As Cyber Monday and Black Friday emails began to clog my inbox with offers incentives and perks from hotels in the non-hurricane impacted Caribbean, there was, of course, a notable absence of offers from properties on those islands still coping with the lack of power, water and tourists.
I talked to Colin James, CEO of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, about the impact of the storms.
His story is about one nation of two islands. Antigua and Barbuda are positioned just 32 miles from one another, where the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea meet.
Yet Antigua was brushed by Hurricane Irma; Barbuda was decimated.
Barbuda's 1,600 residents were evacuated to Antigua by military helicopters and a flotilla of private boats and yachts within two days after the storm.
"My heart broke when I first saw Barbuda," James said. "Now, recovery is under way; electricity should be restored in Codrington, where most of the people live, by Christmas. Water could be back by the end of the month. There are scores of Cuban engineers repairing rooftops, and many charities have stepped up with donations and supplies."
Antiguans opened their homes and schools to the people of Barbuda. James himself is housing 11 relatives who lost roofs and belongings.
"Once the schools can reopen and the homes are made habitable, the people of Barbuda can begin to return," he said.
However, rebuilding comes at a cost. The government estimated a $200 million price tag to rebuild homes to make them structurally sound and to withstand another powerful storm.
With only 70 rooms to begin with, most visitors to Barbuda were day-trippers from Antigua, there to see the miles of pink-hued beaches and hundreds of frigate birds that made up the largest colony of frigates in the Western Hemisphere. "The birds are coming back," James said. "We are heartened by their return. It's slow but the numbers are increasing."
Although Barbuda's falloff in tourism has not affected Antigua as much as has the plight of the Barbudan people, tourism officials in Antigua are seeing an impact in increased bookings by travelers diverted by the storm-impacted islands. "There is so much product that is off the market for this winter season due to the storms that hit other islands," James said. "That has definitely caused an uptick in our bookings, and while it is pushing our numbers up, it is at the expense of our neighbors who are suffering."
He said that cruise calls are up 25%, to 198 calls between October and December. "That's huge for Antigua," he said. "The challenge for us is to get the message out that Antigua is fine. Until travelers and travel agents understand that while we are one country, we are two distinct islands and cannot be lumped as one destination still recovering from a Category 5 storm."
He said a new promotion called "Warm Up to winter" employs positive video testimonials from visitors who were in Antigua when the storm hit and have visited the island since.
"This resonates much more powerfully," he said. "Viewers can see and hear real visitors' impressions of Antigua and see for themselves that we are better than ever. Hotels have been renovating, updating, refreshing and remodeling for the winter season. Our product is better than it has ever been. Our tour operator partners are positive."
He's predicting a banner winter season for Antigua, coupled with his hope that the recovery on Barbuda proceeds apace so that the Barbudan people can return to normal life, much like the frigate birds.