The 2017 Hurricane Season was devastating for the Caribbean islands of Dominica, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, St Martin, Turks and Caicos, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. After a rough start, these island are on the road to recovery. Today we continue our look at how these popular tourist destinations are rebuilding with a special focus on Antigua and Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands.
Antigua and Barbuda
After the eye of Hurricane Irma flattened Barbuda on September 6, the 62-square-mile island’s 1,800 residents were forced to leave. 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.
How could the nation entice visitors when its two major islands experienced the storm in drastically different ways?
After Irma, images abounded of a levelled Barbuda, where 95 per cent 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, Chief Executive Officer 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.
It worked for Antigua: The island ended the year with more than one million arrivals — including air arrivals, cruise and yacht — for the first time in its history.
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, travellers 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.
But, in terms of infrastructure, hotels won’t reopen until at least November, when the Barbuda Belle Luxury Beach Hotel comes back online.
Until then, James is already looking ahead at this year’s hurricane season.
“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 plans to combat that perception with competitive travel rates.
“[In the Caribbean], it’s just something that you learn to live with,” he said. “It’s not something where you roll over and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ ”
British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands hadn’t ever seen anything like Irma and Maria.
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.
But the British Virgin Islands, where tourism was nearly 99 percent of the GDP in 2017, did have one thing working in its favor: Its visitors are loyal.
Nearly three in four people who visit the British Virgin Islands return, said Sharon Flax-Brutus, the BVIs’ director of tourism.
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.
“Right now we are saying we have so many people interested in coming to the British Virgin Islands, but we don’t have enough beds and boats to put them in,” Flax-Brutus said.
Only 16 percent of the islands’ hotel rooms are up and running, or 429 out of 2,700. Most hotels don’t expect to reopen until mid-to late-2019.
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 beds pre-storm. 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.
Jeremi Jablonski of Cedar Point, Connecticut, who has raced a Hanse 43 yacht in the regatta for the past five years, said he has been going to the British Virgin Islands for more than two decades.
“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 travellers. 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.
Elsewhere, most ferries are running between the major islands in the BVI, and the three major airports in the region are back at pre-Irma operation levels.
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.
(Source : Miami Herald)
Tomorrow we take a look at recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and St Martin.