(Cayman Islands | Photo credit: Marc Babin via Unsplash.)
This should be the height of the Caribbean travel season, with freezing-cold Americans heading in droves to warmer climes to thaw.
But given the severity of last year’s Caribbean hurricane season (highlighted by Irma in August and Maria in September), what destinations are ready for travelers, and which ones need a spot of work?
That’s a difficult question; there are more than 7,000 islands in the Caribbean, not all of them inhabited, and fewer than half were damaged, either by wind, rain, or storm surge. Also, damage varies greatly from island to island, and even from one side of an island to the other.
In general, though, the islands most affected by the storms have put a major priority on getting resort areas back to normal as quickly as possible, so that even in locations where power or water are sketchy in general, services are far more likely to be up, running, and reliable in the areas where tourists generally visit.
As always, for recommendations on specific destinations, check with your travel professional. In the meantime, here’s a high-level, island-by-island view of how the most heavily damaged parts of the Caribbean are getting back on their feet, and what that might mean to you and other snowbirds.
(Note: For details on a specific resort or destination on a given island, please click on the island's name at the start of each section):
Severely affected islands
Anguilla: One of the first islands hit by Hurricane Irma, Anguilla took a direct shot but has been recovering quickly. Services have been restored across almost the entire island, and many of the island’s resort properties and tourist attractions are open or will be open by March.
Barbuda/Antigua: Barbuda caught the brunt of Irma’s 185-mph winds, prompting an evacuation of most of the island’s 1,800 residents. The majority wound up in shelters on Antigua, Barbuda’s sister island, which took a strong blow from the storm but has recovered faster than Barbuda. Much of Antigua’s tourist sector is back up and running, though access to the island has been an issue, mainly because of a reduced flight schedule at the St. Martin airport. Barbuda is a different story; an estimated 65 percent of the island’s structures have been destroyed, and rebuilding will take years.
British Virgin Islands: Some of the most scenic parts of the islands, including Virgin Gorda and Tortola, were hard-hit by Irma, but the islands are moving past short-term relief into restoration of tourist operations, such as yachting charters, ferry transportation, and scheduled airline services. While most tourist-related enterprises should be functioning by March, check before you leave if a specific attraction or lodging is operational.
Cuba: Much of Cuba (including the U.S. embassy) was damaged by Irma-related flooding, though recovery efforts by the Cuban government have been swift and largely effective. Most hotels in the country are open for business, as are many of the most popular tourist destinations. In fact, the storms will have much less of an impact on American travel to Cuba than the re-imposition of travel restrictions. Over the long term, the hurricanes will provide an incentive for Cuba to update its tourist infrastructure to better meet the influx of American tourists that will return whenever travel restrictions are eased.
Dominica: Already in recovery mode from Tropical Storm Erika, Dominica was slammed by Hurricane Maria, with 90 percent of the island’s buildings damaged or destroyed. Many tourist sites and dive operators remains closed, though the nation’s tourism industry is encouraging people to book trips for Carnival in January 2018. There’s optimism that power will be restored to the entire island by April 2018, with pipe-borne water service to the entire island restored shortly after that.
Puerto Rico: Maria knocked out 90 percent of the island’s power, and parts of the island are still without power and drinking water. Aid from the mainland has been slow and inadequate, signaling a long recovery ahead for the island and its residents. While San Juan and its airport are largely open to tourism thanks to a herculean recovery effort, essential civic functions like traffic lights are still not entirely working, and residents are still lacking basic needs. However, major ports are open to visitors, and the island is slowly getting back on its feet – the key word being slowly.
St. Maarten/St. Martin: Irma did a number on the dual-nation island, causing ripple effects throughout the region. Princess Juliana International Airport, a key air hub serving St. Kitt’s, Antigua, Anguilla, Curaçao, Trinidad, and Jamaica, has reopened to commercial flights, but is still not operating at full capacity. More daunting is the damage to the rest of the island’s tourist infrastructure. Seventy percent of the island’s hotel rooms were destroyed, and while the cruise-ship port will open later this month, hotels will be fortunate to be offering around half of their previous lodgings by March or April.
U.S. Virgin Islands: The U.S. Virgin Islands were struck hard by both storms – St. John and St. Thomas by Irma and St. Croix by Maria – and water and power are still being restored. St. Croix opened for tourists on a limited basis in November, and the airports on St. Croix and St. Thomas have reopened for international flights. Tourist-related businesses in Christiansted and Charlotte Amalie are reopening, and cleanup continues at Virgin Islands National Park. Recovery work is proceeding steadily, but the road back will be long.
Bahamas: The Bahamas were in the paths of both storms but sustained minimal damage. All the major tourist destinations – Nassau, Paradise Island, Grand Bahama, and most of the Out Islands – are back to normal, with only scattered damage to some of the southern islands.
Dominican Republic/Haiti: Both the Dominican Republic and Haiti experienced hurricane-related flooding, but both countries are up and running and happily accepting tourists. However, there is still a U.S. State Department travel advisory for Haiti due to security issues and lack of an effective medical infrastructure.
Turks and Caicos: While Grand Turk, South Caicos, and Salt Cay suffered moderate damage from the storms, most businesses have reopened, services have been restored, and damage has been repaired.
If your favorite island isn’t on the list, it probably wasn’t damaged by the storms and should be fully up and running. However, a few friendly inquiries never hurt … and don’t forget the travel insurance!
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