A Caribbean status report
Is the region safe for travel?
Yes. The Caribbean spans over a million square miles, with more than 7,000 islands of varying size. Although hurricanes Irma and Maria delivered devastating blows to some of the region’s most idyllic locations, nearly 70 percent of the islands escaped largely unscathed. The three Cayman islands, including the popular Grand Cayman, were not affected by the storms; St. Lucia, famous for its eco-adventures and the scenic Piton Mountains, was likewise untouched. By contrast, Barbuda remains an island in crisis: More than 90 percent of its buildings were damaged, and its infrastructure will require years of repair. Only a fraction of the island’s residents have returned.
Which islands are open for business?
The “ABC” islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao in the southern Caribbean are outside of the hurricane belt and offer diverse experiences, from trekking one of the Caribbean’s few deserts in Aruba’s Arikok National Park to diving gorgeous coral reefs off Bonaire to taking in the colorful, Dutch-style gabled houses on Curaçao. Jamaica similarly escaped serious damage—and, according to the ministry of tourism, expects a $150 million–to–$200 million windfall as travelers choose its many all-inclusive resorts over recovering islands. Although Maria glanced off the Dominican Republic’s eastern tip, little lasting damage was done to tourist areas. Other options include volcanic Montserrat, which offers a host of outdoor adventures and world-class snorkeling; cosmopolitan Martinique, a French island renowned for its cuisine; Grenada, the so-called Island of Spice, where you can literally smell nutmeg in the air; and the Bahamas, where visitors can find every type of accommodation, from massive resorts to remote boutique hotels.
What areas are still recovering?
Puerto Rico: Old San Juan, with its Instagram-friendly, pastel-colored buildings, is largely open for visitors, with many hotels up and running and more reopening throughout 2018. Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal, two historic forts that are part of the San Juan National Historic Site, finished repairs and reopened late last year. The challenges outside San Juan, though, remain staggering, with nearly half of residents still without power.
The U.S. Virgin Islands: Both Irma and Maria hit the USVI as Category 5 storms, and left extensive damage in their wakes. Airports on both St. Thomas and St. Croix are open and accepting flights, but more than 70 percent of the area’s hotel rooms remain closed. The Fred—St. Croix’s first new hotel development in 30 years—pushed its official debut to April but is offering low-maintenance winter guests discounts of up to 40 percent as they finish repairs. Other hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton on St. Thomas, won’t reopen until 2019.
The British Virgin Islands: More than 60 islands, including Tortola and Virgin Gorda, make up the BVI archipelago, and many took a catastrophic hit from Irma, with downed power lines, damaged buildings, and impassable roads. Some hotels and restaurants have reopened in the months since, and the cruise ports on both Tortola and Virgin Gorda have reopened. But cleanup efforts are likely to continue throughout 2018.
St. Martin: Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on this Dutch-French island, with 90 percent of its buildings damaged or destroyed. Princess Juliana International Airport—a regional hub and tourist attraction in its own right, given its close-up landings over Maho Beach—lost its roof to wind. A temporary facility reopened in October with limited service, but the main terminal won’t be fully operational until October 2018. Many hotels are closed indefinitely, though others have set reopenings as early as April.
St. Barts: This French island beloved by the jet set was walloped by Irma but is bouncing back. Though some well-known luxury properties like Le Sereno and the Eden Rock are closed, many hotels, restaurants, and shops are open, and the roads, telecommunications, and power grid are generally in good shape.
How can visitors help the recovery?
The best way to accelerate the region’s revival is to travel there, as many island economies depend on tourist dollars. For islands where hotels are still being repaired, a cruise is a good option, as many ports are open. You might also consider a donation to the organizations working to help residents repair and recover. United for Puerto Rico distributes funds to local organizations, including the P.R. chapter of the American Cancer Society; Ser de Puerto Rico, which runs mobile medical clinics; and Kinesis, which helps students file for FEMA support and apply to colleges.