After Hurricane Irma, Caribbean Tourist Paradises Lost

Many who hoped for an island getaway will discover their resorts have gone away, at least for now.

“It will take years to rebuild to where tourism was before Hurricane Irma. It’s a catastrophe for the Caribbean, it’s very sad,” said Maryse Penette-Kedar, former Tourism Minister for Haiti and now representative for Caribbean Cruise Lines. Reached by phone in Port-au-Prince, Penette-Kedar provided a dramatic picture of the impact. “Everyone was preparing for the high season, it’s already sold out by now, wholesale packages, charters, hotels, entertainment, transport.” But now, said Penette-Kedar, “It’s totally shot.” As for the long term: “The entire industry’s taken a huge blow. “

Tourism is the major revenue source for the Caribbean region. In 2016, it hit a record high of 29.3 million visitors, up by 4.3 percent over 2015, netting over U.S. $35 billion in revenues. Most of its prized, idyllic islands are hard to get to—and Irma decimated one of the main hubs.

Saint-Martin and Sint Maarten, an island divided between French and Dutch authority,  is one of two main gateways, Puerto Rico being the other. Tourists arriving at Princesse Julianna airport on Sint Maarten catch puddle-jumpers to other paradise isles—Anguilla, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Bart’s, Barbuda, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and others.

IRMA destroyed 95 percent of Saint Martin and Sint Maarten. Wealth and celebrity offered no protection. French rock star Johnny Hallyday offered his luxury villa as a refuge for the homeless only to learn that it, too, was uninhabitable. French President Emmanuel Macron will be looking at the devastation firsthand on Tuesday, amid charges that French troops did too little—or too much, using live fire—to impose order after the storm.

“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.”

A week after Hurricane Irma’s furious onslaught on the Caribbean, telephone service remains cut off, even to five-star resorts in St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Barbuda, judged “uninhabitable” by its governor, remains dead silent. Hotels are leveled, pristine beaches turned into junkyards of floating debris and toppled palms.

Commercial airlines are struggling to restore service, but at a high cost in refunds and continued delays. The few functioning airports in the Caribbean are reserved for military flights, mostly by the French, who have been deploying out of Guadaloupe, and the United States.

From travel agents to airlines, and local businesses,  noone can provide an estimate of the cost or the time it will take to rebuild.  “It’s a nightmare” says the American Express travel agent,  overwhelmed by stranded tourists begging for a way out of …  paradise.

“The Caribbean is a family,” says Penette-Kenard, “everybody depends on everybody’s business. But this time, most of our family members got hit. It’s a catastrophe.  It will take two to three years, if we are creative, to build back.”

But as the people of the Caribbean try to regroup and rebuild, another problem looms: the tendency of would-be holiday goers to think all is lost on all the islands. That is not the case.

“We were told a curfew would take effect at 2:00 p.m.,  barricade ourselves, all businesses closed, we were on red alert,” said Mikhael Picot, manager of Guadaloupe Conciergerie.  “We had some strong winds during the night, but the next morning, it had passed. The hurricane took a turn to the right. We had escaped Irma.”

That sense of relief was quickly replaced by worry about what had happened to islands nearby, especially, Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelemy.  They had been hit badly. 

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“There’s a solidarity. We  immediately started working to get getting relief supplies to them,"  said Picot.

Irma devastated many of the most famous and fashionable islands in the Caribbean, but of 32 listed tourism destinations, 75 percent were spared.

"We’re working on two fronts," said Frank Comito, director general of the Caribbean Hotels and Tourism Association.  "One is immediate humanitarian help to the most severely hit islands, and the second is long-term relief sustainment.” Comito said the association had partnered with worldwide relief organizations with expertise in catastrophic events like Tsunamis.  “For several of these destinations in the northern Caribbean it’s going to take a year or longer to recover.”

The U.S Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit have set up a logistical hub at Cyril King E. Airport on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands to bring in supplies, assess damages in nearby St. John's, and provide transport to British Royal Marines who have arrived on the scene.

The latest update from the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) released Tuesday, exactly a week since Hurricane Irma’s first devastating blows, provides a detailed account of recovery efforts.

For the British Virgin Islands, it said,  “With cell phone towers down and power outages, communication to, from and within the territory has been difficult, impacting the ability to fully assess the damage.”

The CTO update also lists airports that have reopened, though only for emergency relief flights and charters, in Anguilla, the Bahamas, St. Kitts and St. Nevis. Sint Maarten’s Princesse Juliana airport has re-opened too but only to evacuate tourists and receive flights bringing in emergency supplies, noting “no passengers, including media, are being allowed in at the moment due to a shortage of staff to man the airport.”

After all this, a major hurdle facing the recover of the Caribbean tourism is "perception” says Frank Comito.  “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.”