Rebuilding tourism after Irma, an epic task for islands

Rebuilding tourism after Irma, an epic task for islands

Few looking for a luxury break in the next few months will opt for hurricane-hit islands like St Martin. (Photo: AFP/Christophe Ena)

MARIGOT: 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 €1 billion (US$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.

St Martin normally sees around two million visitors a year, most of them American cruise ship passengers. (Photo: AFP/Martin Bureau)

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

Tourism directly contributed 34 per cent 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 "stingy" with aid for Sint Maarten, but described the bill as "enormous" and warned neither the central or local government could cover its entirety.

Dutch newspaper AD quoted Sint Maarten premier William Marlin as saying the island needed at least a billion euros, a figure backed by Merlijn Stoffels of the Red Cross.

"Some experts have even put forward the figure of €1.3 billion, and that's not absurd," Stoffels told AD.

The Dutch Red Cross has taken in donations worth €3.2 million this week, with a national day of telethons and other fund-raising initiatives set to raise more Friday.

Both halves of St Martin will look to the European Union for aid - but this could prove tricky for the Dutch side. While part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, it is not directly part of the EU.

The damage on St Martin has been estimated at €1 billion or more. (Photo: AFP/Martin Bureau)

French President Emmanuel Macron, visiting the devastated neighbouring island of St Barts, promised emergency financial aid for those "who have lost everything".

Britain has meanwhile pledged £57 million (US$76 million) for its territories, but some politicians are already worrying that Brexit could cut them off from vital EU funds in the years to come.

COME BACK STRONGER?

Didier Arino, head of the Paris-based consultancy Protourisme, predicted it would take three years for tourism to climb back to pre-hurricane levels. "They're starting from zero," he said.

But he sees hope in the tragedy: a chance to build first-rate tourist infrastructure "which protects the environment better and creates much greater economic and social benefits".

Exotismes boss Cisneros, who has 30 years' experience in Caribbean travel, also sees reasons to be upbeat.

"We've had bad storms before. Every time, it picks back up again, people rebuild," he said, remembering Hurricane Hugo which laid waste to swathes of the Caribbean in 1989.

The industry could even come back stronger than before.

Once the rebuilding is done, St Martin and St Barts "will be the two Caribbean islands with the best infrastructure", he predicted.

Source: AFP