Rebuilding tourism after Irma, an epic task for islands

Marigot (AFP) – It’s been over a week since hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean — but for paradise islands overwhelmingly dependent on the tourist trade, the damage is far from over.

The French-Dutch island of St Martin, where the massive storm killed 15 people, remains fringed by the white sands and turquoise waters that in happier times drew holidaymakers in their droves.

But Irma made light work of destroying beachfront hotels and restaurants, and it is painfully obvious that the tourists — and their badly-needed cash — will not be back any time soon.

“For the coming tourism season, we’re screwed,” said Paco Benito, manager of the Riu Palace hotel.

“We’re going to need a total reconstruction and we’re going to start as soon as possible,” added the bearded 43-year-old, visibly exhausted.

With a staff of 300 — “which is to say, 300 families who are counting on us” — Benito’s chic seaside hotel is one of the biggest private employers on the French side of the island.

It would be impossible to repair St Martin’s roads and buildings — damage estimated at one billion euros ($1.2 billion) or more — before the high season, which usually starts in November and runs until April.

Home to some 35,000 people, St Martin sees around two million visitors a year, most of them American cruise ship passengers.

On the Dutch side, known as Sint Maarten, tourism provides four fifths of jobs, according to authorities. Other industries — retail, property, water sports — rely heavily on the continuing influx of holidaymakers.

It’s a similar story in the British Virgin Islands, which were also badly hit by Irma.

Tourism directly contributed 34 percent of the UK territory’s GDP last year, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. But many shopping for luxury breaks will be ruling the islands out for now.

– Government help needed –

“People save up all year to go on holiday, we can’t send them to a building site,” said Gilbert Cisneros, head of Paris travel agency Exotismes, a specialist in tropical island getaways.

His firm has already contacted customers who had reserved breaks on hurricane-hit islands over the next three months, proposing that they either delay, choose another destination, or claim a refund.

With barely any tourist dollars set to flow in over the coming months, overseas island territories — legacies of European empires — are looking to central governments for desperately-needed funds.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte promised he would not be…

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