Agents urge peers to spread word that Caribbean is open

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Photo Credit: Albert Brando Lauro/Shutterstock

LAS VEGAS -- Ovation Vacation's Jack Ezon said he is "shocked" by the number of clients who think the Caribbean is decimated because of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

"They don't know because nobody's telling the story anymore," Ezon said during a roundtable discussion on Caribbean recovery at Virtuoso Travel Week here.

The truth is that most of the Caribbean is open for business. Affected islands are courting tourists to help their recovery efforts.

According to Karolin Troubetzkoy, past president of the Caribbean Hotel Association, about 90% of hotel inventory in the Caribbean affected by the storms has reopened. Six destinations are still in recovery mode.

"There is a certain spirit of enthusiasm in the Caribbean," she said. "It's been really tough, but we are going to come back really strong from the experience."

According to Ezon, comparing this year's festive season (Dec. 22-Jan. 3) to what was on the books last August, travel to the Caribbean is 13% down. It's not terrible, Ezon said -- there is space for more travelers, "but it's not wide open."

January is down 18%, while February is up 2% and March is up 1%, thus far. April is 34% down so far.

Ezon said he and his advisors are being proactive to get clients back to the Caribbean, calling those who have visited before and telling them they can return. Many are surprised, he said.

He called on other advisors to do the same and help the region recover.

Advisor Carmen Teresa Targa of Condado Travel shared her story during the roundtable. Condado, based in Puerto Rico, is owned by Targa's parents.

The hurricanes last year weren't the first Targa has experienced. The first major hurricane she lived through was Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

"Nothing prepares you for the aftermath, especially when you have small children and families to take care of," Targa said.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was left with no power or communications. But Targa noticed a sense of community. She met neighbors, people who she didn't know before.

Condado has three branches in Puerto Rico. One, located where Maria made landfall, was a complete loss.

In the days after the storm, Targa and her family worked to reopen and help their clients. The normalcy of going to work helped them deal with the disaster they had experienced, she said.

In addition to helping clients, Condado helped staff members. Some had lost everything they own. The agency brought generators to the office and served meals at work. 

As far as serving clients, Targa said "it was hard." The airports were closed for a week. For clients already on trips, Condado advised them to stay where they were for the time being.

She and her father were getting up at 3 a.m. to check the day's flight inventory as it came online and nab seats. They gave priority to those who urgently needed to leave the island, like pregnant women and individuals who were ill.

They told their clients to keep their bags packed and ready, Targa said. As seats became available, they would text their clients to get to the airport and, hopefully, out of Puerto Rico.

Today, Targa said, she is bolstered by the attitude of everyone on the island. They are grateful they survived the storm. Restaurants are open again. Hotels are open. Tourist attractions are back up, too.

She encouraged people to visit, and expressed gratitude to those who helped Puerto Rico after the hurricane hit.

"We want you to come," she said. "We want you to see it, because we need you and we want to say thank you -- thank you for everything you did for us."

 

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