Travel advisors' task: Encourage Bahamas vacations

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Photo of Atlantis Paradise Island during Hurricane Dorian taken by Jack Feichtner, a client of travel advisor Julie Irovando.
Photo of Atlantis Paradise Island during Hurricane Dorian taken by Jack Feichtner, a client of travel advisor Julie Irovando.

After dealing with the initial onslaught of cancellations and rebookings due to Hurricane Dorian -- mostly caused by changes to cruise itineraries -- travel advisors last week found themselves facing the public perception that the Category 5 storm had left the entire Bahamas devastated. 

In reality, the storm only appears to have heavily damaged the Abacos and Grand Bahama Island in the Northwest Bahamas. 

The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism & Aviation is encouraging travelers to visit unaffected islands, such as Nassau, Paradise Island, Eleuthera, Harbour Island and others, which are home to the vast majority of the country's hotel and resort rooms.

Despite that, images of devastation from the Abacos and Grand Bahama continue to permeate consumer media coverage of the storm.

"The general takeaway is people believe the entire island chain of the Bahamas has been rendered totally uninhabitable," said Lindsey Epperly, founder of Atlanta-based Epperly Travel. In reality, though, she said the majority of the tourism industry in the Bahamas remains intact and could benefit from tourist dollars.

"I would love to get that message across: The Bahamas are not down and out," Epperly said. "People can still go there, and their tourist dollars could be doing a huge good to the rest of the Bahamas to help rebuild."

Daniel Olsen, COO of Beyond and Back Travel in Melbourne Beach, Fla., said his agency is experiencing the same misconceptions.

"What we've found is the way that the situation has been portrayed and what people are seeing on TV, you're really only seeing the worst parts," Olsen said. "I think our clients who are considering the Bahamas have serious questions and don't realize that there are parts of the islands that were not really devastated."

Often, Olsen said, clients don't even inquire as to the status of the Bahamas, instead saying they were considering it for future travel but had decided against it. When that happens, Beyond and Back advisors encourage them to reconsider.

"At this point in time, they really could use business, probably more than ever before," Olsen said. "We definitely don't want people to be discouraged from visiting the Bahamas just because of what they're seeing on TV."

Olsen's Travel Leaders Network agency found itself in the same position as many other agencies in Florida in the days before the storm. In addition to keeping clients updated, the agency and its employees also had to prepare for the effects of Dorian locally.

One advisor was relocated out of the state in case of a direct hit, and backup plans were put in place to ensure that employees could work from home, and computers were connected to battery backups.

Julie Irovando, owner of a Cruise Planners franchise in Valrico, Fla., had a number of clients affected by changed cruise itineraries during the storm. She estimated that about 100 passengers were affected. Some 80% opted to stay on a modified itinerary, whether longer or shorter, while the rest accepted future cruise credits.

Irovando had a large corporate group of around 1,500 headed to Atlantis Paradise Island last week. The group leader was at the resort through the hurricane.

"They said they had a lot of wind and a lot of rain, but there was absolutely no damage to the property at Atlantis, and Atlantis handled the situation beautifully," Irovando said.

As for why no one in the group canceled, she credited photos that the group leader sent to the group after the storm, revealing that the resort remained in good condition.

Last week, Louisa Gehring, owner of Gehring Travel in Cincinnati, was still getting news from resorts as to their status. Many were fine, but some smaller properties had yet to provide updates, she said. As a result, "a lot of my clients are really in a wait-and-hold pattern."

"The fact that [hurricanes] Irma and Maria were so recent and so devastating to tourism in the Caribbean, there's just a feeling that nobody will want to go to the Bahamas because they're assuming that everywhere was devastated," Gehring said. "I think in the next months and even up to a year, that's where we come in as advisors in trying to get down there, in trying to talk to people."

Margie Hand, an affiliate of Andavo Travel based in Birmingham, Ala., said she is encouraging clients to visit unaffected areas to support the region, though she said she believes tourism will be affected as a result of the extensive news coverage of the damaged areas.

"It is hard to think of going to a location and having a great time while there are refugees so close to you in a shelter," Hand said. "But by continuing with travel plans, it is helping the economy of the Bahamas, which helps them to rebuild."

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