En español | The Caribbean’s hurricane season this September has created havoc in the wildly popular tourist region, which saw nearly 29 million visitors last year. Now many tourists are canceling or postponing vacations there as news reports detail the extensive damage on islands such as Puerto Rico, which is still completely without electricity after Hurricane Maria, and St. John, whose lush greenery was stripped by the winds of Hurricane Irma.
Laura Plaze, 60, a regular visitor to St. John from Alexandria, Va., was stunned by post-Irma videos of her time-share unit. “You cannot believe it,” she says. “Every tree is broken, with leaves shorn off. The swimming pool is a mud bucket.” She is worried she may not be able to return even as late as next summer. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. I don’t know what anybody’s going to do.”
Other islands not likely to be ready for camera-toting tourists anytime soon, thanks to the Category 5 storms, include St. Martin and Dominica. “I can’t even begin to estimate when those are going to be up and running,” says Laura Sangster, the founder of Caribbean Journey, a travel agency in Atlanta. “We are looking at a good eight months, at least.”
But Caribbean tourism promoters are hoping Americans won’t scratch the entire 1-million-square-mile region off their list of potential winter escapes this year. They point out that the storms left many of the islands unscathed or with minimal damage and eager for visitors.
“The Caribbean tends to be lumped into one destination, says Sangster, “but Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, below the hurricane belt, are going to look great in October. They’re going to look great in January.”
“There are still plenty of places to go,” agrees Margie Hand, a Caribbean specialist at Andavo Travel in Birmingham, Ala. “I’ve been trying to steer clients more toward islands that were not affected, places like St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Aruba, Jamaica and Grand Cayman — which is probably one of my favorite places on the planet. All of those are in good shape.”
So are Bahamas, Barbados and Grenada, places where cruise ships are docking (some as part of altered itineraries that steer ships away from the harder-hit destinations in the Western Caribbean).
A couple of islands that were damaged but have recovered quickly include the Bahamas and Antigua. In Antigua hotels are typically closed for annual maintenance in September, a slow month for tourism, says Hand, but most plan to open up as normal in October. Unfortunately, tiny Barbuda, 40 miles away (and one half of the country known as Antigua and Barbuda), was hit hard, with an estimated 95 percent of properties in bad shape (though it has the advantage of Robert De Niro’s co-owning a resort there; last week the actor appealed for the United Nations to assist Barbuda’s recovery so “paradise is not lost”).
As for the U.S. Virgin Islands, “St. Thomas, I think, will see some tourist action after the first of the year,” says Sangster, “along with St. Croix.” The former was walloped by Irma; the latter by Maria. But both were damaged less than St. John.
Hand notes that visitors to St. Croix who are planning to spend most of their time at their resort (as opposed to exploring the island) should hardly be affected. She has two clients who’ve kept their reservations at the luxurious Buccaneer resort for a family vacation over the holidays.
And there’s a bonus to visiting the Caribbean now: You’re helping the economy. “The tourism dollars mean more now than ever before,” says Sangster. “The Caribbean really does operate as one family when it comes to the essential needs of people living on other islands. So by going to Aruba, you can feel confident that there will be a trickle-down effect for some of those dollars to get to other areas of the Caribbean.”
Ready for visitors now or soon: St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Aruba, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Curaçao, Bonaire, Barbados and Grenada, Bahamas, Antigua, Martinique, Dominican Republic
Probably ready by early 2018: Turks and Caicos, St. Croix, St. Thomas
Unknown: St. John, Puerto Rico, Barbuda, St. Martin, Dominica