The tourism product in St. Lucia is up and running at full speed six weeks after Hurricane Tomas temporarily brought the island to its knees. (View images from Gay's post-Tomas trip to St. Lucia here.)
St. Lucia was on target to have its best year ever in terms of visitor arrivals until the November blip. Numbers were up 15.4% from January through October over the same period in 2009, according to Allen Chastanet, the minister of tourism.
"We took a hit in the days after the storm, but we've made it, and we are back on target and forecast an even better year in 2011," Chastanet said.
Tomas dumped a record 24 inches of rain on the island in 19 hours. The storm developed overnight and was not originally forecast as anything more than a light rainfall.
But as Nov. 1 dawned, landslides blocked many sections of the main north-south road on the west coast. Power was out, phones did not work and water pipes were broken.
Island hotels were near 100% occupancy. In the ensuing three days, guests at resorts in the south of the island, where the storm hit the hardest, were evacuated by water taxi and catamaran to properties in the capital of Castries and Rodney Bay farther north and then flown out of the smaller airport in Vigie to connect with flights from San Juan to the U.S. mainland.
At Ladera resort near Soufriere, a wedding and honeymoon property where units were intentionally built without a fourth wall so as not to impede views of the island's two volcanic Piton peaks and the coastline, 47 guests rode out the storm in the bar, playing board games.
"We doubled up guests in the two-bedroom units, then chartered a catamaran and got them to Castries," said Holly Scott, whose family owns Ladera. "En route they were served a lobster salad lunch put together by our executive chef Orlando Satchell and his staff."
The resort had some landscaping and cosmetic damage, but it will reopen 15 rooms on Dec. 15 and the remainder on Christmas Day.
The story of staff heroics and sacrifice was repeated time and again at resorts all over St. Lucia, but particularly in the hardest hit areas in the south near Soufriere.
Jade Mountain and its sister resort Anse Chastanet both closed briefly due to road blockage and lack of water, power and telecommunications. They brought 124 guests by catamaran to Castries, who later flew out of the airport in Vigie.
"It took us three days to dig out the 1.5-mile road leading to the resorts, but we welcomed our first guests just days later," said Karolin Troubetzkoy, executive director of marketing and operations.
"These resorts are the main tourism drivers for the Soufriere area. We had to get them open for our 450 staff who work here and who rely upon their wages as support for their families," she said.
The tourist board quickly moved into high gear and mounted its largest fam group movement, bringing more than 100 U.S. agents to St. Lucia in early December to showcase the tourism product.
"We wanted them to see the island that their clients will see so they can book with confidence, knowing that we have recovered and we're ready for the winter season," said Louis Lewis, the director of tourism.
Agents visited resorts, checked out attractions and witnessed firsthand the ongoing landslide cleanup on the roads.
"St. Lucia has a little bit of everything for every kind of client," said Gayle Banes Akana, Star Travel in Norcross, Ga. "It's so important for us to see these properties. It makes a difference in how we sell and what we sell to each client."
The tourist board launched its Preferred Agent St. Lucia Specialist program in mid-September, and enrollment already has exceeded expectations with numbers topping 1,100, according to Nerdin St. Rose, vice president of marketing and sales.