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The Caribbean Rises with Resiliency in the Wake of Hurricanes and the Pandemic

by Patricia Vanikiotis

Nov 20, 2020

PHOTO: © DOMINICAN REPUBLIC MINISTRY OF TOURISM

November 2020

The Atlantic hurricane season of 2017 inflicted unprecedented devastation across wide swaths of the Caribbean. Responsible for 3,364 deaths and resulting in a damage total of nearly $295 billion across the region, the storms included three Category 5 hurricanes (Harvey, Irma and Maria) responsible for the majority of the destruction. Particularly hard hit were Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and the northern Leeward Islands including Dominica and Sint Maarten/Saint Martin.

The following storm season saw fewer and overall less violent systems, but 2019 brought Category 5 Hurricane Dorian, historically the strongest storm and most costly natural disaster to sweep over The Bahamas. For the Caribbean region, thankfully, 2020 has proven (as of press time) relatively tame in terms of storm-related property damage and loss of life. This year brought a different kind of disruption, that of an economic tsunami in the form of COVID-19, which impacted every country and territory across the entire area.

But just like the beauty of these islands’ shores, the spirit of their people can not long be suppressed, and their love for their homes and cultures time and again has brought rebirth and rejuvenation after every trial. Areas hit hardest over the past three years stepped up to the plate and provide examples of that resiliency.

“Unfortunate events present opportunities for growth.” With that statement, the British Virgin Islands’ Tourist Board launched its Seeds of Love initiative in the spring of 2018, just months after hurricanes Irma and Maria scoured the territory. The goals, to replant indigenous trees and vegetation destroyed by the storms and to prevent erosion and protect the ecosystem, acknowledge the relationship between tourism and the environment and the need to protect the environment as the territory develops ecotourism. Citizens and schoolchildren joined in to plant and maintain thousands of fruit trees, coconut palms and other flora alongside the islands’ guests looking for voluntourism opportunities.

Dovetailing and building upon the Seeds of Love program, the BVI Love marketing campaign launched this September with the focus on driving green initiatives, introducing green diversification and revitalizing the green expansion of the economy as the territory reopens to tourism Dec. 1. BVI premier Andrew Fahie noted travelers’ preferences and demands have changed, and “It is time to distinguish and differentiate ourselves in a fiercely competitive market . . . as we share our stories with each other and the world.” BVI Love will connect visitors to authentic and unique experiences, helping them to experience the culture of the people within that “green” framework.

While Puerto Rico got much of the press after Hurricane Maria struck in 2017, the U.S. Virgin Islands was walloped by both Irma and Maria less than two weeks apart. About half of its hotels reopened by June 2019, with the remainder expected to reopen through this year, although the pandemic may have slowed some timelines. The cruise industry bounced back fairly quickly, an important economic driver, and all other visitor services had been restored. Thankfully, the majority of the Dutch Colonial buildings in Charlotte Amalie, the capital city, weathered the storms well, and the territory’s Department of Tourism launched a hashtag,#StillNice, to assure visitors the stunning reefs and beaches were unaffected and worth a visit.

As with her British neighbor, the USVI discovered opportunities for growth — or at least redevelopment — including an overhaul of the electrical grid and modernization projects at Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas and Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix. The four-phase, six-year plan at STT will include a four-level parking garage and transportation center; additional jet bridges; and a redesign, modernization and expansion of terminal spaces and amenities. STX, meanwhile, will benefit from expanded lounge seating, additional concessions, remodeled restrooms and existing spaces and added air-conditioning.

Grand Bahama and Abacos islands in The Bahamas were the most severely damaged by Hurricane Dorian just over a year ago. Freeport, a popular cruise port and the main city on Grand Bahama, was spared the worst of the damage, and just before the pandemic shut things down, 84 percent of its hotels and restaurants reopened, along with the majority of tours, attractions and water sports. Plans for a $250 million redevelopment and expansion of the Prince George Wharf and port in Nassau, first shared in 2019, promise to dress up what has been considered a rather dowdy and boring cruise stop. The two-year project officially kicked off in July of this year and will include a new cruise terminal; new retail, food and beverage outlets; a waterfront park; an outdoor event and entertainment space; and a Junkanoo museum, showcasing the history and culture of The Bahamas through multimedia exhibits. New downtown lighting and a tram service will help integrate the port area with downtown Nassau.

In this region where economies are so heavily dependent upon tourism, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly hit hard, but indications point to brighter skies ahead. Based on data from travel insurance aggregator Square-mouth, policies purchased through its portal between March and Aug. 15 this year for travel in 2021 indicate the top international destinations behind No. 1 Mexico are Aruba, The Bahamas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Jamaica.

PHOTO: © DFIKAR | DREAMSTIME.COM

Most of the 20 countries and territories in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Bermuda and The Bahamas initially enforced similar protocols for international visitors: pre-arrival PCR tests, completion of online health forms, temperature checks and sometimes additional testing upon arrival and, often, some length of quarantine at approved accommodations (sometimes up to 14 days). Moving into fall, however, an easing of some restrictions and some inventive strategies and offers provide enticements for travelers from the United States and beyond.

On Sint Maarten, Sonesta’s two all-inclusive resorts (completely rebuilt or renovated after Hurricane Irma) offer up to $120 in resort credits for a minimum three-night stay through Dec. 23 to offset the cost of the required COVID testing. As of Sept. 15, travelers don’t need to provide a negative PCR test on arrival in the Dominican Republic. Instead, a random sampling of passengers are given a rapid breath test. The government also offers free travel assistance insurance through Dec. 31 for visitors arriving on commercial flights and staying in a hotel. Covering COVID-19 and other medical emergencies, it includes specialist care, medical transfers, airfare change penalties, lodging for prolonged stays and more.

Airlines are getting into the act, too. American Airlines announced starting in October it would provide pre-flight COVID testing for passengers traveling from Miami International Airport to Jamaica and The Bahamas and expanding to CARICOM. Meanwhile, JetBlue will expand flights to the region later this month with new non-stop flights from Newark (EWR) to Montego Bay (MBJ), Cancún (CUN), Aruba (AUA), Nassau (NAS), Turks & Caicos (PLS), Sint Maarten (SXM) and the Dominican Republic (PUJ). Visitors may also fly from Raleigh-Durham (RDU) to both Cancún and Jamaica or from San Francisco (SFO) to Cancún on the airline.

A host of hotels and resorts (all-inclusive or not, adults-only, family- friendly) were rebuilt or refurbished since the hurricanes over the past three years, with some only just reopening before March of this year and others delaying until late this year or into 2021. More are in the pipeline for launches in the next two years. And as travel opens up, the sunny beaches, blue skies and sparkling waters of the Caribbean and the region’s warm and welcoming residents will certainly see eager visitors return in droves.

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