Planning travel to Keys, Caribbean after Irma,
Travelers face challenges large and small in the storm’s wake
Hurricane Irma roared across hotspots throughout Florida and the Caribbean. But her impact on major tourist destinations was uneven.
Some islands such as St. Martin/St. Maarten — the half French, half Dutch destination — and the U.S. Virgin Islands were devastated. Meanwhile, Jamaica and Barbados were virtually untouched.
The Caribbean and Florida are some of the most popular vacation spots for U.S. citizens this time of year. What should tourists know before making vacation plans this fall? We take a look at what tourists should expect from hotels, airlines, airports and cruises affected by the hurricane.
Many hotels and attractions in the Caribbean and Florida suffer from damage caused by Irma. But the impact varies from island to island and town to town.
The Florida Keys were the hardest-hit part of the state. Residents were being allowed back in the Upper Keys by midweek, but many areas are still without power or water. U.S. 1, the major thoroughfare that runs through the Keys, is still being cleared of debris. Gas is still in short supply. But many hotels in Key West had minimal damage, and many bars and restaurants are serving meals and drinks.
Orlando’s theme parks are open for business. That includes Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal Studios. The Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg also has reopened.
Leroy Bridges, media and interactive director for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, says despite power outages and non-functioning traffic signals, life is starting to get back to normal: “People are already on the beach.”
As for the Caribbean, Antigua was minimally affected by Irma, with electricity quickly restored to the capital, St. John’s, and most parts of the island. Anguilla and the Dominican Republic also are faring well, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
Barbuda, meanwhile, was more severely affected as the hurricane passed directly over the tiny island of 1,800 residents, resulting in one fatality. Prime Minister Gaston Browne says 90% of homes were destroyed, as well as many hotels.
The Bahamas was largely spared but there is uneven damage. Parts of the southern islands have destruction ranging from cosmetic to severe.
The British Virgin Islands also sustained heavy damage, with power and cellphone outages. Many homes have been left without roofs. The United Kingdom has sent support to the islands.
The U.S. Virgin Islands — St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas — also experienced power outages and damage to several hotels, with St. John bearing the brunt of the storm.
St. Martin/St. Maarten sustained severe damage. Many tourists have been evacuated. Both the French and Dutch governments have sent aid.
Cuba also was affected as the hurricane passed over the northern part of the island. Havana has experienced major flooding, and power was knocked out. At least 10 people have died, according to reports on state television.
The hurricane brushed past Puerto Rico. Most hotels, as well as essential services such as hospitals and supermarkets, have electricity and are operational.
The cruise industry dodged a bullet Sunday when Hurricane Irma came ashore along the west coast of Florida. A trajectory just 100 miles to the east could have devastated the world’s three biggest cruise hubs — PortMiami, Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades and Port Canaveral.
But even as normal operations out of the three ports are quickly resuming, the world’s major cruise lines are facing months of disruptions to itineraries that include stops at Eastern Caribbean islands that Irma hit hard.
Norwegian Cruise Line has an- nounced it is replacing all Eastern Caribbean sailings with Western Caribbean sailings through at least November. Royal Caribbean also says its ships won’t be able to visit St. Thomas, St. Martin and Key West for some time.
“We will be working on (finding) alternative ports for future sailings until these islands have fully recovered,” Royal Caribbean said Monday on its website.
St. Thomas and St. Martin are two of the Caribbean destinations most visited by cruise ships and integral to dozens of cruise itineraries. Each draws more than 1.6 million cruisers a year. In addition to St. Thomas, St. Martin, Tortola and Key West, the cruise ship destinations significantly affected by Irma include St. John, Barbuda, St. Barts and Cuba. The latter only recently had opened to U.S.-based cruises.
“This is unprecedented, to have so many Caribbean islands devastated all at once,” says Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week.
He says that while it’s early in the recovery effort on hard-hit Caribbean islands, it’s already looking like a massive amount of work will be needed to help several of them recover to the point where cruise ships can return.
“The upshot is that some Eastern Caribbean sailings will divert to (Eastern Caribbean) islands less affected and to western ports,” Curtis says.
By Wednesday, there had been no reports of damage to the cruise line private islands that are a significant part of many itineraries, most of which are in the Bahamas.
Those hoping to travel by air to destinations hit by Irma face a mixed bag.
In Florida, most airports have been able to resume service. Schedules are back on a limited basis, but airport and airline officials hope to be nearing a normal schedule by early next week.
One exception in Florida is the Key West airport, where only emergency relief flights were operating at midweek. Airlines hope to resume regular passenger flights over the weekend, and are upbeat about ramping up to a normal schedule by next week.
Caribbean destinations hit by Irma face a murkier outlook. Airports on several of the region’s hard-hit islands sustained significant damage, with some still struggling to resume regular airline service.
Among those is St. Martin’s Princess Juliana Airport, the main airport for the island. The airport has become a tourist attraction in its own right in recent years, popular with visitors who come to snap photos on the beach that sits just feet from the end of the runway.
The airport sustained heavy damage during the storm, but opened this week for emergency relief flights. It is unclear when regular airline flights might resume, though some carriers hope a limited restart may come this weekend.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the St. Croix airport is open, and some commercial airline flights are operating. But commercial flights remained grounded midweek at the main airport on St Thomas. They are tentatively set to resume by the weekend, but — even if that happens — fliers should expect limited schedules.
In the Bahamas, the restart of air service is uneven, though most main tourist airports expect some flights by the weekend.
In Cuba, service to the city of Santa Clara is unlikely to resume before next week.
At least partial passenger service has resumed at most other Caribbean airports served by U.S. airlines.
“This is unprecedented, to have so many Caribbean islands devastated all at once.”
Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week
This aerial photo of the U.S. Virgin Islands provided by Caribbean Buzz shows the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Irma on Friday, Sept. 8.
Travelers file toward a cruise ship docked at St. Maarten after the passage of the storm.
Princess Juliana International Airport in Philipsburg, St. Martin, sustained damage.