisnow that following last year’s hurricanes, “I was surprised by the lack of a cohesive communications strategy to change traveler misconceptions about the conditions in the Caribbean. Only about eight islands of the [about] 30 in the Caribbean were most impacted by Hurricane Irma, and the perception of damage impacted demand volumes in the whole region.” Ultimately, though, he said that better construction techniques and stricter building standards would bode well for the region. Right now, he said the best move for investors would probably be “acquiring older independent assets or damaged properties from the recent hurricanes, and renovating and professionally managing them … As tourism is the most important economic driver for the region, the Caribbean is very resilient and will bounce back.”  

Another panelist, Rogerio Basso, principal investment officer for multilateral development bank IDB Invest, said “We have a heightened appetite to explore greenfield operations in the Caribbean and are also seeing growing interest from regional banks to fund hospitality transactions. Rising interest rates, however, are putting pressure on developers to not overextend themselves on debt and ensuring projects have sound fundamentals to withstand market trepidations.”

Hear more about tourism, hotels and investment in the Caribbean at Bisnow’s Caribbean Hospitality and Investment Summit Aug. 23. 

Follow the Money: Paulson Compares Puerto Rico Today to Miami in the 1980s

Hedge fund billionaire John Paulson has been buying a lot of sand lately — specifically, Puerto Rican sand. Despite Puerto Rico’s massive debt crisis, Paulson sees big profits ahead. He has plowed “quite a bit” — an estimated $1.5 billion — of his personal wealth into buying hotels, a resort and office buildings on the island. Paulson compares Puerto Rico today to Miami in the 1980s.”It’s similar to that period in Miami’s history,” Paulson said Thursday at the Puerto Rico Investment Summit. “There was a lot of real estate on the beach, lots of abandoned buildings and vacant lots. That was definitely the best time to buy [in Miami].”

Below are some selected articles: 


Paulson & Co. Inc., a New York-based investment firm, has acquired Harbour Lakes in the Palmas del Mar resort community located in the municipality of Humacao, Puerto Rico, the firm announced Thursday. The acquisition consists of 149 condominium units offered for sale, from 1,637 square feet (sq. ft.) to 2,045 sq. ft., 3 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms.


Despite Puerto Rico’s massive debt crisis, Paulson sees big profits ahead. He has plowed “quite a bit” — an estimated $1.5 billion — of his personal wealth into buying hotels, a resort and office buildings on the island. Paulson compares Puerto Rico today to Miami in the 1980s. “It’s similar to that period in Miami’s history,” Paulson said Thursday at the Puerto Rico Investment Summit. “There was a lot of real estate on the beach, lots of abandoned buildings and vacant lots. That was definitely the best time to buy [in Miami].” 

The hedge-fund manager said he’s still considering moving to the Caribbean island from New York after flirting with the idea in 2013. Beautiful weather, real-estate opportunities and tax breaks have resulted in Paulson buying luxury hotels and a 326,000 square-foot (30,286 square-meter) office building in San Juan’s financial district, he said during the 2016 Puerto Rico Investment Summit in San Juan on Thursday. He plans to expand his St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort and develop new condominiums in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan. He already owns a home and an apartment on the island.


“I came here because I think they’ve hit bottom,” said Tennenbaum, 80, who manages assets of over $6 billion and moved to the island two months ago on Paulson’s urging. “In a democracy, it takes a crisis for change to take place.”Tennenbaum plans to form a corporation under Puerto Rico’s Act 20, which gives businesses that move to the island a 4 percent corporate tax rate and exemptions on dividends and property taxes. He also plans to create a merchant bank. On Thursday, the island received a lift from one of its biggest cheerleaders, John A. Paulson, the billionaire hedge fund manager, who is investing $20 million for the San Juan Beach Hotel.


And it is true that Puerto Rico is a bargain. At the St. Regis Bahia Beach, for example, arguably some of the most expensive real estate in Puerto Rico, condos with oceanfront views are priced at around $600 a square foot; in Miami, a similar unit would cost around $2,000 a square foot.Over the last 10 months, the St. Regis Bahia Beach sold nine condos, priced at $800,000 to $1.6 million, all to American buyers, according to Paulson & Company. The resort is also constructing six oceanfront villas, priced at $10 million to $12 million; two have already sold.


Paulson & Company, Mr. Paulson’s $20 billion hedge fund, has agreed to renovate the San Juan Beach Hotel and turn it into an “ultraluxury boutique hotel” over the next few months, the Puerto Rico Department of Commerce and Economic Development said. Mr. Paulson has been buying real estate on the island for years. He is building a home there and has acquired some of the island’s most exclusive hotels, including the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, La Concha Renaissance Hotel and Tower, and the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort.


Some Investors Bet on Puerto Rico Hotels. Fund manager John Paulson boosts his stakes; Blackstone cuts back. Puerto Rico’s worsening debt crisis only seems to whet the appetite of a small but devoted group of distressed investors.


Paulson is betting that millionaires will come in droves. In his presentation, in which he forecast that Puerto Rico would become “the Singapore of the Caribbean,” he said he plans to develop residential and office properties to go beyond the current high-end offerings. Since the first homes were built in 2007 by BBP Partners (BBP) – a joint venture between two of Puerto Rico’s leading real estate developers, Interlink Group and Muñoz Holdings – more than $125 million worth of residences have been sold at the resort and the $150 million St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort opened in 2010. Paulson is acquiring a majority interest in Bahia Beach through a comprehensive recapitalization. The firm has roughly $18 billion under management and has offices in New York, London and Hong Kong.


U.S. hedge fund Paulson & Co is upping its bet in Puerto Rico real estate with the purchase of an office building in San Juan’s financial district from American International Group Inc .The 326,000 square-foot building is the latest real estate purchase for the $23 billion hedge fund on the Caribbean island where Paulson & Co is betting on an economic turnaround. He owns 8.6% of Banco Popular, the island’s largest bank.