Last September, we were on the first Virgin Atlantic flight out to Orlando following the airport’s reopening after Hurricane Irma. We met people from the Florida Keys and Miami who had left their homes and belongings behind and been evacuated north to the resort hotels of Orlando. The next morning we walked the empty streets of Universal Orlando Resort, and stepped onto rides with no queues. I remember chatting to our Uber driver, a Puerto Rican who, at the time, was worried about his friends and family at home as the second hurricane, Maria, powered towards the island. It was a sobering time. Fast forward six months, and I’m boarding a flight from Miami to Puerto Rico to join Viking Cruises’ Viking Sea in San Juan for the first leg of Viking’s West Indies Explorer itinerary, sailing from San Juan on a roughly south easterly track that will take us down to our final port, Barbados. I’m curious to know how cruising the Caribbean after Irma and Maria will be, and wondering if, frankly, we’ll be unwelcome guests, strutting around demanding drinks and ice creams while people rebuild their homes and businesses.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico took a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, enduring wind speeds of up to 155mph, storm surges, flooding and the complete destruction of the island’s power grid. On the flight from Miami, I sat next to a Puerto Rican police firearms instructor who told me that even now, there’s no electricity to the more rural areas, and that electricity to his daughter’s school had only recently been restored (estimates are that electricity will be fully restored to the island by May). The port of Puerto Rico really only started accepting cruise ships again (with passengers actually disembarking) in December of last year, but last week, we were joined in dock by Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas and Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Wonder.
We opted for the included walking tour of old San Juan (on Viking Cruises, there’s always a shore excursion included, plus several more choices at extra cost) and were relieved to see that the beautiful old buildings were still standing. Our guide told us that many of the worst hit areas were residential and those villages high in the mountains, while the issues suffered in the old town were mostly damage to roofs, windows and trees. Luckily, the old colonial buildings in this beautiful area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, survived without catastrophic damage. As we wandered through the pretty streets, admiring houses painted all the colours of the rainbow and balconies spilling over with lush foliage, he explained how important it is that tourists keep visiting Puerto Rico, and that many families have struggled financially due to the loss of tourism income: ‘our island is essentially bankrupt – we need every dollar the tourists can bring’. I asked how we could help, and his answer was similar to many we heard during our trip: ‘keep visiting, book tours, eat in restaurants, drink in bars and spend your money here’.
St Croix, US Virgin Islands
Like Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands were badly affected by the hurricanes, with Irma arriving first and devastating St Thomas, St John and Water Island, swiftly followed by Maria just two weeks later, battering St Croix and further damaging the others. Originally bound for Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, which is still struggling to recover after Irma destroyed 85% of its buildings and even now, only about 60% of the island has electricity, we were diverted to St Croix. As soon as we stepped off the gangway, the damage was obvious: most of the trees were stripped of all but the largest branches, and many buildings were without roofs or windows. Our guide explained that the economy of St Croix (pronounced ‘saint croy’ by the locals) had already suffered hugely with the closure of an oil refinery and the loss of over 2000 jobs, plus the subsequent closure of many supporting businesses. The island, the largest of the US Virgin Islands, welcomes only a couple of cruise ships a week and only about 40% of its income comes from tourism but the message, loud and clear, was come and visit and support the economy. Our guide took us for a wander around Frederiksted and while we saw battered houses and huge mahogany trees that had been felled in the storms, we were greeted with smiles and waves.
The first Caribbean island to be colonised by the British back in 1623, St Kitts has the dubious honour of being the first English speaking island in the West Indies. Our guide, Gene, told us that St Kitts was relatively lucky and avoided the worst of both Irma and Maria. However, the ‘minimal’ damage still amounted to an estimated US$15 million, mostly to homes, greenhouses, fruit crops and public services like water, roads and electricity supply.
St Lucia and Barbados
Our final two ports of call, St Lucia and Barbados, completely avoided the path of both Hurricanes Irma and Maria. In fact, Barbados hasn’t been hit by a hurricane since 1955. There has been, though, a slight knock-on effect caused both by tourists mistaking Barbados for Barbuda, and by the perception that all the islands in the Caribbean were affected, causing a drop in tourism that has been felt across all the unaffected islands (good old tourists and our appalling geography).
The Caribbean really is open for business
After the hurricanes, cruise lines sent ships and aid, and donated millions to hurricane relief. Subsequently, cruise passengers were some of the first visitors back in the affected islands post-Irma and Maria. All the islands are unanimous in their message: cruise ships arriving in recovering areas aren’t intruding or hampering recovery efforts. It’s actually hugely important for tourists to continue to visit the Caribbean islands, and while rebuilding continues in some countries, it’s paramount for their economies to continue to receive visitors both by land and sea, and advance bookings are crucial for financial stability. Puerto Rico is now welcoming up to three cruise ships a day: ‘we’re thrilled to be officially open for tourism’, said Jose Izquierdo, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. ‘Tourism is a vital contributor to the island’s economy, so reaching these milestones not only will help build a stronger, better Puerto Rico but showcases the resiliency in our people and destination’. And if that’s not a reason to visit, I don’t know what is.
Next up, I’ve got loads more information about cruising with Viking, including a ship review of beautiful Viking Sea, dining and more.
Viking Ocean Cruises West Indies Explorer departing San Juan for 11 days, and visiting 9 countries, costs from £2490 including on board gratuities (book before 31 March 2018) and return travel from London.