Special report: a CTO roundup of Caribbean recovery efforts

12-18-2017 8:59 am

Since Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma ripped into the Caribbean just three months ago, some countries’ recovery efforts have been spotlighted, but the status of other smaller islands remains virtually unknown. Local news bulletins don’t always make their way to other parts of the world and thus, crucial information can be misrepresented by international media.

During this year’s Climate Smart Sustainable Tourism Forum, held in St. Kitts on behalf of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, a special Tourism Recovery Round Table session was hosted by keynote speaker Greg McKenzie. The session saw tourism sector representatives from Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, St.Maarten, Dominica, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Antigua and Barbuda take turns addressing a series of questions posed by the speaker, McKenzie, and the audience.

_MG_3064.JPG Greg McKenzie, keynote speaker and moderator for the CTO's Climate Smart Sustainable Tourism Forum Round Table Recovery discussion.

Although only 30 per cent of the Caribbean was affected by both hurricanes, the sheer impact for such small nations to be struck by not just one, but two Category 5 hurricanes only weeks apart was devastating, in terms of loss of life and billions of dollars worth of damage to infrastructure, property, and the local economy. Now, as recovery efforts continue, the destinations that were hit the hardest took turns opening up in regards to challenges, restoration efforts, and lessons learned.

_MG_3056.JPG From left: Angela Burnett, environmental officer, Virgin Islands Climate Change Trust Fund (VICCTF); Ronald Royer, chief technical officer, Ministry of Tourism and Urban Renewal; Gina Brooks, tourism planner, Anguilla Ministry of Tourism; Vashti Ramsey-Casimir, senior tourism officer, Antigua and Barbuda Ministry of Tourism; Rolando Brison, director of tourism, St. Maarten Tourist Bureau; Brian Been, senior product development officer at Turks and Caicos Tourist Board.

Destination Access: Entry and Exit

British Virgin Islands

“Most of our tourists access us by the United States Virgin Islands, because it’s cheaper to fly there and then take a ferry across as opposed to flying to BVI, so we’re impacted in two ways,” said Angela Burnett, environmental officer, Virgin Islands Climate Change Trust Fund (VICCTF). “One, in that our international airport was shut down for a number of days to commercial flights; we were receiving military flights and aid flights and doing evacuations, but we were not receiving commercial flights for quite some time. One of the reasons was the security fencing had entirely flattened down and that’s one of the security requirements by the regulatory agencies. Before your airport can operate commercially, you need to have a secure perimeter.”

Burnett continued that as if a downed airport wasn’t enough, the second impact came when St. Thomas, also impacted by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, was not able to accept tourists either, so the British Virgin Islands lost on both sides of the point. As of today, the British Virgin Islands are open for business and ready to accept tourists.

“We really rely on the pleasure yachting sector, which distinguishes us from the other islands,” Burnett said. “We actually have more beds on the water than we have on land, so we have a fleet of close to 1,000 yachts and, for the first time in our history, we’ve had that subsector entirely decimated. Around 95 per cent of our yachting sector is gone, but thankfully we have the commitment of some of the main players in the industry say that they’re going to stay, in BVI. On the land base accommodations side, some estimates from the tourist board says that again, more than 90 per cent of the smaller accommodations had been wiped out, so there’s really been a widespread impact. BVI is open for business, but it has to be a trickle for the moment until we’re able to get back at the level where we can operate at where we were before [the hurricanes].”

Sint Maarten/St. Martin

“The airport was really devastated and one of the things that affects our situation is that we’re so close to the sea,” said Rolando Brison, director of tourism, St. Maarten Tourist Bureau. “What did most of the damage was the saltwater; the sea was literally going into the airport so if you think about saltwater and copper cables and electronics, that’s the end of all of that. Our entire airport has to be completely gutted in terms of electronic equipment. It took us until Oct. 10 to reopen the airport, which is very long. I’ll be very frank - a lot of that is to do with bureaucracy. We have safety standards that we have to abide by which is completely understood.” Brison pointed out that a large part of the confusion in St. Maarten during Hurricane Irma boiled down to a breakdown in communications between the French part of the island and the Dutch part of the island.

“Whenever an aircraft was landing, the military would have to give an all-clear to land, because even for the relief flights that was becoming a problem,” Brison said. “We had to think outside of the box and understand that in an emergency, while procedures are there for safety, we also have to try and find some form of safe, flexible ways to adjust our situation.”

As it stands, operations cannot take place inside the airport, and all operations are taking place outside, Brison notes. “The internal part of the building is destroyed, so we’re operating out of the cargo area,” Brison said. “Another big reason for the delays is due to insurance companies. We have to think forward when it comes to our access and think about things like insurance: what are some of the measures in terms of the national security of our country depends on the airport open, at least to some extent for the military and relief flights, but we can’t be held hostage by relief companies either ... we’re a small island with one port - we don’t have main bridges or roads to access other countries, so I think that’s what held St. Maarten back quite a bit.”

_MG_3048.JPGRolando Brison, director of tourism, St. Maarten Tourist Bureau, responds to questions during the CTO's Climate Smart Sustainable Tourism Forum Round Table discussion.

A top priority for St. Maarten after the storm was the assessment of its air and sea ports, and to relay that information back, because as Brison points out, that’s the only way for islands to get help. During the storms, rumours circulated that the French army was going in and providing assistance when the Dutch was not. “There was a lot of fake news circulating, but unfortunately this wasn’t one of them,” said Brison. “It was a very awkward situation legally speaking, and I think the shock of the situation sometimes doesn’t let people realize the need for alternative protocols. On a typical day, there’s no way a French military should be on the Dutch side of Philipsburg because there are huge international implications for that, but let’s be practical, it’s a 37-square mile island and the French initially did have more military presence than the Dutch side did, and it was a really confusing situation. What exacerbated that was the lack of communication between the chief of command.”

As Brison explained, many personnel arrived in St. Maarten expecting to lay a few sandbags, and weren’t at all ready for the sheer capacity of damage, and undertaking of what actually needed to get done. “The reserve troops are taking orders from somebody else, 3,500 miles away in France, and now has to pass that information from parliament to the military, to St. Maarten, back to the person in charge here on the ground,” Brison said.

“It wasn’t helpful, and it wasn’t practical, and we had the exact same thing happening on the Dutch side and ultimately what happened was a meeting call with the Prime Minister involving both sides of the island and a temporary protocol was written that declared a state of emergency, so we signed a very quick written declaration saying we would help each other. Unfortunately, there was even a situation where amidst the confusion, the border was blocked, which has never happened in almost 400 years in St. Maarten. The very worst situation was not being able to reach a single person in St. Maarten, and if I’m having that situation, imagine the military commander or relief organizations. Nobody could reach each other on either side of the island. A lot of what happened was communication breakdown, and we have to think about that in disasters.”

Dominica

Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria were particularly vengeful on Dominica, which had the largest loss of life in the Caribbean, and some of the worst damage. Because of the island’s inaccessibility, many airlines and cruise lines are not able to come to the island, though operations are slowly resuming.

“We were able to resume commercial flights about three weeks after the storm, because in 2015, we also received a visit from Tropical Storm Erika, that basically devastated the main airport, Douglas-Charles,” said Ronald Royer, chief technical officer, Ministry of Tourism and Urban Renewal.

After learning from the past, Dominica invested in infrastructure, so that when both hurricanes Irma and Maria arrived three months ago, the airport didn’t receive the major blows it did in the past, and reduced the impact on commercial flights to and from Dominica.

“We don’t have too much damage to the airport, so a couple days after the hurricane we were able to receive aid flights into the Douglas-Charles Airport,” Royer said. “As for cruise, we are not able to receive any cruises, and cruises we had between October and December were cancelled. However, we will be ready to receive cruises by the end of December; after Erika, the ferry terminal was severely damaged, so passengers leaving Dominica had to go through the communal port, and we had to make other arrangements for them to leave because of the fears and anxieties. That’s how we managed to receive people, and have the connections going out. We’ve received quite a bit of aid, and most of the traffic for commercial activities were done through transit through Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint Lucia.”

_MG_3049.JPG Ronald Royer, chief technical officer, Ministry of Tourism and Urban Renewal, addresses concerns regarding operations in Dominica.

When airlines and cruise ships stop coming, what happens next?

“The aviation authorities must come in and do an inspection before we’re given the green light to accept commercial flights,” Royer said. “For cruise, it’s a slightly different business. The sites where tours are sold had to be checked to see our progress, and see when we would have total restoration done on those sites. Having said that, it’s under renovations, and we should be receiving cruise passengers by Dec. 29.”

In Dominica, recovery efforts are continuing so that the hoteliers and tour operators can resume operations. “I can officially say that we’re open for business, but we’re not running business, but our timeframe was Jan. 1, to have everything at least pass as acceptable to tourists, and so far we are meeting all targets,” said Royer. “We’ve been getting overnight visitors, but only 22 per cent of our room stock is available. That was the hardest part of Maria, and it will take some time to rebuild, probably over a year, but the Fort Young Hotel will be open and running by Jan. 1.”

Anguilla

Post-Hurricane Irma, Anguilla underwent similar circumstances as Dominica, according to Gina Brooks, tourism planner, Anguilla Ministry of Tourism.

“The security fencing at the airport, the lighting facilities, and the air traffic control tower were all damaged,” Brooks said. “In terms of the air traffic control tower, it was rendered unoperational. As far as the sea port exits were concerned, that building was also damaged before rehabilitation and repair, and it had to be demolished. Right now, we’re operating from a tent in terms of passengers waiting for departure, and an adjacent building has been repurposed to host arrivals from immigration and customs facilities. As many people here now, Anguilla has an airport, but we’re not able to host trans-Atlantic flights because of the length of our runway and the associated difficulties related to that, so we depend on Saint Martin as major help for persons travelling in, and since Irma, St. Kitts has become that help as far as air traffic goes, as well as Antigua to an extent.”

_MG_3053.JPG Gina Brooks, tourism planner, Anguilla Ministry of Tourism, talks cruise and land operations, post Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.

Ferry operations in and out of Antigua have resumed, and the schedule for both French and Dutch St. Maarten have restarted.

“The Anguilla-St. Maarten ferry terminal was also decimated, and that provides access form the Dutch side of St. Maarten directly to Anguilla, so we had to make arrangements,” Brooks said. “In terms of air traffic, commercial activity has resumed, and just recently we had the commissioning of our air traffic tower, which, thanks to the British Government, has enabled us to have a new tower and fire facilities, so as soon as that is completed, we’ll be back to being a totally functional air traffic control facility.”

Much like the other islands, Anguilla too is open for business. “Some of the major players will not be open for the beginning of the season, but we are open for business,” Brooks said. “The smaller properties, some of them never closed, but even those on the north side that didn’t receive as much damage as the southwest side of the island, where tourism is highly concentrated, will be open and continue to provide services.”

Antigua and Barbuda

As many people worldwide soon found out, after Hurricane Irma was finished with Antigua and Barbuda, Antigua’s 365 beaches were still operational, but approximately 95 per cent of Barbuda was left uninhabitable. Residents of Barbuda were forced to evacuate. “Antigua was untouched by the storm, but Barbuda was virtually decimated, and we had destruction to the airport runway, the actual building, and the ferry terminal to some extent,” said Vashti Ramsey-Casimir, senior tourism officer, Antigua and Barbuda Ministry of Tourism. “What is kind of different from some of the islands is that Barbuda is actually utilized for day tours, so you have no catamaran or yacht trips. This is where Antiguans get to-and-from, so the first priority was to get that ferry terminal back up. There wasn’t major damage, so once we got the all-clear, we were able to go over there.”

_MG_3057.JPG Vashti Ramsey-Casimir, senior tourism officer, Antigua and Barbuda Ministry of Tourism, responds to a question during the CTO's Rouond Table Recovery discussion panel.

Antigua’s airport was still accessible by helicopter, which is how rapid assessments were done. “Aid efforts started pouring in almost immediately through Antigua, and we were able to funnel it through ferries, and we had private sector and government involvement to help the folks in Barbuda,” Ramsey-Casimir said. “Almost immediately, we had to remove 1,200 persons from the island [Barbuda] in a matter of days because Maria was coming, and the island was uninhabitable - we had dead livestock and stagnant water. We had to use private boats and the helicopter, and within a day, we had the Venezuelan government sending their military planes to evacuate people, and they sent water, so it was virtually immediate.”

Turks and Caicos

Citing the Turks and Caicos islands as a destination within a destination, Brian Been, senior product development officer at Turks and Caicos Tourist Board, described a multi-island product that was struck by both hurricanes Irma and Maria. “For us, we came out of this a bit fortunate in terms of the airlift side, which is because the major airport was not severely damaged, so what we saw was a quick resumption of flights coming into the country and up until Sept. 23, regular flight schedules resumed. In terms of cruise, we had a delay, we were directly impacted, and it took us some time to get back up and running. We were able to welcome the first ship back in November; it was a collaborative effort, and right now we’re back on full schedule.”

_MG_3062.JPG Brian Been, senior product development officer at Turks and Caicos Tourist Board, discusses ongoing recovery efforts in the Turks and Caicos.

Much like its sister territories, the Turks and Caicos islands had troops on the ground.

“For me, it was my first time seeing that kind of attention being given to an overseas territory,” Been said. “I’m grateful, like many others, for it. In terms of aid, we’re restricted, being an overseas territory, as to what we can and cannot accept, but overall, in terms of the accessibility side, part of the airport is being used and part of it isn’t. A few weeks ago, we had Southwest Airlines’ inaugural flight out of here, so this shows our resilience.”