When writers visited the storm-ravaged British Virgin Islands in December, residents asked them to return home with a message: “Let people know we’re open.”
The writers were from several Active Interest Media marine publications, all sister titles to Soundings Trade Only. They visited the area with MarineMax and The Moorings, companies that usually are rivals, but that were showing, together, how the tourism-dependent region was ready for charter-boat, cruise-ship and independent boaters to return.
“It was a pretty incredible experience,” says Power & Motoryacht editor Dan Harding. “I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I really came away with an appreciation for not just the islands, but more for the people there.
“I was worried that it was going to be an uncomfortable feeling,” he adds. “Here we are cruising on a yacht, listening to music, all self-sustaining. What got me over that was talking to people. They are genuinely thrilled to have boaters and tourists back on their shores again.”
Hotels are still struggling to get back up and running, so for now the islands are relying on boats and cruise ships to bring visitors. That way, no resources are taken from the islands — although the grocery store on Tortola, where the MarineMax Vacations BVI base is located, is open and stocked, says MarineMax Vacations vice president Raul Bermudez.
“We even have watermakers, so that makes it easier, though water is not an issue,” Bermudez says. “From the people’s point of view, locals are very happy to see the tourists come back. They’re friendlier than ever.”
The company had a slowdown after Hurricane Irma, which slammed into the islands as a Category 5 storm on Sept. 6. “We haven’t really had any cancellations, like we had at the beginning,” Bermudez says. “Now we’re starting to get more calls.”
The Moorings lost about a third of the fleet at its Tortola base. Another third was damaged — and it’s a struggle to repair them because there aren’t enough people to do the work, says Josie Tucci, sales and marketing vice president for The Moorings.
“We reopened our base with about 120 boats, which, considering everything, is pretty amazing,” Tucci says, adding that most of the fleet is new. “We have boats coming online every day. We’re maybe up to 160 or 170. It’s well under half what we would normally expect this time of year, but that’s still a lot of boats. We’re very happy about that.”
Of MarineMax Vacations’ 50 boats, only four were a total loss, Bermudez says, adding: “We were pretty fortunate.”
He estimates that it will take a year to 18 months to get all of the charter operations in the BVI back, and another six months before the islands’ infrastructure is restored.
“People have to remember it’s been five months,” Bermudez says. “So yeah, things have started to get back to somewhat normal. When you go through the island you see still some cleanup that has to be done. On the east side of the island they’re still in rough shape. Everyone’s adjusted, though.”
The damaged trees are regrowing foliage, and there are several replanting programs, Tucci says. The beaches are clean, and beach shacks, such as the beloved Roxy’s and the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke, are back up and running.
With every day comes news of more establishments reopening, Tucci says, news that makes social media sites such as the BVI Traveller Facebook page helpful. Things are still spotty, detailed on the Sailors Unite #CaribbeanComeback website in the BVI Comeback Tour tab. Since that was written in early December, several places have reopened, Tucci says.
Traveling with charter companies that can suggest itineraries based on what’s open and ready is helpful.
“They’re not going to have to rough it,” Bermudez says, joking. “I think because ice is harder to find, they’re making the drinks even stronger.”
The Moorings and Sunsail BVI base “was in fabulous shape,” Tucci says. “It’s amazing the work the guys have done there. By the time we got in on [Dec. 9] and guests were starting to arrive, it was just like normal.”
Tucci and Bermudez also say they’ve seen more first-time visitors than they expected. Some arrived after MarineMax Vacations, which is donating 10 percent of its revenue to the islands through March, posted videos on social media explaining that charters had resumed, Bermudez says.
“We had a group of first-timers who had waited and waited to cancel, and they saw our videos,” he says. “Their flight down was canceled, so they drove 10 hours to get to Miami so they could still make the trip.”
MarineMax and The Moorings, Harding says, came together for the initiative to bring tourism back to the islands in part because of Gary DeSanctis, group publisher and general manager of the AIM Marine Group. DeSanctis offered AIM’s assistance to provide industry and public updates.
“In an unprecedented initiative, the editors of the AIM Marine Group banded together to get a firsthand look at the damage the recent hurricanes inflicted and the recovery mission underway,” DeSanctis says. “What we experienced was shock on one hand, but inspiration on the other. The residents on the islands are a shining example of what the human spirit is capable of when faced with daunting challenges.”
Another unexpected benefit of the storm has been some of the cleanest water that locals have ever seen.
“People believe the water’s the cleanest it’s been in decades because of the lack of traffic,” Tucci says.
Bermudez agrees: “The underwater’s phenomenal. I went snorkeling [on Jan. 7], and it was amazing. The fish didn’t go anywhere. The water temperature is so fantastic; the sky is so blue. It’s amazing.”
Moorings are easy to come by, and the islands are less crowded than usual at this time of year, making it a great time for tourists to check out the bars and restaurants.
“They need those tourism dollars to help rebuild,” Harding says. “But also, these islands live and thrive off tourism. Without their work, they seem a little bit lost. They’re genuinely looking forward to boaters coming back for financial [reasons], but also to get back to normalcy.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue.