Almost 18 months after two Category 5 hurricanes barreled
through the Caribbean in 2017, the islands in their path have recovered in a
very uneven fashion, ranging from only 40% of accommodations back online in the
British Virgin Islands (BVI) to 80% in Puerto Rico.
The impact of these delays was made clear in a Caribbean
Tourism Organization (CTO) report. Published in February, the report measures
how much tourism those islands lost in 2018, with the most extreme examples
being St. Maarten and the BVI, which took hits of 55.8% and 42.5%,
respectively, in tourist arrivals.
Puerto Rico lost 40.6% of its tourists through August,
Dominica 33.2% through September and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) 32% and
Anguilla 30.9% through November.
Such declines make it all the more impressive that visits to
the Caribbean overall only dipped by 2.3% in 2018, owing to solid increases on
islands like the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, coupled with a record surge in
fourth-quarter arrivals, according to the report.
For islands that have not made as much progress in getting
their hotels, cruise terminals, restaurants and attractions back up and running
as quickly as others, the detrimental impact is certain to seep into 2019
arrival numbers and, correspondingly, tourism receipts, the lifeblood of most
"We don't make money if the hotels don't make money,"
Joe Boschulte, the tourism commissioner designee of the USVI, said of the 35%
to 40% of hotel rooms still not open in the territory. "We need the hotels
up and running so they can get those rooms sold so we can get those tax dollars
coming in. That's how the cycle moves."
On St. Thomas, the largest properties have yet to reopen,
including the 443-room Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach
Resort, the 297-room Sugar Bay Resort & Spa and the 180-room Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas.
The reasons for all the rebuilding delays are manifold. In
some cases it's simple meteorology: Parts of the BVI and the USVI were hit by
both Hurricanes Irma and Maria; 95% of St. Maarten was affected by Irma, which
almost completely destroyed its airport. There are also insurance settlement
delays, ownership decisions to sell or rebrand properties and a lack of
manpower and supplies needed to rebuild after the most destructive storm season
"As fast as you want to rebuild, there are other
factors outside of the owners that impede progress," Boschulte said. "For
example, negotiations with insurance carriers. We live in the Caribbean on a
small island, so there is always a dearth of contractors. Lastly, just finding
labor pools. ... These are not excuses but the realities of living in the
In the BVI, where the Rosewood Little Dix Bay on Virgin
Gorda and the Bitter End Yacht Club remain closed, bright spots are the full
opening in December of the Scrub Island Resort and February's opening of the
Anegada Beach Club. The island has tried to push openings by allowing duty-free
imports of building materials and other items needed to renovate properties,
said Keith Dawson of the BVI Tourist Board. The government also appointed a
tourism liaison officer to help expedite relevant applications and permits.
Boschulte said that the USVI government is also offering to
help the hotels reopen and that he plans to sit down with the owners of Sugar
"One thing we say is, 'Help us understand how can we
help you better,'" he said. "Are you down because you have issues
with insurance? Because you have issues with the bank? Because you want to
sell? Because we know a lot of people aggressively seeking developments in
USVI. If the issue is with insurance, maybe we can reach out."
There are also issues of national priority. Hotels might not
be top priority when homes, hospitals and schools need attention. For example,
Kate Richardson of St. Martin's Tourist Office said that while rebuilding is on
track, the island had to get its infrastructure up and running to facilitate
the tourism sector's reconstruction.
A hit to image and branding
The longer recovery takes, the more serious the impact can
be on an island's overall branding.
CTO secretary general Hugh Riley said, "Without any
modicum of doubt in our minds, a natural disaster is also an image and branding
Boschulte agreed, saying, "Branding is one of the
things that keeps me awake at night." But he is also among the many
tourism officials who believe that despite the delay, the islands will come
back better than ever.
The St. Thomas Marriott and Ritz-Carlton, Boschulte said, "both took the opportunity to
redesign and rebuild" stronger and to new hurricane codes.
The Marriott property will come back as soon as April 2020
as two different properties, he said. DiamondRock, the property's owner, has
not made a final decision on the brand or management company.
"It's very important to get the message out that it has
taken a while to come back," Boschulte said. "But we are not just
coming back with the same old Marriott that was there before but with two
newer, nicer and brighter properties."
On the Record
Caribbean Tourism Organization secretary general Hugh
Riley spoke about a drop-off in U.S. arrivals and why the Caribbean needs a
rainy day fund. Read More
The Ritz-Carlton, he said, will be completely rebuilt when
it debuts in November, a boost for the island's winter season.
St. Maarten's director of tourism, May-Ling Chun, said the
upcoming openings of Planet Hollywood and Secrets on the island, replacing the
hurricane-destroyed Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort and the Riu Palace St.
Martin, represent the opportunity that disasters can bring.
"What you have is new product and with that new experiences,"
she said. "The island can rebuild better, stronger and more beautiful."
Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism
Association, said that, ultimately, the rebuilding will mean better branding
for the region.
"The product coming online is upgraded and improved and
more sustainable, as well," Comito said. "We're seeing Mother Nature's
natural pruning process at work."