by Hugh Morris, The Telegraph, September 11, 2017
The Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricane Irma last week had been enjoying something of a recent tourism boom, with some welcoming thousands more visitors - many from Europe - than in previous years.
For example, Antigua and Barbuda, a single nation of two islands, the latter of which has suffered destruction on a an overwhelming scale, attracted some 250,000 overnight visitors in 2014, the most recent figure available, as well as half a million cruise passengers, an increase of 2.5 per cent on the previous year. Now, it has been estimated that 95 per cent of the island is in ruin, with millions of dollars of rebuilding required.
The Caribbean as a region covers 2.7 million square kilometres, encompassing around 700 islands and 30 territories, from the British Virgin Islands to Cuba.
Its appeal to British - and indeed, any - tourists is its immense beauty, turquoise waters and golden sands, its laidback culture, and its serenity - often twinned with luxury accommodation.
Around one million British holidaymakers visit the Caribbean each year, with the most popular destinations including The Bahamas, Dominican Republic, and Barbados, and tourism is one of the major contributors to the region's collective GDP.
How have the islands been affected?
As the hurricane moves up the west coast of Florida, authorities in the Caribbean are assessing the damage caused, but some destinations, including Antigua and Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands and St Martin, are known to have suffered at the powerful hurricane’s hands.
A statement from the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) last week highlighted which islands had been worst affected:
Antigua and Barbua
“Antigua was spared Irma’s brunt, but it passed over the island of Barbuda,” the CTO said. It added that everyone on Antigua was safe and that the island’s infrastructure was “largely unscathed”. However, Barbuda had suffered “extensive damage”. It is understood all hotels on Atigua escaped serious damage and are embarking on a clean up operation.
The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency is reporting the airport runway and most roads leading to the airport have been cleared of debris. The agency is also reporting that 90 per cent of government buildings and business structures were damaged as well as 90 per cent of the electricity infrastructure. There is also significant damage to the main water supply.
The islands escaped severe damage and hurricane warnings were lifted on Sunday.
British Virgin Islands
"The destruction caused by Hurricane Irma in the British Virgin Islands has been devastating," according to a statement from Sharon Flax-Brutus, the director of tourism. "With cell phone towers down and power outages, communication to, from and within, the territory has been difficult, impacting the ability to fully assess the damage. The destination has lost entire structures and many homes are without roofs, or have been diminished to merely foundations."
Punta Cana International Airport has resumed normal operations following the passage of Hurricane Irma after the storm passed off Punta Cana’s coast. The area’s hotel sector is reporting no major damage. Damaged homes and flooded streets in Cabarete and Sosua have been reported.
The Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) is reporting that major tourism infrastructure and attractions are operational and the island can continue to welcome new visitors. The PRTC said while there have been power outages, many hotels, as well as essential services such as hospitals, have generators and are operational.
St. Kitts & Nevis sustained minimal damage overall and both St. Kitts’ Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport and Nevis’ Vance W. Amory International Airport have reopened.
The CTO said the island’s Four Seasons Resort was in “fine shape” and that another hotel, the Hermitage Inn, was reporting just “general debris”. It said that electricity had been restored across the island.
The luxury Eden Rock Hotel has been badly damaged and there is flooding through the destination.
St Maarten/St Martin
The CTO said: “It has been reported that much of the dual-island nation has suffered significant damage, with hotels, government offices, homes and smaller buildings badly damaged on both the Dutch and French sides of the island. Princess Juliana International Airport suffered extensive damage to the roof and building.” Tourists were evacuated over the weekend but it is understood Hurricane Jose "will not score a direct hit".
Turks and Caicos Islands
Governor Dr. John Freeman and Premier Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson given the all-clear. They have said in a joint statement that assessment of the damage is continuing.
The US Virgin Islands
The U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism has advised that full assessment on the impact of Hurricane Irma is under way and while St. Croix is getting back to business, visitors are being encouraged not to visit St. Thomas and St. John.
Are hotels still open?
Tour operators have said that some guests have had to be moved but that many hotels remain open and able to accommodate holidaymakers.
A spokesperson for Virgin Holidays, which is one of the biggest UK tour operators in the Caribbean, offering trips to more than 100 hotels, said it was only in Antigua where hotels were completely closed and that “all customers in resort are in alternative hotels to those impacted”.
Rachel O’Reilly, head of communications for luxury operator Kuoni, suggested the same, stating that just Antigua Galley Bay is closed completely. She said that all Kuoni’s customers in Antigua were safe and flying home.
“We’re in contact with our team in all destinations - Turks & Caicos, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Florida - and they’ve been talking to customers and working around the clock to either bring people home, move to alternative destinations, or move to safe and secure locations,” she said.
“We’ve been in touch with all people due to depart up until September 12 and our team are helping customers due to travel to rearrange their holiday plans.
“We’re monitoring the situation carefully but will work with the airlines and hotels to keep customers up to date on their travel arrangements.”
Have flights been affected?
More than 12,587 flights have been cancelled across Florida and Caribbean, with 8,970 from Florida alone, as Irma approached the US mainland.
A spokesperson said Princess Juliana International on Sint Maarten - one of the world’s most famous airports thanks to the proximity of incoming aircraft to tourists on the beach - has “sustained significant damage and is currently unreachable”. San Juan, on Puerto Rico, has re-opened following damage to the airport’s radar facilities.
The maximum sustained speed of Irma’s winds was recorded at 152 knots, more than twice the speed at which airports are forced to shut.
Florida's airports are set to reopen this week, some today, some Tuesday. Key West is due to reopen latest, on Wednesday morning.
A spokesperson for Thomson said a number of flights from the UK to Cuba had been cancelled and that the operator was keeping a close eye on the hurricane's movements across Florida, to where some flights have been delayed. For more information see here. Thomson said that two flights due to leave the UK for the Caribbean this week were delayed but will depart on Friday. Another from Thursday, to Cuba, had been cancelled.
Virgin Atlantic said in a statement: "The adverse weather conditions caused by Hurricanes Irma and Jose mean our flights to and from Florida and the Caribbean are severely disrupted. We ask customers check the status of their flights at flight status before they travel to the airport." Customers booked to travel up to September 17 have been offered a variety of rebooking options.
A spokesperson for British Airways said the airline was constantly reviewing its operations, but that a number of flights to the US had been cancelled.
It added that anyone due to travel to the Caribbean before September 10 should contact the airline to discuss rebooking options, while anyone due to travel to or from Florida before September 17, inclusive, can rebook for up to October 14."Hurricane Irma has caused severe damage to parts of the Caribbean and Florida. Several airports have been affected and some remain completely closed," the airline said. "We are in regular contact with all our airport partners about the impact on our customers travelling to and from the affected regions, and we are doing our very best to support our customers in every way we can.
"Yesterday we flew an additional aircraft out to Bermuda, and as soon as it is safe to do so, we will be positioning it in to Florida, to help bring as many customers home as possible. We also have aircraft ready in the Caribbean when airports re-open, to help get customers to airports with connecting flights to London."
"As the storm continues to make its way across the region, and the relief effort begins, flights will continue to be affected over the coming days. We are constantly reviewing the situation and all the latest updates will be available on this page.”
Will there be long-term damage?
Euromonitor, which analyses travel trends, especially in the wake of terror attacks or natural disasters, said that the US stands to lose about 1.2 per cent of its arrivals, amounting to 1.2 million people globally. Caroline Bremmer, head of travel at the group, said she also anticipates that Cuban tourism could be negatively impacted to the tune of 56,000 less visitors thanks to Irma.