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Paradise Rebuilt: How the Caribbean is Overcoming Natural Disaster

A year since Hurricanes Irma and Maria decimated parts of the Caribbean, the region is showing remarkable resilience as the recovery continues. As travel and tourism are the lifeblood of many islands – accounting for more than 35% of GDP in the British Virgin Islands – attracting visitors is now crucial. Not only to provide a winter-sun welcome, but also to boost badly damaged economies.

His voice cracking with emotion, Rhodni Skelton had to take a moment before he could carry on. Speaking in August at the 2018 Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas, the deputy director of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) Tourist Board had been discussing visitor numbers and percentages with assembled press, tourism directors and CEOs, explaining how the Caribbean was reopening for business following the destruction caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year. But then he described how Irma had left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We had a freak sandstorm here in Vegas three days ago,” he said, “and the windows started rattling. And then the flashbacks came.” Hearing the screaming storm outside, Skelton couldn’t help relive (“everything that you can experience”) the terrible day his roof came off. “We’re resilient in that we’re bouncing back,” he told the hushed gathering, “and we’re all going to do great things… but there is still trauma.”

In August and September 2017, category-five Hurricane Irma – the fiercest Atlantic-forming hurricane on record – ripped through the Caribbean. With wind gusts reaching 215mph, the storm obliterated communities and lives. It was followed only days later by Hurricane Maria.

While hurricanes are not unexpected in this part of the world, what was unusual was the scale, and that two occurred in such close succession. On the affected islands, many people lost everything. In the British Virgin Islands, 85% of buildings were destroyed or severely damaged; the local economy was in ruins. Naturally, tourism suffered. Although a majority of the Caribbean wasn’t affected by the storms, the perception was that every island had seen destruction, and numbers for the entire region dropped off. A year on, however, and the Caribbean comeback is well underway.

“I am pleased to say the Herculean efforts put forth by the local community, international volunteers and the BVI government have paid off”, said BVI director of tourism Sharon Flax Brutus. “The beaches have been cleaned up and roads cleared, and visitors are returning to the territory.”

More than half of all visitors to the BVI come for the sailing, so it was no surprise that many images of the devastation featured yachts scattered around the coastline or flung onto rooftops. Yet despite more than 80% of the islands’ 4,000-strong fleet being destroyed, the charter yacht and sailing industry was the first to rebound, with boats brought in from other parts of the world and some operators accepting guests as early as November 2017 to jump-start the winter season. As many hotels recuperated, cruises such as Silversea and Columbia Cruise Services picked up steady business.

Several luxury resorts have now reopened, including Necker Island (Sir Richard Branson’s private island) and Cooper Island. Others, such as Peter Island and Rosewood Little Dix Bay, are planning to open as early as 2019.

Meanwhile, the BVI Tourist Board’s ‘Seeds of Love’ initiative is helping to restore precious wildlife destroyed in Hurricane Irma by replanting the islands’ indigenous trees and vegetation. And, of course, there’s a direct way to aid the recovery. As Brutus says, “For those looking to offer their support to the BVI, the most vital way to help – as always – is by booking a trip and patronising our local hotels and businesses.”

Luxury survivors: six of the best

Looking for inspiration as to where to choose for your Caribbean holiday? From private islands to grand resort elegance, eco retreats to hotels with history, here are six of the best that have rebuilt and are ready for the new season:

1. Oil Nut Bay, Virgin Gorda

At the start of 2017, The Telegraph named the Fendi-decorated penthouse Cliff Suite at Oil Nut Bay one of the world’s best, lauding its spectacular view “over five miles of cliff and rock face battered by broiling seas”, and calling its dramatic interior “a symphony of white and cream”. Few imagined what sort of destruction would rain down on Virgin Gorda, the third largest and second most populous of the BVI. And yet Oil Nut Bay held up remarkably well.

“We had built with structural integrity – to Miami Dade hurricane standard – from the beginning,” says owner David Johnson, who teamed up with neighbours to provide immediate relief, water, power and communications on the island after the hurricanes struck. “It was amazing what nature destroyed, but in just 100 days you saw how fast it recovered, and how quickly the physical beauty came back.”

 

The restaurant, marina and watersports activities resumed early this year, with villas reopening shortly after. For a country where around a quarter of the workforce is directly employed by tourism, that’s good news.

2. Batu Villa, Virgin Gorda

Days after Irma struck, the team behind Batu Villa – a luxurious hideaway with just four suites on Virgin Gorda – posted a photo to its Instagram account of the devastation inflicted on the BVI. It urged followers to donate to help them ship supplies to BVI residents as part of the relief effort. By February, a video post confirmed Batu Villa was open for reservations and the “beautiful beaches with crystal-clear blue water are amazing”.

3. Cooper Island Beach Club, Cooper Island

Cooper Island’s long-held reputation for serenity is well earned. Development on the island was limited to the 12-room eco-friendly Cooper Island Beach Club and a few privately owned properties. The resort lost many of its decks, boardwalks and docks, some buildings, and sustained “heavy damage” to its inverter room for solar power.

The new year brought confirmation that its microbrewery survived Irma’s might. What has been described as one of the greenest hotels in the region reopened on 1 April.

Copper Island Beach Club's microbrewery.

Copper Island Beach Club’s microbrewery.

4. Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina, Scrub Island

In the immediate wake of the devastation, Scrub Island Resort appealed for help to support the island’s 140 employees, with well-wishers rallying to raise funds for staff members, distributed in time for Christmas. While Irma lashed at the 230-acre private island, the resort’s villas and Marina Village largely escaped unharmed, with “just a few cases of roof damage and broken windows”.

Reopening was phased: the resort ran with a super-generator until power was reinstated in March. Parts then arrived to repair the desalination plant, meaning the resort could produce its own water and irrigate landscapes. That month, almost half the resort’s inventory of 52 units were said to be in perfect condition, including its six villas. With restaurants and bars now reopened, and a new spa and 24-hour fitness room having their debuts, Scrub Island Resort is fully open for business.

5. Villa Marie, Saint Barthélemy

In August 2017, just eight months after opening, interior designer Jocelyne Sibuet’s elegant plantation house overlooking Flamands Beach was hit by Hurricane Irma. “It was so awful, but we were lucky,” Sibuet said. “We were less affected than other hotels because we weren’t on the beach, so our damage was just wind, not sea. My son oversaw the rebuild and spirits were good. Everyone on the island helped each other.”

The hotel was one of the first to reopen in March 2018. It has 21 bungalows, four villas, a Pure Altitude Spa and a rum bar with one of the best selections of rums on the island. Its Francois Plantation restaurant, with its Caribbean/French fusion menu, has become a destination in itself.

6. Necker Island

Sir Richard Branson was home when the hurricane hit Necker Island – photos posted on Instagram show him playing dice with staff in a wine cellar – and he was quick to report on the destruction and damage to buildings afterwards.

 

“We felt the full force of the strongest hurricane ever in the Atlantic Ocean. But we are very fortunate to have a strong cellar built into Necker’s Great House and were very lucky all of our teams who stayed on-island during the storm are safe and well.”

Branson, who bought the island paradise for $180,000 when he was just 28, said he had “never seen anything like this hurricane”. He and his family were quick to promote and donate to the Caribbean relief effort. Necker partially reopened in October.

Richard Branson's Necker Island

Necker Island is just one resort reopening after being struck by hurricanes in 2017.

Lysanne Currie writes about business, travel and luxury for a variety of magazines, including Tempus, Victor, Robb Report UK, The Ethicalist and Meet The Leader.