More than a month after hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the Caribbean, recovery efforts are well underway and cruise ships have started returning to some of the islands affected by the storms. But with so many popular cruise destinations in the process of rehabilitation, some travelers are wary of taking a Caribbean cruise. U.S. News spoke with industry experts and travelers to gain perspective on what passengers should anticipate on a their next Caribbean cruise.
[Read: The 2018 Best Cruise Lines.]
Caribbean Ports Are Welcoming Passengers
Travelers shouldn't worry about having their cruise vacations canceled. Although the recovery period can be extensive after a Category 4 or Category 5 storm, the Caribbean has already bounced back earlier than the cruise industry predicted. "The concern was that these storms were going to keep ports closed for longer than it has," says Chris Gray Faust, senior editor at cruise advice site Cruise Critic. "The actual surprise has been that islands are coming back quicker than anticipated."
In fact, according to the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, a nonprofit trade organization that includes 19 cruise lines that sail to the region, 85 percent of Caribbean ports are up and running. Popular cruise destinations such as Jamaica, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic were virtually untouched by the September storms, while affected destinations, such as the U.S. Virgin Islands and St. Martin, are preparing to welcome passengers by mid-November.
Travelers will find much of the natural beauty and rich culture of the Caribbean untouched. "The beaches, rivers, waterfalls, mountains; the great food, the diversity and safety of the Caribbean – everything that people are expecting is going to be delivered," says Michele Paige, president of the FCCA.
However, Puerto Rico is still a big concern for travelers. It took a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, leaving much of the island without electricity or running water. The island is still struggling to meet humanitarian needs in some inland areas, but businesses closer to shore are keen to revive the flow of tourists. The port of San Juan started receiving passenger cruise ships on Oct. 7, and major cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines, have announced plans to return to a normal cruising schedule beginning Nov. 30.
While experts advise that there are still major recovery efforts taking place inland, they say travelers shouldn't be concerned about sailing to San Juan, Puerto Rico. "The restaurants are open and most of the establishments that might not have electricity restored yet are running on generators. As you travel more inland in Puerto Rico, you're going to experience more need for the work that's being done," Paige says.
The Caribbean encompasses 1 million square miles across 40 destinations, meaning travelers will have the opportunity to explore plenty of diverse cultures and ports of call even as parts of the region rebuild. While previously closed ports are reopening on a rolling basis, some cruise lines have altered itineraries through the beginning of 2018 to ease passengers' minds and ensure the best cruise experience possible.
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Recent cruisers to the region say the revised itineraries didn't affect their trip. "We were happy with the change in itinerary and we enjoyed the places they took us. We didn't feel like we missed out on anything on the ports we didn't visit," says Dr. Stephen Samson, who recently returned from a sailing on the Viking Sea that bypassed St. Martin and St. Thomas in favor of St. Lucia and Barbados.
In addition to itinerary substitutions, shore excursions might be altered or scaled back. You'll likely find closer-to-port activities, such as walking tours of Old San Juan, while more adventurous excursions like zip lining may be unavailable.
"If you're someone who wants to visit an off-the-beaten track attraction, those types of things may not be there, but the mainstream attractions will be the first things to come back," Faust says. Before your scheduled sail date, make sure to check with your cruise line to find out what's available. "The longer the island has to recover, the quicker the off-the-beaten-path attractions have to come back," Faust says.
Faust encourages passengers to remember the importance of adapting to the necessary changes. "Cruisers always need to pack a little flexibility when they go. We always tell people not to get their heart set on one island because there are many and you're still going to have a good time."
Your Vacation Will Help Recovery Efforts
Experts also point out that since many Caribbean nations rely on tourism to fuel their economies, your cruise vacation is helping to aid in the recovery process. "Cruise ships are very important to these islands. They're a mainstay of the economy. So, I think that governments and the cruise lines and the ports have all been working hard to reopen as quickly as they can," Faust says.
In 2016, an estimated 8.1 million travelers sailed to the Caribbean, according to the FCCA. Before the storms, that number was only expected to grow in 2017. A single, 3,000-passenger cruise ship can generate more than $500,000 for a destination. This includes tourist spending at restaurants, souvenir shops and with tour operators who rely on cruise passengers for their livelihood.
Now that Caribbean residents are rebuilding, they're eager to get back to work and welcome tourists back to the islands. "The Caribbean is open for business and the best way to help the Caribbean is to cruise to the Caribbean," Paige says.
Faust echoes similar sentiments. "You can still have your fun and sun vacation and also feel good about helping out a region that really needs a little more TLC," she says.
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