It sounds like an exaggeration but when Hurricane Irma knocked out the British Virgin Islands (BVI) on 6 September 2017 the winds did reach 215mph – faster still inside the tornadoes spinning on the edge of the storm’s eye.
As a born-and-raised BVIslander, I had never seen anything like it. No one had. My family had its own dramas, including a portion of roof lifting off, never to be found, and windows and doors blowing in. Most people had similar experiences – many had worse. The morning after, our islands – formerly marketed as Nature’s Little Secrets and ticking all the boxes for a tropical holiday paradise – looked like a war zone.
“Down but not out,” said the authorities as soon as they had clawed out of the rubble and back onto Twitter. The BVI tourist board seemed deliriously optimistic at first. They had to be: tourism is the major earner and top employer in these islands, directly or indirectly supporting 83.7% of jobs and a total contribution of 95.9% to our GDP, according to the World Tourism & Travel Council. In 2015, just over half a million travellers arrived between January and July and in the same period in 2016, more than 700,00 visited.
Incredibly, almost five months after the storm there are already signs of a tourism buzz and it is happening alongside our own continuing struggle to find normality: electricity is only 60% restored, insurance disputes continue to delay rebuilding and many roads are severely damaged.
“The recovery has gone extremely well considering the strength of Irma,” says Chuck Metter, a regular BVI visitor whose voluntary contribution to the rebuild has been to centralise the progress of tourist businesses on the website, BVITraveller.com. “More than 90 restaurants [out of around 150], 45 hotels [of around 300] and just about all of the charter boat companies are already back in business,” he reports this week.
It has been pointed out that many of those rooms are currently occupied by insurance adjusters and aid workers, and the use of the word berths refers to occupied beds on boats – which translates as somewhere between 100 and 150 being rented. In truth we are down by around 85% on previous years.
For many, however, these numbers offer hope. With seven months of high-season tourism ahead – and as insurance payouts come in and rebuilds finish – the islands’ other offerings should gain momentum.
“Now is the perfect time to visit the BVI,” claims UK tour company G Adventures, which is relaunching its small-group and solo-traveller sailing tours on 3 February in a bid to support local tourism.
“We’ve been very upfront about the fact that the BVI was hit by the hurricane and about its effects,” says spokesperson Leah Whitfield, “and it certainly hasn’t put people off because several of the 13 tours scheduled between February and April are already sold out.”
“Things are looking fairly good for the months ahead,” says Mac Tyre of Purple Pineapple Villas. “I mean, considering the damage!” Tyre rents a number of properties on Tortola and has already received bookings for them. “We don’t have power yet so they run on generators but our guests don’t mind that,” he says. Although things are tough, they are improving: “Mains electricity was hooked up last week,” he says.
“What is clear is that the guests are hugely loyal to the BVI and are anxious to revisit,” says Lucienne Smith of Smiths Gore, which offers luxury villa rentals. Smith estimates that around 20% of such villas are now available for rent. “Many [villa guests] have chosen to support the BVI by having this year’s holiday on a charter yacht with the hope of coming back to a land-based holiday next year.”
More than half of all visitors to the BVIs come for the sailing, so getting the charter fleet ready was a top priority. Post-Irma, boats were scattered around the coasts: upside down, in mangrove trees, on rooftops and roads, or simply sunk. More than 80% of the 4,000-strong fleet was destroyed or damaged and a salvage operation hasn’t stopped since the storm passed. But, unlike hotel rooms, boats can be brought in from outside so it didn’t take long for replacements to arrive.
At Pirate’s Bight restaurant on uninhabited Norman Island, made famous by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and a favourite stop for those cruising the islands, it’s almost business as usual. “We’re seeing between 20 and 30 charter boats a day,” says events manager Natalie Wilkinson, compared to 40 to 45 in normal times.
“I was apprehensive about what condition the islands would be in,” said John d’Arbeloff, a regular visitor. “But it was fantastic. There’s some rebuilding going on and some areas are better than others but the spirit is very much alive.”
“Our yacht charter business is clearly leading the way,” says Keith Dawson of the BVI Tourism, “but land accommodation is recovering steadily with properties coming on line every month.” Cruise ships, he points out, are beginning to return – nine in January – and annual events are reappearing on the calendar. “There is the Anegada Kiteboarding and Paddle Festival in March, the BVI Spring Regatta in March/April and the Virgin Gorda Easter Festival.”
Are we delirious to think we might survive the year and find some normality next season? I’m with the tourist board. After a blow like that, we need the opium of optimism. We’re committed because we have no choice. But we know visitors will return because we live in the most beautiful islands in the world. No exaggeration.