Swift hurricanes ripped through the Caribbean in early September, desolating communities and wreaking havoc on gorgeous resorts frequented by Canadian tourists. Cuba was not immune to the terror of Hurricane Irma, however, in the aftermath, the country wasted no time in starting with reparations.
Within a week, Air Transat had resumed flights to Varadero and Holguin. Flights to Santa Clara will resume Nov. 11th and to Cayo Coco, Nov. 15th. I flew down to assess the damage with Air Transat and a group of journalists in late October.
When our plane touched down at Aeorpuerto Internacional Jardines del Ray (the international airport that services Cayo Coco), we were greeted by a multitude of directors, tourism professionals and workers. Staff put down their paintbrushes to serve us wine and beer. The Vice President of Gaviota, one of the main Cuban tourism organizations, explained the current situation. “Already, electricity is working everywhere, and we are transporting water from the mainland. Internet, wifi, cell service — everything is working.”
The majority of the resorts in the area only had to endure four days without basic necessities. Now that those are repaired, the focus has shifted externally. “Sections of roads, lights and sidewalks are what we are working on now.”
How is this possible? Although the hurricane was damaging, disaster may have struck at the right time. “Fortunately, we were building many new hotels, so we repurposed these supplies to restore the damaged hotels,” said Manuel Marrero, Cuba’s Minister of Tourism.
The construction of new hotels has not been cancelled, but postponed while restoration efforts take priority.
We visited Sol Cayo Coco, Melia Jardines del Ray, Pestana Cayo Coco, Melia Cayo Guillemo and spent the night at Iberostar Playa Pilar. All of these resorts have unique renovations, work still to come and a re-opening date of Nov. 1. They also have hundreds of people — from Cuba and abroad — working constantly to ensure this happens.
“We have been working very hard, so you may think the hurricane passed long ago, but it was only last month,” said Alexis Trujillo, Vice Minister of Tourism. “Every day we are getting better. We are taking this break to check the condition of all our products and to improve our resorts for the guests. We have no doubt that the destination will be ready Nov. 1.”
The Pullman Cayo Coco — one of the harder hit by the hurricane — will be reopening Nov. 15.
Cayo Santa Maria accommodates around 9,000 rooms in 16 hotels. Tourists flock to this area for catamaran excursions and trips to Trinidad. We visited Melia Cayo Santa Maria, Melia Las Dunas, Ocean Casa del Mar and spent the night at Dhawa Santa Maria. Uprooted palm trees and destroyed gardens are being replanted, and roofs are being retiled. The destination plans to be ready for tourists in early November, and they are well on their way.
According to Ivis Pena, the Delegate of the Minister of Tourism, “Cuba’s most important tourism region wasn’t really affected by the hurricane.” She’s talking, of course, about Varadero. I visited Melia Marina, Paradisus Princesa del Mar and Iberostar Bella Vista. Unlike Cuba’s other locations, resort guests are already enjoying the fresh sand and renovations, a positive result of Hurricane Irma.
“Canadians make up a big part of Cuba’s tourism market: 35 per cent,” Pena explained to us, “We look forward to welcoming them back this season.”
This press trip was provided by Air Transat; all opinions are my own.