FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — As Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahamas, two groups of islands emerged. One group was hit hard by death and destruction. The other escaped relatively unscathed — and now the push is on for tourists to vacation there again.
After the Category 5 storm, Bahamian tourism officials took pains to tell the outside world that many of the country’s destinations, including Nassau, the nation’s capital, as well as the adjacent Paradise Island, weren’t badly damaged and are open for business. Cruise lines, which take hundreds of thousands of passengers annually to the Bahamas, say their private islands also were largely spared even though Dorian hit the northern Bahamas and killed at least 50 people.
“It is important to spread the word that much of the country had no or little impact and is open for business,” said Roger Frizzell, spokesman for Miami-based Carnival Corp. “Cruise tourism is a vital economic driver for the Bahamian people.”
Cruise lines have started lining up Caribbean itineraries from Florida and beyond. But the government, resorts and cruise lines face a challenge in persuading vacationers to return to the islands, as many reportedly feel uncomfortable booking vacations near areas hit by the storm. Bookings declined significantly at resorts across the country, according to the tourism ministry, which published a map showing how 14 of the nation’s 16 tourism-centric islands are open for business.
There are plans for various Grand Bahama resorts to reopen in the coming weeks, but no regularly scheduled cruise ships are docking or disembarking leisure travelers in Freeport, as authorities tend to displaced residents and damaged properties. “The worst thing that could happen to the island at this stage is to stop going there,” said Oneil Khosa, CEO of Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line.
The cruise line, which conducted relief missions out of the Port of Palm Beach to Grand Bahama Island, is assessing how to resume leisure cruises to the island. It’d be a “controlled cruise experience,” Khosa said. “We would restrict the region where our passengers would be able to go for their own safety, while not diluting the experience.”
Some Bahamians without homes have instability ruling their lives miles from where tourists arrive.
While Nassau is back in business as a cruise and tourist destination, it also has been a landing place for large numbers of storm refugees who lost their homes in Grand Bahama Island, the Abacos and other northern islands. In the capital, there are still nearly 2,000 people in shelters, mostly from devastated areas in the north, a disaster official with U.S. Agency for International Development told The Associated Press.
Besides Nassau and nearby Paradise Island, the storm spared Andros, the Exumas, Eleuthera and farther out, in southeastern islands such as Cat Island and Long Island, most of the island nation never experienced tropical-storm-force winds. But the damage picture is vastly different in the north, where Grand Bahama suffered widespread property destruction in its eastern portion, and maritime operations in Freeport were curtailed.
Atlantis, Paradise Island — the huge hotel, casino and water park complex adjacent to Nassau — kept its flags at half staff out of respect for people killed by the storm, one of the strongest hurricanes on record. But the complex, which is more than 120 miles south of the storm-ravaged region of the country, is quickly emerging from a short-term decline in visitors who are getting over their reluctance to travel to the Bahamas, a spokesman said.
“We have not seen any kind of long-lasting effect other than the week prior to and the week during the storm,” said Ed Fields, spokesman for the destination. “You would have the same impact as in South Florida. Once (visitors) realize the storm is past, they are quick to start up again and those who may have canceled have rebooked.
“We are looking good for the fall. Obviously the islands directly affected have some ways to go. Our focus is to see how we can help them rebuild.”
Atlantis, which pledged $3 million to relief efforts, is doing more to entice visitors. It’s offering nervous travelers a “Worry Free Hurricane Guarantee.” Under the plan, would-be visitors can cancel their reservations up to the moment of departure if the National Hurricane Center issues storm warnings within 14 days prior to a person’s scheduled arrival. Travelers are expected to rebook within 60 days.
Meanwhile, the cruise lines have resumed most of their regularly scheduled trips to the islands.
Here is a look at where they are headed:
Three of the company’s lines — Carnival Cruise Line, Holland America Line and Princess Cruises — are all resuming regular sailings starting this month and in October. Destinations include Nassau, the nation’s capital, and the Carnival-owned private islands of Half Moon Cay, which is 100 miles south of Nassau, and Princess Cays, which is 50 miles east of Nassau. Collectively, the three companies will operate more than 250 sailings to the Bahamas through the end of the year, Frizzell said.
— Carnival Cruise Line: The company’s ships have returned with scheduled visits to most Bahamian ports of call, including 41 planned calls to Nassau and Carnival’s private islands, Half Moon Cay and Princess Cays, for the rest of September. Eight vessels will make a combined 204 calls through the remainder of the year, visiting Nassau and the private islands.
— Princess Cruises: Starting Oct. 9, the line has 19 sailings scheduled through the end of this year, including visits to the private Princess Cays enclave.
— Holland America Line: Ships are scheduled to return to the Bahamas starting Oct. 21, when MS Zuiderdam calls on Half Moon Cay. Through the end of the year, the company plans 46 scheduled cruises to Bahamian destinations with seven of its ships.
BAHAMAS PARADISE CRUISE LINE
Prior to the storm, the two-ship line offered two-night voyages out of the Port of Palm Beach to Grand Bahama Island, its only destination.
Khosa, the CEO, said he doesn’t have a date for resuming regular service. But he has no plans for serving anywhere else.
“We are committed to Grand Bahama,” he said. “It is our only port of call.”
On regular cruises, passengers spend most of their time aboard the line’s ships and take beach excursions. “Most of our guests are going to happy with that,” he said.
After the storm, the line converted one of its ships, the Grand Celebration, into a relief vessel.
The second round-trip mission returned to South Florida on Sept. 18. While in Grand Bahama, the ship served 12,000 meals to island residents.
Khosa said large numbers of people from around Palm Beach County and elsewhere in the state volunteered their services to help storm victims.
The Miami-based company’s website is offering cruises out of Port Everglades to Nassau via Key West. Voyages to Nassau are also being offered out of Port Canaveral. Royal Caribbean reopened its private island called CocoCay, also known as Little Stirrup Cay. The island is 55 miles north of Nassau and is used exclusively by its cruise passengers.
NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE HOLDINGS
The company’s Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line said its ships have resumed operations to Nassau and to its private island called Great Stirrup Cay, which is south of Nassau.
“Due to the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, we are unfortunately unable to call to Freeport, Grand Bahama,” a spokeswoman said.
The Oceania Cruises subsidiary is advertising Nassau and Great Stirrup Cay as part of cruise itineraries out of Miami in October and December.
The Fort Lauderdale-based U.S. arm of the company continues to serve Nassau out of PortMiami. The line says its Nassau itineraries were not impacted by the storm.
The line is also promoting the opening of a redeveloped private island called Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, which is scheduled to start operations in November. The enclave, part of the Bahamian district of Bimini, lies 65 miles from PortMiami. It did not sustain any storm damage, a representative said.