TVL Damage control
By Bruce Mohl
The Boston Globe
Tourist destinations in Florida and the Caribbean are racing to rebuild in the wake of hurricane devastation, promising that they will be ready this fall and winter.
The reports may be true, but exercise caution. Both regions are heavily dependent on tourism, and there is a strong incentive for industry officials to paint as sunny a picture as possible.
As of last week, the State Department was still telling Americans to stay away from Grenada and the Cayman Islands and urging caution when traveling to Jamaica, the Bahamas, and the Turks &; Caicos. Florida's visitor bureaus (www.visitflorida.com) were telling travelers that northwest Florida was recovering slowly from Hurricane Ivan but that the rest of the state was "open for business."
Grenada was one of the islands hardest hit by Ivan, whose strong winds tore roofs off many structures. The Spice Island Beach Resort, for example, says rebuilding will take more than a year.
Grand Cayman, a diving and banking center, is more difficult to assess from afar. Tourism officials, in their reports, talk more about what is being done to restore power and services than how badly the island has been battered.
Some of the big hotels say they will be open relatively soon. The Hyatt Regency says it will reopen Dec. 1, while the Marriott Beach Resort says its repairs will be completed by mid-October. Vacation Outlet here in Boston is selling air and land packages to coincide with the launch of nonstop service Oct. 30 from Boston to Grand Cayman by Cayman Airways.
Yet Pam Greer, who moved to the island a month ago and fled to her sister's home in Boston on one of the first flights out after the hurricane swept through, said she doesn't see how the tourism sector could recover so quickly.
Greer said the hurricane destroyed nearly every home on the island and the storm surge left everything under water. Beaches were ravaged, she said, and strewn with debris.
"It's just complete devastation," Greer said.
Information on conditions in Florida is generally easier to find. While there has been extensive damage in many parts of the state, few expect tourism areas to be out of commission for long.
The southwest coast was one area that was particularly hard hit. Sanibel and Captiva suffered a lot of damage, with many hotels there closed for the next several months. Naples, farther south, was also hard hit, while Marco Island emerged relatively unscathed.
Sean Mullen, director of sales and marketing in Florida for Noble House Hotels and Resorts, said the chain's Naples property, the La Playa Beach and Golf Resort, suffered the most damage of the company's five properties in Florida because it is located on the beach.
"The force of the wind was so strong that it blew a lot of water into our guest rooms," Mullen said, estimating $4.5 million in damage.
Still, Mullen said 90 percent of the 189 guest rooms at the resort were already back on line and the entire resort, including new landscaping, should be ready by Oct. 1.
Mullen said the challenge now is to convince travelers that everything is OK. "The typical consumer thinks all of Florida and the Caribbean is devastated," he said.
To entice customers back, he plans to offer a hurricane relief special, with rooms that normally go for $309 a night available for $229. He said sales should pick up quickly, adding that Florida may even get a tourism bounce this fall and winter because of all the devastation in the Caribbean.
"The consumer will think that Florida will be able to recover quicker," Mullen said.