How Caribbean Tourism Is Doing After the Hurricanes

Nov 9, 2017

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Welcome to Caribbean Comeback, in which TPG shines a post-hurricane, pre-season spotlight on the region. Stay tuned for more stories throughout the week, and be sure to share tips in the comments if you’re planning an upcoming trip.  

When Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria swept through the Caribbean in early September, they wreaked monumental destruction, took several lives, and upended a way of life for a broad swath of communities. But the resilient and optimistic people of the area have sworn that they’ll be back, that hotels will again offer welcoming beds to tourists and assistance to locals, that restaurants will fill their bellies, and that a region whose name is synonymous with hospitality will prove that — even in the face of natural disaster — that is a deserved association.

You’re going to be able to go back to the Caribbean again; it’s just going to take you longer to return to some islands than others. Here’s a snapshot of six islands — how they fared during the storms, how the rebuilding efforts are coming along, and how they’re planning to handle the 2018 high season.

Barbuda and Antigua

Barbuda’s still struggling a lot.

Don’t get your hopes up about going to Barbuda for the upcoming season.

“I don’t want to say that the tourist season starting Dec. 15 is probably going to be a lost season for Barbuda, but it’s not going to be the most buoyant,” Walton Webson, the ambassador to the United Nations for Antigua and Barbuda, said in a telephone interview.

The small island in the Leeward Islands was devastated by Irma, with at least one confirmed death and the latest government estimates of the damage at close to $300 million and 95% destruction. Before the storm, Barbuda had a population of about 1,800. Afterward, it was completely evacuated, and now has an official population of zero. For the first time in its recorded history, Barbuda is considered uninhabited.

“What we’re beginning to do is take residents over and establish tent cities and spend more time on the island, but that has to be continuously monitored for sanitation and security,” Webson said.

Currently, the primary function of the seaport on the island of Barbuda is for the rebuilding efforts, especially bringing in equipment and supplies from its sister island of Antigua and elsewhere, and the government is trying to reestablish human settlement before focusing on its relatively small hotel sector (about 100 beds). The airport is expected to be back up in mid-November, but will be used mostly for reconstruction. (Barbuda was never a destination for large cruise ships.) The electrical grid is still down, and generators are providing what power there is; water and sewerage facilities “are just about beginning to be back up, so people can actually stay,” Webson said. The packs of wild dogs that took over the island after it was abandoned have been brought under control, thanks to nonprofit international animal organizations, he added. Barbuda’s famed bird sanctuary and lagoon are showing signs that they are already recovering from the storm.

Seeking to eke out opportunity from disaster, the government in St. John’s, on Antigua, hopes to reimagine Barbuda from the ground up as a solar-powered, eco-friendly Caribbean destination.

“We would be working toward the goal of a greener Barbuda in the next season starting Dec. 15, 2018,” Webson said. But for now, he sad, “Barbuda itself is not open for business.”

Webson said Antigua and Barbuda doesn’t have a government-approved voluntourism program in place at the moment, although that’s something the country is interested in pursuing. If you’re interested in helping with the recovery of the islands, the nonprofit organization Tourism Cares has partnered with the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association to create the Caribbean Tourism Recovery Fund, with Barbuda among the islands on the priority list for assistance.

But Antigua is open for business.

Though Barbuda was rendered a desert island by Irma, its sister island, Antigua, was relatively unhurt, and the 2017-2018 tourism schedule is expected to go on as normal. In fact, Webson urged travelers who were planning on a Barbuda vacation to stay in Antigua instead, as the dollars spent there will help fund the recovery effort on Barbuda.

“If the Antigua economy booms, we’re better able to provide financial support to the second half of the state,” he said.

Beach in Antigua And Barbuda, Saint Johns Credit: Claudio Bruni / EyeEm
A beach near St. John’s on Antigua. Image courtesy of Claudio Bruni / EyeEm.

The British Virgin Islands and the Bahamas

The hard-hit BVI is afloat for sailing season.

This is arguably the sailing capital of the world, and important tourist destinations in the British Virgin Islands were severely damaged by Hurricane Irma, with the most current estimate of the total damage being about $3.3 billion, according to Sharon Flax-Brutus, the BVI’s director of tourism. At least four people died.

“It was catastrophic,” she said in a telephone interview from Tortola. “But we’re seeing the resilience of the people of the BVI and the will to build the islands back.”

Before the storm struck, the entirety of the BVI counted about 2,500 hotel beds on land and an additional 3,000 or so beds and berths from the islands’ robust yachting sector. Though a few smaller properties are slowly starting to come back, they’re mostly hosting relief workers, and the government still doesn’t have enough data on the overall state of hotels on the islands. The newly renovated Rosewood Little Dix Bay, which has been active in recovery efforts, is scheduled to reopen sometime in 2018.

“We are still completing an assessment as to what is actually rentable, on land and sea, and we do not have hard and fast numbers on that,” Flax-Brutus said. “We’ll have no numbers for at least a month or so.”

All airports and ferry operators and ferry terminals on the islands are back up and operational, though on truncated schedules. Every island has pockets that remain without power and potable water, she said. The government predicts it will take two years before the islands are totally back to pre-Irma condition.

Still, the islands are opening up for business for the 2018 season in phases, starting on Nov. 1, when they officially welcomed back recreational sailors (who don’t need land accommodation). The first island to open up to land tourism later in the month will be Anegada, one of the less-touristed islands, with fewer than 100 rooms for travelers. Other islands, like the main island of Tortola and the popular but hard-hit Jost Van Dyke, will see their tourism facilities come back piecemeal. The BVI is hoping it can welcome its first cruise ship back at the end of December, she said, though the damage to the cruise port in Tortola may be repaired this month.

“It will be a soft launch on Dec. 15,” she said. “We expect the small hotels and intimate inns or villas to be the first land-based properties to come back, with larger properties coming later,” Flax-Brutus said. “Beach bars, restaurants, small inns and properties and sailing are what we expect to be up first.”

The famous Foxy’s Tamarind Bar on Jost Van Dyke, for example, has been in close touch with the government, and is planning on holding its annual New Year’s party as usual.

Flax-Brutus suggested that those who want to go down to the BVI not to relax but to help rebuild sign up to volunteer at BVI Volunteers.

And the Bahamas is too.

Though the BVI is currently reopened for yachts, the Bahamas — also a sailors’ haven — suffered little damage during the storm, and Nassau’s Lynden Pindling International Airport (NAS) reopened within days, with the port open to cruise ships and the major hotels opening their doors shortly after. The general assessment is that, as far as Bahamian tourism is concerned, it’s business as usual.

St. Martin-Sint Maarten and St. Kitts

St. Martin is doing a series of soft opens.

The French-Dutch island of St. Martin (or Sint Maarten) had 4,000 hotel beds before the storm, and Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) was a major hub for travelers to other Caribbean destinations. The Dutch side of the island, which was more dependent on tourists, suffered great losses, including four of the island’s 14 total deaths and 75% of its structures damaged or demolished. (The French side saw a staggering 95% of its buildings damaged or destroyed.) Seventy percent of the hotel rooms in Sint Maarten were rendered unusable. The damage to St. Martin and nearby St. Barth’s combined came to around $1.4 billion, with one estimate of St. Martin’s share alone to be about $1 billion. The SXM airport was heavily damaged.

By early October, however, Valerie Damaseau, the first vice president of the French St. Martin territorial council and president of the tourist office, said water and communications were back, the roads and beaches were cleared, and electricity was on track to be restored completely by November.

On Oct. 10, the airport reopened for limited flights for American, Delta, Insel Air and Seaborne Airlines, followed by KLM and Air France later that month, and JetBlue to come back in November, Rolando Brison, Sint Maarten director of tourism, said in a Skype media conference.

The major Sint Maarten hotels included the Sonesta chain and a Westin, with one Sonesta out of three hoping to partially reopen by the end of 2018 and the Westin to try to reopen in 2018. Brison said they were planning on reclaiming half of the pre-Irma room total by Dec. 31, 2017. The French side, according to Damaseau, will have a soft opening for hotels in April 2018, with the focus on a full-fledged tourist 2019 season starting December 2018. Cruise ships are expected to slowly start returning to the island starting in early November.

St. Martin-Sint Maarten is also among the islands the Caribbean Tourism Recovery Fund has prioritized for assistance.

While St. Kitts is welcoming visitors as usual. 

Though the nearby islands of St. Kitts and Nevis sustained an estimated $54 million in damage during the storm season, the islands escaped serious destruction, and is already open for business to tourists. Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport (SKB), just outside Basseterre, is operating normally, the cruise ships are making their stops, and hotels and tourist services are welcoming travelers as in any other year.

Alexa Noel contributed to this story.

Featured image courtesy of Helene Valenzuela/AFP/Getty Image.

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