A year after being battered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria and suffering millions of dollars in damage, Caribbean destinations are reporting that they are again open for business.
Though not yet fully restored to the pre-hurricane levels, tourism officials of some those islands that were viciously impacted by the storms say they were satisfied with the pace of recovery one year on.
It was in September last year that the hurricanes ravaged the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, the US Virgin Islands (USVI), the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Puerto Rico, St Martin and Anguilla, putting a dent in the region’s tourism product.
However, giving an update at the recent State of the Industry Conference in the Bahamas, Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) Hugh Riley said there was evidence to suggest that all the affected islands were on their way to full recovery.
“The countries that were affected are in fact on the road to recovery, and as you would have seen from the statistics are really doing quite well,” said Riley, who reported that the countries impacted by the storms witnessed an almost dramatic decrease in arrivals, but were now “steadily improving”.
Between January and June this year tourism arrivals were down 90 per cent in the BVI. Dominica had an 88.4 per cent decline; St Martin saw a 27.5 per cent decrease, and the USVI saw a 22.5 per cent drop.
On the other hand, Puerto Rico and the BVI saw an increase in cruise performance for the first six months of 2018.
“So countries are at various stages of recovery. Clearly we still have to be concerned about our brothers and sisters that are further back on that scale,” said Riley.
BVI officials said since the hurricanes last year, recovery efforts have been somewhat challenging but progressing smoothly.
“We consider ourselves a multi-faceted destination with 60 different islands. So that has helped us in our recovery,” said Director of Tourism Sharon Flax-Brutus.
Stating that some of the islands recovered faster than others, Flax-Brutus added that the yachting sector was the first to rebound and officials were expecting about 75 per cent of the 2,300 berthing to be back on stream by the end of this year.
“Right now, we are sitting at about 769 rooms, which is one-third of our pre storm inventory. But we are hoping that by December we will have about 1,000 rooms in our inventory. And I am happy to report that there is a very high demand for the BVI,” she said, adding that “our cruise pier is fully operational”.
She said the cruise industry was expected to rebound tremendously for the 2018/2019 season, bringing it to about 83 per cent of what it was in the 2016/2017 season.
The island of Dominica was perhaps one of the most affected by last year’s storms. Chief Executive Officer of Discover Dominica Colin Piper said before the disaster there were close to 1,000 rooms and now roughly 500 were back in operation. He reported that a number of ferry services and flights have since resumed while some dive sites have also reopened.
“In terms of cruise, pretty much the entire 2017/2018 season was wiped out, but based on the rehabilitation we were able to start back with 29 calls. The first of that comes in December. Looking towards the 2018/2019 cruise season, we anticipate 189 cruise calls with just over 304,000 cruise passengers,” he added.
Utility services, he said, were back up to about 95 per cent. A special tourism facility has been established in Dominica to help those in need get funding at favourable terms so they can rebuild. Piper said there were a number of private sector investments in the pipeline, some of which have already started. Dominica has also embarked on a range of marketing campaigns to ensure the world was aware the country was again open for tourism business.
While he could not provide details, Piper said with only about 57 per cent of the room stock back in operation to date, bookings were somewhat “soft”, explaining that a lot of the visits were business related.
“So the occupancy is high based on business, but the anticipation is that with 270 rooms coming on board next year, that will signal to the market that we are in fact open. Right now, given the uncertainty in the market, we have to convince people we are open and that is why we did a film challenge… showing what Dominica has available now,” he said.
Also reporting a rebound was Antigua and Barbuda’s Minister of Tourism and Investment Charles Fernandez, who pointed out that there was still a lot of interest in that destination following the storm which especially battered Barbuda.
Fernandez said his government had embarked on a number of projects aimed at breathing new life into that destination and attracting more visitors. Among the investments, he said, was an expansion of the cruise berth that should be ready by the middle of next year.
“This will be able to accommodate two of the largest ships. It will include construction of a sea wall, dredging of the main channel, preparation of land and an entire renovation of Heritage Quay. In addition, we will be adding some more shops on the land side,” he said, adding that it would cost somewhere in the region of US$76 million.
Concerned about the impact on visitors last hurricane season, the country introduced a hurricane guarantee programme, which he said “allayed the fears of a number of overseas visitors that were concerned about losing their time on the island”.
“So we worked closely with our hotel owners whereby they would give a credit to persons who came in and had to leave because of the threat of a storm. We believe that has worked well for us,” he said.
He said hoteliers reported a flat 2018 summer season, and they were hoping for a rise in visitor numbers next year.
Speaking specifically about Barbuda, he said the beaches were once again pristine, and a new ferry service had been added from that island.
Fernandez said he was hoping to ramp up camping style accommodation and related experiences in Barbuda, known as glamping.
“We also now see that eco-tourism is something that the very wealthy are seeking to experience and that is auguring well for us,” he said, adding that a number of new and upgraded properties were scheduled for 2019 and hotel room stock was to be doubled by 2021.
“We are also going to be adding next year, a real top of the line water park… it is part of enhancing our product availability for both our cruise passengers and stay over visitors,” he said, adding that the country will be hosting a number of new events next year.
Expressing satisfaction with the rebuilding efforts in the destinations, Riley pledged the CTO’s continued help in promoting them.
He said the CTO will also continue to bring pertinent issues affecting the territories to the forefront “not because they are popular but because we are convinced they must be successfully addressed sooner rather than later if we are to truly build the Caribbean tourism industry for the future”.
Riley said countries that were not physically affected by the storms still suffered because of “people’s conceptions of the region”.
“People were staying away, so those countries had to dig a little deeper, find resources and do creative things to make sure that they kept on succeeding at a time when the temptation was to say ‘let’s not go to the Caribbean because the whole place has been wiped out’,” he said.
“We might fall short of that 30 million person market by the end of this year but there is a good core of our countries that have done incredibly well,” Riley declared. (MM)