With memories of the 2017 hurricane season still fresh in the minds of Caribbean residents, disaster preparedness and rebuilding efforts were high on the agenda of regional tourism officials who gathered in New York last week for the annual Caribbean Week in New York.
The aim of the event was to sell the region’s destinations to international markets, particularly the US. However, several member states of the Caribbean Tourism Organization which took a battering from Hurricanes Irma and Maria last September had the additional task of convincing potential clients that they are open for business.
One such territory was Dutch St Maarten, whose Director of Tourism, May-Lin Chung, told Barbados TODAY that the island has been rebuilding and cleaning up on land and sea over the past nine months.
“We do have at the moment, close to 2,000 rooms open and by the end of the year we’re [going to] have about 3,000 rooms open. We are open for business and… we have 86 per cent of our excursions open again,” she said.
The island’s airport, which was severely damaged, is now operating out of a temporary facility, with 19 out of 26 airlines currently flying to the destination.
Chung said St Maarten will also be targeting the Caribbean market, which accounts for an estimated 30 per cent of visitors.
“We are [going to] concentrate on the Caribbean market and have the Caribbean carriers flying in… and we have a lot of interest in InterCaribbean [Airways] for weekend stays from the different islands,” she added.
In nearby Anguilla, Minister of Tourism, Cardigan Connor reported that the damage from Hurricane Irma was three times the island’s Gross Domestic Product. However, he believes they are better prepared for this year.
“We rely very heavily on tourism and even though we knew that our tourism season would be affected, we wanted to make sure we salvaged something from that, and the best way to do that was to get started from day one. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.
“Over the last couple of months, more and more rooms have become available, our physical structure has actually been pretty good. So as we go forward, the chances are that despite hurricanes, our recovery rate is going to be very quick and with that, we can salvage much of our tourist season,” he said.
However, for Connor’s counterpart in Antigua and Barbuda, Charles Fernandez, the recovery on Barbuda is not going as fast as he would like.
He estimated that about 200 homes have been completed following the devastation from Hurricane Irma, and there are “several hundreds more” still to be done.
“There are a number of Barbudans still living in Antigua, a number of them in shelters. We are using the opportunity to see how quickly we can get the construction process really on a fast track.
“To be quite honest, it’s not moving as fast as we would like it. What is impeding the process of everybody moving back is we haven’t had the school 100 per cent completed, and the hospital has to be completed. So slowly we’re hoping to get it back. I can’t give you an exact time but we hope that by some time next year, we’ll be pretty much back to normal,” Fernandez said.
In neighbouring Dominica, CEO of Discover Dominica Authority Colin Piper was keen to let potential visitors know that the island is open for business.
“There was a perpetuation of the images of devastation, and we want now to see how we can turn that tide and let people know that we are open,” Piper stressed.
To date, 40 of the island’s 72 hotels have reopened, and 19 of the 23 sites and attractions, as well as seven of the 15 dive operators, are back in business.
“As it relates to the industry, certainly from a cruise perspective, the initial communication we were getting was that all of 2017-2018 would have been lost, and even all of 2018-2019. As a result of the fact that we indicated that we wanted to be up and running by January 1st, 2018, we were able to salvage 29 of the calls…
“And so the 15 to 20 per cent of revenue that comes from the tourism industry through cruise has been, in fact, saved. So the people now who are in the business of cruise can see some light at the end of the road,” he said.
Figures for stay-over visitors were not as encouraging, Piper said. However, he acknowledged this was expected after the storm.
“We’ve seen a decrease in arrivals in the area somewhere between 40 and 50 per cent for the first five months, that is October, November, December, January, February.
“We saw about a 20 per cent decrease in March, and I’m looking at the numbers for April and May to see where we are. Our hope is that the decrease will be lessening, and we’re hoping that when we get to the September-October time frame, that we actually will start to see stable year to year, and in some instances, an increase,” he noted.
For other CTO member states, the focus is on expanding hotel room stock and improving the overall tourism product.
Chair of the St Lucia Tourist Board, Agnes Francis, told Barbados TODAY three new hotels and a new golf course are scheduled to come on stream soon.
“We’re also doing a whole redevelopment of downtown Castries so that it becomes pedestrianized and more accessible to cruise passengers. We’re redeveloping the Castries Market as well.
“We’ve re-branded the destination, so our branding platform is ‘St Lucia, let her inspire you’. We feel that we have a lot more than just sun, sand and sea.”
CEO of the Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc., William Griffith, reported the island continues to grow as a destination, particularly in the US market.
“We were up double digits last year. We just had a good first quarter between January and March, and again the USA was up by 11 or 12 per cent,” he said, adding he is confident that the trend will continue this year.
“It’s not easy, it’s never easy, there are ups and downs but we look forward to a wonderful Crop Over that’s upcoming, and a spinoff of this event as well is we’re [going to] be hosting the Society of American Travel Writers in Barbados in September,” Griffith said. (MCW)