'It's gonna hit everyone's pockets': Tourism industry workers worried in hurricane-ravaged Caribbean

As aid slowly reaches hurricane-ravaged Caribbean islands, many worry about the survival of what has become of the lifeblood of the islands — tourism.

'If we don't have hotels, I don't know how we can get tourists,' says Havana tour guide

Ela Velunva and Ernesto Torres work as tour guides in Havana for the Vancouver-based company ToursByLocals. They worry about this winter's tourism season. (Ela Velunva/Tours by Locals)

As aid slowly reaches hurricane-ravaged Caribbean islands, many worry about the survival of what has become of the lifeblood of the islands — tourism.

"The entire city without power, we were completely flooded. It was, and still is, a war zone," Ela Velunva said in a phone interview from a Havana hotel, where she was charging her phone and taking advantage of the Wi-Fi.

Hurricane Irma made hit Havana as a Category 5 storm on Saturday.

Velunva works for a Vancouver-based company called ToursByLocals, which has started a fundraiser for tour guides working in the hurricane-affected area.

She worries about the upcoming tourism season, especially with reports of severe damage to the all-inclusive resorts in Varadero, Cayo Coco and Cayo Santa Maria.

"It's gonna hit everyone's pockets and that's going to reflect not only on the common people, but also the economy of the country," she said.

Ernesto Torres, A tour guide in Havana, shows some of the devastation there after Hurricane Irma. He works for Vancouver-based ToursByLocals. 0:25

Her colleague, Ernesto Torres, agreed.

"We need tourism in order to get money in order to invest in infrastructure in Cuba. But if we don't have hotels, I don't know how we can get tourists. It's a vicious circle," he said.

Still, an estimated three-quarters of Cuba's workforce is employed by the state, which means it can marshal human and material resources in a way that other Caribbean islands cannot.

Hurricane Irma struck a series of independent island nations and territories with associations to countries such as France, the Netherlands, the U.S. and the U.K. It killed at least 38 people. Ten of the casualties were in Cuba, making it the worst hurricane death toll in the nation since 16 died there during Hurricane Dennis in 2005.

Tourist season 'difficult to imagine'

"This year's tourist season is really difficult to imagine taking place," said Edward Kennedy, president and CEO of the North West Company, a grocery and retail chain based in Winnipeg which has stores in the Caribbean.

He's being briefed twice a day on the damage to 11 of his stores there. Four in the British Virgin Islands and one in St. Thomas have been destroyed, while in St. Martin, "the store is not operational. Nothing's left in the store, everything in the store was taken by looters," Kennedy said.

He is sending nearly a dozen people from Winnipeg to help repair refrigeration units, fix roofs, and help 650 local employees.

"People are traumatized, their homes are destroyed, there's no access to food and water, and there was a huge safety and security concern until the military arrived. We have to figure out how to pay them and we have to provide some necessities, whether it's water or tarps for their homes."

Eleven Caribbean stores owned by Winnipeg-based North West Company were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Irma. One was emptied by looters. This one, in the British Virgin Islands, is open for business. (The North West Company)

North West's subsidiaries are donating tarps and other emergency-relief supplies to people in the British Virgin Islands, working with the federal government and relief agencies. North West has also set up an online Caribbean donation portal through the Red Cross and is matching all financial contributions from its associates worldwide.

Meanwhile, the company's warehouses are unscathed and it has begun shipping in supplies from Puerto Rico, so store shelves should be stocked within the next few days, Kennedy said.

Buyer beware for tourists: consultant

One big obstacle to bringing in supplies is damage to local infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and sea and airports.

Tourism consultant Max Johnson says it could be months before hotels and infrastructure in areas affected by Hurricane Irma are repaired. (Max Johnson/Tabagari, Taylor & Johnson)
"While it may appear to be open, that aid flights are coming in and out and military flights are coming in and out, that's a far cry from the safe operation for a commercial aircraft," said Max Johnson, a Winnipeg-based tourism consultant.

It could be months before supply chains are re-established, especially from Florida and Texas, which were also hit by hurricanes.

"The supply chains of everything into the islands have been changed. Things are being rationed and fuel is one of them," he said.

So when it comes to vacation tour packages for the upcoming winter, Johnson warns it's buyer beware.

"The contract would be to stay in the hotel, it doesn't say whether everything outside is ruined or devastated.… It's pretty difficult to sit there and have fun when outside people's houses have been blown away," he said, acknowledging those valuable tourist dollars help with the rebuilding phase.

"We can help people put their lives back together by taking our business there."

About the Author

Karen Pauls

National Reporter

Karen Pauls is an award-winning journalist who has been a national news reporter in Manitoba since 2004. She has travelled across Canada and around the world to do stories for CBC, including the 2011 Royal Wedding in London. Karen has worked in Washington and was the correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for three months in 2013, covering the selection of Pope Francis in Rome. Twitter @karenpaulscbc