With many members of the tourism industry working diligently to spread the word about the Caribbean being open for business post-hurricane season, Steve Simao, v.p. of sales at Windstar Cruises, decided to head south and check things out for himself. What he found was a Caribbean still in recovery, but still as vibrant and vacation-worthy as ever.
Simao sailed roundtrip from San Juan, Puerto Rico to St. Barth’s, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint Lucia on a revised version of the Windstar Caribbean Treasures itinerary. Here’s what he had to say about his time in the Caribbean, the state of tourism in the islands, and advice for agents looking to send their clients on a cruise.
Jessica Poitevien (JP): How have Windstar’s operations been affected by the hurricane season?
Steve Simao (SS): We were always sailing from San Juan, so the homeport remained consistent, and St. Barth’s was also on the original itinerary. That was the island—other than Puerto Rico—that was probably the most affected by these hurricanes. So that was for the Star Pride. We also had the Windsurf sailing in the Caribbean, and she was originally scheduled to homeport in St. Martin, but we actually had to completely redeploy her to Barbados, and so her itineraries were completely revised, even the homeport itself, but for the Star Pride we kept the homeport of Puerto Rico.
JP: Do you think there’s a misconception among travel agents or consumers about what’s open in the Caribbean and what’s closed?
SS: Yep, there really is, and it’s interesting: Coming into this trip my understanding or my perception was that people were thinking it was destroyed, that it wasn’t safe, that it wasn’t possible to get into or that if I got there, there would be nothing for me to do, and that’s a valid perception. That’s what a lot of travel agents and consumers think. But in talking with travelers that were on the cruise, there was another thing that popped up that I didn’t really realize, and that was that the people on board the cruise actually said to me, “You know we almost canceled because we felt guilty traveling for a holiday to a destination where there were people suffering or had just recently been hit by these hurricanes, and here we come to their island and we show up to have fun.” They felt guilty doing that, and that was something that I had never even thought would’ve been a reaction, but enough people on the cruise told me this, so I realized that that was another perception that also might be hindering some of the return of tourism to the region.
JP: What would you say to the people who are hesitant to vacation in a place where people are still recovering from these hurricanes?
SS: One of the things I did on this trip was that I talked to the local people that were there, and I asked them about this. The resounding message was that [their] economies depend heavily on tourism, and yes, there are people that are struggling, but in order to rebuild, the economy needs to return to its normal state, and the economy on these islands depends on tourism. You shouldn’t feel guilty, because it’s a trickle down theory. You go there, you take a tour that puts a taxi driver back to work, so now he’s got some money to rebuild his house. You go into a shop and buy some things and some of that profit goes back to the storeowner who then can reinvest and buy things to support his store. That’s how it’s going to come back—through tourism.
JP: That’s definitely a message I’ve heard from many people in the tourism industry in the Caribbean.
SS: It’s a message that a lot of people are saying right now: Come back to the Caribbean. The tourism depends on this. But for me, [with] the firsthand experiences, it’s not just ‘Oh the people in the Caribbean need this help.’ It’s Elvis, the guy who took me around Saint Lucia. Elvis needs it. I saw the individuals, and I saw their faces, and I heard it right from them. So this isn’t just a line that people are saying to get people to start traveling again. This is reality, and this is what these people are facing. I was in San Juan, and I was talking to a storeowner, and he had a generator powering his store. He said, ‘You know I’ve got the supplies back in my store; I’ve got some of the roof repaired; I’ve got this electrical generator; I’ve got electricity. The only thing I’m missing is people shopping in my store.’ So it’s not just a line. This is really what’s happening. It’s all true and so critical.
JP: Are any of the concerns that people have valid or in your experience, are most things getting back to normal?
SS: Let’s take Puerto Rico as an example of this because Puerto Rico, of the places that I visited, it was obviously the island that was the most hit. San Juan proper is basically functional. There wasn’t a single traffic light on the island that was working. So there’s some truth. The island doesn’t have working traffic lights, but what did I see instead? I saw friendly policemen directing traffic at busy intersections. Did I see shops that didn’t have electricity? Yes, but I saw generators. I saw trucks stringing new electrical lines throughout Old San Juan. Did I see piles of rubble? Did I see some buildings that were completely destroyed? Yes, and it was sad, but I saw Morro Castle had this green grass layer that was sort of surrounding it, and the tour guide said this grass was all new. A month ago this was all brown mud, but now the grass is back. Did I see some palm trees that were down? Yes, but did I see new palm branches coming out? Absolutely. If I wanted to go on that trip and take pictures of all of the destroyed buildings and the palm trees and the piles of rubbish and make it look horrible, I could, but that was a small percentage of what I saw. Ninety percent of what I saw was back up and running.
What I saw was life. I saw people in bars laughing. I saw restaurants open. I saw people walking in the streets. That’s my memory of San Juan. The airport was fully functional. The lights were on. I wouldn’t have even known at the airport that there had been a hurricane and that there had been damage there. I just didn’t see it. So I think that’s the best way for me to explain it: Yes, there’s damage there, and it’s visible, but it’s not by any means the overwhelming impression.
JP: Was there anything that surprised you about the state of tourism in Puerto Rico or on any of the other islands that you visited?
SS: One of the things that stood out was how empty it felt. I think because people are shying away from it. Tour guides were saying, ‘I’m going to show you this beach now because by this afternoon it’ll be really busy,’ and I go that afternoon because I wanted to get pictures of it being busy, and it was still fairly empty. There were people there, but it wasn’t the crowded beach that they had expected, and I think that they were still relying on what would normally be the case. Our ship that week was just a little over half booked because we had a number of cancellations. I imagine that probably a lot of the other ships were not so full, and so that was one thing that surprised me, that it didn’t feel as full as it should have. The other thing is that I honestly expected to see more damage. I really did. I had my GoPro with me as we were driving around each island, and when you look at that video, all you see is lush greenery. I’m sure there are islands—the islands that we don’t go to at the moment—that are more hurt, but the Caribbean is a pretty vast place. There’s a lot of the Caribbean that’s open right now, and I think that we need to remind ourselves of the geography. It’s not just one place that was hit and the whole Caribbean is destroyed.
JP: Is Windstar doing anything in particular to get that message out about the Caribbean being open for business?
SS: I think that was the nature of why I went on this trip. We say that the Caribbean is open and it’s a viable place to go and it’s safe, and people are hesitant so I’m going to go myself and show you that it’s ok. We wanted to have one of our executives personally go and personally take pictures and video and come back with stories about it being open. We’ve been very active in sharing this on all of our social media channels. There’s a hashtag #CaribbeanIsOpen. We’re working with CLIA and other organizations to help support that messaging. I also brought four travel agents along with me on the trip. We invited them to come so that they could in turn use their social media channels to get the message out.
JP: Is there anything that travel agents should know about sending their clients on a Windstar cruise to the Caribbean right now?
SS: The important thing is that the Windstar Caribbean is truly the unspoiled Caribbean. It’s the hidden harbors. It’s what people expect, and we’ve taken time to make sure that we’ve revised the itineraries to take guests to places that are still open. We have viable tours in all the ports of call to make sure that our guests do have things to do. We’re still giving them very authentic and safe and great Caribbean destination options for this year. The Caribbean still remains a viable option. In fact, I would say that because of all the concern out there, it’s not only a great trip, but it’s also at a really great price at the moment.