Portions of the Caribbean were hit by devastating hurricanes in 2017 that hurt not only buildings and infrastructure but also traveler perception of the region. Governmental officials who deal in tourism say they’re still hopeful about the region’s long-term outlook.
MIAMI—A group of government officials representing portions of the Caribbean that were most heavily impacted by hurricanes in 2017 gathered at the recent Caribbean Hotel & Resort Investment Summit to share their insights into how the region’s tourism industry can rebound and continue to grow.
Carla Campos Vidal, tourism director for the government of Puerto Rico, said while many point to the physical damage sustained in hurricanes Irma and Maria, perhaps the biggest issue from a tourism perspective is public perception. She noted rampant media reports about widespread damage have obscured the fact that Puerto Rico’s hotels and other travel-related essentials are and have been up and running.
“The real story is about the comeback,” she said. “And that is validated by the facts, figures and indicators.”
She noted the silver lining of the storms is that roughly 4,000 rooms on the island are undergoing “extreme revamping and remodeling,” amounting to a widespread refresh of Puerto Rico’s hotel inventory.
Campos Vidal pointed to the strength of airlift to the island as one of the biggest factors in continued tourism growth.
Cardigan Connor, parliament secretary for the government of Anguilla, said the British territory is heavily reliant on flights from Puerto Rico, like other portions of the Caribbean.
“Our challenge is access,” he said. “And over the years, and still today, we rely heavily on Puerto Rico as a hub.”
He said American Eagle’s cutbacks in the region have had a noticeable impact in airlift around the Caribbean.
Emil Lee, deputy prime minister for Saint Maarten, said one of the biggest lessons hoteliers and tourism officials across the region should learn from the particularly rough hurricane season of 2017 is that region-wide communication is key. It was important, he said, to get the message out quickly that portions of the Caribbean were still operating following the storms.
“We need an emphasis in the planning stages,” he said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for all of the Caribbean.”
He also said it’s important for governments across the region to start adopting common sense regulations for the clean-up process following storms to help preserve the natural beauty that will keep travelers wanting to come to Caribbean destinations.
“We have a number of boats that were damaged and left in lagoons,” he said. “If we had environmental protection legislation, it could speed up the recovery process … (by penalizing) people for leaving wrecked vehicles in the water.”
Beverly Nicholson-Doty, tourism commissioner for the United States Virgin Islands, agreed with Lee that communications planning ahead of time needs to be holistic and should include everything down to informing families of travelers that they are safe and accounted for.
“Setting up that process ahead of time is critical,” she said.
Following the crisis surrounding the Zika virus, Campos Vidal said, Puerto Rico learned some lessons the hard way about the importance of getting the message out to potential travelers that the region is safe and open for business.
“The result of (Zika) was a loss of $250 million to the economy because of bad crisis communications,” she said.
As regions of the Caribbean like the U.S. Virgin Islands look to rebuild and get back up to full capacity, alternative accommodations providers seem to be filling the gap while hotels work to come back online, Nicholson-Doty said. She noted “about 40% of accommodations inventory” is open and operating currently in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Airbnb has filled the gap in many areas,” she said.
She noted the region is also seeing some good news in terms of airlift, with Spirit Airlines offering new flights to the U.S. Virgin Islands.