By BETH J. HARPAZ
AP Travel Editor
Walt Disney World theme parks and Universal Orlando Resort have reopened in Orlando after Hurricane Irma hit Florida. But many other destinations in the state and the Caribbean affected by Irma and other storms remain off-limits to visitors, in some cases with extensive damage or power outages that will take days if not weeks to resolve.
Irma was at one point the most powerful recorded storm in the open Atlantic, and its hit on the tourism industry will be significant, although an exact figure is still unclear.
Tourism accounts for 1.4 million jobs in the Sunshine State, where more than 112 million people visited last year and spent $109 billion. More than 7 million Americans visited the Caribbean last year, trailing only Europe as a top destination, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
AIR Worldwide estimates that Irma’s damage to insured property in the U.S. will range between $20 billion and $40 billion, with damage in the Caribbean between $5 billion and $15 billion. Other estimates go higher, and that only accounts for damage covered by private insurance.
Here’s a snapshot of how the tourism industry is faring so far:
Universal Orlando Resort reported “relatively minor damage” to fences, trees, signs and facades as its theme parks reopened Tuesday. Its popular Halloween Horror Nights went on as scheduled Friday. Disney’s water parks opened later in the week as well.
The Dali Museum’s massive geodesic glass bubble, known as the Glass Enigma, “is fine,” but its “Wish Tree,” where visitors tie wishes written on their admission wristbands, was felled in the storm. Museum spokeswoman Kathy Greif said the museum hopes to restore the tree.
Florida Keys tourism spokesman Andy Newman said travelers should postpone trips there until “the destination is ready to receive visitors.” He said Key West’s famous “90 Miles to Cuba” marker is solid concrete and “ain’t going nowhere,” but cleanup and restoring utilities, communications and other services will take time.
Impact in the Caribbean varied. Widespread damage was reported in the British Virgin Islands, Barbuda, St. Martin and St. Barts, including its famed Eden Rock Hotel. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix was said by the Caribbean Tourism Organization to be “getting back to business,” but visitors were encouraged to avoid St. Thomas and St. John. Turks and Caicos had just a couple of open hotels, with others closed anywhere from one week to two months. But the Dominican Republic fared OK, and many hotels in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas – including the popular Atlantis, Paradise Island – reported being back to normal.
Despite the fact that not all Caribbean destinations were devastated, professor Robin DiPietro at the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sports Management, predicted in an email that the storm could have “long-term impact ... as tourists generalize the Caribbean as a bad destination.”
Many cruise ships that home-port in Florida or were on Caribbean itineraries when Irma developed were kept at sea, had sailings canceled or made unscheduled port calls, in some cases stranding or delaying passengers. Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, for example, was kept at sea to avoid the storm, delaying passengers from returning as scheduled and postponing its next sailing.
Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor at large for CruiseCritic.com, counted some 50 sailings impacted by the storms across seven cruise lines, noting that it’s rare to outright cancel a cruise but that “Irma caused at least 20 outright cancellations.” Caribbean itineraries, which she said account for 50 percent of cruise business, will be drastically altered.
According to Frank Comito, CEO of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, less than 20 percent of the region’s total hotel room inventory has been affected by Irma, and the time needed to rebound varies tremendously by destination.
“Places like St. Thomas and the Turks and Caicos should rebound fairly quickly,” Comito said in an email. “Other areas which were impacted less like Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis, St. Croix, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and The Bahamas have already rebounded and are open for business, having minimal damage, with airports fully operational.”