(12:50 p.m. EST) -- In the wake of the one-two punch of hurricanes Irma and Maria, good news about recovery in the Eastern Caribbean islands that were affected, which began as a trickle, has now become a tide.
St. Thomas is once again welcoming ships, crew and passengers, with iconic Magens Bay having its grand opening this week. Puerto Rico's San Juan accepted its first transit ships last week when Carnival Conquest and Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas became the first to visit as a port of call (rather than embarkation for cruises). St. Maarten, the Dutch side of a two-country island that also includes the French St. Martin, reopened Dec. 4, with the arrival of Viking Oceans' Viking Sea. And the British Virgin Islands' Tortola also welcomed Marella Cruises, its first call since the storms, just this week.
At Cruise Critic, our members and our editorial team have been out on ships and visiting ports of call over the past two months, chronicling their experiences in the region (and still are -- check out our continually updated Caribbean ports article). Everyone pretty much has agreed: With some exceptions, this pocket of the Caribbean that was the hardest hit is no longer on its way back. It's arrived, though there are a handful of caveats.
Yet despite a fairly unprecedented effort by the industry, via its Caribbean is Open campaign, we find that many cruisers still have concerns. We've been answering questions on our special Live from the Caribbean forum, and we thought we'd tackle ongoing issues, one by one.
The Guilt Factor
Is it heartless to go on holiday to an island where many are still rebuilding homes and lives, and are living in less-than-desirable circumstances? We've heard this concern from some travelers who are on the fence about returning to the Caribbean this year, but can respond with a "come on down" from the islands.
There are "tons of reasons to go" back to the Caribbean this winter, says Claudius Docekal, vice president, deployment, Crystal Cruises. "First, get out of the cold. And second, you get to help the islands recover and not at the expense of your enjoyment."
Indeed, islanders agree. "Please, don't feel guilty," says Jose Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, which manages tourism for San Juan and the rest of the island. "As a matter of fact, the best way to help us right now is to visit us. For the industry to be a driver of change we need to have you here, we need for you to visit our island."
And remember this: "Islanders feel like they are getting their lives back," says Roberta Jacoby, managing director, global tour operations at Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. "When you get back to a sense of normalcy, it's a great feeling. And when guests return, they'll find a place that's normal again."
Status of San Juan
Speaking of San Juan, one of the Caribbean's leading cruise ports just opened as a day port of call last week (it's already had ships embarking there, but passengers typically have gone straight from the airport to ship, without touring sites in between). One of the few ports in the region that serves both as a port of call and a port of embarkation, San Juan easily nets a high number of cruise visitors.
And yet because of the damage from Hurricane Maria (and subsequent wall-to-wall television news coverage), it has resonated as a place that will take a long time to recover.
Once the airport reopened, the port was ready for San Juan-based ships to get passengers onboard and sail to other islands. With hotels either out of service entirely or filled to the brim with workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency who were repairing the damage, travelers who'd already booked pre- and post-cruise trips were finding there was no space for them.
That's changing in a significant way. According to Izquierdo, "December 15 really marks that point where hotels are taking new reservations and welcoming tourists as responders and emergency personnel are leaving. Their jobs in San Juan are done." He notes that 113 lodging properties are currently operational, representing 75 percent of the city's inventory.
For those travelers whose cruises visit for just a day, another factor matters more: What is there to see and do? "Having a port of call is very different," Jacoby says. "Guests are coming in to see this port, they want to go shopping and see the sights -- and that's very different."
Before lines would even think about returning, key stakeholders in San Juan and nearby made sure its historic forts -- San Felipe del Morro Fortress and the Castillo de San Cristobal, which both weathered the storm -- were cleaned up and ready to open. The Bacardi Distillery, the shops and restaurants of picturesque Old San Juan, and a private beach club excursion, complete with pools, beach and a brewery with home-made beer, were also crucial for Royal Caribbean to return, Jacoby tells us. Currently 52 shore excursion options are available and the beaches are back.
Fans of San Juan should know that while most major attractions are operational in the area, there are some that require more work. The lush and gorgeous El Yunque National Forest and popular zipline attraction La Marquesa Canopy Tour are not ready for prime time -- yet. Nor is San Juan's downtown trolley; there's not yet an ETA on its return, according to Izquerido.
Cruise Lines and Islands Working Together
Part of the reason that such progress has been made in such a short time is due to the strongest partnership we've ever seen between destinations and cruise lines. Cruise companies have been active partners, first in the rescue stages, ferrying people (and pets) off the islands in the immediate aftermath, and bringing in critical supplies that ranged from pallets of water to hay bales for on-island horses. The lines then turned to repair and clean-up.
In St. Thomas, Royal Caribbean engaged in an unprecedented partnership to help get the island's most iconic attractions cleaned up and ready to welcome tourists. "Magen's Bay is St. Thomas' iconic beach," Royal Caribbean's Jacoby tells us, "and we knew we needed to offer that as a tour if we were going to go back."
Inspired by Richard Fain, the company's chairman, Royal shipped in project managers to oversee the restoration. "We needed to have shade, bathrooms, food, a beach that people could walk on," Jacoby says. Staffers planted trees, cleaned up the beach, and rebuilt the bathrooms. "The water was fine, no issue there."
Headed to St. Thomas? Keep an eye out for the addition of a new piece of artwork at Magen's Bay that's made entirely of wood reclaimed from the storms' debris.
Rebuilding Is Continuing
Some islands simply have too much work to be done to be ready for the winter Caribbean season, and these include Dominica and Barbuda. We'll continue to provide progress updates as we receive them.
Still, the message we have consistently heard -- from cruise lines and the islands both -- is this: "Nobody wanted the hurricanes," Jacoby says. "But they happened and now islands can take an internal look at making them better. You're going to see a lot of new coming out of this. It shakes things up."
Says Puerto Rico Tourism Company's Jose Izquierdo, echoing sentiments we've heard from other islands: "There is no question that we have endured great challenges, but there's also great opportunity. Puerto Rico will be back stronger than ever. And the story of the resurgence of Puerto Rico is a very powerful one."
--By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Chief Content Strategist