Car­ribean Tourism Work­ers Wor­ried About Fu­ture

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As aid slowly reaches hur­ri­cane-rav­aged Caribbean is­lands, many worry about the sur­vival of what has be­come of the lifeblood of the is­lands — tourism.

“The en­tire city with­out power, we were com­pletely flooded. It was, and still is, a war zone,” Ela Velunva said in a phone in­ter­view from a Ha­vana ho­tel.

Hur­ri­cane Irma made hit Ha­vana as a Cat­e­gory 5 storm on Saturday. Velunva works for a Van­cou­ver­based com­pany called Tours By Lo­cals, which has started a fundraiser for tour guides work­ing in the hur­ri­cane-af­fected area. She wor­ries about the up­com­ing tourism sea­son, es­pe­cially with reports of se­vere dam­age to the all-in­clu­sive re­sorts in Va­radero, Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria.

“It’s gonna hit every­one’s pock­ets and that’s go­ing to re­flect not only on the com­mon peo­ple, but also the econ­omy of the coun­try,” she said. Her col­league, Ernesto Tor­res, agreed.

“We need tourism in or­der to get money in or­der to in­vest in in­fra­struc­ture in Cuba. But if we don’t have ho­tels, I don’t know how we can get tourists. It’s a vi­cious cir­cle,” he said.

Still, an es­ti­mated three-quar­ters of Cuba’s work­force is em­ployed by the state, which means it can mar­shal hu­man and ma­te­rial re­sources in a way that other Caribbean is­lands can­not.

Hur­ri­cane Irma struck a se­ries of in­de­pen­dent is­land na­tions and ter­ri­to­ries with as­so­ci­a­tions to coun­tries such as France, the Nether­lands, the US and the UK. It killed at least 38 peo­ple.

Ten of the ca­su­al­ties were in Cuba, mak­ing it the worst hur­ri­cane death toll in the na­tion since 16 died there dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Den­nis in 2005.

Tourist sea­son ‘dif­fi­cult to imag­ine’

“This year’s tourist sea­son is re­ally dif­fi­cult to imag­ine tak­ing place,” said Ed­ward Kennedy, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the North West Com­pany, a gro­cery and re­tail chain based in Win­nipeg which has stores in the Caribbean. He’s be­ing briefed twice a day on the dam­age to 11 of his stores there. Four in the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands and one in St. Thomas have been de­stroyed, while in St. Martin, “the store is not op­er­a­tional. Noth­ing’s left in the store, ev­ery­thing in the store was taken by loot­ers,” Mr Kennedy said.

He is send­ing nearly a dozen peo­ple from Win­nipeg to help re­pair re­frig­er­a­tion units, fix roofs, and help 650 lo­cal employees.

“Peo­ple are trau­ma­tised, their homes are de­stroyed, there’s no ac­cess to food and wa­ter, and there was a huge safety and se­cu­rity con­cern un­til the mil­i­tary ar­rived. We have to fig­ure out how to pay them and we have to pro­vide some ne­ces­si­ties, whether it’s wa­ter or tarps for their homes.”

North West’s sub­sidiaries are do­nat­ing tarps and other emer­gen­cyre­lief sup­plies to peo­ple in the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands, work­ing with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and re­lief agen­cies.

North West has also set up an on­line Caribbean do­na­tion por­tal through the Red Cross and is match­ing all fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tions from its as­so­ciates world­wide. Mean­while, the com­pany’s ware­houses are un­scathed and it has be­gun ship­ping in sup­plies from Puerto Rico, so store shelves should be stocked within the next few days, Kennedy said.

Buyer be­ware for tourists: con­sul­tant

One big ob­sta­cle to bring­ing in sup­plies is dam­age to lo­cal in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing roads, bridges, and sea and air­ports.

“While it may ap­pear to be open, that aid flights are com­ing in and out and mil­i­tary flights are com­ing in and out, that’s a far cry from the safe op­er­a­tion for a com­mer­cial air­craft,” said Max John­son, a Win­nipeg-based tourism con­sul­tant. It could be months be­fore sup­ply chains are re-es­tab­lished, es­pe­cially from Florida and Texas, which were also hit by hur­ri­canes.

“The sup­ply chains of ev­ery­thing into the is­lands have been changed. Things are be­ing ra­tioned and fuel is one of them,” he said.

So when it comes to va­ca­tion tour pack­ages for the up­com­ing win­ter, John­son warns it’s buyer be­ware. “The con­tract would be to stay in the ho­tel, it doesn’t say whether ev­ery­thing out­side is ru­ined or dev­as­tated.… It’s pretty dif­fi­cult to sit there and have fun when out­side peo­ple’s houses have been blown away,” he said, ac­knowl­edg­ing those valu­able tourist dol­lars help with the re­build­ing phase.

“We can help peo­ple put their lives back to­gether by tak­ing our busi­ness there.”

The ma­jor­ity of these cit­i­zens still want to main­tain a link with the UK, not least for when ma­jor as­sis­tance is re­quired.

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