Until the night of September 18, 2017, 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.
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.
Meanwhile, winter-battered tourists have trickled back. That’s thanks in part to each country’s efforts to update potential visitors on progress and, in some cases, offer a bit of a geography lesson.
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 needs 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.
The number of available rooms is expected to nearly double by next year, with the early 2019 openings of Jungle Bay Resort and Cabrits Resort Kempinski and the late 2019 opening of Anichi Resort & Spa.
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.”
(Source : Miami Herald)
Tomorrow we take a look at recovery efforts in Antigua and Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands.