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Caribbean travel after Irma and Maria: essential information

As one of the most active and impactful hurricane seasons in recent memory slowly subsides, much of the northern Caribbean is picking up the pieces left by hurricanes Irma and Maria. But this region is no stranger to such events, and many communities are already beginning to rebuild.

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The Caribbean islands, as viewed from the LANDSAT satellites © Planet Observer / Getty Images

In a part of the world where tourism is essential to many local economies, leaders in the Caribbean tourism industry have noted that returning travelers will provide key support for affected nations once they are ready to receive visitors; they've also emphasized that many islands were not hit by the hurricanes and are currently welcoming all travelers.

The Caribbean is a large area and the hurricanes’ impact varied significantly across the region. Here we’ve compiled pertinent information regarding current relief and rebuilding efforts, as well as known statuses of the tourism industry; we plan to update this article as this work progresses. We’ve provided an island-by-island breakdown below.

Islands affected by Irma and Maria

Anguilla

Anguilla, alongside St-Martin & Sint Maartin, was one of the first destinations to feel the force of Hurricane Irma; at only 35 square miles in area, the island was ravaged by the storm’s winds. Despite Irma’s powerful impact, Anguilla has managed to recover at least part of its tourism sector, and authorities are adamant the island will be open for business by Christmas, albeit at a limited capacity. While major hotels are aiming to reopen during the first quarter of 2018 into the summer season, some smaller properties will be open in November. Officials report that phone and internet access has restored, the roads and beaches have been cleared, and local restaurants and businesses are reopening. Electricity has been mostly operational, and the local power company is posting updates on their Facebook page.

The island’s biggest concern is accessibility, as St-Martin served as the primary hub for most connecting flights. As of now, limited flights are running from St Kitts, Antigua and San Juan. There are plans to extend the airport’s runway to allow larger aircrafts from North American carriers to land. The Blowing Point Ferry Terminal was demolished in the storm, and a temporary facility is open for residents of Anguilla and St-Martin.

For more information, check out the tourism board's landing page dedicated to post-hurricane progress at ivisitanguilla.com.

Antigua & Barbuda

Despite their close proximity, Antigua and Barbuda faced different fates as Hurricane Irma bore down on them in early September. While Antigua experienced some superficial damage, it remained relatively unscathed; its smaller sister island, however, was decimated. Barbuda’s residents were evacuated in the days after the storm – some have since returned, but rebuilding efforts are slow to move forward. As of now, it’s estimated that 65% of the structures will need to be completely rebuilt and repairs will take more than $200 million. Ferry trips between the two islands are only occurring once a day and are primarily being used by residents. Antigua is fully operational and welcoming visitors now.

For more updates on tourism development, head to visitantiguabarbuda.com.

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Hurricane Irma's path across the Caribbean © Lonely Planet

The Bahamas

While the Bahamas were touched by the paths of both storms, the majority of the island chain managed to escape significant damage. All primary tourist centers – Nassau, Paradise Island, Grand Bahama, most of the Out Islands – are fully operational, but some small southern islands were affected by Hurricane Maria. Ragged Island and Acklins Island sustained serious damage.

For the most up-to-date information, check out the Press Room at Bahamas.com.

British Virgin Islands

Hurricane Irma hit BVI without mercy, causing extensive damage across the island chain. Virgin Gorda, BVI tourism’s crown jewel, sustained catastrophic damage, as did Tortola and many of the smaller surrounding islands. The government is still focused on immediate relief, and the island is closed for the rest of October. Recovery efforts are underway, however, with the start of loan programs for small businesses and financial concessions on construction materials, initiatives aimed at aiding a phased restoration of the islands’ infrastructure and tourism offerings.

BVI’s airports opened November 1, and first priority has been restoring the yachting sector, as the islands are an important destination for the sailing community. The cruise port in Tortola sustained minimal damage, and there are hopes to welcome cruise visitors in November. The tourism board has acknowledged that the major luxury hotels will be facing a much longer recovery time (possibly as long as 2 years), so it will be focusing primarily on restoring the smaller properties on Virgin Gorda. Anegada was largely spared by the hurricane, and the island’s famous Lobster Festival will go forward November 25-26.

The tourism board has developed a microsite dedicated to travel and status updates on bvitourism.com.

Cuba

After charging across much of the eastern Caribbean, Hurricane Irma snaked along Cuba’s north coast, causing significant flooding and wind damage in coastal towns. Havana also felt the wrath of the storm, with ocean swells and heavy rain flooding much of the city’s historic center. The Cuban government’s response has been swift, however, and water and electricity have been restored, even in the hardest hit areas. Despite the flooding, Havana avoided major damage, though a few buildings did collapse.

Tourism makes up a significant part of the country's economy, and businesses in tourism centers like Varadero and Cuba’s keys pushed hard to get back online. According to Cuba Travel Services and Cuba’s tourism ministry, hotels in this area have reopened in time for high season.

Dominica

Dominica hadn't yet fully recovered from 2015's Tropical Storm Erika when Hurricane Maria made landfall on the mountainous island. The impact was disastrous, with 90% of the buildings on the island damaged or destroyed. Authorities are still working to provide immediate relief to citizens, and some recovery efforts are moving forward; the local water company has restored service to 55% of its network, electricity has been restored to Roseau and Portsmouth, and cell service has been reinstated in a handful of communities. Tourism officials state that tourist sites including the island's natural attractions are currently closed, as are all dive operators. Flights to the island are operating via LIAT Airlines, Seaborne, Air Sunshine, Air Antilles. WINAIR, and Trans Island Air, and the L'Express des Iles ferry is running from Roseau to Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Lucia.

For daily updates on relief and recovery efforts, visit the government's website, opm.gov.dm.

Dominican Republic and Haiti

While the island of Hispaniola managed to dodge direct landfall from both Irma and Maria, the storms passed close enough to its shores for their effects to be felt; initial reports showed images of flooding and moderate wind damage along the northern coastlines of both countries, primarily in rural communities. The Dominican government confirmed there was minimal damage to tourism sites, and both countries are open and welcoming visitors now.

Puerto Rico

While the US territory of Puerto Rico received a glancing blow from Irma (an event that primarily affected Culebra, Vieques and its northeast coast), the entire island was devastated just a week later by Hurricane Maria as the storm etched a diagonal path from the southeast to the northwest corner. Relief efforts have been slow in the weeks following the hurricane, leaving many with very limited access to basic needs. San Juan has served as the gateway for recovery activities – services in the capital are being restored more quickly than in rural communities across the island.

Puerto Rico’s delicate electrical grid continues to struggle, but the governor has announced an aggressive plan to restore power to the majority of the island in the coming months. Despite these challenges, the island’s tourism sector has been working to revive services as soon as possible. With the assistance of generators, several hotels (primarily in San Juan) have reopened, and more are shooting for the tourism company's goal of operation by the holiday season. The Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is now operating commercial flights; all passengers should contact airlines to confirm bookings. Royal Caribbean resumed homeport operations mid-October, and San Juan is expecting to host transit calls by late November.

For real time updates on recovery efforts from the Puerto Rican government, visit status.pr. If you are looking for more information related to tourism openings and closings, head to puertoriconow.seepuertorico.com.

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Hurricane Maria's path closely mirrored Irma's © Lonely Planet

Sint Eustatius

The tiny island of Sint Eustatius managed to avoid large-scale damage from Irma and Maria, though it did not go untouched. Heavy rain and winds have caused some damage to the island’s national parks; as of now, Crater Trail is impassible. The rest of the island has quickly recovered – Winair flights from St-Martin have resumed and most local businesses are already back up and running.

St-Barthélemy

Saint-Barthélemy felt the impact of Irma alongside its eastern Caribbean neighbors, with the storm wrecking the island's infrastructure and tourism industry. Immediate relief has been quick – electricity has been restored throughout the majority of the island, and cell phone and internet services are widely functioning. The Gustavia airport is open for commercial flights, and cruise liners arrived at the end of October; the ferry between St-Bart and St-Martin is now operational as well.

While some hotels will be open for high season, many will be facing long recovery periods, citing next summer as the earliest estimation for reopening; check with individual properties for updates. The St-Barts Music Festival is still scheduled to take place in January.

St-Martin & Sint Maarten

The dual-nation island of St-Martin and Sint Maarten faced Hurricane Irma head-on, and both destinations were severely damaged – images of the destruction there were widely shared across news media, making the island an unfortunate poster child for the storm’s aftermath. Since then, recovery has been progressing steadily, though many residents are still in need of immediate aid.

St-Martin tourism officials say that 88% of households have electricity, and estimate that all essentials (electricity and water) will be restored imminently. Restaurants and other small businesses are reopening, and Grand Case is hoping to host its first visitors at the beginning of 2018. The hotel industry is shooting for a slightly more extended timeline, hoping for a soft opening in April 2018. Sint Maarten is noting similar progress, though 70% of their hotel rooms were destroyed in the storm; officials are expecting room capacity to rise from 30% to 50% by March. Both destinations rely on tourism for at least 90% of their economy and anticipate a soft opening by the end of the year, with the majority of properties and services reopening later in 2018.

The Sint Maarten's famous Princess Juliana International Airport, one of the Caribbean’s most important travel hubs, reopened in early October with limited flights to Sint Eustatius, Saba, St-Barthelemy, St Kitt’s, Antigua, Anguilla, Curaçao, Trinidad and Jamaica. Most major international airline carriers are not scheduled to resume service until 2018. Sint Maarten’s cruise port will be welcoming its first ship in late December with the arrival of Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas, and Carnival is scheduled to make its first call in January 2018.

St-Martin's Grand Case International Airport is currently running flights to Guadeloupe, St-Barthelemy and Paris.

Turks & Caicos

Both hurricanes passed over TCI before turning north for the US mainland – luckily, Providenciales, the island were 90% of residents live, was spared from the worst destruction. Grand Turk sustained heavier damage, as did South Caicos and Salt Cay. North and Middle Caicos were the least affected islands, and utilities have been reestablished in those areas.

Electricity and water has been restored to Provo, and ferries are running between the island and North Caicos; many businesses have reopened, most resorts are welcoming visitors (with a few exceptions), and tourism officials are confident most of the island will be ready for high season. Recovery is estimated to take longer for South Caicos and Salt Cay, though some businesses may be operational by December. The cruise port on Grand Turk was damaged, but it has since reopened.

For live updates about recovery efforts and reopenings, head to visittci.com. 

US Virgin Islands

The US Virgin Islands were dealt devastating blows in turns – first, Irma decimated St John and St Thomas, with St Croix residents breathing a sigh of relief, having avoided the most damaging part of the storm. Sadly, Maria zeroed in on the spared island just days later, leaving it in pieces as well. While the territory-wide curfew has been lifted, authorities are working on restoring water and power, their goal being to restore these services to 90% of homes and businesses by the holidays; as of the end of October, 80% of the islands' residents still did not have power and the water boil-advisory remained in effect.

Such circumstances have not stopped the government and tourism sector from looking forward, however;  St Croix, which was less affected by the storms than St John and St Thomas, reopened for cruises and saw its first hotel openings in early November. Businesses in Christiansted and Charlotte Amalie are steadily opening their doors, and officials on St John are working to clean up Virgin Islands National Park. Airports on St Croix and St Thomas have reopened for commercial flights, and interisland flights are currently being operated by Cape Air, Seaborne and Air Sunshine. For status updates concerning infrastructure and travel, visit usviupdate.com.

Unaffected Caribbean islands

While these hurricanes did affect a number of destinations across the Caribbean, the majority of islands were left with minor damage or wholly untouched; many of these places are providing aid to their recovering neighbors and all are continuing their operations as normal. The following destinations were unaffected or mildly affected by Irma and Maria.

  • Aruba
  • Barbados
  • Bonaire
  • Cayman Islands
  • Curacao
  • Grenada
  • Guadeloupe
  • Jamaica
  • Martinique
  • Montserrat
  • Saba
  • St Kitts & Nevis
  • St Lucia
  • St Vincent & Grenadines
  • Trinidad & Tobago

This article was updated in November 2017.