The tourism industry on the Caribbean islands that Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated last September is slowly recovering.
An Atlantis Events cruise on which “Storm Chasers” star Joel Taylor died of a suspected drug overdose visited Labadee, Haiti; San Juan, Puerto Rico, and St. Maarten in January before returning to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The cruise had been scheduled to dock in St. Barts, but “extensive” damage to the pier in the French island’s capital of Gustavia prompted Atlantis Events to modify its itinerary.
A second Atlantis Events cruise is scheduled to depart from San Juan on March 18. It is expected to visit Barbados, Martinique, St. Lucia and St. Maarten before returning to Puerto Rico on March 25.
A cruise that RSVP Vacations — which Atlantis Events acquired in 2007 — docked in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands earlier this month. Olivia Cruises, a travel company that caters to lesbian travelers, in April will have a cruise that is scheduled to dock in Labadee; Punta Cana, Dominican Republic; St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Lucia and San Juan.
“Our business as usual is bringing our guests to the Caribbean,” Atlantis Events Vice President of Marketing Jim Cone told the Washington Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview from his office in West Hollywood, Calif. “It’s so important for the entire region with tourism, which is a key driver of their economy.”
Irma devastated Barbuda, St. Barts, St. Martin, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John, Turks and Caicos, the north central coast of Cuba and portions of the Florida Keys. Maria caused widespread destruction in Dominica, St. Croix and Puerto Rico a few weeks later.
A number of large hotels and resorts on the affected islands remain closed. Sources in the region with whom the Blade has spoken said tourists have stayed in smaller hotels, villas or timeshares or have used Airbnb.
U.S. Virgin Islands Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty on Feb. 6 said nearly 50 cruise ships docked in St. Thomas last month. She nevertheless noted only about 40 percent of the territory’s hotel rooms are currently available, with “many housing relief workers.”
“Despite this, the U.S. Virgin Islands offers many options to fit a variety of lifestyles and budgets,” said Nicholson-Doty.
The St. Maarten Tourism Bureau notes only 1,220 of the 4,162 hotel rooms that were available on the Dutch side of the island before Irma were available as of Jan. 18.
Irma seriously damaged the terminal of St. Maarten’s Princess Juliana International Airport.
Alita Singh, senior journalist for the Daily Herald newspaper in St. Maarten, told the Blade on Wednesday during a Skype interview the airport is open with two large air conditioned tents for arriving and departing flights. She also noted four cruise ships docked on the island on Tuesday.
“The only thing we export from St. Maarten are happy tourists,” said Singh. “The cruise industry is slowly coming back.”
This reporter saw a cruise ship approaching San Juan earlier this month while on assignment in Puerto Rico.
Hotels, restaurants and shops in Old San Juan have reopened, although one business owner with whom the Blade spoke on Feb. 3 said business remains slow. Gay bars and clubs in Condado, an oceanfront neighborhood in San Juan that is popular with tourists, and in other areas of the Puerto Rican capital are open.
Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans still do not have electricity. The majority of traffic lights in San Juan and across the island are not functioning.
Electricity, running water and cell phone service remain intermittent on Vieques, an island off the Puerto Rican mainland that has become an increasingly popular place for LGBT vacationers and second-homeowners. Edgardo Rosario Rentas, co-founder of Vieques Ready, an organization that seeks to teach the island’s residents how to prepare for hurricanes, told the Blade on Tuesday that limited ferry services and scheduled flights are additional barriers to the local tourism industry as it tries to recover from Maria.
The W Vieques Retreat and Spa is expected to remain closed throughout 2018. Rosario, who was the resort’s welcome desk manager, is among the roughly 150 people who have lost their jobs.
“It affects the entire island of Vieques,” he told the Blade.
The St. Maarten/St. Martin Alliance for Equality Foundation has 15 members. It is planning to open a second branch on the French side of the island.
René Arrondell, who is a member of the St. Maarten/St. Martin Alliance for Equality Foundation, told the Blade on Wednesday the group has had one board meeting since Irma. He also said some of its members have left the island because the hurricane damaged their homes or they have lost their jobs at hotels and resorts that remain closed.
“We are looking forward to being more active and recruit new members in coming months but the funds are lacking,” Arrondell told the Blade.
Jamaica, Aruba, other islands unaffected by hurricanes
The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, which is based in Coral Gables, Fla., notes 2.4 million people throughout the Caribbean work in the tourism industry.
The organization’s annual Caribbean Travel Marketplace event took place in San Juan from Jan. 30-Feb. 1. The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association on its website notes more than 70 percent of “our Caribbean destinations” — including Aruba and Jamaica — were not affected by the hurricanes.
“The majority of hotels across the region are fully operational and open for business,” it says.
“The Caribbean region consists of 32 countries and spans over 1 million square miles,” adds the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association. “Our diverse and vibrant Caribbean and its warm, friendly people await you and there are still many places to go and to choose from.”
Cruise ship companies, hotels support relief efforts
Royal Caribbean Cruises delivered food, water and other relief supplies to St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Key West, Fla., after Irma. The company, from which Atlantis Events regularly charters its ships, also evacuated 1,700 people and 39 pets from Puerto Rico and other islands.
Cone pointed out to the Blade that Atlantis Events partnered with Alturi.org, an organization that seeks to promote further engagement on LGBT and intersex issues, to support hurricane relief efforts in the region.
Alturi.org and the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, which provides healthcare and other services to people with HIV/AIDS and other vulnerable groups in the Caribbean, launched a campaign after Irma that sought to raise funds for LGBT people on the affected islands. Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition Program Manager John Waters told the Blade on Tuesday during a Skype interview from his office in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo that his organization and Alturi.org only raised $7,500, with nearly all of this money coming from a single donor.
“On the small islands of St. Martin and Dominica it can go a fair way,” he said.
Waters added Maria’s impact in Puerto Rico had an adverse impact on their efforts.
“One of the things that definitely impacted our appeal was what subsequently happened in Puerto Rico with the second hurricane,” he told the Blade. “We were perhaps overshadowed by what was happening in Puerto Rico.”
A spokesperson for Olivia Events on Tuesday declined to comment, noting the company is “still formalizing our efforts.”
Singh noted to the Blade that many of St. Martin’s resorts provided shelter to their employees and their families during Irma.
She said the resorts’ parent companies gave supplies to them and to their guests once the island’s port reopened. Singh also told the Blade the companies has given employees vouchers and have begun to hire part-time workers to help rebuild their properties.
“There’s still efforts ongoing,” she said.
Rosario — who now volunteers with Waves Ahead, an organization that is providing relief to LGBT Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups after Maria — told the Blade that Marriott International, which operated the resort at which he worked, gave employees money to help repair their homes or rent vouchers. Rosario also noted resort staff in the days after Maria cooked breakfast and lunch for people who were waiting in lines for up to five hours to get gas.
“They were helping,” he said, referring to Marriott International. “They were focused first on their employees . . . and then helping their community.”
— Michael K. Lavers, Washington Blade courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association.