In the past few weeks there have been a string of devastating hurricanes and tropical storms that have brought havoc on major tourist destinations in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the most idyllic destinations in the Caribbean have been heavily damaged. Ferocious storms are nothing new to these islands, but Hurricane Irma and Maria, with its 185-mile-per-hour winds and rain, was catastrophic for some destinations. So a big question: Is the Caribbean safe to travel after hurricane Irma and Maria?
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How Bad Is The Damage?
Despite all the media hype, how bad is the damage really? Some places — including St. Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas emerged mostly unscathed. Yet, as of Thursday, the damage in other places was catastrophic. Here is a list of popular tourist destinations hit by Irma and their current condition.
IRMA destroyed 95 percent of Saint Martin and Sint Maarten. “It will take years to get back to normal,” a long-time agent for the American Express Travel Department told The Daily Beast. “Saint-Martin is the hub for most of the Lesser Antilles. The island was 95 percent destroyed. Princesse Julianna airport was destroyed.” The agent, John, who asked to be identified only by his first name, said, “It’s had a major, major impact. The airline industry is at a standstill.” Many of Saint-Martin’s 80,000 inhabitants lost everything. “People are resilient, the planet will survive, but it will take years to rebuild.” Many hotel chains said its resorts were damaged, and reservations from now through the end of the year have been canceled.
Barbuda and Antigua
Antigua, the Caribbean Tourism Organization said, was spared the worst of Irma. Its V.C. Bird International Airport is open and most hotels, restaurants and businesses were largely unscathed.
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 95 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,” Prime Minister Browne said on CNN. Barbuda’s hotels were also damaged, yet as there were less than 100 rooms on the island, the overall effect on tourism is minimal, the Caribbean Tourism Organization said.
U.S. Virgin Islands
Both St. John and St. Thomas took a beating. Hotels suffered major damage. 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. No word yet on when scheduled service will resume.
St. Croix was luckier. Its Henry E. Rohlsen Airport is open, flights have resumed, and its seaports are fully operational. In an indication of just how bad things are on its sister islands, the governor on Sept. 10 encouraged families on St. Thomas and St. John to consider enrolling their children in public schools on St. Croix instead.
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 storm. Sharon Flax-Brutus, the director of tourism, said in a statement that there are many homes without roofs, power outages and downed cellphone towers. The government said it’s working to restore commercial flights, but as of Monday, timing was unclear.
Florida and the Keys
Universal Orlando Resort reported “relatively minor damage” to fences, trees, signs and facades as its theme parks reopened Tuesday. Its popular Halloween Horror Nights event will go on as scheduled Friday. Disney‘s water parks won’t open till later this week but most other attractions are running.
Florida Keys tourism spokesman Andy Newman said travelers should postpone trips there until “the destination is ready to receive visitors.” He said Key West’s famous “90 Miles to Cuba” marker is solid concrete and “ain’t going nowhere” but cleanup and restoring utilities, communications and other services will take time.
Puerto Rico was left relatively unscathed during Irma. But, they were not so lucky with the most recent major hurricane, Maria. Puerto Rico was absolutely devastated with Harvey-level rains and Irma-level winds.. Just after the hurricane hit, 90% of the island was without power. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said the island faces a humanitarian crisis. He urged Congress to approve a commensurate aid package as the US commonwealth tries to get back on its feet.
On Wednesday 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. The storm 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.
So, what’s the takeaway?
It will take years to rebuild to where tourism was before Hurricanes Irma and Maria. It’s a catastrophe for the Caribbean tourism industry, the most important economic driver and the main foreign exchange earner for the region, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. A major hurdle facing the recover of the Caribbean tourism is “perception” says Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. “There’s a dual message. Most of the region is open for business,” he says, even as some islands were “demolished.” And if the tourists don’t come back, no amount of international aid will be enough to get the economy up and keep it running. Comito’s message: “Don’t cancel your plans.”
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