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Caribbean Tourism Organisation Conference: Agent Reporter diary

Travel Weekly Agent Reporter Audrey Singh reports from the Caribbean Tourism Organisation Conference in Puerto Rico

My introduction to Puerto Rico came from an affable man named Joe, who drove my snazzy transfer car to San Juan. Joe proved a great introduction to the destination – so welcoming and so positive about his island.

The programme began with an evening event at the Sheraton hotel, which overlooks the cruise port. It is a nice setting with an imposing sculpture of an anchor. We had a talk on how rum is made, plus a quick tasting and a few nibbles.

After that we headed down to the SoFo area, so called because it lies south of Calle Fortaleza in the Old Town. Our first stop was the Parrot Club restaurant, a fashionable spot where we feasted on nachos, fish cakes and pork steaks while listening to live music – including a great rendition of Guantanamera.

Anchor sculpture at the cruise terminal in San Juan, Puerto Rico

The atmosphere in the restaurant was brilliant, with loud music, bodies gyrating and the smell of amazing food. We moved on to Toro Salao for dessert, which was a type of banana bread pudding with a dash of rum.

Sunday October 21

There were a variety of press trips offered on Sunday, and I chose a ‘rainforest and golf day.’ It only took 45 minutes to reach the rainforest, and even on a whistle-stop tour we saw amazing flora and fauna, as well as the peaceful Cocoa Waterfall. It was just a shame we did not have more time to explore.

Cocoa Waterfall, Puerto Rico

We were then whisked off to lunch at the newly refurbished Gran Melia hotel, an amazing all-suite hotel with very modern décor. All the communal areas have been carefully dressed, from items of furniture to candles – I would be more than happy to recommend it to any of my clients.

After lunch we had our golf lesson. With the help of a great instructor I actually managed to hit the ball in the right direction. The Coco Beach Golf and Country Club is adjacent to the Gran Melia, and will be one of the venues on the PGA Tour 2008 – so look out for Tiger Audrey.

After our golf lesson it was back to the hotel for a quick change and out again for the official opening ceremony of the conference at the new Convention Centre. The Convention Centre is stunning – very modern, with sleek lines and lots of glass. If Puerto Rico markets itself right it will be the number one destination in the Caribbean for conferences and events.

The opening ceremony was due to start at 7pm, but this being the Caribbean it eventually started at 8pm. The ministers and dignitaries of some of the islands entered, and local children carried in all 31 flags from every member country. The underlying message (and the theme for the conference) was ‘One Caribbean’ – how all the islands must work together.

Monday October 22

My first seminar of the day was titled ‘Climate Change and its Impact on Tourism’, and put across a very powerful message. Even though the tourism industry is a very small contributor to climate change, in 2005 its emissions accounted for 4.95% of the global total.

Speakers went on to describe rising sea levels, longer and hotter summers, warmer seas, coral bleaching, breakdown of reefs, droughts, hurricanes and floods. We need to start doing our bit, and now.

During lunch they held the ‘Caribbean Creativity in Travel Awards’ for agents who have made unique contributions to Caribbean tourism.

The next seminar was on ‘Social Networking and Web 2.0’. It covered blogs, wikis, Youtube, Facebook and more, and was probably the most interesting and beneficial session for me.

It was a massive wake-up call to see how many people turn to the web for research. According to a UK poll, 77% of consumers check online reviews of products they are about to buy, whether a kettle, a car or – more importantly for us – a holiday.

I walked away buzzing with ideas, which hopefully l will be able to put into practice over the coming months.

Tuesday October 23

The first session of the day was the Conde Nast ‘My Caribbean’ essay competition, which invites Caribbean schoolchildren to write about their island. The competition has been running for 15 years, and the winning essays could go on to be published in Conde Nast Traveler magazine.

All the finalists had been invited to Puerto Rico, and the winner read out his essay before picking up a cheque for a $1000.

After a press conference at 5pm it was back to the hotel for a quick change of clothes, then off to the Bacardi Distillery. We were taken on a tour of the factory and given a talk on the history of Bacardi, most of which was very interesting – I now know why the Bacardi logo is a bat!

We then headed over to their dining and dancing area for another Caribbean feast, with loud music, dancing and (of course) plenty of Bacardi.

Wednesday October 24

With the day to myself, I met up with a Canadian journalist, who took me on a walking tour of the Old San Juan. We took a taxi to the furthest point of the city, the Fort San Felipe del Morro. Named after King Philip II, this six-storey fort dates back to 1540 and is a maze of barracks, tunnels, dungeons, sentry posts.

We then wandered the cobbled streets of Old San Juan – high heels not recommended. Latin music blares out from nearly everywhere, which makes the area really atmospheric. You could get drunk just by standing outside the rum bars and inhaling, and outside many of them groups of men seemed to be having very animated conversations. All this at 11am!

We wandered in and out of several plazas, which are meeting places for young and old, and down narrow streets whose houses are painted in an array of amazing colours. You really get the feel of being in the Caribbean.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

The only thing that spoils it is the traffic, which is everywhere – although it doesn’t move very fast.  These streets were not built for cars, and are so narrow that two-way traffic is impossible.

We had been told the best place to have lunch is at the Hotel Il Convento, an old convent that has been very tastefully converted. It is built around a courtyard, with birds tweeting, flowers everywhere and a very faint sound of salsa. We feasted on meatballs, prawns, fried plantain and fresh vegetables, all of which were excellent.

Finally it was time to head home, and after four fun, fascinating but very tiring days in Puerto Rico I slept peacefully throughout the flight.

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