Following last September’s hurricanes much of the Caribbean is now open for business, but some islands are still on the road to recovery. Debbie Ward outlines what you need to know.
Last September the Caribbean was hit by its most destructive hurricanes in a century. Some islands were devastated; others escaped virtually unscathed. For the vast majority it is “business as usual”, however it is down to agents to advise where is welcoming holidaymakers and when.
Anguilla, Barbuda, the BVIs, Dominica, Puerto Rico, St Barts and St Martin are experiencing longer-term effects with varied expectations as to when they will make full returns to sale.
Yet these destinations are generally a smaller part of UK programmes and operators report that Caribbean sales as a whole are holding up well.
All Kuoni’s featured islands are fully operational, says senior product and purchasing manager Sheena Paton. “Following an initial dip in confidence immediately after the events, this has now passed. 2018 bookings are being seen both in the early part of the year, and forward bookings during the latter months.”
Caribtours is currently donating £50 per Caribbean booking to the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association’s (CHTA) Caribbean Tourism Recovery Fund. “We need people to keep going and supporting the region,” says head of sales Rebecca Bryson. The operator had small programmes to the BVIs and Dominica and is also temporarily putting Anguilla on hold.
“If people went now it would be apparent there’s still a lot of damage. It will take a while for the greenery to come back and that’s why, even though it’s partially open, we’re not selling it for another five months, ” Bryson explains.
Niche specialisms such as sailing and hiking, and a high level of loyal repeaters, should stand the affected islands in good stead as they recover. For clients concerned that visiting could be in poor taste, it is important to stress the islands’ reliance on tourism, says Antigua and Barbuda’s vice-president sales and marketing for UK and Europe Jean-Marc Flambert.
“The people of Barbuda will decide when they’re ready to receive people. When they are, it’s our responsibility to actively help them restore their trade and livelihood,” he says. The trade should “continuously review” progress on affected islands, he adds, with the Caribbean Tourism Organization/CHTA caribbeantravelupdate.com a good source of information.
Antigua and Barbuda
Most Antigua hotels reopened the morning after Hurricane Irma, but sister island Barbuda was badly impacted. It had only 100 hotel rooms, with UK favourite 10-room Barbuda Belle among the properties badly damaged. However, the major trade is excursions from Antigua.
“It’s luxury sailing; people come and enjoy the caves and Princess Diana Beach, and we hope this tourism will come back soon,” says Flambert.
Supporting Antigua helps the nation as a whole, he says: “A lot of Barbudans are in Antigua now so if Antigua’s busy they get more jobs.” Antigua sales for 2018 are currently “soft in places”, with well-priced availability for Easter and summer.
All airlines are back serving Dominica but Liat has postponed connecting flights, meaning UK visitors must overnight in Antigua or Barbados. “We’re hoping to rectify that in February or sooner,” says Discover Dominica chief executive Colin Piper. He suggests agents meanwhile sell Dominica as a twin centre.
Having cleared up cruise excursion sites, Dominica is currently negotiating with lines about still featuring the island for 2018. Voluntourism packages are available to clean the Indian River (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Waitukubuli National Trail (email@example.com).
Some hotels are already part open and work has resumed on the Cabrits Resort Kempinski development. The prime minister has announced a “build back better” Climate Change Resilience programme.
“10% of moderately damaged room stock will come onboard on a monthly basis. As for activities, the forest division and national parks and international volunteers are doing a tremendous job,” says Piper. But with tree canopy damage evident, he’s anxious the island is sold correctly.
“The market segment we’ve gone after is adventure-seekers who typically have experiences here like hiking, snorkelling or scuba. So these people are more resilient, a little more active. They’ll still be able to experience these things but a little differently. I want to make sure there’s truth in advertising.”
Several of Anguilla’s three and four-star properties are welcoming back guests. The new nine-suite, butler service Quintessence remains on track for opening in January but other five-stars will reopen from spring onwards. The Reef by CuisinArt has slated April, but Belmond Cap Jaluca will wait until November, having brought forward refurbishment plans.
The disaster has galvanised long-proposed plans for a runway extension so Anguilla can receive Boeing 737s. A new ferry terminal will replace the one lost to Irma. A tourist board voluntourism programme is meanwhile due to be revealed.
“I really think it’s a restart button; we’ve got this opportunity now to come back stronger,” says Anguilla Tourist Board UK and Ireland representative Carolyn Brown.
“The airport extension will really entice more airlines. We want additional carriers from the US and via Antigua and Puerto Rico.”
The situation has helped spotlight three and four-star properties, she adds. “A lot of people have been coming to Anguilla for many years. Whereas they’ve stayed in five-stars in the past they’re now staying in places like Carimar Beach Club or Frangipani Beach Resort as they don’t want to miss out… it’s an opportunity to remind people Anguilla’s not just about high end.”
British Virgin Islands
The islands welcomed their first cruise ships following Hurricane Irma in early December. Many charter yacht companies have already returned and the sailing regatta will take place March 26 to April 1 as planned. Among properties, Oil Nut Bay opened its restaurant and marina in December; its villas will reopen on March 1. Necker Island’s Great House is booking from October 2018 with its other accommodation opening 2019. Other luxury hotels have yet to release relaunch dates.
BVI director of tourism Sharon Flax Brutus says: “BVI has the cache of being a luxury destination offering personal superlative service. The rebuilding and recovery gives us the opportunity to look at more services and amenities to pamper our guests.” She also predicts “spectacular relaunch offers”.
For skilled UK workers, voluntourism opportunities are available through One Love BVI (bvivolunteers.com) to help the islands, where tourism represents 80% of income.
Flights have been restored and cruise ships began returning in October. Family property Le Village reopened in November. Other scheduled hotel reopenings include Hotel Christopher in March and Eden Roc, Le Guanahani and Hotel Le Toiny in the summer.
Hyatt, InterContinental and Holiday Inn hotels are among many already reopened. Though some are closed indefinitely, several are booking from spring, with two Sheratons and a St Regis scheduled for January reopening.
St Martin/St Maarten
The cruise port reopened in November. Many hotels are closed until further notice but Almanda Resort, Le Beach Hotel and Belmond La Samanna have announced late 2018 reopenings.