Published 4:08 p.m. UTC Sep 5, 2018
A year after suffering from twin hurricanes, the Caribbean islands most impacted by Irma and Maria are trying to make a comeback as coveted vacation destinations.
From Sept. 5 to 8 last year, Hurricane Irma roared through the Caribbean as a Category 5 storm. It caused significant destruction to a large swath of the Caribbean, including Barbuda, Anguilla, Saint Martin (Sint Maarten), the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Barbados, and Turks and Caicos. It ended its run in the southeastern USA, causing damage in Florida, especially in the Keys.
Hurricane Maria followed two weeks later, wreaking the most havoc on Puerto Rico.
At least 134 deaths have been attributed to Irma. The number of deaths caused by Maria are still in dispute. Hotels, homes, restaurants and airports were pummeled.
For Caribbean islands so largely dependent on tourism, the hurricanes were devastating. Even islands that were not completely wiped out had to deal with the public perception that the Caribbean was closed for business. Six of the region’s destinations are still recovering from the hurricanes, says Frank Comito, director general and CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.
More than 75 percent of the Caribbean escaped the paths of the hurricanes and have been fully operational since, Comito says. The Caribbean has 33 countries and independently governed territories.
“As destructive as Hurricanes Irma and Maria were, they had a significant impact on about 25 percent of our territories,” Comito says. “The rest? Largely untouched.”
Comito says that hotel performance year-to-date has been comparable to numbers seen between January and July of last year, even though a good chunk of hotel rooms were not available in the first quarter of this year.
Hugh Riley, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, says the Caribbean is on track to exceed last year’s 30.1 million stayover visitors, thanks to new investments and hotel developments all over the region.
The islands have also become more affordable because they are trying to draw more tourists. Travelers now have more housing options. While all-inclusive resorts are still popular, small boutique hotels are also available. And airlines and cruise ships are returning to the most affected areas.
Hotels severely damaged by the hurricanes are planning to re-open in the fall, in time for the holidays, meaning more rooms will be available.
As of June, according to the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, the percentages of rooms open in the impacted destinations were: 65 percent in Anguilla, 40 percent in the British Virgin Islands, 50 percent in Dominica, 80 percent in Puerto Rico, 40 percent in St. Maarten, and 45 percent in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Marriott Frenchman’s Reef and Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort are expected to re-open at the end of 2019 with major upgrades. Morning Star will return as a more upscale offering.
Next door, Marriott's Frenchman's Cove welcomed back guests in February. Other hotels open for guests include Wyndham Margaritaville and Bolongo Bay Beach Resort on St. Thomas, The Buccaneer on St. Croix, and Gallows Point on St. John.
The British Virgin Islands marina has new and improved docks and facilities. The Scrub Island Resort, Spa and Marina plans a re-opening in October.
Cruise calls quickly resumed at Tortola Pier Park in the British Virgin Islands. Disney Cruise Line recently made its return, and Norwegian Cruise Line will follow in the fall. The island is expecting more than 200 calls and 400,000 passengers at Tortola Pier Park and Road Harbour for the 2018/2019 season.
Dominica is rebounding as well. The Secret Bay Resort recently re-opened. Luxury brand Kempinski announced plans to introduce the Cabrits Resort and Spa Kempinski Dominica in 2019.
One of the hardest hit islands was one divided into two different countries: the French St. Martin and the Dutch St. Maarten.
Its Princess Juliana International Airport, known for its crowd-pleasing low aircraft landings next to a beach, was almost razed.
But its rehabilitation is moving on schedule. Most roof repairs have been completed, and waterproofing of the facility has now made it more watertight. The second phase of the project includes the installation of roof panels. The Sint Maarten Tourism Board says that by November, the entire airport roof will be ready to sustain hurricane winds of up to 185 miles per hour.
Commercial flights are still in progress during the repairs. As of July, 73 percent of overall airline service has resumed with direct flights through Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, United Airlines, and Spirit Airlines.
JetBlue will begin offering direct service from Boston’s Logan International Airport on Nov. 3. Air Canada will start flights from Toronto Pearson International Airport Dec. 15.
The majority of hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions across the island were damaged in the hurricane. But 204 restaurants have re-opened and guests have 43 hotel options at the moment. On the Dutch side of the island, the Sonesta Ocean Point Resort will re-open Nov. 15. The Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, Casino and Spa will do the same Feb. 1. On the French side, Belmond La Samanna will welcome back guests on Dec. 10.
Even with all the improvements that have to be made, the island has continued to receive visitors. According to the tourism board, Port St. Maarten, the cruise port, has had a total of 733,666 cruise passengers between Jan. 1 and June 30 on 230 individual cruise ship calls. That is a 15 percent increase over last year, the board says.
Anguilla’s fortunes are also tied to Sint Maarten’s as many travelers fly into Princess Juliana International Airport and then travel by ferry to the neighboring island.
But Anguilla too is on the mend. The luxury resort Belmond Cap Juluca is scheduled to re-open in mid-November. It had already been planning a renovation and expansion before the storm, but the scope of the project had to change, says Tiago Sarmento, general manager of the resort, which sits on 190 acres of beachfront property.
The final price tag of its renovation will be $120 million, three times what was originally planned.
The interiors had to be completely replaced. In order to ensure the property could sustain another serious hurricane, workers upgraded all the plumbing and carpentry. The shell of the property is solid but certain details such as windows and shutters were re-examined.
“If you’re making this investment, you want to make sure you protect it if such a thing happens again,” Sarmento says. “It represents a cost increase, but at the end of the day, it’s an important asset.
The resort, which has 108 rooms, will return with new manicured landscaping and a restaurant by chef Andrew Gaskin, who has prepared meals for celebrities such as Queen Elizabeth II.
Puerto Rico, meanwhile, sustained the most damage from Hurricane Maria, which made landfall there on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm. The hurricane created a humanitarian crisis on the island, with many parts of the island lacking water and electricity for months.
San Juan, the capital, seems to be operating well, but other parts of the island such as Vieques and Culebra, which are islands off the islands are still in rehab mode. El Yunque National Forest, the 29,000-acre rainforest that accounts for a big chunk of Puerto Rico’s tourism, is open but clean-up efforts continue to clear roads and trails of downed trees.
Nonetheless, the island will see major hotel re-openings this fall and winter, including the Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, the El San Juan Hotel, and the Caribe Hilton. The El Conquistador Resort, a Waldorf Astoria Resort and The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan are also getting revamped.
“This has given us the opportunity to take a holistic approach and have a refresh of the hotel from bottom up,” says Pablo Torres, general manager of the 652-room Caribe Hilton.