Irma creates bittersweet travel bonus for luckier Caribbean islands

By Alistair Smout

(Reuters) – On Friday, a cruise ship carrying around 3,000 passengers will dock at St. John’s harbor in the Caribbean island of Antigua. It will not be where the passengers expected to land when they booked, however.

The Carnival Plc ship was meant to dock in Saint Martin, 100 miles (160 km) to the northwest. However, Hurricane Irma devastated the island, wrecking its port and infrastructure, and leaving it out of bounds for tourists.

Antiguan officials now expect the Carnival Fascination to visit every Friday, and have gotten about 25 calls from major cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd and Norwegian Cruise Lines looking to make stops through the end of the year.

For Asot Michael, Antigua and Barbuda’s minister for tourism, the unexpected arrival of thousands of tourists is a bittersweet bonus.

“We are going to be benefiting. I don’t want to benefit from others’ misfortune after such a disaster,” Michael said.

“But because the port is so damaged in Saint Martin, so damaged in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, we’re getting some of those cancellations. Those cruise lines now are making ports of call into Antigua.”

Hurricane Irma left behind a stark divide in the Caribbean ahead of the winter tourism season that is the region’s economic lifeblood. As travel to the region picks up again, cruise lines, hotels, airlines and other companies are directing customers to places that are able to host them, and away from the worst-hit areas.

Popular winter vacation spots such as Saint Martin, the British Virgin Islands and Saint Barthelemy that were devastated by the storm could be sidelined for weeks or months.

In 2016, 29.3 million tourists visited the Caribbean and spent $35.5 billion, both new records, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

“For Saint Martin and Saint Bart, the holiday season looks very compromised,” said Jean-Pierre Mas, chairman of French travel agency federation SNAV. “My sentiment is that the winter season is lost. Decisions to book for the winter season are taken right now.”

Busy tourist destinations in the western Caribbean, such as Barbados and Trinidad, were well away from the path of the storm. Cozumel, on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, got four additional visits this week as ships were rerouted to avoid the storm’s impact, although Cozumel tourism officials said three cruises were canceled.

Florida, which was anticipating another record year for its $100 billion a year tourism industry, is expected to…

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