One year after storms' one-two punch, islands getting back on their feet

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Rainforest Adventures' Rockland Estate ecopark debuted its Flying Dutchman zipline ride on St. Maarten within weeks of last year's hurricanes, giving a much needed boost to its tourism product.
Rainforest Adventures' Rockland Estate ecopark debuted its Flying Dutchman zipline ride on St. Maarten within weeks of last year's hurricanes, giving a much needed boost to its tourism product.
Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

It's been one year since the Caribbean suffered a one-two punch from the most destructive hurricane period in decades to hit the region.

Of the 33 Caribbean island nations and territories, eight were significantly affected by the 2017 hurricane season.

Where are they now?

Let's take a look at the rebound and the significant progress of recovery, rebuilding and reopening that's taken place on these islands in the months since Irma and Maria brought them to their knees.

Anguilla: The majority of 1,200 hotel rooms have reopened with three luxury resorts --CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa, Malliouhana and Belmond Cap Juluca -- coming back online in November.

More than 90% of restaurants are up and running; the airport and ferry services to St. Maarten are back in operation.

Barbuda: The iconic frigate birds are returning to their sanctuary in the Codrington Lagoon as are many of the tiny island's 2,000 residents.

Barbuda Belle will welcome guests in November; actor Robert de Niro is forging ahead with plans for the $250 million Paradise Found Resort on the site of the long-defunct K Club, and the coral reefs are starting to regenerate.

British Virgin Islands: The tourism product in the hard-hit BVI has made significant progress. The airport, ferry services and the yacht charter companies are back in business as are a number of marinas, dive operators, watersports companies and yacht brokers.

Disney Cruise Line returned in August. Available hotel inventory remains limited, but the Sugar Mill Hotel and Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina reopen Oct. 1, and Peter Island Resort & Spa and Richard Branson's Necker Island plan partial reopenings that month.

Reconstruction is underway at the Bitter End Yacht Club and Rosewood Little Dix Bay, both slated for 2019 reopenings.

More than 85 restaurants and bars are open on Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, Anegada and Norman Island.

Dominica: The airport is open, ferry services are running, and Carnival Cruise Lines returned this summer after a hiatus of eight years, when it pulled out due to high fuel prices.

Although some smaller villages and communities still lack electricity, 90% of the island has both electricity and cell service.

Hurricane Maria severely damaged 26 properties and destroyed 13, and 42 remain closed. Of the 962 guestrooms before Maria, 393 were open as of June.

The Fort Young Hotel will open its remaining 31 rooms by October, and Secret Bay, Calibishie Cove and Citrus Creek Plantation will follow later in the fall.

Jungle Bay Resort and Kempinski Cabrits Resort plan to reopen during the first half of 2019, and the new Anichi Resort and Spa will debut in late 2019 as part of Marriott's Autograph Collection in Portsmouth on the northern part of the island. Rosalie Bay has not yet set a reopening date.

"When visitors do come they will see the same vibrant spirit of our people, our beautiful scenery and the features that make Dominica the Nature Island of the Caribbean," said Colin Piper, CEO of the Discover Dominica Authority.

Puerto Rico: Although the island has made great strides in its recovery, some 4,000 customers remain without power, primarily in rural, remote communities, according to the government.

A tragic statistic from the hurricane aftermath is that the official death toll now is listed at 2,975, up from the tally of 64 first announced last December.

The revision came following a study conducted by George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health at the government's request.

"We never anticipated a scenario of zero communications, zero energy, zero highway access," said Gov. Ricardo Rossello. "I think the lesson is to anticipate the worst."

However, much of the news regarding Puerto Rico these days is positive and reflects the resilience of communities, public and private sector groups and associations, government agencies and tourism entities, including the new Discover Puerto Rico destination management company.

"Puerto Rico declared itself open for tourism in late December 2017, and the local tourism industry has worked very hard for the past year to come back strong," said Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico.

Among the many tourism milestones achieved: flight capacity is on the rise, with monthly seat capacity surpassing the 420,000 figure. Puerto Rico currently is served by 110 daily flights on 28 airlines.

By the fourth quarter, the destination is poised to make a full turnaround and be on par with 2017 air capacity levels.
Cruise tourism is robust. In May alone, the island received 107,390 cruise passengers, 12.9% higher than in May 2017 and the highest for that month in 20 years.

For the upcoming cruise season, a record-breaking 1.7 million passengers are expected, which equates to approximately $250 million in revenue, according to Discover Puerto Rico.

The island offers 119 cruise excursions for passengers.

As of August, 132 out of 146 Puerto Rico Tourism Co.-sponsored hotels are available, representing close to 90% of the island's inventory. In addition, hundreds of rental units and paradores (family-run inns) are available.

Openings in October include the Dorado Beach, Ritz-Carlton Reserve and the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort.

The 486-room Melia Coco Beach reopens on Dec. 15, followed by the El San Juan Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton and the Caribe Hilton in early winter.

Still to come in 2019 is El Conquistador Resort, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, and the Ritz-Carlton San Juan.

More than 2,000 restaurants, 16 casinos and 13 golf courses are open around the island as are 189 tourist attractions, including walking tours of Old San Juan, El Morro Castle, the Bacardi Distillery, salsa tours, cave systems and parks.

El Yunque rainforest has reopened many of its lower trails.

St. Barts: The island is back in business with more than 70% of its villa stock of 800 villas and more than half of its 28 hotels open.

Still to come this fall and early winter are Eden Rock-St. Barths, Oetker Collection; Hotel Toiny; Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle of France; Le Barthelemy; Christopher Hotel; and Le Sereno.

Le Guanahani remains closed as does Carl Gustaf Hotel, Emmeraude Plage Hotel and the Tropical Hotel.
Restaurants and shops have been open since earlier this year.

St. Maarten/St. Martin: The Dutch/French island continues to recover at a steady pace.

The Princess Juliana Airport on St. Maarten is open, although it is under reconstruction, with completion slated for the first quarter of 2020. Temporary arrival and departure lounges are in place.

Major carriers have increased their flights each month.

Grand Case Airport on St. Martin has daily flights to and from Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Barts, and Seaborne is flying daily to and from San Juan.

Electricity and cell service has been restored islandwide, although service can be spotty at times.

On the Dutch side of the island, there are currently several hundred bookable rooms available, including Divi Little Bay Beach Resort, Simpson Bay Resort & Marina and Oyster Bay Beach Resort.

The Sonesta Ocean Point Resort will reopen its adults-only resort on Nov. 15 and its family-friendly Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, Casino & Spa on Feb. 1.

The all-inclusive Planet Hollywood resort, the former Sonesta Great Bay Beach Resort, will reopen the second quarter next year.

Inventory in St. Martin, which stood at 1,500 rooms in hotels, villas and guesthouses pre-Irma, will be up to between 500 and 600 rooms by December.

Grand Case Beach Club has pushed back its soft opening to Nov. 15, according to Steve Wright, general manager.
"Improvements will include all new furniture; 43-inch TVs; new doors, locks and hurricane shutters; upgraded high-speed WiFi propertywide:our pool brought back to pre-Irma beauty; and art from local artist Roland Richardson throughout the guestrooms and rebuilt reception and administrative offices," Wright said.

The 83-room Belmond La Samanna plans to reopen Dec. 10, and Le Beach Hotel will follow sometime in 2019.

The former Riu Palace St. Martin will be converted into a Secrets resort in 2019, following a $20 million renovation that will add a rooftop pool and swim-up suites, among other enhancements.

More than 90% of all on-island activities are operating; most of the restaurants on St. Maarten are available as are several restaurants in Grand Case on the French side.

U.S. Virgin Islands: New airlift from Spirit between Fort Lauderdale and St. Croix and from American between Orlando and St. Thomas launches on Nov. 8, while JetBlue resumes its daily, seasonal Boston-St. Thomas route from Feb. 14 to April 22.

Delta will continue to serve St. Thomas with flights from New York and Atlanta as well as between Atlanta and St. Croix.

More than 50% of accommodations across the territory are open and accepting guests while other properties continue to repair and rebuild.

There are approximately 1,050 rooms available on St. Thomas, 150 rooms on St. John and 600 on St. Croix in addition to 600 villa units and 200 charter yachts on St. Thomas/St. John and 300 villas on St. Croix.

At press time, Airbnb had 830 listings in St. Thomas, 250 in St. John and 350 in St. Croix.

"The availability of accommodations in the sharing economy has made it possible for many people to travel to the territory during this recovery period," said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism.

The largest resorts in St. Thomas and St. John remain closed for repairs and renovations.

Still out of commission until late this year and into 2019 are Frenchman's Reef & Morning Star Marriott Beach Resort and Sugar Bay Resort & Spa on St. Thomas and Caneel Bay and the Westin St. John Resort & Villas on St. John.

Air capacity to St. Thomas currently sits at 10,000 seats weekly, which represents half the capacity for the same period in 2017, according to Nicholson-Doty.

"The forecast for winter 2018/2019 projects St. Thomas's air capacity  to be 15,000 seats weekly, and St. Croix to be slightly more than 6,000 seats a week," the commissioner said.

To quicken the full recovery of tourism, the Department of Tourism has implemented taxi training for drivers that includes the history and culture of the territory. It also introduced a volunteer tourism program called Purpose in Paradise that matches visitors with projects in areas of education, environment and economic development; worked with tour operators and attractions on recommendations to enhance the visitor experience; and invested in sports tourism marketing and events, among others initiatives.

On the cruise side, St. Thomas received 718,275 passengers through July, down from 929,056 arrivals during the same period in 2017.

The DOT is working to reverse the decline in cruise visits experienced before the hurricanes, a concern that was compounded by the lost calls last September and October. The decline deepened with a number of lines repositioning their Eastern Caribbean itineraries for Western Caribbean cruise calls after the storms.

A proposal to permit additional dredging near the cruise pier to accommodate larger vessels as well as enhancement of shore excursions for cruise passengers is under consideration.

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