The Caribbean islands worst hit by 2017’s three devastating storms say that airports, resorts, restaurants and recreation venues are getting ready for the summer travel season, though many islands are still clawing their way back to normal.
On a series of conference calls hosted Wednesday by the Caribbean Tourism Organization, tourism representatives from islands like Anguilla, Antigua, St. Martin and St. Maarten gave updates on hotel reopenings, restaurant districts, ports and airports.
On Anguilla, lashed by Hurricane Irma’s Category 5 winds and storm surge, 90 percent of the electric grid and government buildings were severely damaged, as was the ferry terminal for boat service to St. Maarten.
Still, this year, Anguilla has celebrated the reopening of a number of properties, including the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Anguilla, which officially reopened Mar. 23; and the 80-unit Reef by CuisinArt, opened Apr. 1.
The Quintessence Hotel, a Relais & Châteaux hotel overlooking the Long Bay beaches, opened this January, a few months behind schedule due to the hurricanes. Designed with the look and feel of a tropical grand mansion, the Quintessence offers nine suites and villas with 24-hour butler service, Julian’s, a five-star restaurant, a spa, infinity pool and yoga pavilion.
Anguilla has “wonderfully refreshed product to make us extraordinary,” said Alison Ross, a vice president with the PM Group, representing the Anguilla Tourist Board. She said many of the reopened properties are offering substantial summer promotions, like fifth night free.
About 90 percent of the island’s restaurants are reopened, Ross said, all sports operators are back in service, and the beaches have been rehabilitated. While many of Anguilla’s annual festivals are scaling back this year, a full schedule of events is set for the remainder of 2018, Ross said, including Anguilla Day, which was being celebrated this Wednesday.
The original CuisinArt resort, heavily damaged by Hurricane Irma, will reopen on the Rendezvous Bay beachfront, Nov. 1. The Belmond Cap Juluca is currently accepting reservations for its first guests Nov. 17, Ross said.
Ross noted that she expects all of Anguilla’s pre-hurricane accommodations to be open for the 2018-19 winter season, when the tourist board will make a “major push” to promote the island again. As it emerges from the recovery stage, Anguilla will be building activities for younger travelers, Ross said. “We’re building the new generation of Anguilla travelers.”
Antigua and Barbuda
As most news outlets reported, the entire island of Barbuda was wiped out, while Antigua suffered only minor damage. Colin James, CEO of the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, wanted to make certain agents and travelers alike realize that on Antigua “all of our hotels are back.”
On Barbuda, two thirds of its 2,000 or so residents have returned to the island, mostly known for being a day trip for Antigua visitors, as it had just a handful of guest houses prior to Irma. Barbuda Belle, a small new property, plans to reopen in November.
More than 200 homes on the island have been repaired, James said, and some of the popular attractions, like Barbuda’s Frigate Bird Sanctuary in the Codrington Lagoon, are beginning to recover, encouraging lines like Windstar Cruises to already schedule the island back on some of its fall itineraries.
“The birds are back and the vegetation returned remarkably well,” James said, adding that the two islands’ coral reefs and fisheries are also recovering. “There are times when the lobster beds have to be closed for resources to replenish themselves, but it’s remarkable how nature heals itself. A lot of the beaches where there was severe erosion before, they are well-sanded. The greenery is back,” he said.
The introduction of more lift from Canada buoyed Antigua’s tourism fortunes over the last six months, driving a 70 percent increase in Canadian travelers to the island. James said Antigua should host more than 40,000 Canadians by the time 2018 wraps up.
On French Saint Martin, which relies on tourism for about 85 percent of its local economy, the majority of hotels were severely damaged, and are only now beginning to set dates to reopen.
For example, the Belmond La Samanna has not set a date to reopen, though it is hoping to do so before the end of the year. The Grand Case Beach Club is taking reservations for guests starting Oct. 1, while the Hotel La Plantation, Esmeralda Resort, and Riu Palace St. Martin are all anticipated to reopen the beginning of November.
Valerie Damaseau, president of the Saint-Martin Office de Tourisme, noted how a variety of small properties, condominiums and villas are open, and anywhere from 60-70 percent of the island’s restaurants have reopened.
“We never got the chance to emerge from the last hurricane season,” Damaseau said. Only two weeks ago, the local government held a series of meetings to prepare the islands for the coming hurricane season, including plans for shelters and emergency evacuations, if needed.
A somewhat better story is being told on the Dutch side of the same island. Up until May of this year, when the Divi Little Bay Beach Resort reopened, the majority of accommodations were small hotels and condominiums.
Speaking Wednesday, tourism and economic affairs minister Cornelius de Weever said “close to about 1,200 rooms” are now open, about 31 percent of Saint Maarten’s pre-hurricane inventory. He is forecasting slightly more than half of the island’s rooms will be open by the end of the year.
For example, the Oyster Bay Beach Resort will reopen June 1 with 85 renovated rooms, a renovated infinity pool, restaurants, spa and gym. The reconstruction of the hotel will be completed in two additional phases, with the whole property back on line around Dec. 1.
On its website, The Royal Islander Club La Plage says that while reconstruction is fully underway, “due to many challenges beyond our control … we don’t foresee reopening before Oct. 1, 2018.”
Other properties will take much longer to renovate. The Sonesta Maho Beach Resort, Casino & Spa is taking reservations for stays beginning Feb. 1, 2019; while the former Sonesta Great Bay Hotel & Casino, purchased by Sunwing Airlines earlier this year, is being demolished and remade as a 450-room Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino that may open by June 2019, de Weever said.
Meanwhile, the terminal building of the Princess Juliana International Airport is still so severely damaged that, up until recently, arriving airline passengers walked off their planes to a white wedding-style tent for immigration processing. Full reconstruction is not expected until late Q4 of this year, or early 2019.
Despite the airport and lodging damage, de Weever said that carriers are experiencing 90 percent load factors into Saint Maarten, and new small airlines are scheduled to start serving the airport this summer.
How will the Caribbean hold up this hurricane season?
As the 2018 hurricane season begins, tourism board executives and others attending the update calls said that their islands have incorporated what they learned from 2017 into their reconstruction and their disaster planning.
Saint Maarten is still in the middle of its rebuilding process, de Weever said. Building codes are being reviewed, “and as we move forward, we will have more resilient buildings.” The island is also hosting preparedness workshops, increasing the number and quality of shelters for storing emergency supplies, and securing plans for getting tourists on the first available flights in the event of another hurricane.
The Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda recently convened a disaster planning meeting, and the islands have made changes to their disaster preparedness and recovery plans based on what they learned from Irma.
For example, shelters have been reinforced and building codes have been improved, said James. Previously, shelters were designed for residents to go to temporarily to ride out storms for a few hours. Now they are equipped with kitchens and bathrooms to support residents and tourists for at least a couple of days.
“The whole focus is to preserve life and protect property, and restore services as quickly as possible," James said.
Ross said that on Anguilla, as the hotels were rebuilt, they did so with direction from what they learned from the experience of Hurricane Irma. She said a lot of the properties will close in September and reopen in October.
On Saint Martin, “we are doing what is necessary to put our island back on track. Life continues, and we can only be the resilient people that we are,” said Damaseau. Each district is implementing stronger building codes, she said. “We are very, very strict now.”