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What does Hurricane Irma mean for travelers?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/14/2017 Nancy Trejos

A damaged hotel stands after the passage of Hurricane Irma, close to the airport, in Phillipsburg. St. Maarten. © Carlos Giusti, AP A damaged hotel stands after the passage of Hurricane Irma, close to the airport, in Phillipsburg. St. Maarten. 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 largely spared.

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 their vacation plans this fall? We take a look at what tourists should expect from hotels, airlines, airports and cruises impacted by the hurricane.


Many hotels and attractions in the Caribbean and the Florida were suffering from the damage incurred by Irma.  But the impact varied from island to island and town to town.

Orlando’s theme parks are open for business. That includes Disney World, SeaWorld, and Universal Studios. The Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg has also re-opened.

Leroy Bridges, media and interactive director for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater says despite power outages and non-functioning traffic signals, life was starting to get back to normal. "People are already on the beach," he says.

At one point, more than 100 Marriott hotels were closed across Florida. A few hotels stayed open as shelters. But they have now re-opened for regular business. Still, many hotel chains such as Wyndham are relaxing cancellation policies.

The Florida Keys were the hardest hit part of the state. Residents were being allowed back in the Upper Keys as of Tuesday but many areas were still without power, water or cell phone service. U.S. 1, the major thoroughfare that runs through the Keys, was still being cleared of debris. Gas was still in short supply. But many hotels in Key West had minimal damage.

As for the Caribbean, Antigua was impacted minimally by Irma with electricity quickly being restored to the capital, St. John’s, and most parts of the island. Anguilla, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic were also faring well, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.  

Barbuda, meanwhile, was more severely impacted 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 British Virgin Islands also sustained heavy damage. Cell phone towers were down as of the beginning of this week. There were also power outages, and many homes were left without roofs. The United Kingdom has sent support to the islands.

The U.S. Virgin Islands--consisting of St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas--also experienced power outages and damage to several hotels. The Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas, in particular, experienced extensive damage. Seaports are operating, though there is limited service.

St. Martin/St. Maarten sustained severe damage. Many tourists have been evacuated. Both the French and Dutch governments have sent aid.

Cuba was also affected as the hurricane passed over the northern part of the island. Havana has experienced major flooding and power was knocked out. At least ten people have died, according to reports on state television.  

The hurricane brushed past Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rico Tourism Company is reporting that the island is ready to welcome visitors. There were power outages but many hotels as well as hospitals have generators. Flights to and from Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport have resumed, and the island's port is 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 put the storm in line to devastate 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.

Already, Norwegian Cruise Line has announced it is replacing all Eastern Caribbean sailings with Western Caribbean sailings through at least November.

Norwegian's Eastern Caribbean voyages — currently offered out of Miami on a single ship, the 4,248-passenger Norwegian Escape — traditionally feature a stop in St. Thomas, which has suffered what local officials have called catastrophic damage. The trips also include a visit to nearby Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, which also was devastated by Irma, according to local officials.  

Royal Caribbean also has said its ships won't be able to visit St. Thomas as well as St. Martin and Key West, Fla., for some time, although it hasn't given an outlook on how long they might stay away.

"Given Hurricane Irma's impact to St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Key West, we will be working on (finding) alternative ports for future sailings until these islands have fully recovered," Royal Caribbean said Monday in a travel alert for customers posted 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 per year. In the Caribbean and the Bahamas, only a handful of ports come close to drawing as many passengers.   

In addition to St. Thomas, St. Martin, Tortola and Key West, Fla., cruise ship destinations significantly affected by Irma include St. John, Barbuda, St. Barts and Cuba. The latter only had recently opened up to U.S.-based cruise ships. 

"This is unprecedented to have so many Caribbean islands devastated all at once," Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, says. "In the past it has been one or two islands at once knocked out temporarily by a big storm. This is different in scale."

Driscoll said that while it's early days 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 — work that could take an extended period. 

Still, the situation for cruise lines in the Caribbean isn't as dire as it may seem. Curtis noted several other islands in the Eastern Caribbean that are visited by cruise ships — including Antigua, St. Kitts and Puerto Rico — were spared major damage. The storm also caused no damage to cruise ports in the Western Caribbean such as Cozumel and Costa Maya, Mexico; Harvest Caye, Belize; and Falmouth, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios in Jamaica. That leaves plenty of places in the Caribbean for cruise ships to go.

"The upshot is that some Eastern Caribbean sailings will divert to (Eastern Caribbean) islands less affected and to western ports," Curtis said. 

As of Wednesday, there also had been no reports of damage to the cruise line private islands that are a significant part of many itineraries, most of which are located in The Bahamas.


Those hoping to travel by air to destinations hit by Irma faced a mixed bag.

In Florida, most airports have been able to resume airline service. Schedules resumed on a limited basis, but airport and airline officials hoped to be nearing a normal schedule by the weekend or early next week.

One notable exception in Florida was the Key West airport, where only emergency relief flights were operating as of midweek. Airlines hoped to resume regular passenger flights by week’s end, hopefully ramping up to a normal schedule there by next week.

Those hoping to fly to Caribbean destinations hit by Irma faced 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 was St. Martin’s Princess Juliana Airport, the main airport for the island. The airport had become a tourist attraction in its own right in recent years, popular with visitors who come to the beach that sits just feet from the end of the runway to snap photos as giant planes land in the background.

The airport sustained heavy damage during the storm, but opened this week for emergency relief flights. It was unclear when regular airline flights might resume, though some carriers had hoped a limited restart could come this weekend.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the St. Croix airport was open and some commercial airline flights were operating. But commercial flights remained grounded midweek at the main airport on St Thomas. Commercial flights were 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 was uneven, though most main tourist airports expected some airline flights by the weekend. In Cuba, service to the city of Santa Clara was unlikely to resume before next week.

Elsewhere, at least partial passenger service had resumed at most other Caribbean airports served by U.S. airlines.

Related video: Irma showed up, and this Royal Caribbean cruise went to the dogs [via USA Today]




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