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 islands are on the road to recovery. Today we continue our look at how these popular destinations are rebuilding with a special focus on Puerto Rico and St Martin.
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.
Puerto Rico’s tourism leaders have been working to spread the word.
“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 September 20, 83 per cent 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 per cent 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.
“If we don’t go to Puerto Rico, even destinations that weren’t affected are going to be affected,” said Michele Paige, president of the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association.
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.
“This has been one of the biggest challenges the tourism industry has faced to this day,” Campos said. “No destination is ever ready to face two back-to-back- storms like Irma and Maria.”
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 on the French side, about 310 rooms have reopened out of 1,200.
For travellers 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.”
(Source : Miami Herald)
Tomorrow we conclude this series with a look at Turks and Caicos and the United States Virgin Islands.