Hurricane Irma is a monster storm the likes of which the Caribbean and United States haven't seen in a while. While tourism usually rebounds after major storms, we haven't seen an active Atlantic hurricane season like this for nearly a decade and many travel brands will need to think long-term to recover.
Hurricane Irma left a wake of destruction behind in the Caribbean while those in the path — Cuba, cruise ships, the entire state of Florida, and swaths of the Southeast United States — prepared for a hit.
Residents and tourists in Florida continued to flee north on Friday in an exodus that started days earlier; state officials said 5.6 million had been asked to evacuate, according to news reports. With the storm’s estimated point of landfall still unknown, all of Florida remained in the track.
Cruise lines canceled sailings, altered itineraries to visit Cozumel instead of Key West, and sent ships packed with evacuees and employees out to safety at sea. Several popular port destinations including St. Martin and St. Thomas suffered extensive damage that will likely keep cruise traffic away as they recover.
On Friday, some of Florida’s biggest tourist draws — Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, and SeaWorld Orlando — announced their theme parks would close for the anticipated impact on Sunday and Monday. SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens, in Tampa, also announced closures on those days.
More than 3,000 flights into and out of Florida had been cancelled for the time when the storm is expected, USA Today reported, and airports in South Florida were suspending operations Friday night.
The toll on islands already hit by the storm was still being calculated. But it is already clear that the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season is quickly becoming one of the most active, costliest, and deadliest seasons in more than a decade and travel brands in the Caribbean and United States Southeast and Gulf Coast are bracing for fallout from the storms.
Tourism is the most important industry in many of the impacted islands and areas, and depending on how quickly travelers come back and infrastructure recovers – and especially how cruise lines cancel or adjust itineraries – the fourth quarter of 2017 could be difficult for many travel brands and destinations.
Travel Agents Say It’s Early To Access Storms’ Impact
September and the fall season is typically a quieter time of year for Caribbean tourism, which means less immediate fallout from tourism from hurricanes and other storms, said Albert Herrera, Virtuoso‘s senior vice president of global product partnerships. “However, we fully recognize that many islands and our partners on those islands have been severely impacted, and we are waiting to see what it means for our partners in Florida,” said Herrera.
He said that while Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas last month, was enormously damaging, it had less of an impact on tourism just because of the geography.
“No one yet knows how long tourism in the Caribbean and Florida will be waylaid due to Irma,” he said.
Herrera said that roughly a third of its Caribbean and Florida overall 2016 bookings were for September-December. He added that 50 percent of Virtuoso’s business for the region for September-December usually happens in December. “Both the Caribbean and Florida tend to be booked closer in than other more exotic destinations, so we cannot easily give a year-over-year comparison using future 2017 bookings,” he said.
It remains to be seen how this increasingly active hurricane season will change consumer behavior and bookings, said Herrera. “Educating and encouraging travelers to come back to these destinations and spend at their hotels, restaurants, attractions will be an imperative part of the recovery process,” he said.
John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Network leisure group and hotels, said that if the reports of destruction on some islands that he’s been hearing are true, recovery will take awhile.
“But I think it’s really early to talk about some of these islands since we’re still waiting to re-establish communications with partners in a few cases,” said Lovell, speaking by phone from Orlando, another potential target of Irma. “We expect on Monday and Tuesday for more assessments to start coming out of Caribbean destinations. We’re all concerned because the Caribbean is a huge percentage of our North American business.”
Lovell said overall bookings for the Caribbean region from Travel Leaders Network partners, which number 40,000 travel agents, are up year-over-year for September and that November and December bookings are also looking strong. “Do I anticipate cancellations right now? Yes, that will happen,” said Lovell. “It’s really a wait-and-see approach for the next week or two. A lot of that is predicated on what cruise lines will have to do. But at least before these storms, it was shaping up to be a great fourth quarter of 2017.”
Wave season, which typically starts in January when travelers book their winter and spring Caribbean cruises and when cruise lines heavily market their itineraries and offerings, has also started earlier in recent years, said Lovell.
“Wave season for us has really backed up to December and into November for 2018 bookings,” he said. “But I don’t think in 2005 [which included storms such as Hurricane Katrina, Wilma and Rita, for example] we saw some of the devastation we’re seeing to cruise and land-based destinations with storms this year. But tourism came back in 2005.”
The Impact So Far
Just last month, Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc in Houston and along Texas’ Gulf Coast, killing at least 70 and causing widespread flooding and damage that could reach $180 billion, according to the state’s governor.
So far this week, Hurricane Irma – one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean – has pummeled Caribbean islands such as Anguilla, Barbuda, St. Martin, the British Virgin Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and St. Barthelemy, and severely damaged tourism infrastructure including cruise ports, hotels, and airports, the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), the region’s tourism board with 28 member countries, said in a statement. The Associated Press said Friday that the storm had so far killed 21 people in the Caribbean.
Some of the hardest-hit islands were just beginning to take stock of the damage as they faced a new threat: Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 storm.
Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, Nevis, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic suffered minor damage but were spared the brunt of Irma. The storm was moving toward Florida between Cuba and the Bahamas late Friday.
Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the island’s tourism board, said in a statement that major tourism infrastructure and attractions such as the cruise port and airport are operational after Irma passed over the destination. “While power outages are present throughout the Island, many hotels, as well as essential services on the island such as hospitals, are operational due to generators and the majority of hotels throughout mainland Puerto Rico are ready to welcome new guests, said Jose Izquierdo, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, in a statement. “Attractions such as parks and beaches are currently being assessed to ensure a committed focus on quick clean up in the coming days.”
South Florida and potentially other U.S. Southeast states are next up on Irma’s path, with some wind and storm impact expected to approach the Florida Keys late Saturday, followed by Miami-Dade County and other parts of South Florida.
Many Floridians are comparing the potential strength of Irma to that of Hurricane Andrew, which struck Florida in August 1992 and is the most destructive hurricane to hit the state to date.
Recovery efforts for Andrew cost $26.5 billion in 1992 (the equivalent of more than $46 billion in 2017) but the storm did the worst damage to the south part of the county and largely spared the downtown Miami and Miami Beach areas. Many hotel rooms in those areas were later occupied by recovery teams, said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But both downtown Miami and Miami Beach are significantly more developed in 2017 than they were 25 years ago, and other tourist attractions outside of these areas suffered considerable damage that took a toll for years. If Irma packs as much of a punch as the much smaller Andrew — or eclipses that storm in destruction — major impacts to Miami’s tourism infrastructure and core tourist areas are likely.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez earlier this week ordered mandatory evacuations from areas including downtown Miami and Miami Beach and Miami’s CVB is listing information from airports, cruise lines and other weather updates on its website.
Hotels Say They Prepared
Marriott International said it’s had hurricane plans in place and that hotels in the impacted area are waiving cancellation and change fees but details will vary depending on the hotel. “Plans are in place to evacuate and close our hotels and offices if local authorities or conditions require such action,” the company said in a statement.
“At this time we have not received any reports of guest or associate injuries. A select number of our hotels in [the Caribbean] have sustained minor to significant damage. We are assessing the extent of impact on each hotel and efforts are underway to fully restore operations in those properties more significantly affected by the storm,” Marriott said.
IHG Hotels tweeted on Friday that pet fees and restrictions for hotels in impacted areas will be waived for the storm, citing that many of the company’s hotels were already pet-friendly before the storm formed.
Hilton said in a statement that its Puerto Rico properties didn’t suffer any significant damage and the company has no reports of guests or staff being affected by the storm. Hilton is waiving cancellation fees for hotels in affected areas of the Caribbean and Florida (including Advance Purchase) with arrivals from September 5 through September 12.
Wyndham called Irma a storm of epic proportions and had begun evacuations at its properties in South Florida on Friday. The company is waiving cancellation fees in areas with expected impact at its branded hotels, vacation ownership resorts, and vacation rentals.
“At properties we directly manage, our teams are coordinating with local authorities, following evacuation and other emergency directives, and taking precautions to best prepare and respond to the storm,” Wyndham said in a statement. “Our teams are also in communication with our many franchised and affiliated resort properties across the region.”
— Sarah Gavin (@sarahwaffle) September 8, 2017
Meanwhile, on the online travel agency front, Expedia Inc. spokeswoman Sarah Gavin tweeted that the Expedia hotel team is trying to ensure that Hurricane Irma don’t get gouged by spiking hotel prices.
News editor Hannah Sampson and hospitality editor Deanna Ting contributed to this report.
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Photo Credit: Winds brought by Hurricane Irma blow palm trees lining the seawall in Caibarien, Cuba, on Friday. Desmond Boylan / Associated Press