(5:55 p.m. EST) -- Six months have passed since Hurricanes Irma and Maria touched down in the Eastern Caribbean, devastating a number of islands. Remarkably, residents across the affected islands forged the beginning of a new path out of the devastation -- one ignited by hope, pride and widespread support from their Caribbean neighbors, and aided by the cruise industry.
The Caribbean is open; steadfast relief efforts brought the islands back to their feet in merely a few months, and in some cases, weeks. Countless cruise lines -- including Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line and MSC Cruises -- delivered supplies to those in need, in addition to making financial contributions. While these islands are still in the process of recovering in many ways, they are stronger than ever; already making preparations in the event that another major storm -- like the pair from last September -- takes aim at the region.
"As we look at the next year, the next two years... some of our properties had significant devastation, but we're looking at, 'How do we make this property better? How can we build stronger?,'" Beverly Nicholson-Doty, U.S. Virgin Islands' commissioner of tourism, told Cruise Critic in an exclusive interview. She noted that more than 98 percent of the power on all three islands in the USVI -- St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John -- has been restored.
One example Nicholson-Doty gave of the islands' mission to come out stronger was Royal Caribbean's investment in Magens Bay in St. Thomas, one of the hardest hit Caribbean cruise ports. "Their commitment wasn't just to rebuilding the beach, but to making it even better. They were truly there with us day in and day out."
Another hard-hit island, Puerto Rico, has taken a similar approach in its recovery efforts.
"We need to look beyond [the hurricane]," Carla Campos, acting executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, told Cruise Critic in an interview. "What are the opportunities that this brings?" She explained that the island has been following an "R Strategy": Relief, Rebuild, Recover and Revamp.
Puerto Rico's tourism is currently between Recover and Revamp, with the cruise industry taking a leadership role. As Cruise Critic reported, cruise ships came back to Puerto Rico relatively quick after Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20. Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas returned to its San Juan homeport on October 7, while regular port calls began in late November.
Since the hurricane, 600,000 cruise passengers have been to Puerto Rico -- with another 600,000 more due by June 30. Additionally, the island is looking to have 1.7 million cruise passengers visit during the 2018/2019 season, breaking previous records of 1.5 million. "It's not just bouncing back, it's making a comeback," Campos said.
Cruisers are making a similar impact in the U.S. Virgin Islands. " Being a U.S. territory, so many of our visitors come from the continental U.S.A. and remember that the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are their islands," said Nicholson-Doty. "[Cruisers] coming back to the Virgin Islands and being involved in this process is a part of our growth and recovery."
In terms of how the islands prioritize recovery efforts, cruise tourism has taken precedence. One reason being it's easier to clean up beaches and roads, and work with tour operators and cruise industry partners to get shore excursions back up and running, than it is to restore infrastructure.
"We give the destinations a lot of credit for their major efforts being ready to come back," said Terry Thornton, Carnival Cruise Line's SVP of Port Operations, in an interview with Cruise Critic. "There's sometimes a difference being ready for cruise versus land-based trips; easier to focus on cruise before infrastructure, and these islands know how to prioritize efforts for cruise traffic." He added that guest ratings are higher than they were before the storms. "Not only is the Caribbean open, but it's also providing a great experience."
The Caribbean Tourism Organization recently released findings that despite the hurricanes, cruise traffic to the Caribbean grew by 2.4 percent last year, over 2016.
Just one month after the storms, a handful of cruiser "hot spots" in St. Thomas were back up and running; more have reopened since. Cruise Critic also got a glimpse of the new attractions coming to St. Maarten, with a tip from Thornton that Carnival is not only bringing back the island's popular excursions, but is in the process of developing new offerings.
In Puerto Rico, most shore excursions are now up and running, with the exception of El Yunque rainforest, where cleanup efforts continue. A small section of the rainforest will open next week, with more trails becoming accessible in months to come. In the fall, the forest will also have some voluntourism opportunities for visitors, which is a new initiative, Campos told us.
"Understanding that no one destination makes an itinerary is extremely important," said Nicholson-Doty. "We've become very, very effective in communicating messaging especially during a crisis because ... how your neighbor is doing is important to whether a line could come back to a region. [Demonstrating] what makes us each unique as a destination, and working to collect and showcase what is going to make the Caribbean a stronger region for cruise visitors [is key]. So when they come back, they're always seeing something new and better."
--By Gina Kramer, Editor