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In late August and into September, there was no avoiding the images of driving rains and bowing palm trees as Hurricane Irma, and then Maria, tore through the Caribbean and made their way toward the United States. In some cases these historically powerful storms wiped out entire islands.
Aside from the heartbreaking updates from Puerto Rico, where nearly half of the population is still without electricity, there has been just a trickle of new information about recovery efforts on the other Caribbean islands, leaving vacationers wondering what to do about their winter escapes. Finding updates can be frustrating because many countries haven’t kept their websites current.
“I know it’s bad in the US Virgin Islands and St. Martin,” said Paul Adams, an Allston-based Web developer who was in the process of planning a trip to Havana before the storms hit. “But there are some places where you just don’t know what’s going on.”
First the good news. In most of the 12 affected countries, including Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas, and the Dominican Republic, recovery has been quick. Many hotels and restaurants are back in business.
The majority of the Caribbean was unharmed by the hurricanes. The Caribbean consists of more than 7,000 islands (there are many, many tiny islands), and only a handful of them were heavily damaged. But perception that the entire region was devastated is almost as detrimental to tourism as the storms themselves.
“Your visit to our islands is more important now than ever,” wrote Allen Chastanet, prime minister of St. Lucia on the website caribbeanisopen.com. “By coming to the Caribbean you will be contributing to our assistance to our fellow islands who are still recovering.”
The Caribbean Tourism Organization has been steadily working to get the message out with regular updates on its website. The organization points out that 70 percent of destinations were not affected by the storm.
“At this point, it might be easier to say the islands that were affected as opposed to the ones that weren’t because so many more weren’t,” said Johnson Johnrose of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
It appears that the message is beginning to reach travelers. After three months of decreased demand, those looking for warm sun are once again searching for flights to the islands. The airline booking website Hopper found that searches for flights to islands not affected by Irma and Maria are almost back to pre-hurricane levels.
“It does appear that in most cases, travelers are doing their homework,” said Kayla Inserra, a spokeswoman for the travel website Kayak. “Areas that weren’t impacted by the storms are showing moderate increases in searches, but the affected areas are showing expected and significant decreases in interest.”
But those tourist-heavy islands that were hit hard — Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Barbuda, St. Martin/St. Maarten, St. Bart’s, Dominica, and the British Virgin Islands — are facing a long road to recovery.
“Many of these hard-hit islands have restored airports, ports, roads, and hospitals,” said Erika Richter, director of communications for the American Society of Travel Agents. “Visiting recovering Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico is really about opportunities to help the people rebuild.”
Some of those islands that bore the brunt of the storms are now declaring themselves ready to receive visitors. In some cases that’s true. Beaches have been cleared of debris, dive centers have reopened, and hotel rooms are quickly coming back to life. But the hurricanes also stripped away much of the vegetation. Smaller structures were blown away, and neighborhoods outside of tourist areas are still in dire need of assistance.
Before booking any plane tickets or a hotel room, do some research. Explore a hotel’s Facebook page or Instagram account. If the conditions are still not clear, call the hotel and ask to receive photos via e-mail.
Here’s a look at the islands that are ready for visitors, and those that are still in the process of recovering.
PUERTO RICO: At last check, cruise ports and airports were open, however nearly half the island was without power and cell service has yet to be fully restored. Still, tourism officials are encouraging travelers to come to Puerto Rico this holiday season and help the local economy. The Puerto Rican Tourism Company will be announcing a series of “Rebuild Days” where supporters of the island can come and contribute to its recovery.
“Tourism continues to be vital to Puerto Rico’s road to recovery, and we look forward to welcoming visitors soon, especially those who want to give back this holiday season,” Jose Izquierdo, executive director of the PRTC, said in a statement. “Continuing to visit us, staying at our hotels, eating at our restaurants, buying from local businesses, and giving back through rebuilding efforts is the best way to support us right now.” You can check the status of basic services on Puerto Rico at the website status.pr.
BARBUDA: More than 90 percent of the island’s buildings were destroyed and most who evacuated have yet to return. The evacuation order was lifted in September, but the Washington Post reported that locals weren’t rushing back, and there are now reports of feral packs of animals. The country had a limited number of hotel rooms before the storm. Those are gone, and there is no indication that they will return over the next year.
ST. BART’S: Wimco, a company that rents private villas in St. Bart’s, reports that the French territory is “open for business.” That declaration sounds optimistic for a country that was heavily flooded and whipped by relentless wind. While basic services have been restored, many hotels have not yet opened, or have opening dates set for next year, according to the website caribbeantravelupdate.com. Iconic properties such as Eden Roc and Le Sereno will not be open until 2018. Despite the lower inventory of hotel rooms, several winter festivals are scheduled to move forward.
ANGUILLA: The British Caribbean island, which was struck by Irma but not Maria, is declaring itself open on its website ivisitanguilla.com. While hotels are racing to open for the winter season, Travel Weekly reports that only about 30 percent of the island’s 2,600 pre-Irma rooms are back in operation. Chief minister Victor Banks estimated that recovery on Anguilla will take 18 months. “I believe that beyond 18 months we should already be well past the recovery stage and restored to a level of stability.”
US VIRGIN ISLANDS/ST. CROIX: The US Virgin Islands were dealt a double blow, and recovery has been slow. Full power and street lights are expected to be restored by Christmas. Hotels are slowly reopening, but next winter appears to be a more likely time frame for the island to start welcoming vacationers in some capacity. The island’s governor, Kenneth Mapp, told NPR’s “Here & Now” that the cost to repair the damage and rebuild the island’s electrical grid will be an estimated $200 million. Despite those setbacks, cruise ships have returned to the islands, which will help bring in much-needed tourism dollars.
ST. MARTIN/ST. MAARTEN: The iconic Princess Juliana International Airport, which is one of the primary jumping-off points for other parts of the Caribbean, has reopened, and commercial flights have returned, but many hotels reported significant damage and will remain closed at least until 2018.
DOMINICA: After a direct hit from Maria, Dominica was left in ruins. A handful of guesthouses have since reopened, but many places on the island are still without electricity. More than 30 percent of the islands’s dive sites were damaged. Most remained closed but are projecting a January opening. A website tracking the clean-up process, DominicaUpdate.com, reports that the island has launched a voluntourism program through Cobra Tours (email@example.com) and Cool Breeze Tours (coolbreezetours9@ gmail.com) to restore two major attractions: the Indian River and the Waitukubuli national trail. The hurricane damaged 85 percent of the homes on the island, and left 25 percent completely destroyed. Dominica’s carnival is set to begin at the end of January, but the island still needs significant time to recover services, and even vegetation.
BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS: The British Virgin Islands took the full force of Hurricane Irma when it was the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. Less than two weeks later, the islands were hit for a second time by Hurricane Maria. Although a few hotels have opened, islanders are still clearing a significant amount of debris left from the more than 200 m.p.h. winds. Commercial flights have resumed, but extensive rebuilding of utilities and structures are needed.
CUBA: Although the storms did not cause major damage to Cuba’s already crumbling infrastructure, travel restrictions to the country are now back in place under President Trump. Americans are no longer permitted to visit Cuba on individual people-to-people trips, a category of travel that opened the door to Cuba for many when President Obama loosened restrictions. Group people-to-people trips, along with cruises, are still allowed to the island. The US State Department is also warning against travel to Cuba after the United States accussed Cuba of a sonic attack against US diplomats.
IF YOU’D LIKE TO MAKE A DONATION TO HELP: Several charities have been set up specifically to help the hardest hit islands recover. If you prefer to empty your vacation piggy bank and send money to the islands, organizations include: The Caribbean Tourism Organization Relief Fund, (donations through Paypal); Fund for the Virgin Islands; United for Puerto Rico; Dominica Hurricane Relief Fund; The British Virgin Islands Recovery Fund; and international disaster relief organizations such as the American Red Cross.
However, those on the ground in the Caribbean reiterate that the best way to help the region is to bring back the tourism economy by visiting. Without tourism dollars, jobs are lost, compounding the situation.
“One of the best things people can do to help the Caribbean recover is to plan a vacation to the region,” said Frank Comito, CEO and director general of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. “Most of the Caribbean is open for business, has not been impacted, and even in those areas most severely impacted, many of the hotels will bounce back before the winter season. While voluntourism is of course appreciated, visitors can also still go to the Caribbean for their usual vacations.”
One of the safest ways to plan a Caribbean vacation is to go to one of the islands that was not at all affected by a hurricane this year. Jamaica, Aruba, Curacao, St. Lucia, Barbados, the Cayman Islands, Grenada, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago were unaffected.
According to the website Caribbean Travel Update, Antigua and the Dominican Republic all took a glancing blow from one or both of the powerful storms, but are ready for travelers. Likewise, the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique sustained minimal damage and tourism bureaus from both islands are reporting they are open.
Those islands that did not experience the full force of Irma and Maria are up and running. Because the storms took place during the low season, resorts were able to take the late summer and most of the fall to prepare for vacationers. While these islands may not look exactly as travelers’ remember — they may even look better after improvements — all services are running and most hotels and restaurants have reopened. These include St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos, and the Bahamas.
The headline of this story was updated to better reflect its content. Links for charities aiding victims of the hurricanes were also added.
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