2017-09-22 13:22:02
The Getaway: After Maria and Irma: Caribbean Tourism, Island by Island

After two major hurricanes tore through the Caribbean in less than two weeks, some of the most idyllic — and tourism-dependent — destinations have been devastated.

Ferocious storms are nothing new to these islands, but Hurricanes Maria and Irma were some of the most powerful Atlantic basin storms ever recorded. Cities, and some islands, are almost entirely in ruins. Puerto Rico and St. Croix, two places that were in good enough shape after Irma to be relief hubs for their neighbors, were subsequently pummeled by Maria. In Puerto Rico, at least 10 people died. The storm brought catastrophic flooding, destroyed homes and infrastructure, and left people without power, clean water and essential services. In Dominica, at least 15 people were killed.

In the hardest-hit places, including Dominica, Puerto Rico, Barbuda, St. Martin and the U.S. Virgin Islands, a slow and arduous recovery lies ahead.

Tourism is the most important economic driver and the main foreign exchange earner for the region, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Some places — including St. Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Sint Eustatius and Martinique — emerged mostly unscathed. In the Guadeloupe Islands, there was no damage to infrastructure, though two people were killed.

“Within two to three days, things will be back to normal in the Islands of Guadeloupe,” Annick Girardin, the French Minister for the Overseas Department of France, said in a statement.

Yet the damage in other places was so extensive that despite the projected loss of crucial revenue, government officials this week were not focused on tourism; they were still struggling to ensure people’s health and safety. Puerto Rico, for instance, is grappling with catastrophic flooding and widespread damage and power outages. American Airlines said that it would resume partial operations there on Friday to deliver supplies and bring more personnel to assist in restarting its operations at San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. The airline said its operations are still suspended to the Turks and Caicos Islands, St. Croix, St. Maarten and St. Thomas. Indeed, the U.S. Virgin Islands said visits should be postponed until further notice.

How badly the tourism industry will suffer is still being determined; in certain places the storm’s reverberations will likely be felt for years. On some islands, hotels have closed for repairs until next year and cruise lines are changing itineraries for at least the next few months. Royal Caribbean International said that future sailings will not stop at ports in Sint Maarten, St. Thomas or Key West until those islands have recovered. Norwegian Cruise Line said that all Norwegian Escape eastern Caribbean sailings until November will be changed to a western Caribbean itinerary. Following Irma, the ships went from being floating playgrounds to rescue vessels.

The situation varies greatly from island to island, and is changing day by day. The Florida Keys, for instance, are not quite ready for tourism, though they are moving closer. Highway repairs have been made, and residents have returned to the islands. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, dodged Irma only to be undone by Maria.

Below, a look at how the islands are faring.

Puerto Rico

Days before Maria slammed the island, knocking out power and turning roads into rivers, Puerto Rico was open for business. Most hotels were in good shape. José Izquierdo, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the government agency in charge of tourism, said the island was focused on helping its less fortunate neighbors get food and medical assistance, and assisting in arranging travel back to the continental United States. “We’re in a position to help those in greater need,” he said.

Now, Puerto Rico is in need. On Thursday the island was declared a federal disaster zone. That evening it was estimated that some 3.4 million people — nearly the entire population — were without power. The energy grid was essentially destroyed, and hotels are shutdown and waiving cancellation fees.

The United States territory, which has been in a recession for more than a decade, has looked to tourism as something of a bright spot. In the last year, the island has seen record numbers of cruise ship visitors, as well as record hotel occupancy rates. But Gov. Ricardo Rosselló of Puerto Rico is predicting a long period of recovery.

Antigua and Barbuda

This two-island nation, which has been struggling since 2009 amid the recession, depends heavily on tourism. Antigua was spared the worst of Irma. Its V.C. Bird International Airport has been open and most hotels (including Carlisle Bay, Cocos Hotel and Keyonna Beach Resort), restaurants and businesses were largely unscathed. Tour operators, bars and restaurants — including popular beach spots such as BeachLimerz, Coconut Grove, Sheer Rocks and Turners Beach — are welcoming visitors.

Barbuda, Antigua’s little sister 28 miles to the north, on the other hand, is in ruins. Gaston Browne, the prime minister, has said that 90 percent of the island’s properties were damaged or destroyed. Cell towers snapped. The Barbuda Codrington Airport is unable to accommodate flights. “It is absolutely heart-wrenching,” Mr. Browne said on CNN.

Barbuda’s hotels were also damaged, but because there were fewer than 100 rooms on the island, the overall effect on tourism is minimal, the Caribbean Tourism Organization said.

Barbuda’s population is much smaller than Antigua’s, though its unspoiled land made it an attractive getaway. The actor Robert De Niro and James Packer, the Australian businessman, were in the process of transforming the island’s former K Club Resort into the Paradise Found Nobu Resort when the hurricane struck.

“We are beyond saddened to learn of the devastation in Barbuda caused from Hurricane Irma and look forward to working with the Paradise Found Nobu Resort team, the Barbuda Council, GOAB and the entire Barbuda community to successfully rebuild what nature has taken away from us,” Mr. De Niro said in a statement to Deadline.com. He participated in a hurricane relief telethon broadcast on Sept. 12, and spoke this week in New York to United Nations officials and leaders from Caribbean countries at a meeting about Irma in advance of the U.N. General Assembly, The Associated Press reported.

U.S. Virgin Islands

Tourism, particularly from cruise ships, is an economic mainstay here. In a statement today, Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp called for “all hands on deck” to speed up recovery efforts. St. John and St. Thomas took a beating from Irma, while St. Croix was largely untouched. Its Henry E. Rohlsen Airport was open, seaports were operational, and hotels said they were ready for guests. But then came Maria, and St. Croix was pummeled, especially the western and southwestern portions of the island. Power has been significantly damaged. The airport is still being assessed. And a 24-hour curfew is in place (with the exception of a few hours on Friday, so that people can pick up supplies from distribution centers).

Maria also worsened conditions on St. John and St. Thomas. Hotels there had already suffered major damage from Irma: Sugar Ray Resort and Spa, an all-inclusive hotel on St. Thomas, is planning to remain closed until next year. Windward Passage Hotel, overlooking Charlotte Amalie Harbor on St. Thomas, will be closed for six months. The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas and Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort are waiving hotel cancellation and change fees for certain arrival dates. Airlines are offering ticketed travelers area waivers through late October.

According to Central Intelligence Agency data, the economy of the Virgin Islands, while reliant on tourism, is a bit more diverse than other Caribbean islands. Additional sources of income include rum exports, trade and services. But first, the islands must rebuild.

“It’s going to be a long road to recovery,” Gov. Mapp said. “We have to prepare ourselves mentally, manage our expectations realistically and we will get through it.”

British Virgin Islands

These 60 islands east of Puerto Rico, which include Tortola, are also extremely dependent on tourism and benefit from visitors from the nearby United States Virgin Islands. That’s unlikely to happen with St. Thomas and St. John in shambles. And the British Virgin Islands were themselves walloped by the storms. Sharon Flax-Brutus, the director of tourism, said in a statement that there are many homes without roofs, power outages and downed cellphone towers.

Anguilla

Luxury tourism is essential for this British dependency. However, some 90 percent of the electricity infrastructure was damaged, along with the main water supply, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. Humanitarian aid experts from the United Kingdom are assessing the situation. The chief minister, the Honorable Victor Banks, said the island plans to open for business before the all-important Christmas season.

St. Kitts and Nevis

St. Kitts is open for tourism. The tourism authority said shortly after Irma that St. Kitts was essentially unharmed. Its Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport, as well as hotels and tourism providers are open (the Park Hyatt will open in November as planned). And cruise ships are on their way. In Nevis, the Vance W. Amory International Airport is also open. Hotels, including the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, The Hermitage and the Great House and cottages at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, which is open, are in good shape.

St. Barthélemy

A European Union territory and hideaway for the rich and famous, St. Barthélemy took a beating, including its first hotel, Eden Rock, where guests have included Greta Garbo, Howard Hughes and Bono. The resort, owned by David and Jane Matthews (Pippa Middleton’s in-laws), was closed for annual maintenance when Irma hit, but the damage was such that its early October has been postponed until further notice. The scramble is on to rebuild for the winter high season.

St. Martin / Sint Maarten

Most visitors arrive through the Princess Juliana International Airport in tourism-dependent Sint Maarten (on the Dutch side), which suffered severe damage. Sonesta Hotels said its resorts were damaged, and reservations from now through the end of the year have been canceled. Many hotels, including the Westin Dawn Beach Resort and Spa, Esmeralda Resort, Belair Beach Hotel, Oyster Bay Beach Resort, Riu Palace St. Martin and Summit Resort Hotel, reported significant damage.

Turks and Caicos Islands

First, Irma flooded roads, ripped off roofs, and took down trees and power lines. Then came Maria, packing 125 mile-per-hour winds. After Irma, many hotels reported being without power and water on this British overseas territory, which, besides tourism, also relies on offshore financial services and fishing, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. The Palms and the Shore Club had said that they planned to reopen on Sept. 30. Club Med Turkoise said it was not taking new guests through Sept. 30. Alexandra Resort, Blue Haven Resort and Beach House said they would be closed for arrivals through Oct. 8. Gansevoort Turks & Caicos was not accepting new guests until Nov. 1. Further damage from Maria is still being assessed.

Cuba

On Sept. 13, the State Department issued a travel warning, advising U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Cuba while hurricane recovery efforts are underway. The Department said that large parts of the country, including around Havana, are without power and running water, and that getting around is difficult.

Irma was yet another setback for the Communist nation, where the burgeoning tourism industry has provided much-needed income. North-central Cuba, home to a number of resorts, suffered severe damage.

“The storm hit some of our principal tourist destinations but the damage will be repaired before the high season,” President Raúl Castro wrote in a public message, according to The Associated Press.

Florida Keys

The island chain is temporarily closed to visitors as infrastructure repairs are being made. The first cruise ship port call is expected on Sept. 24 or Sept. 26. And American, Delta and Silver Airways have resumed commercial air service into Key West International Airport. Nonetheless, government officials are asking overnight visitors to postpone immediate vacation plans. There are curfews in place. Some residents are still without power. And the Key West International Airport and Florida Keys Marathon International Airport are being used as staging areas for relief supplies and personnel.

In a statement on Sept. 18, tourism officials said that Key West expects to be open by Fantasy Fest, the annual costume festival, slated to begin Oct. 20.