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Rebuilding tourism after Irma, an epic task for islands
By Romain Fonsegrives with Katy Lee in Paris
Marigot (AFP) Sept 14, 2017

Long road to recovery for Irma-ravaged Cuba
Havana (AFP) Sept 14, 2017 - Hit harder than expected by Hurricane Irma, Cuba faces months of difficult recovery and will need international aid to get back on its feet, UN agencies and experts say.

Irma was the most powerful hurricane to hit Cuba since 1992, slashing its way through 13 of the country's 15 provinces, according to the National Defense Council.

Though the damage is still being evaluated, Cuban authorities and foreign observers agree that agriculture, tourism and housing are the three worst-hit sectors.

"The central provinces of Camaguey, Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara were the most affected," said Jerome Faure, director for Cuba for British NGO Oxfam.

"We've seen a lot of agricultural infrastructure, fields and stores affected," said Laura Melo, director of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Cuba. The WFP said sugar cane is among the most devastated crops.

"In some drought-affected provinces in the east of the country like Ciego de Avila, the hurricane brought a lot of water, which is very good news," said Melo.

"But it caused a lot of destruction, with foreseeable consequences for production, market supplies, and the situation of families which live from agriculture."

The booming tourism industry "will probably suffer an impact," due to the number of hotels and houses damaged, said Faure, amid concern for a sector which showed steady growth since 2015.

Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said hotels on the paradise islands of the north coast, which bore the brunt of the hurricane, would be ready for the start of the high season in mid-December.

However, that claim has been greeted by skepticism because of the scenes of devastation circulating on social media.

- 'Going to take time' -

The country's long history of dealing with hurricanes and its ability to organize itself meant it was spared an even bigger beating.

"Cuba was hit harder than initially expected, but the prevention mechanisms work very well," said Melo.

"There were 10 deaths, but in relation to the impact of the hurricane, this is minimal. The capacity for mobilization is extraordinary."

"Cuba has one of the most effective prevention and response systems in the region," Faure said, adding that preventive measures like removing wifi and TV antennas, crop-protection and food storage meant the worst was avoided.

The Cuba director of the NGO CARE, Richard Paterson, praised the country's "very strong focus at protecting human life, targeting vulnerable people" to ensure they went to evacuation centres or the homes of family or friends.

Melo warned that "the hurricane period isn't over and there is a big risk that this situation will be repeated. "It's important to respond to the urgency, but also to think about preparing for another hurricane."

"For now it's important to restore food, water and electricity supplies," said Paterson.

Faure said Cuba will need international help because it remained under-developed. By comparison, the French islands of the Caribbean were starting their clear-up from a stronger position.

"So one hopes that the solidarity expressed is realized in a massive way, since the island is already facing a difficult time from the economic point of view, with growth of just 1.1 percent in the first half of the year," said the Oxfam official.

"Public and private companies were impacted, and a significant investment is required," he said. "The island did not deserve this."

"It was an awful storm," said Paterson of CARE.

"Damage is significant. It's going to take some time, at least a year, for Cuba to recover."

It's been over a week since hurricane Irma ripped through the Caribbean -- but for paradise islands overwhelmingly dependent on the tourist trade, the damage is far from over.

The French-Dutch island of St Martin, where the massive storm killed 15 people, remains fringed by the white sands and turquoise waters that in happier times drew holidaymakers in their droves.

But Irma made light work of destroying beachfront hotels and restaurants, and it is painfully obvious that the tourists -- and their badly-needed cash -- will not be back any time soon.

"For the coming tourism season, we're screwed," said Paco Benito, manager of the Riu Palace hotel.

"We're going to need a total reconstruction and we're going to start as soon as possible," added the bearded 43-year-old, visibly exhausted.

With a staff of 300 -- "which is to say, 300 families who are counting on us" -- Benito's chic seaside hotel is one of the biggest private employers on the French side of the island.

It would be impossible to repair St Martin's roads and buildings -- damage estimated at one billion euros ($1.2 billion) or more -- before the high season, which usually starts in November and runs until April.

Home to some 35,000 people, St Martin sees around two million visitors a year, most of them American cruise ship passengers.

On the Dutch side, known as Sint Maarten, tourism provides four fifths of jobs, according to authorities. Other industries -- retail, property, water sports -- rely heavily on the continuing influx of holidaymakers.

It's a similar story in the British Virgin Islands, which were also badly hit by Irma.

Tourism directly contributed 34 percent of the UK territory's GDP last year, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. But many shopping for luxury breaks will be ruling the islands out for now.

- Government help needed -

"People save up all year to go on holiday, we can't send them to a building site," said Gilbert Cisneros, head of Paris travel agency Exotismes, a specialist in tropical island getaways.

His firm has already contacted customers who had reserved breaks on hurricane-hit islands over the next three months, proposing that they either delay, choose another destination, or claim a refund.

With barely any tourist dollars set to flow in over the coming months, overseas island territories -- legacies of European empires -- are looking to central governments for desperately-needed funds.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte promised he would not be "stingy" with aid for Sint Maarten, but described the bill as "enormous" and warned neither the central or local government could cover its entirety.

Dutch newspaper AD quoted Sint Maarten premier William Marlin as saying the island needed at least a billion euros, a figure backed by Merlijn Stoffels of the Red Cross.

"Some experts have even put forward the figure of 1.3 billion euros, and that's not absurd," Stoffels told AD.

The Dutch Red Cross has taken in donations worth 3.2 million euros this week, with a national day of telethons and other fund-raising initiatives set to raise more Friday.

Both halves of St Martin will look to the European Union for aid -- but this could prove tricky for the Dutch side. While part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, it is not directly part of the EU.

French President Emmanuel Macron, visiting the devastated neighbouring island of St Barts, promised emergency financial aid for those "who have lost everything".

Britain has meanwhile pledged 57 million pounds ($76 million) for its territories, but some politicians are already worrying that Brexit could cut them off from vital EU funds in the years to come.

- Come back stronger? -

Didier Arino, head of the Paris-based consultancy Protourisme, predicted it would take three years for tourism to climb back to pre-hurricane levels.

"They're starting from zero," he said.

But he sees hope in the tragedy: a chance to build first-rate tourist infrastructure "which protects the environment better and creates much greater economic and social benefits".

Exotismes boss Cisneros, who has 30 years' experience in Caribbean travel, also sees reasons to be upbeat.

"We've had bad storms before. Every time, it picks back up again, people rebuild," he said, remembering Hurricane Hugo which laid waste to swathes of the Caribbean in 1989.

The industry could even come back stronger than before.

Once the rebuilding is done, St Martin and St Barts "will be the two Caribbean islands with the best infrastructure", he predicted.

Irma saw no borders on devastated French-Dutch island
Philipsburg, Netherlands (AFP) Sept 14, 2017
People on the Dutch side of Saint Martin, the Caribbean island devastated by Hurricane Irma, may be wealthier than their French counterparts, but they face the same desolation and lawlessness in its wake. "Come on in, buddy. There's lots of stuff here, even sunglasses," an islander beckons, helping herself to cosmetics at one of the beachfront duty free stores in the tropical shopping paradi ... read more

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