Until the night of Sept. 18, Dominica’s Tourism Minister Robert Tonge had been expecting a Category 1 or 2 hurricane — bad, but nothing the island hadn’t dealt with before. “Maria” probably wouldn’t be a name remembered.
Then, at 8 p.m., a message came from a friend: “Bunker down. It’s going to be a Category 5.”
For the next seven hours, Hurricane Maria’s 160-mile per hour winds undressed Dominica, stripping the lush vegetation on the “Nature Island.” Tonge and his family huddled in a first-floor room battened with hurricane shutters to ride out Maria’s last-minute power surge.
When the storm subsided, Tonge surveyed the damage in Roseau.
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Cars were flipped, trees were toppled and leafless, and sand blanketed the scene. About 90 percent of the island’s buildings were damaged and 31 people were killed, he later learned. Thirty seven are still missing.
“I said to myself, ‘Oh my God. How am I going to deal with this?’ “ Tonge recalled.
In Dominica, like in other islands in the Caribbean where Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit in September, the storms proved disastrous not just for homes and businesses, but for the vital tourism economy as well.
On most of the islands that were hit — Dominica, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, St. Martin, Turks and Caicos, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — tourism is the top industry, in some places accounting for more than 50 percent of the total gross domestic product. Across the Caribbean, tourism employs more than 2.4 million people, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
That dependency posed a major concern post-storm: With the tropical beauty, the beaches and the amenities that lure tourists to the Caribbean in shambles, who would come? And if no one came, how would places like Dominica, a small island only about 30 miles long, ever recover?
No strangers to hurricanes, the islands that were hardest-hit immediately began the recovery process, working first to clear the damage just enough to be deemed safe again — and welcome tourists back. In Dominica, the nation started small, with teams working to clear roads, dispose of debris and restore water and electricity. To date, the nation’s government has spent nearly $19 million just to clear debris and restore roads, Tonge said.
Now seven months out for the storms, each small thing has added up. Countries have gone from small projects to larger undertakings: rebuilding homes and hotels, restoring ports and reopening airports to previous operation levels. Those moves have transformed the region’s seemingly grim prospects, even in places that got the one-two punch from both Irma and Maria.
In most countries, tours are back in operation, airports and seaports are open and some hotels have begun welcoming guests. The recovery varies from country-to-country, with most still struggling to rebuild hotel infrastructure.
Because of the vastness of the region — with 7,000 islands scattered across more than a million square miles — even places barely kissed by a breeze from Irma and Maria experienced a dip in visits from tourists who thought the entire area, from the coast of Central America to the Lesser Antilles, was storm-ravaged. Dominica’s neighbor to the south, Martinique, was relatively unscathed by Maria, but more than two months after the storms had ended was spreading the message that it had been spared — and was open for business.
In tropical Dominica, signs of Maria’s wrath have started to dissipate, and silver linings have emerged. Maria’s fury, it turns out, unearthed some gems.
“We have actually seen waterfalls that we never saw before,” Tonge said. “It was like a pruning.”
Here’s an island-by-island rundown on the current situation:
Dominica knows it ne help — and it has some visitors who are willing to pitch in.
Since the storm, half a dozen hotels and tour operators have started offering “voluntourism” packages for travelers who want to help restore and clear debris, particularly on the island’s 114-mile, 14-segment walking trail, Waitukubuli National Trail.
Beginning in mid-February at the Tamarind Tree Hotel, for instance, travelers could purchase a one- or two-week all-inclusive package that included the typical amenities — meals, drinks, guided tours and transfers — plus tools, machinery and protective gear for visitors primed to spend some portion of their vacation clearing segment 11 of the trail. The packages run from about $1,210 to $3,170 per person.
Though the project hasn’t been a major tourism traffic-driver yet — only four packages have been sold so far with more booked in late April — the hotel plans to make it available through the end of August, said Annette Peyer Loerner, a spokeswoman for the Tamarind.
“The voluntourists who have booked the program and participated in the clearing of Segment 11 have very much enjoyed the combination of touristic sightseeing and volunteer work for a valuable cause,” Loerner said. “Some already planned their next visit to Dominica.”
Tourism Minister Tonge said the island had been considering adding voluntourism options since before the storm. After assessing the damage left by Maria, and realizing many islands were feeling similar shortages of workers and supplies, Tonge and his colleagues felt it was finally the right time to offer visitors an opportunity to give back.
“This was something we thought of a long time ago, now we see the true benefits of it,” Tonge said. “Many times you have people come into a destination who have specialized skills, who utilize their talents to help the country.”
Apart from the Tamarind, Fort Young Hotel, Secret Bay Resorts, Cobra Tours, Cool Breeze Tours and Cabrits Dive are also offering voluntourism packages.
Elsewhere on Dominica, much of the most critical post-Maria destruction has been addressed.
Major roadways have been cleared, 90 percent of the island has had water restored and 40 percent of Dominica has electricity, Tonge said. Still, only 41 percent of the hotel rooms available pre-Maria are now accepting visitors, or 393 rooms out of 962 rooms.
Maria also cut into cruise calls scheduled for Dominica during the 2017-2018 cruise season. Before the storm, the island expected to receive 219 cruise calls, Tonge said. Post-hurricane, that number was slashed to 34 calls. Cruises returned in late December and since, 16 additional cruise visits have been added, including the return of the Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Fascination in July.
“We have not had summer ships for a couple years now so that’s going to make a big difference,” Tonge said.
Helping draw the cruise lines back is accessibility to island attractions. Nineteen of the island’s 23 attractions are back in operation, including Trafalgar Falls, Middleham Falls, Emerald Pool, Fresh Water Lake and the Indian River. Seven dive operators are offering dive tours; local officials suggest visitors dive in sites 45 feet or deeper to avoid any of the storm damage. The island’s Champagne Reef, another popular stop where hot bubbles come up through vents in the sea floor, is not accessible by land but can be reached by sea.
“We encourage persons to come back to the country,” Tonge said. “It means they are giving back in one way or another. Doing this is allowing the country to rebuild, allowing people in the country to earn an income and help their families.”
Antigua and Barbuda
After the eye of Hurricane Irma flattened Barbuda on Sept. 6, the 62-square-mile island’s 1,800 residents fled. Barbuda became a ghost town, dominated by the $250 million in damage that Irma’s 185-mile per hour winds left behind.
Only 38 miles to the south, sister island Antigua was almost untouched, thrusting the country into a conundrum.
After Irma, images abounded of a leveled Barbuda, where 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed. Antigua, on the other hand, went on with business as usual but got sucked into a perception wormhole that the entire country was unfit to welcome visitors.
“We really had to step it up a notch to explain to people they are two islands and it’s amazing what 30 miles on the weaker side of the storm can do,” said Colin James, CEO of the Antigua Barbuda Tourism Authority.
Following the storms, the nation released videos showcasing tourists talking about how Antigua was spared by Irma. Hotels, restaurants, stores and tours were essentially unaffected by the hurricane. One music video for reggae band UB40, in partnership with Virgin Holidays and Elite Island Resorts, targeted British visitors and was filmed entirely on Antigua post-hurricane. The song was not-so-subtly titled “Come Back Darling.”
But in Barbuda, full recovery may still be years away.
About 400 to 500 residents have returned to the island, James said, and catamarans started offering day trips to Barbuda again at the end of 2017. But the island, which was less a major tourism hub and more an unspoiled day-trippers paradise, now has few options for those who make the trip.
Currently, travelers can arrive via Barbuda Codrington Airport, which reopened in March, or via yacht, where they can anchor on the island’s coves and beaches, James said. The island’s large frigate bird colony, comprised of an estimated 100,000 of the distinctive seabirds with red pouches, has returned to Barbuda.
“The next challenge that we have and we are all working toward is the perception that is going to be out there that September, October, is not a good time to visit the Caribbean,” said James. Antigua and Barbuda plan to combat that perception with competitive travel rates.
In the span of two weeks, the island chain was hit by back-to-back Category 5 storms, causing the main island of Tortola to look, in some people’s estimation, like a war zone.
And while that loyalty has helped give the archipelago a lift in the seven months since the storms blew in, it hasn’t solved all the problems. The British territory is still managing many of the same challenges as other hard-hit islands. Chief among those is the lack of hotel room inventory.
On the water, the situation is more promising. The British Virgin Island’s robust yachting and sailing community was able to return to the region quickly. Almost half of berths are available again, or 1,600 of about 3,600 b pre-storms. And the BVI Spring Regatta and Sailing Festival, an annual festival in its 47th year, returned in late March. It marked the first major international event since the storms.
“We were one of the first boats to arrive back at Nanny Cay last November and to witness the devastation after Irma,” he said in a press release. “We were also the first to sign up for this year’s event as we love the BVI and we are competing to show our support to our local friends.”
In the cruise-ship sector, capacity is down due to some damage to the main cruise pier, Tortola Pier Park. The nation is only accepting smaller ships with fewer than 3,000 passengers, Flax-Brutus said, until late July, when Disney Cruise Lines will make its return to the BVI. Later this month, the port at Road Town in Tortola will reopen for international travelers. A third port called West End Ferry Dock suffered severe damage, losing its customs building. The dock still operates ferries between Jost Van Dyke island and Tortola, but there is no time line yet for the resumption of international ferries there.
And on the tour side, the islands’ major attraction — a series of granite boulders that emerge from the water’s edge in Virgin Gorda called the Baths — is again open. So are a smattering of other offerings.
“The first few months, we have to admit, it was quite tough seeing the devastation and understanding that we were with with a one-two punch from two of the strongest hurricanes on record,” Flax-Brutus said. “But we are making our way back.”
In Puerto Rico, the lights are on in Old San Juan — for the most part.
That’s not necessarily the case for thousands of other people and businesses on the island, which is still grappling with the impact of the worst hurricane in its history. But many of the island’s tourist attractions are open again.
“We will never forget what happened six months ago, but we certainly don’t need to be reminded of it with past or inaccurate portrayals of the situation which could negatively impact someone’s decision to visit Puerto Rico,” said Carla Campos, acting executive director of the government-owned Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC), in a statement.
In the regions most visited by tourists — including Ponce, La Parguera, Rincon, Cabo Rojo and Luquillo — many hotels have reopened, restaurants are serving customers and the streets have been mostly cleared of debris. But in the neighborhoods outside the tourism hubs, damaged trees, downed power lines and shuttered businesses are commonplace.
Since Hurricane Maria struck on Sept. 20, 83 percent of the 15,000 hotel rooms endorsed by the PRTC have reopened, Campos said. Still, demand to visit Puerto Rico remains soft, down 8.4 percent in February over the year before, according to the most recent numbers from data and analytics firm STR. And many rooms are occupied by first responders staying on the island for extended periods of time.
Several major resorts, such as El Conquistador, Caribe Hilton and Ritz-Carlton San Juan, remain shuttered.
But good news is on the horizon: An additional 3,800 rooms will be added next year thanks to new hotel openings from JW Marriott, ALOFT San Juan Convention Center, ALOFT Ponce, Four Seasons Cayo Largo and O:LV Fifty Five. In the San Juan area alone, 11 new properties are slated to open in 2019. The openings began late last month, when the 96-room Serafina Beach Hotel debuted in the Condado district of San Juan.
Puerto Rico has also received a critical assist from the cruise industry.
After the hurricanes, cruise lines pumped more than $30 million into relief efforts. The Caribbean is important for the industry, accounting for 35.4 percent of the global deployment capacity market share in 2017, according to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association. Some of the region’s most popular ports were hit by Irma, Maria or both.
But among them, Puerto Rico was the only port that was also a homeport, where cruises begin and end their journeys. Getting it and the airport running will help keep Puerto Rico afloat as the land-based infrastructure is rebuilt.
So in the winter, 14 vessels started homeporting in San Juan — four more than the previous season. They included Royal Caribbean International’s Freedom of the Seas, the Windstar Pride, Silverseas’ Silver Wind and Viking Sea. The airport is back in operation and expects to return to pre-Maria levels by the end of the summer.
Tours are also operating, with more than more than 100 day excursions available, Campos said. They include excursions to Cueva Ventana, Toro Verde, El Morro and Bacardi. The island territory is hoping to break its cruise passenger record with 1.7 million visitors in 2018.
Sint Maarten/ St. Martin
Jose Quiñones, an 18-year-old roller coaster mechanic at Six Flags New England in Massachusetts, planned a Caribbean cruise with his friends exactly one week before Irma and Maria pounded the region. Half of the itinerary included destinations that would later get a direct hit from both storms: Sint Maarten/St.Martin and Puerto Rico.
The storms thrust the trip into uncertainty, but the teens waited it out, hoping the destinations would recover in time for their week-long March cruise on Royal Caribbean International’s Freedom of the Seas.
“By December, we were all a little bit worried about that because we hadn’t seen any updates on the status of the islands,” Quiñones said. “We were worried abut how the sightseeing was going to be and whether anything was going to be affected.
“But it wasn’t like that at all. It was actually pretty good.”
Among the places on his trip, Quiñones said the shared Dutch-and-French island of St. Martin was a stand out. It was also, in his estimation, the hardest-hit.
The island’s famous Princess Juliana International Airport, known for plane landings close to nearby Maho Beach, was severely battered by the hurricanes. About 85 percent of its roof suffered water damage, said Suzy Kartokromo, manager for marketing customer service at the airport.
Without a functioning building, passengers are now instead funneled through two large white, air conditioned tents — one for arrivals and one for departures. The pavilions are stocked with many of the typical airport amenities: restrooms, cafes, shops and ATMs.
The reconstruction of the airport’s roof is expected to be completed this summer, which will be a critical step in water proofing the rest of the building and reopening the airport’s main building, Kartokromo said.
On the island’s French side, Grand Case International Airport is open to commercial and international flights.
But like other Caribbean islands, St. Martin is suffering from a shortage of hotel rooms. On the Dutch side, about 1,030 hotel rooms are available — from nearly 4,000 pre-storms — and in the French side, about 310 rooms have reopened out of 1,200.
For travelers who come via cruise, like Quiñones, there’s bright side: About 85 to 90 percent of attractions are taking visitors and beaches have been cleared. About 1.2 million people are still projected to come to St. Martin on a cruise ship in 2018, a dip from 1.8 million but an increase from projections immediately post-Irma.
On his trip, Quiñones said, he didn’t notice the hurricane destruction so much as he did the turquoise waters and bare beaches. He ate, got drinks and jet-skied, he said, as he would on a regular trip. Still, farther away from the coast, he and his friends said they saw signs of the hurricanes’ destructive path.
“You could still see people rebuilding a lot of stuff, people laying cement, a lot of structures were being rebuilt,” Quiñones said. “But a lot of stuff was up and running. No one seemed devastated by it… They worked really hard to get the place looking good.”
Turks and Caicos
The 7-square-mile island of Grand Turk, where cruise ships dock and where a million cruise ship passengers disembark every year, did not sustain any damage to its most important bit of infrastructure: the cruise pier.
That doesn’t mean the port didn’t suffer from the same reluctance that kept some travelers away from the region. But cruise traffic is picking up again.
“[Now], the tours are back up and running — pretty much everything is there,” said David Candib, vice president of global port and destination development group at Carnival Corporation, which owns the Grand Turk Cruise Center. “There are still parts of the island that are still a work in progress.”
Travelers to Turks and Caicos can still expect to see some debris, homes being rebuilt and landscaping work on the islands, travelers said. But nearly all hotels have reopened, including the larger resorts in Providenciales.
“We found that just by working with government and communities, the port authority and tourism indsutry, it’s an incredibly resilient region,” Candib said. “After the impact of two very powerful storms and the devastation it caused, the ability to come back as quickly as it did is a testament to what we have been able to do together.”
“After the hurricanes, I paid attention, I made a contribution to one of the causes. Then I decided I wanted to go there,” said Meany, who is from Minneapolis, Minnesota. “You can contribute money, but these people that are running a business, a taxi cab [for example], it’s not going to trickle down to those people.”
When their ship docked in St. Thomas, Meany said the cruise port looked like it had during his past trips to the island. It was clean and shops were open. There, he and his kids took a taxi to another port, where they chartered an $800 private boat to sail to nearby Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands.
“I was carrying a lot more cash than I normally would,” he said, in order to spend more money and hand out tips.
Only about 40 to 50 percent of the hotels in St. Thomas and St. John have reopened — about 2,500 units, including timeshare, Airbnb rentals and villas, across the two islands. The lack of housing options has also affected flights, which are down to about 50 percent of the typical capacity this time of year, said Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty.
Major resorts still closed on St. Thomas include The Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas, Marriott’s Frenchman’s Cove and Sugar Bay Resort Spa.
In St. Croix, the situation is a little cheerier. The island has a higher percentage of accommodation units that have reopened, but many of the 1,300 rooms available are still housing relief workers, Nicholson-Doty said. Air seats into the island are down to about 5,000 from 6,000.
But more flights are on the horizon: This month, United Airlines returns to the USVI. In May, Spirit Airlines will increase service with flights to St. Croix and Delta Air Lines will reinstate service to St. Thomas from New York.
On the ground, beaches have reopened and are being tested weekly for water quality, Nicholson-Doty said. But some excursions will take longer to come back, including the Tree Limin’ Extreme Zipline experience and the St. Peter Greathouse Botanical Gardens, both on St. Thomas, which remain closed.
Without most of its hotel rooms open, the USVI, too, has benefited from receiving cruise passengers — who don’t need land-based accommodations. All but one of the cruise lines that called on St. Thomas prior to Irma’s passage have returned to the country.
“The cruise lines’ return provided a significant economic balance to ensure that at least some of our tourism-based workers could return to work and that we could keep the economic channels of tourism flowing,” Nicholson-Doty said.
Miami-based Norwegian Cruse Line is the only line that has pulled back significantly from the region, repositioning the eastern Caribbean voyages on the Norwegian Escape to the western Caribbean until November 2018. From mid-April through September, Norwegian Getaway will also sail to the western Caribbean instead.
“If you are looking to come to a destination where you see no remnants of a storm, we are asking you to please give us a year because we would prefer you to wait a year than to come and be disappointed,” she said. “We honestly want to exceed expectations.”
But for those who have gone to the Caribbean-post hurricanes, it has perhaps never been a better time to visit: Tours, attractions and beaches are less crowded, and islanders are keen to provide superior service.
For those who go, even if it’s just to vacation like Meany, giving back is in the act itself.
“I think the biggest thing for people is to go,” he said. “They need people. They need butts in seats.”