How to Tell if the Caribbean is Safe for Your Winter Holiday. | Tour operators may overstate a devastated country’s recovery, while others may be excessively cautious. How can you be sure?
By Simon Vaughan
In the aftermath of a catastrophic and historic Atlantic hurricane season (which may not even be over now!), hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Caribbean and the southern United States are still trying to pick up their lives and find permanent shelter.
Governments and aid agencies are working overtime to assist residents and to rebuild infrastructure that in many cases includes even basic services such as power plants, water treatment facilities and medical centres.
While our vacation concerns may seem irrelevant when compared with the struggles for everyday life that many are experiencing, it’s important to realize what a vital part tourism plays in the economies of these hard-hit areas, and therefore equally important for us to know what we should and should not be doing with our winter getaways this year.
In fact, many of the hardest-hit areas depend on tourism for employment and foreign exchange, and if tourists aren’t coming, those areas may have bigger long-term worries than the current task of repairing and rebuilding.
It’s for that reason it’s more important this year than ever for us to spend our vacations wisely to not over-tax what may be an already overburdened infrastructure while also contributing to the destination’s recovery, when appropriate to do so. It is quite likely those hurricane-ravaged areas will have never needed our business more than they soon will, as they stagger back to their feet.
However, finding the exact situation at a potential travel destination before we go can be a challenge.
Destinations that are desperate for a return to normal levels of tourism may be tempted to exaggerate their readiness to re-accept visitors. Tour operators eager for business may put profit ahead of practicality, while our own government advisories may err on the side of excessive caution and not be updated quickly enough to reflect improvements in a very fluid situation.
This all means that in many cases the onus to learn the actual situation lies with the traveller. Before booking or travelling this winter, there are several resources to turn to for full details of the recovery process.
Firstly, this hurricane season’s greatest damage was inflicted on the island of St. Martin (comprising the Dutch Sint Maarten and French Saint Martin), Puerto Rico, Dominica, the Florida Keys, Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands and U.S. Virgin Islands, with lesser damage caused to parts of Cuba, the Dominican Republic and some of the smaller islands.
In addition to those hardest-hit areas, Tropical Storm Nate was responsible for at least 22 deaths in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras, and caused further damage to Belize, El Salvador and Mexico, while a 7.1 earthquake shook central Mexico in September, causing significant damage and loss of life.
Efforts are ongoing to repair the infrastructure in all those destinations and to enable the return of tourism as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible. While some, such as Cuba, claim to already be fully recovered, others are progressing more slowly.
The Government of Canada’s travel advisories website is a good place to get general information country by country, although it may not necessarily be completely up to date when the situation is changing so rapidly.
Tour operators have people on the ground who are visiting the resorts and airports and providing firsthand reports, but sometimes they gloss over certain details in order not to discourage potential customers from travelling; for example, they might not mention that power outages are still common each day, or that due to storm surge a beach is half the size that it used to be.
Government and tourism ministry websites usually have the most in-depth and current information (Dominica, for example) and provide details not only on airports and hotels, but also roads, hospitals, reliability of the electricity and water supplies and the overall situation, along with efforts to repair all the damage.
While traveller message boards may be the best source of firsthand information specific to travellers, it’s hard to know who is writing the post. Although most travellers are keen to help each other, and authentic posts are generally free of any vested professional interest, few message boards go to great lengths to verify the identity of the poster.
Therefore, while fellow travellers can generally provide the most pertinent, honest and unbiased information—and often date-stamped so readers know precisely when the comments were made—it’s always advisable to visit as many message boards as possible and read every relevant post on any destination rather than rely on one source.
By conducting research properly, travellers can not only help ensure their winter getaway is enjoyable, but also that they are able to assist—rather than hinder—the structural and economic recovery of particularly hard-hit destinations.