Industry faces long road to recovery from Irma

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Among the surviving victims of Hurricane Irma is the travel industry, which last week got down to the task of assessing not only property damages but destroyed infrastructure that will force suppliers to rethink air and sea routes, tour products and vacation itineraries for months to come.

Damage to the industry was heavy. Airports lost runways, control towers and, of course, the electrical power necessary for even minimal commercial operations.

Ports found their waters cluttered with the storm's detritus -- everything from wind-tossed appliances and scattered debris to sunken sailboats and damaged piers.

Major ports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, from which most Caribbean cruises launch, were back in operation by the end of last week. But then the challenge became finding someplace to sail to.

For the foreseeable future, cruise lines have lost four ports in the Caribbean: St. Martin/St. Maarten, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, all of which were partially or completely destroyed. As of press time, Key West's port, another popular call, had not reopened, and damages there were still being assessed.

Many hotels, resorts forced to close

Perhaps hardest hit by Irma's relentless winds and rains were the hotels and resorts in the storm's path. Because it struck the Caribbean in the region's low season, many resorts had not yet fully opened. Those that had opened faced the dilemma of deciding whether to evacuate guests or hunker down and provide them with shelter.

That turned out not to be an easy choice, as Baha Mar, the recently opened mega-resort in the Bahamas, discovered when it chose to order its guests to evacuate, while two competing resorts nearby, the 640-room Melia Nassau Beach and the 3,400-room Atlantis Paradise Island, remained open. In fact, Atlantis not only sheltered some 1,200 guests but also opened its doors  to "hundreds of locals," according to Atlantis president Howard Karawan.

Though he never called out his competitor by name, Karawan seemed to be alluding to Baha Mar last week when he told Travel Weekly, "It is during times like these that we see it as our moral responsibility to support the community as best as we can, not close our doors on them."

Evacuation experts, however, said the decision to remain open or evacuate is rarely clear-cut.

George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that in addition to questions about the level of on-site training the staff had been given, the ability for a hotel to generate power during a storm can also be a factor.

Topography can come into play, as well, as can the fact that a hurricane's path is unpredictable. As a result, said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, two resorts relatively near each other can be dealing with different risk factors.

"Atlantis is close to the water, but it may not have the same [storm] surge action as Baha Mar," Cutter said. "Baha Mar is right on Goodman Bay, which has that kind of concave feature that may funnel some of the water a bit more."

In fact, Caribbean hotels and resorts directly in the path of Irma's eye found after the storm had passed that they had little or no way to protect guests who had stayed to weather the storm, given that in many cases they had no power or water. The result was tens of thousands of guests stranded throughout the hardest-hit islands.

That was especially true for tourists in the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, where relief and rescue operations in many cases required military assistance from other countries and a big helping hand from cruise lines and both charter and commercial carriers.

For many affected hotels, rebuilding and recovery will take many months and many millions of dollars.

For example, Beaches Turks & Caicos is not expected to reopen until December. Other of those islands' hotels, including the Alexandra Resort, Beach House TCI, Blue Haven, La Vele, Tuscany and the Sands, all said they hoped to reopen in mid-October. The Gansevoort, Somerset, Royal West Indies, Club Med and Parrot Cay are expecting to reopen in November.

In Anguilla, a British island, relief finally arrived from the U.K. several days after the storm hit, during which time visitors had no power or water and few means of communicating with the outside world.

Among the Anguilla resorts still assessing damages last week were Carimar Beach Club, CeBlue Villas & Beach Resort, Fountain Anguilla, and CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa and the Reef by CuisinArt. Most others sustained relatively minor damage and were expected to reopen within days or weeks.

Victims helping victims

For a number of travel agents, Irma presented a double-whammy: As they worked to help clients escape destinations or rearrange travel plans, many, especially in Florida, were themselves dealing with power outages, flooding and damage to their homes and business.

Steven Gould, owner of Goulds Travel in Clearwater, Fla., had no power at his own home last week. He said he slept in his office for three days to field calls from clients impacted by the storm.

"Fortunately we have space to work," he said, adding that he let other agents from other agencies use his office to help their clients, as well. "I wanted to make sure our clients knew. We posted on Facebook that we were still open and still working. We had our phone lines forwarded to our cell phones."

Gould's office lost power for about eight hours after the storm hit. His home didn't fare as well: as of Sept 14 he still had no power. But his clients were his first priority.  

"Many travel agents stepped up to the plate and said, 'We have to make personal sacrifices because our clients are in as much distress as we are, but they are traveling and can't get flights and can't get home to their loved ones,'" Gould said. "We're sitting here trying to board up windows while we have clients all over the world freaking out about getting back home."

Gould had Tampa-based clients stuck for six days in Canada because of airport closures and flight cancellations. He was in touch with them daily trying to get them back and finding them hotel rooms. At the same time, he was accommodating a group of 53 clients on a canceled Carnival Cruise Line sailing to the Bahamas.

Even though Cruise Planners agent Carol Furst Matulonis lost power and a fence at her Fort Pierce, Fla., office, she was more concerned with her clients than with her own predicament.

"We are used to taking care of everyone before we take care of ourselves," she said. "That's what it means to be in the service industry."

Her approach began with storm prep, she recalled: "I had clients in Alaska who I asked if they needed help getting their home ready. Clients in Cuba whose cruise was being rerouted who I thought might need help with their dog. It's a way to provide that personal service, and I really do care about my clients."

Cruise lines lose ports

As Irma approached, the cruise lines, following long-accepted procedures, moved ships out of harm's way and altered itineraries to steer clear of the storm.

Once Irma had passed, however, they discovered that the storm had ripped open holes in their itineraries to the eastern Caribbean that will not be plugged soon.

Several of the busiest ports of call in that region will clearly be out of service for weeks, if not months, among them St. Maarten, Tortola and St. Thomas. St. Thomas and St. Maarten, in particular, are mainstays of eastern Caribbean cruising.

Royal Caribbean International will be substituting St. Croix for St. Thomas on Eastern Caribbean cruises of the Adventure of the Seas. On the Allure of the Seas voyages it will substitute St. Kitts for St. Thomas and St. Maarten and St. Kitts for St. Thomas on Harmony of the Seas itineraries.

Norwegian Cruise Line will offer only Western Caribbean routes through November on the Miami-based Norwegian Escape.

Although ravaged destinations aren't ready for tourists, they are sure to suffer from the loss of ship calls, each of which is worth an average of more than $500,000, according to a 2015 study done for the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association.

St. Maarten and St. Thomas each draw about 1.6 million cruise tourists a year, more than all but a few other Caribbean ports. Key West recorded 696,887 cruise passengers in 2016, and it was ahead of that pace in the first seven months of 2017.

While most cruise lines visit the affected islands on itineraries that start and end in Florida, several small-ship lines fly passengers to the Caribbean to begin their voyages there. SeaDream Yacht Club turns some of its cruises in Marigot, St. Martin. Windstar uses St. Maarten, San Juan and Bridgetown, Barbados. As of press time, neither line had decided how to proceed with the 2017-18 Caribbean season.

No one can yet forecast how long reconstruction will take in Key West or St. Thomas, where damage assessment is ongoing. But because cruises represent such a large part of their economy, it's expected that cruise infrastructure will be the focus of early rebuilding efforts.

Another question mark is Havana, where Irma caused fatalities, building collapses and severe flooding. The cruise industry's fragile toehold there has been generating new excitement around Caribbean cruising. At least a half-dozen lines' itineraries include Havana.

Norwegian said its Sept. 18 Norwegian Sky cruise would call on Havana tomorrow as part of a four-day sailing after getting confirmation that port facilities in Havana were not impacted by the storm and that tour operators were ready for passengers.

As for the rest of the Caribbean, while some ports, including Havana, took direct hits, others to the east of Florida were already open as of the middle of last week. Since the Bahamas suffered less damage than many had feared, cruise lines scheduled shortened itineraries on Sept. 13 and 14 to Nassau and Freeport.

Grand Turk, where Carnival Cruise Line has a private destination, has reopened, and Carnival's port at Amber Cove on the north side of the Dominican Republic is reported to be in good condition.

PortMiami, the last major Florida cruise port closed by Irma, reopened on Sept. 12. Among the ships returning to Miami were the Carnival Glory, Carnival Vista and Carnival Victory. However, due to berth limitations there, the Carnival Sensation debarked in Port Everglades on Sept. 13 instead of in Miami.

Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Escape and Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas also returned to PortMiami on Sept 13.

In many ways, the cruise industry was spared the worst consequences of Irma when the storm shifted west from an earlier model that had it moving up Florida's east coast, where the Big Three -- Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line -- are headquartered. The shift in the storm's track also spared the world's three busiest cruise ports -- PortMiami, Port Everglades and Port Canaveral -- on Florida's east coast.

Irma, and before it, Hurricane Harvey, laid bare the paradox of tourism in Florida and the Caribbean: The warm currents that have turned those destinations into sun-and-sand getaways for hundreds of thousands of people living in colder climes are also the meteorological provocateurs that increasingly create, feed and sustain hurricanes.

While that is a trade-off the travel industry long ago learned to live with, climate change provides a new twist: As the waters get warmer, the storms grow larger, more frequent and more dangerous, incessantly chipping away at tourism's stability.

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