Representatives of six island destinations affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria attended last week’s Climate-Smart Sustainable Tourism Forum, a joint effort by the Caribbean Tourism Organization and St. Kitts and Nevis, which hosted the event. “We can read [about the recovery], but there’s nothing like seeing you and hearing you in person,” said CTO Secretary General Hugh Riley. To that end, the six delegates participated in a Tourism Recovery Roundup moderated by the BBC’s Gregory and Michael McKenzie. These takeaways follow the order in which the islands were presented at the forum.
British Virgin Islands
Angela Burnett*, environmental officer for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour, reported that airlift was “a double whammy” for the BVI because many visitors—be they tourists or recovery workers—would normally be arriving via St. Thomas. “The BVI is officially open for business, but I still don’t know how practical that is,” admitted Burnett. “We had to close a beach because of an outbreak of E. Coli bacteria, more than 90 percent of land accommodations have been wiped out, and 95 percent of the yachts have been demolished.”
The destruction of all those yachts is particularly bad because so much of the BVI’s tourism depends on boating. The good news is that Sunsail and The Moorings, the 800-pound gorilla of yacht charters in the Caribbean, just announced they’re resuming of operations in the British Virgin Islands.
“We are officially open for business, but we’re not ‘running business,'” said Roland Royer, chief technical officer for the Ministry of Tourism. “Only 20 percent of our room stock is available.” These are mostly modest hotels and guest houses.
When I asked Royer if Dominica’s signature “Bays”—luxury eco-resorts Rosalie Bay and Secret Bay—would reopen any time soon, he shook his head. Although Fort Young Hotel, the largest property on the island, plans to resume operations in early 2018, Rosalie Bay will remain closed until “at least September 2018,” and Secret Bay, a multiple award-winner and one of the best boutique resorts in the Caribbean, has not yet announced a reopening date.
“We are open for business,” declared Gina Brooks, tourism planner at the Anguilla Ministry of Tourism. Indeed, it’s been a remarkable comeback. “Some of the major players will come on stream in 2018, and some of the smaller properties, especially those that are inland, never closed. The north of the island wasn’t as damaged as the southwest, and ancillary services such as restaurants are open. Some properties are offering packages inclusive of taxes.” Brooks was certain that 600 or so rooms, mainly in villas and apartments, will be in good shape for Christmas.
Responding a few days later to my request for more details, a tourism spokesperson reported that electrical power has been restored. CeBlue Resort, Carimar Beach Club, Frangipani Beach Resort, Meads Bay Villas, and Shoal Bay Villas and several hundred other rooms in villas and apartments are open, and a new boutique hotel, Quintessence, will debut with the new year. Iconic restaurants such as Tasty’s, Johnno’s, Gwen’s Reggae Grill, and the Elvis Beach Bar are open.
The Four Seasons and Malliouhana hope to be back in business later this winter, The Reef by CuisinArt plans to reopen in April, and CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa is undergoing a renovation that will be completed in November. (Its golf course and some of the restaurants are operational, and the spa reopens in January.) Despite the damage to infrastructure, visitors can now fly direct from SJU, SXM, and ANU. Alternatively, they can get to SXM via JetBlue (expanding to daily service in January), American, and Delta, and then take a ferry to Anguilla.
Antigua and Barbuda
It was clear from the start that Irma had flattened Barbuda, but Antigua would rebound after having taken an indirect hit. Bear in mind that Barbuda only had about 100 rooms, so the tragedy there is one of humanity, not tourism. (That raises a question for which there may be no definitive answer: Does applying the word “tragedy” to tourism cheapen the meaning of tragedy?)
In any case, no one will be surprised that Vashti Ramsey-Casimir, senior tourism officer for the Antigua and Barbuda Ministry of Tourism, confidently stated, “Antigua is open to business.” Ramsey-Casimir did say that there was “some damage to a few of the beaches, but they are coming back without human intervention.” What’s more, the birds have returned to the Frigate Bird Sanctuary in Barbuda—a very good sign—and some visitors are participating in voluntourism efforts there. The island of Barbuda, including hotels in the pipeline, is rebuilding.
The Dutch section of St. Martin is enjoying “the highest occupancy rate ever recorded,” said Rolando Brison, director of tourism for the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau. However, he added, that’s because only 35 percent of the room stock is available. Then again, Brison is an optimist. “Seeing some hotels full makes others rebuild faster,” he said. “Hoteliers who had predicted they’d need a year and a half to rebuild are now aiming for six months.”
We wondered who is filling the available room stock. One example Brison offered: “Over 1,600 insurance adjusters came in November.” He views these business travelers as tourists, too, because, he explained, “We have a conversion opportunity.” In a follow-up conversation with me, he talked about a category of “resilient tourists,” saying that people are coming not for normal tourism, but for voluntourism, and that many are longtime visitors to St. Maarten.
(In fact, as I write this, the “Everything St. Maarten” group on Facebook features a photo of a New Englander with two enormous suitcases filled with necessities she’s bringing to schoolchildren. Moreover, she arranged another 600 pounds of donated goods that’s arriving by ship.)
Turks and Caicos
Both of this year’s category 5 hurricanes slammed into the Turks and Caicos, but there was no knockout punch. In fact, senior product officer for tourism, Brian B.J. Been, was emphatic when he announced that the archipelago’s tourism industry was “most definitely” back in business. “Most of our room stock is in rotation again [even the potentially vulnerable Como Parrot Cay Resort has arisen],” said Been, “and in two days [December 15th] Beaches will reopen.”
The American Territories
Unfortunately, neither Puerto Rico nor the U.S. Virgin Islands sent delegates to the forum, but one good sign of recovery is that St. Croix and The Buccaneer will be hosting a press trip in early February. Moreover, Puerto Rico feels so confident about the bounce-back of the San Juan area, its main tourism hub, that it will host the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s annual (and massive) Marketplace in late January. For more details on Puerto Rico’s recovery click here.
*Angela Burnett of the BVI interviewed about 25 survivors of Hurricane Irma, and now she has published a book that tells their harrowing tales. She will donate 1 percent of the proceeds from The Irma Diaries: Compelling Survivor Stories From The Virgin Islands, to each of the interviewees and 25 percent of the proceeds to the Virgin Islands Climate Change Trust Fund. For more information, visit theirmadiaries.com.