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Tourism is the Caribbean's lifeline, bringing in $56 billion in 2016. But the devastation wrought by hurricanes Irma and Maria will hurt the region come high season this winter, bringing its seven-year streak of year-over-year growth to a halt.
As a whole, however, the loss in tourism dollars might not be as severe as one might have thought. At least, that's what the islands' ambassadors are hoping.
“There is no doubt that this hurricane season has devastated a number of Caribbean islands, but when considering the sheer number of islands in the Caribbean (more than 7,000), travelers soon realize that the majority of Caribbean islands were not affected at all by the storms, or only minimally,” said Ninan Chacko, CEO of Travel Leaders Group in an email statement to NBC News.
“There are close to 30 of the most popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean that are welcoming visitors with open arms, including Aruba, the Bahamas, Barbados, Curacao, the Grand Cayman Islands, Jamaica, and St. Lucia," he said.
“There is still plenty of Caribbean for visitors to experience right now, and this winter season," agreed Gordon “Butch” Stewart, chairman of Sandals Resorts, referencing figures from the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association that said 70 percent of the region was untouched by hurricanes.
Hon. Edmund Bartlett, Minister of Tourism, Jamaica, told NBC News that Jamaica is "performing ahead of target for 2017 with a 7.3 percent increase in stopover arrivals from January [through] September over the same period last year. We anticipate this to continue to the end of the year and forecast a strong winter season given the new resorts that have opened in the last 12 months on the island as well as increased airlift from our main markets, the USA, Canada, U.K, and Europe."
Keeping People Informed — And Tempted
Right now, the industry is faced with an unusual problem: getting out its message that most of the Caribbean is doing just fine.
“We’re in a unique position to help cities and areas that are open for business raise awareness with travelers on where they can go to still get the beach vacation they were hoping for, especially as we enter the winter and holiday seasons,” said John Morrey, vice president and general manager of Expedia, in an email to NBC News. “Places like Jamaica, Aruba, and the Bahamas were minimally affected by Hurricane Irma and Maria, and are still very much up and running for tourists. So we are doing our best to supply travelers with a wide array of choices for their winter getaways as well as package savings where possible.”
David Fiorenza, a professor of economics at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, anticipates blowout sales on the rise for tourists who will consider the Bahamas as the region vies for visitors.
“I think the Bahamas will make off like Vegas, which is now lowering fares so people will go [after the mass shooting],” said Fiorenza. “Even if the rooms are filled at a loss, they’ll take it as they look at making revenue back in other areas.
Tourists Want to Know All the Options
Frank Eff, a Caribbean travel specialist and the co-owner of Dream Vacations in Monkton, Maryland, is not too worried about things slowing down this year.
“The actuality is that most people aren't altering their vacations much; they're just asking which islands they should go to," Eff told NBC News. “If their original trip can’t happen, people just want to know their best options.”
Travel agents are also working to recommend islands that have a similar vibe if the client’s original travel plans aren’t doable, but they’re open to others.
“I had a bride and groom set to get married in St. John, but the resort was badly damaged in Hurricane Irma and will be closed until 2019, so I recommended St. Croix as it has a similar vibe to St. John,” said Amber Koll, co-owner and travel consultant at The Travel Advantage in Sioux City, Iowa. “When someone had their heart set on a destination, it is critical to find something that compares in as many ways as possible to their original choice.”
If a passenger is on a cruise, then the choice is largely out of their hands, but Eff says that so far these re-routes haven’t roused many complaints.
“A lot of the cruises have re-routed to the western area of the Caribbean,” said Eff. “Very few customers canceled or decided not to go on these cruises.”
This points to the fact that for many cruisers, the specific destinations are somewhat secondary to the offerings of the cruise ship itself: “The islands can become a side note,” said Eff.
Peta-Gaye Daniel, the founder of the travel blog My Cruising Family, is leaving this week with her family for a five-day cruise to Cuba and the Bahamas, and has another scheduled for March to visit several more islands.
"We are excited about both cruises, and honestly, I am hopeful that individuals and families like ours continue to travel to these beautiful countries and that tourism helps to rebuild the economy of those countries that need it," Daniel said.
A Region That Runs on Tourism
It's critical to the Caribbean economy that tourists continue to visit. The World Travel and Tourism Council reported that in 2016 the total contribution of travel and tourism to the Caribbean's GDP was $56.4 billion in 2016 (14.9 percent of GDP) and was expected to grow to $58.5 billion (15.4 percent of GDP) in 2017.
But that 2017 growth just isn’t feasible now.
"I think the whole area will experience a noticeable decrease in tourist arrivals,” said Larry Yu, professor of hospitality management at The George Washington University School of Business. “Even though the other islands can intercept some of the rebooked and new demand, they do not have the capacity to compensate the losses from the damaged islands.”
More Tourism for Other Places
“In regards to alternate hot spots, it’s a little soon to tell which destinations are seeing a boost as a direct result of the recent hurricanes,” said Expedia’s Morrey. “However, we anticipate destinations like Oahu, Maui, Phoenix, and Los Angeles will experience increased interest as people look for a warm-weather getaway this winter.”
Tammy O'Hara, a travel agent based in Brooklyn, notes that some travelers don’t have a U.S passport. For them, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were first choices because though they have a foreign element, they’re still tied to the U.S.
“I have been recommending Hawaii for island lovers,” O’Hara said. “I am also recommending cruises a lot more.”
Jackie Guenther, a yacht charter broker with Denison Yacht Sales, says that while many captains and charter managers are heading to the Caribbean as planned, she’s also seeing interest pick up outside the Caribbean to include Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama.
And then there’s Tahiti, which is seeing a boom of interest from tourists.
"The islands of Tahiti have already seen an uptick in bookings from those travelers who may have their plans for the immediate future upended,” said Kristin Carlson Kemper, managing director of Tahiti Tourism U.S. “We’re seeing a 20 percent increase in bookings from now through the end of the year than we have been in the past.”
Do Your Homework Before Take-Off
Professor Fiorenza makes the point that we’re starting to see a lot of ads for winter travel to the Caribbean, and while tourists may want to support the islands (possibly at rock bottom prices), they should investigate before clicking to buy.
“Call directly to the hotels themselves and ask them what rooms are available and other things you may want to know, like whether you can rent a car,” Fiorenza advised. “Call the airline to find out if you can get in and out of the airport seven days a week.”
If you’re staying at a big resort, you should be able to get the questions you need answered by their customer service. A spokesperson for the Marriott, which declined to comment on the number of hotels presently closed in the Caribbean, urged tourists to check for updates on Marriott’s main website, and highlighted that “the best thing people can do for the Caribbean is continue to visit."
Chacko of Travel Leaders Group embellished on this sentiment, adding, "Many people want to know what they can do to help the region — and one solution is to visit the areas that were not directly impacted by the storms. The negative economic impact on the region will be compounded if visitors avoid travel to the unaffected destinations.”