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Hot topic: The Caribbean’s road to recovery

Which islands are ready to receive visitors and how do tourist dollars help after successive hurricanes, Irma and Maria, wrought havoc in the Caribbean this year?

Hot topic: The Caribbean’s road to recovery
Image: Getty

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The Caribbean is no stranger to tropical storms. However, 2017 was a particularly devastating season, with two category five hurricanes — Irma and Maria — hitting the region within 10 days of each other, hot on the heels of tropical storms and hurricanes Bret, Don, Harvey and Jose.

Pummelling winds peaked at an unprecedented 185mph, killing hundreds of people and seriously impacting the lives of over 100,000 others, as well as felling power and telecommunications lines, cutting inhabitants off from mobile phone and internet contact.

Puerto Rico, Barbuda, Dominica, the US Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands were particularly severely hit, but the hurricanes also significantly impacted Anguilla, Cuba, St Martin and St Maarten, St Barts, and Turks and Caicos Islands.

“These storms may end up reshaping life in the Caribbean,” said Dionne Ligoure, head of corporate communications at Trinidad and Tobago-based Caribbean Airlines. “In the years to come, people will think of the Caribbean in terms of pre-Irma and post-Irma.”

Recovery is progressing at different speeds dependent on the destination and, as of November, 60% of Puerto Ricans were still without power and one in five without water, while power was yet to be restored to 90% of the population of Dominica. In contrast, the US Virgin Islands had started to receive cruise ships, the BVI had begun to welcome back visitors and most of the Turks and Caicos islands’ tourism industry and infrastructure was already fully operational.

Nevertheless, while it was necessary for thousands of flights to be cancelled at the time, across a region that’s heavily dependent on tourism, it’s important to note that around 70% of the Caribbean wasn’t impacted at all. Nearly all cruises are going ahead, with only minor alterations to schedule and, at time of writing, more than 75% of hotels across the Caribbean were still fully operational, open for business and ready to welcome visitors back for the winter season — so one of the main things you can do to help is return there for a holiday as soon as possible. 

While many of the more severely affected islands are recovering fast, Aruba, Barbados, Bonaire, Cayman Islands, Curacao, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, Saba, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago were barely affected by the hurricanes. Many of these holiday hotspots got off lightly enough that they’ve been able to extend aid efforts to neighbouring islands, so you should be heading to these destinations already.

“It’s important to put the geography of the Caribbean in context,” Frank Comito, CEO and director general of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association, told me. “The distance between Boston and Miami is the same as between the Bahamas and Barbados. When Irma struck South Florida, the weather in Boston was perfect, not a drop of rain or gust of wind. Likewise, when Irma and Maria struck part of the Caribbean, much of the region wasn’t impacted at all.”

Questions remain on how to safeguard the Caribbean in future, and there are calls to update building codes and regulations in line with Florida’s, which better weathers tropical storms.

Richard Branson, who owns two of the British Virgin Islands, thinks solutions need to be further reaching and on a holistic scale. Between the impacts of Irma and Maria, on his website he wrote: “Having just gone through one of the strongest hurricanes in history, I’ve seen first-hand the impact climate change is having. Even as the world faces increasingly shocking climate change-related catastrophes, now is our opportunity to get on top of the problem before it’s too late.”

Q&A

How do I know which islands are ready for visitors?
For a quick overview of which destinations are fully open for business, and those on the road to recovery, visit caribbeantravelupdate.com

Aside from visiting, how can I help?
Hard-hit Dominica is open to volunteer tourism to aid with rebuilding, but in most cases, agencies need cash contributions to use according to each destinations’ specific requirements. Non-profit organisation, Tourism Cares, is running The Caribbean Tourism Recovery Fund, which aims to restore and improve tourism infrastructure in order to get the 2.4 million people employed in Caribbean tourism back to work. To donate, visit tourismcares.org/caribbean

What has the UK done to help?
The hurricanes left an estimated £88bn trail of destruction in their wake — the UK has deployed 1,300 troops and committed £62m to the relief effort. The government also promised to match public donations to the British Red Cross Hurricane Appeal up to the value of £3m.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)