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Post-hurricane Caribbean: Are the islands ready for tourism?

SmarterTravel

This summer’s hurricanes may seem like ancient history to most of us, but several Caribbean islands are still recovering from the damage caused by the storms. The Bahamas, Jamaica, and Grand Cayman Island were among the heaviest hit of the popular tourist destinations, and many resorts and tourist attractions had to close for repairs.

If you previously booked a winter getaway to these islands, or are considering booking an island vacation, you may be wondering if tourism is booming in the Caribbean or if you should wait a year before hitting the white sand beaches. While each island has its own story, we can say that though these islands are not fully recovered, you can still get the quintessential Caribbean experience on your winter break. Plus, you might be able to save with a few deals along the way.

The Bahamas

The Bahamas are back in business, though the winter high season won’t see all hotels and attractions operating at full capacity. Nassau and Paradise Island, the country’s top tourist destinations, only received minimal cosmetic damage, but Grand Bahama Island was hit by both Frances and Jeanne.

Though some properties are still closed for restoration, Grand Bahama island has made great strides toward recovery. Grand Bahama International Airport is fully operational, and cruise lines are continuing their weekly calls to the island. Tourists will find a wide array of available activities from water sports to golfing and shopping.

The only major lingering effect of the hurricane on Grand Bahama tourism is the reduced number of available accommodations. By January, over 2,000 of the island’s 3,000 hotel rooms should be in service. However, several hotels and resorts remain closed through the spring, some indefinitely. For example, the Crowne Plaza Golf and Casino Resort at the Royal Oasis is scheduled to reopen in April. Its golf course and facilities will not be available until the end of the Bahamas’ peak tourist season.

Overall, The Bahamas are in such good shape that we’ve found no hurricane-related deals, only the usual vacation packages. However, new service from low-cost carriers to Nassau may slash your airfare costs. JetBlue and Song started service to The Bahamas in late 2004, and Spirit introduced Nassau flights on January 10. When we checked, fares were as low as $88 per person, not including additional taxes and fees.

Jamaica

Jamaica was hard hit by Hurricane Ivan, but now, tourists won’t notice too much missing from their Jamaican experience. Airports are operating normally, and all cruise ships have returned to their regular schedules. Many hotels have been operational for months or recently opened their doors in December.

However, Negril had so much damage that not all properties have been fully repaired. Several hotels such as Catch A Falling Star, Drumville Cove, Mariner’s Inn, Negril Inn, and Paradise View Hotel are closed until further notice. And the famous Rick’s Cafe, where tourists could grab a bite to eat and watch divers jump from the cliffs into the sea below, was so badly damaged that the owners decided to do a complete renovation. The cafe will re-open in March with a new pool and concert stage, as well as an enhanced bar.

But these establishments are the exception rather than the rule. If you’re thinking about planning a winter getaway to Jamaica, you can often find great deals with vacation packages. Try Air Jamaica Vacations or CheapCaribbean.com for the latest offers, or see our Caribbean vacation guide for more providers. For more tips on booking a Jamaica vacation, read our vacation strategy in SmarterTravel.com’ Advice section.

Grand Cayman Island

Grand Cayman Island was one of the islands hardest hit by Hurricane Ivan, and is not as close to being back at full capacity as Jamaica or The Bahamas. Many accommodations and attractions are open, but the limited number of rooms are filling up fast at this popular diving spot. Grand Cayman’s sister islands, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, were not affected by the hurricane and make for great alternatives to visiting Grand Cayman itself.

As of December, 25 percent of approximately 4,500 hotel and condo rooms are now available for guests, and 33 percent are expected to be open in February. Many accommodations will not be fully operational until later this spring. For example, the Ritz-Carlton opened in October, but the luxury Residences at the Ritz-Carlton will not reopen until June. The Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman and Morritt’s Tortuga Club and Resort will also be undergoing extensive renovations well into this year. The airport is open, with American, Continental, Delta, US Airways, and Cayman Airways all flying to and from the island.

If you can snag one of the available rooms, a visit to Grand Cayman won’t disappoint. The island’s world-famous diving and snorkeling areas are intact and ready for visitors, the beaches are clear, and over half of the restaurants are open. In addition, the Turtle Farm, Stingray City, and many shops are welcoming tourists. However, taxis and rental cars are still in short supply, as many vehicles were damaged in the storm. If you need a car for your vacation, be sure to book your rental early. If you already have a reservation, it’s wise to doublecheck that your promised car is still available.

As space is still tight on Grand Cayman, there are few deals to the island. However, the sister islands are eagerly courting tourists, and are offering promotions. Through February 15, you can fly between Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac or Little Cayman for $99 round-trip on Cayman Express or Island Air. When you take advantage of this flight offer, you can also stay three nights at a participating resort and get the fourth night free. If you book a dive package with your hotel stay, you’ll receive your third morning of diving for free. For booking information and a list of participating resorts, visit the sister islands’ website.

Planning your Caribbean vacation

Although these three islands were among the hardest hit, other islands felt the impact of the hurricane, and certain accommodations or attractions may not be completely recovered. No matter which island you’re considering for your Caribbean vacation, you would do well to call the island’s tourism bureau or the specific hotels you had in mind to find out if repairs are still ongoing. And as always, be sure to book well in advance for a winter high season vacation in the Caribbean before flights and hotel rooms sell out.

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