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‘We’ll be back’: Enormous hurdles — and resolve — ahead for those in Virgin Islands’ hard-hit tourism industry

William de Leon sorted through the remnants of an office on Estate Lindholm, a hotel in the Cruz Bay section of St. John.
William de Leon sorted through the remnants of an office on Estate Lindholm, a hotel in the Cruz Bay section of St. John.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

GREAT CRUZ BAY, Virgin Islands — The turquoise waters still glimmer in the bright sun, and the beaches remain breezy and alluring. But instead of daiquiri-sipping tourists on lounge chairs, the white sands beside the Westin Resorts are thick with detritus that makes it look more like a war zone.

Beached sailboats lean precariously beside debris from nearby, roofless villas, as if torpedoes had hit them. Nearly all the once-stately palm trees look decapitated, bereft of fronds. And just about all the surrounding vegetation has vanished, as if the formerly lush hills above had been torched.

When Hurricane Irma screamed through this luxe retreat on St. John, where more than half the villas were destroyed by flooding and fierce winds, Troy Neil and his pregnant wife watched from one of those villas as their catamarans and the other boats they charter were battered and their livelihood wrecked.

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“It looked like a nuclear bomb went off here,” said Neil, owner of Cruz Bay Watersports, who had to flee his Westin villa with his wife and 2-year-old son when the roof blew off.

Irma tore through resorts in St. John and St. Thomas, rendering many of the popular escapes uninhabitable to travelers and flatlining the region’s economic pulse. In hard-hit St. Thomas, where downed power lines and trees littered nearly every road, resorts such as the lush Sugar Bay Resort and Spa and Frenchman’s Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort are still determining whether structures are safe and when repairs can begin.

Many Caribbean islands escaped the hurricane unscathed or barely touched, but those that stood directly in its path, such as St. Bart’s, Anguilla, St. Martin, Turks and Caicos, and the US Virgin Islands, face a long road to rebuilding services and drawing back essential tourism dollars.

Although most of their boats have been damaged or destroyed, the Neils vowed to remain on St. John and rebuild their business, which ferried about 200 tourists a day to snorkel on nearby reefs or cruise to the other islands. Like millions of others throughout the Caribbean, they rely on tourism for their livelihood.

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“It’s a pretty deep cut that we’re sewing up the best we can,” said Neil’s wife, Dana, who wears a diamond-encrusted pendant of St. John around her neck. “We’re not giving up.”

For those who remain on this and other hurricane-ravaged islands in the region, where at least 38 people died when Irma swept from Barbuda to the Florida Keys this month, there’s little other choice than to rebuild.

Last year, the Caribbean’s growing tourism industry accounted for about 15 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, or $56.4 billion, and supported 2.3 million jobs, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, an industry group in London.

In the US Virgin Islands, tourism employs about half of the 100,000 people who live there, which includes St. Thomas and St. Croix, according to Euromonitor International, a market research company. Those numbers have increased significantly over the past five years after a major oil refinery, Hovensa, on St. Croix, closed in 2012.

Overall, tourism last year contributed nearly $600 million to the islands’ economy, bolstered by nearly 18 million cruise ship passengers who visited St. Thomas and St. John, according to the Virgin Islands Bureau of Economic Research.

The recovery for hotels and other tourism businesses could take a few months for some — the general manager of the Westin on St. John said he hoped to be “fully operational” within six months — but it could take years for others.

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More than a week after Hurricane Irma struck St. John, the entrance to the Westin was covered with broken trees and other brush.
More than a week after Hurricane Irma struck St. John, the entrance to the Westin was covered with broken trees and other brush.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

On St. Thomas, the damage at Bluebeard’s Castle Resort was so severe that officials estimate 80 percent of the 186 rooms were beyond repair and would have to be totally rebuilt.

“I’d say it will take at least a year and a half or two years before we’re back in business,” said Joe DeSantis, a manager at Bluebeard’s, as his workers sought to clear debris and patch up damaged roofs. “This place is a real mess.”

Analysts who monitor the tourist industry compared the fallout from Irma to when Hurricane Ivan, also a Category 5 storm, hit the Cayman Islands and Grenada with 155-mile-per-hour winds in 2004.

It took the wealthy Caymans, an autonomous British territory, more than seven years for tourism levels to return to pre-Ivan levels, while the less-developed Grenada took a decade, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

Those who promote tourism in the Caribbean are coping with more than the billions of dollars of damage and lost tourism revenue from Irma; they’re also worried about the long-term perception among travelers that the islands are unsafe. There were reports of looting on St. John and other islands, one factor that led hundreds of residents to flee.

Travel agents, hotels, and tour operators have already received a flood of cancellations.

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Michelle Fage, who helps organize weddings in the Virgin Islands, has had to tell 18 couples that their plans for the rest of this year and next year had to be canceled.

Rob Woodworth (right), owner of Sunshine Daydream Boat Charters, embraced Robert Gonzales when they saw each other for the first time after the hurricane.
Rob Woodworth (right), owner of Sunshine Daydream Boat Charters, embraced Robert Gonzales when they saw each other for the first time after the hurricane. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“It has been heartbreaking to do this,” said Fage, a St. John resident whose company is called Paradise Planning. “From boat captains to hotel workers, so many people lost their jobs in the matter of hours.”

Caribbean tourism is also taking a hit from the damage Irma and Harvey wrought in Florida and Texas. More than 14 million Americans visit the Caribbean each year, many from those areas.

“People in Florida and Texas whose homes have been wiped out are not going to be planning a dream vacation to the Caribbean this year,” said Hugh Riley, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, which promotes tourism in the region. “Those are important markets for us.”

On St. John, even for those businesses that survived the storm, the aftermath promises to deliver a blow.

At the Cruz Bay Boutique Hotel, where there was minimal water damage and generators kept air conditioners running in some of the 11 rooms, David Guidi, the owner, said cancellations are “snowballing.”

Robert Gonzales talked to his 11-week-old son over FaceTime from the Cruz Bay Boutique Hotel on St. John. Gonzales, who owns and manages rental properties on the island, stayed throughout the storm to keep an eye on his properties.
Robert Gonzales talked to his 11-week-old son over FaceTime from the Cruz Bay Boutique Hotel on St. John. Gonzales, who owns and manages rental properties on the island, stayed throughout the storm to keep an eye on his properties. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“This is absolutely the worst disaster we’ve experienced,” said Guidi, who has run the hotel for seven years. “The real storm for us is the cancellations and the negative press.”

Their cancellations have already stretched into February. “It’s like a run on the bank,” he said.

For Robert Gonzales, a lawyer from Nashville who moved to St. John in 2012 to rent apartments and enjoy the good life, four of his six units were destroyed by Irma.

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He and his wife, with their 11-month-old son, now plan to move back to Tennessee, where he intends to resume working in law to make ends meet.

Still, he remained optimistic about the island’s prospects. “St. John is an extraordinarily beautiful place,” he said. “When it gets cold up north, I think people will look to come back.”

On Thursday morning, employees at the Estate Lindholm were discarding soggy mattresses and digging through the rubble that was recently the hotel’s main office and restaurant.

Surf boards were among the debris at Estate Lindholm. The hotel’s owner, Brion Morrissette, said: “I’m totally bullish on the future. There’s no other option.”
Surf boards were among the debris at Estate Lindholm. The hotel’s owner, Brion Morrissette, said: “I’m totally bullish on the future. There’s no other option.”Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Other workers were wielding machetes to salvage what was left of the once-manicured garden.

“This is a painful process, but I’m totally bullish on the future,” said Brion Morrisette, the owner. “There’s no other option.”

But it wasn’t clear whether every business would survive. Multiple residents said they had heard that the venerable Caneel Bay Resort may not reopen. Guards at the entrance turned a reporter away on a recent visit, and a spokesman declined to answer questions about the 61-year-old hotel’s future.

“At this time the resort team is focusing on the welfare and the well-being of the employees and continuing to evaluate damage on property,” said Jamie Goldstein, a spokesman for the resort, in a statement. “We have determined that Caneel Bay Resort will remain closed through the end of 2017 and, once we have further information, we will share news on 2018 as well.”

Hurricane Irma destroyed Caneel Bay Resort, the 61-year-old hotel that for many embodied the elegance of a St. John vacation. The resort is closed for the rest of the year. Whether it will be returned to the luxury of its past (below) is uncertain.
Hurricane Irma destroyed Caneel Bay Resort, the 61-year-old hotel that for many embodied the elegance of a St. John vacation. The resort is closed for the rest of the year. Whether it will be returned to the luxury of its past (below) is uncertain. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff
Caneel Bay Resort

At the Westin, where security guards protected the entrance, the staff was still serving hot meals — for free to neighbors and anyone else who stopped by — and looking ahead.

Samuel Hugli, the general manager, said he hoped to reopen the restaurant in two weeks and by March welcome back the roughly 1,000 guests who typically stay there during the high season.

First, he said, they would have to dig out the pool, which remains buried under sand. Other repairs, he estimated, would cost the resort as much as $90 million.

“We’ll be back,” he promised.


David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel. Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @chris_muther.