One of the islands hardest hit in the 2017 hurricane season was Dominica, which was directly in the path of Hurricane Maria when it intensified into a Category 5 storm. It ruined what looked like a great year for cruise arrivals. Germany-based Sea Cloud Cruises' Sea Cloud II was the first ship since the storm to return to the island, doing so in late December. Cruise editor Tom Stieghorst spoke about cruise recovery in Dominica with Colin Piper, CEO of the Discover Dominica Authority since 2009
Q: How were things looking before the storm?
A: We were set up for a bang-up year. We were going to have a great year with over 400,000 cruise passengers, [up from] the high 200-thousands of the previous season. And then, of course, on Sept. 18 Hurricane Maria hit, so all of that was put on the back burner.
Q: How did Dominica respond?
A: What we've done since then is gone through a process of first establishing a task force on kind of a 60-day plan, and one of the things we decided was to really try to fast-track the recovery of the cruise aspect. The reason being that economically it hits such a wide cross section of our stakeholders: the taxi drivers, the vendors, the hair braiders, tour guides and tour operators. They would be able to get back to some sort of economic generation if the cruise ships were to come back. So the plan was to basically identify a number of natural assets that had been most visited by cruise passengers and try to get those to a state of readiness, places like the Trafalgar Falls and the Emerald Pool where there would be great experiences for the cruise passengers if they were to come. [We wanted] to make sure the roads were motorable and accessible, cleared of the telephone poles that had fallen and the wires that had come down and the like, so we set Jan. 1 as the date where we felt we would be in a state of readiness to begin.
Q: What did the cruise lines think?
A: In mid-December, a delegation went to Miami and met with a number of the cruise lines to have a discussion with them and to update them on where we are, show them pictures of just after Maria and where we are now so that they can see the progress. And we also had a visit from the shore excursion manager of TUI on Dec. 9. They confirmed that TUI would be making seven calls to Dominica, the first one starting on the 28th of January.
Q: How does 2018 look?
A: No doubt the cruise season has been impacted because the cruise lines had to make a determination. And we weren't able to overcome all of the negative images of the devastation that were floating around the media space. So we're trying to see what we can get going this year, starting Jan. 1, to salvage what we can of the summer season. Carnival is expected to make nine calls, and we're still working on that.
Q: How is the environment recovering?
A: January 18 will be 120 days. The vegetation is coming back. The canopy will take three to four years to come back based on our experience with Hurricane David [in 1979], but the new shoots have started.
Q: What can cruise passengers do?
A: Dominica has always been a unique destination that provides something a little different. It's primarily been a touring destination where you get in the vehicle and you get a riding tour where you get to see certain things, a little hiking. Those who wish to do a more strenuous hike to one of our waterfalls can do so, an hour in and an hour back. But for those who are normally on cruise lines we have the tours where with just five to 10 minutes of walking you can experience what Dominica has.
Q: How important is cruise to Dominica's economy?
A: In years gone by, when we've been as high as 500,000 passengers, we were somewhere in the 20% to 25% [of tourism revenue]. In the years when we've gone down, we've been somewhere between 10% and 15%. The tourism spend is about 20% of GDP.