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 Caribbean nations.

"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 in history.

"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 Caribbean."

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 Bay soon. 

"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 disaster." 

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." 

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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."

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