Caribbean tourism officials scramble to regain lost business


SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Caribbean tourism officials are working overtime to reassure reluctant travelers that plenty of sun-soaked islands were untouched by a recent spate of deadly tropical cyclones.

Storms so far have sidestepped Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the entire eastern Caribbean, including Martinique and Barbados.

Officials worry that potential visitors may wrongly assume the entire region was ravaged by four storms that pummeled several islands since mid-August, said Alec Sanguinetti, head of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association.

The trade group is urging local tourism officials to use Web cams and broadcast live video of idyllic beach settings to counter concerns.

It’s a challenging sell, since Caribbean weather reports and satellite images have shown an almost constant mass of spinning storms in recent weeks.

Tropical Storm Fay formed in mid-August, followed by Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike. The storms have killed more than 360 people across the western Caribbean and battered hotels and airports in Cuba, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Tourism is the Caribbean’s chief industry, drawing more than 15 million visitors to beach resorts and colonial capitals last year.

Government officials are still calculating damages. Johnson JohnRose, spokesman for the Caribbean Tourism Organization, said it is too early to say how many tourists canceled hotel bookings, and Sanguinetti did not estimate how much resorts have lost.

But Hurricane Ike caused an estimated $5 million to $10 million in damage to the cruise ship terminal in Grand Turk, according to officials with Carnival Corp., which owns the cruise ship pier and terminal on the island. And in Cuba, officials evacuated about 10,000 tourists from seaside hotels.

Hotels in the Bahamas meanwhile lost about $1 million in storm-related cancellations — although some income was recovered when cruise ships were later diverted there from other islands hurt by Ike, said Vernice Walkine, director of the chain’s tourism ministry.