Eastern Caribbean Destinations’ Fast Recoveries Show Region’s Resiliency, Popularity
The overwhelming majority of the Caribbean’s more than million square miles was unhindered following last year’s Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Nearly 100 ports were operating immediately after the storms and continuing to welcome guests to a region filled with diverse attractions, activities and cultures, from mountains and waterfalls to forests and deserts and culture and cuisine influenced by the Dutch, French, Spanish, British and Creole, united by year-round great weather, friendly people and spectacular beaches leading into the Caribbean Sea’s famous crystal-clear, turquoise water.
Now the few affected destinations in the Eastern Caribbean-including the British Virgin Islands (BVI), Puerto Rico, St. Maarten and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI)-are taking the spotlight. Through their determination and tireless efforts, they have not only recovered their livelihoods and tourism, a vital portion of their economies, but also worked to improve their products, prepare for the future and provide further proof of the steadfastness and sustainability of both their destinations and the entire Caribbean region.
“We consider our destination partners more like family, and we could not be prouder to see the Eastern Caribbean persevere a challenging time and come back stronger than ever,” said Michele Paige, president of FCCA, the trade group representing the mutual interests of destinations and stakeholders in the Caribbean and Latin America and its Member Lines, which represent 95 percent of the global ocean cruising capacity.
“However, that does not make us any less committed to assisting in every way possible, from hurricane relief and fostering forums for establishing best practices, to showing travel consumers that the Caribbean remains an amazing vacation option full of unique experiences for everyone, and now they will also see the region’s resiliency.”
The recoveries of Puerto Rico, Sint Maarten and USVI were so swift that they were often welcoming more than 10,000 passengers per day by January. And as of February 16, San Juan, Puerto Rico, was seeing cruise passenger satisfaction levels higher than those preceding the storms, and satisfaction levels were also tracking higher than pre-hurricane levels for St. Thomas, USVI and St. Maarten, according to Terry Thornton, Carnival Cruise Line’s senior vice president of port operations, guest care and international.
“It’s one thing for me to say it’s fine, but it’s much more powerful when guests say ‘it’s fine and delivering a great experience,'” said Thornton.
Puerto Rico has those great experiences in droves. From a vibrant nightlife to a booming culinary and art scene to the quintessential Old San Juan cobblestone streets, Puerto Rico creates memories that will last a lifetime. The island is a world-class destination offering a multitude of diverse options for every type of traveler, and for U.S. citizens, there is no passport required, making it even easier to travel to Puerto Rico.
In addition to welcoming a multitude of guests since the storms, Puerto Rico has also shown its readiness by hosting big-ticket events including in DIVAS Half Marathon and 5K, a PGA Tour special event, IRONMAN 70.3 and the upcoming Major League Baseball Puerto Rico Series.
“We look to the future, to our fast-paced recovery and to our amazing progress to remind travelers that the best way to support Puerto Rico is by actually visiting,” said Carla Campos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC). “Tourism is a vital contributor to our economy – so visit and see for yourself.”
The U.S. Virgin Islands is also fully open for business, with most of the destination’s popular attractions, restaurants and shops open and travelers continuing to explore what St. Croix, St. Joh, St. Thomas and Water Island have to offer.
More than 50 percent of accommodations across the territory are open and accepting guests, and other properties continue to repair or rebuild. Including hotels, villas and other rental options, there are approximately 2,500 units available in the St. Thomas-St. John district, and St. Croix has more than 1,300 units available for stay-over guests. Plus, the government is working on a deal for an equity investment in a new 110-room hotel located at Yacht Haven Grande on St. Thomas-the first new hotel built in the territory in decades.
In addition to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, world-class diving, stunning national parks and incredible culinary scene, new attractions and activities in USVI include customized treasure hunts for couples, families and groups on St. Thomas and St. John, as well as trendy eateries and shops on St. Croix, like Mahogany Chocolate Company’s bean-to-bar concept and Leatherback Brewing Company’s craft beers and local ingredients.
“Out of crisis, there is opportunity, and the USVI is now on the path of modernizing our infrastructure, improving our ports and unveiling new attractions and experiences,” said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner of tourism. “These are exciting times for our islands, and we look forward to our continued partnership with the FCCA and its members as we position the U.S. Virgin Islands among the top choices for visitors traveling to the Caribbean.”
St. Maarten/St. Martin has been welcoming cruise guests since early December 2017 with the same hospitality and quality experience before the storms, with many cruise lines reporting higher satisfaction levels than before the storms, according to Port St. Maarten management.
Port St. Maarten has also exceeded its projections of passenger numbers, beatings its estimate from January to June by 15 percent and welcoming more than 733,000 passengers via 230 cruise ship calls. And homeporting is scheduled to return in December, with 14-16 cruises during high season.
Stay-over tourism is steadily returning with the continuous process of hotel recovery. With more hotels reopening seemingly every day-such as the Oyster Bay Beach Resort on June 1 and Divi Little Bay Beach Resort in May-there are now over 1,300 rooms and 34 percent of capacity available on Dutch St. Maarten and 350 rooms in French St. Martin. By year’s end, those numbers are expected to climb to 2,168 rooms and 56 percent in St. Maarten and 800 rooms and 45 percent in St. Martin.
Those guests have plenty to enjoy on the Friendly Island. The smallest destination divided by two countries, Dutch St. Maarten/French St. Martin offers the best of both worlds, along with 37 sparkling coral sand beaches, crystal blue waters, bright blue skies, restaurants, watersports, duty-free shopping, casinos and much more. And 169 of those restaurants and bars are expected to be open by month’s end.
Plus, the destination has remained focused on improvement, with initiatives including new cultural festivals and nighttime events for visitors and locals alike, a joint tourism Memorandum of Understanding by the Dutch and French Governments, and an exit survey looking at innovative ways to further enhance the guest experience.
The cruise tourism recovery in the BVI is well underway, with most of the major restoration works completed and services 100 percent operational for the cruise port, Tortola Pier Park, which also has 50 of its on-site stores open and all expected back online by August. And there are plenty hotel rooms and attractions currently awaiting guests, with 684 rooms available throughout hotels and villas, 94 restaurants open and 16 attractions, including the zip line, ready to enjoy.
So it is no surprise that cruise lines are planning their returns. Disney Cruise Line recently scheduled their first post-Irma visit to BVI on Tuesday, August 28, following a site visit by Russell Daya, Disney’s executive director of marine and port operations, port development and itinerary planning. He said Disney was happy to see the destination’s progress to provide a satisfactory and safe guest experience and has “every confidence in your government’s efforts in restoring the destination to a higher standard than previously…and we look forward to continuing to support you.”
And Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. has already planned a call to BVI for Celebrity Cruises’ latest and greatest addition to the fleet, the 2,900-passenger Celebrity Edge, on December 19.
“We are pleased to welcome back all visitors to the beautiful shores of the British Virgin Islands following the devastating hurricanes of 2017,” said Hon. Mark Vanterpool, minister for communications and works. “Recognizing the importance of providing for the general welfare of residents and creating exceptional experiences for our visitors, we have focused our efforts on not only rebuilding the territory, but on enhancing our product offerings.”
New initiatives include various interactive experiences fused with BVI culture that cruise passengers will enjoy being a part of, such as cooking classes with local dishes, mixology with local rum and liqueurs, and cultural parades; adding six Bohios on popular beaches in Tortola, Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke; renovations to the Sugar Works museum; and preparedness projects for the current and upcoming hurricane seasons.
“Much effort has been placed in ensuring that our guests and avid vacationers continue to enjoy our unspoiled assets and exciting adventures,” continued Hon. Vanterpool. “The BVI has benefited from its partnership with the FCCA and the various cruise lines, especially Disney, Norwegian and MSC, who have provided relief supplies and key feedback that has been invaluable throughout our recovery.”
Of course, the rest of the options throughout the Caribbean’s more than million square miles cannot be overlooked. With all the nearly 100 port cities throughout the region ready to welcome visitors, the only consideration is what to see and do, and there is truly something for everyone-from lounging at the beach and in volcanic mud baths, to zip-lining over rainforests and exploring underwater caves, all in one trip.
One such option, Cayman Islands, offers that dilemma all on its own. “The Cayman Islands has an array of tourism experiences catered to the cruise guest – from exploring our newest eco site Cayman Crystal Caves to taking a dip with our friendly southern stingrays at Stingray City, the Cayman Islands promises to deliver an unforgettable experience to all,” said Rosa Harris, director of tourism.
More of these experiences-along with the region’s vastness, variety and post-storm readiness -have been the focus of a multifaceted, multimedia and award-winning campaign funded by FCCA. The campaign has generated about six billion impressions, while showing a measurable improvement in terms of those who will not delay booking or taking a Caribbean vacation, through a series of initiatives including PSAs by more than 30 celebrities; a satellite media tour; a website featuring an interactive map, passenger testimonials and a Q&A; and a media call with top cruise line leaders and over 70 media attendees.