Every captain needs a first mate. And at Virgin Voyages, the adults-only cruise line set to debut in 2020, its second-in-command will be none other than travel agents.
TORONTO — If there’s one thing Sunwing wants agents to focus on following one of the most devastating hurricane seasons in recent memory, it’s that for much of the Caribbean region it’s business as usual.
Andrew Dawson, Chief Operating Officer of Sunwing Travel Group, told Travelweek that 95% of the Caribbean is open for business and ready to welcome tourists, which he says may be surprising to people considering that much of the media focus has been on the devastation caused by Irma and Maria, rather than on recovery.
“A lot of people have seen the pictures and images, especially in places like Barbuda and St. Maarten, and they’re assuming that this is what’s happening everywhere,” he said. “We want to put the record straight that yes, some islands have been horribly affected, and that there’s been loss of life and loss of livelihood, and it’s been a real struggle in those islands. But fortunately, the majority of the Caribbean was either unaffected or have already recovered.”
In places like Varadero and Punta Cana, it only took two to three days for damage to be repaired. The Dominican Republic Tourism Office made an official statement to reassure travellers that the island is safe and unharmed.
“In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, it is important to understand that many of the islands that depend on tourism were not affected in any way, and are open for business. The Dominican Republic was not affected by the hurricanes and is not to be confused with the island of Dominica – an island that is located in the southern Caribbean and is located over 1,000 kilometres away. The people of the Dominican Republic stand with the islands in the Caribbean that have been impacted by these hurricanes. The Dominican Republic, like all of the island nations in our 2.7 million-kilometre region that were not affected will continue to welcome guests so that our region remains strong as one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world,” said Abdalah Castillo, Chair of the Dominican Republic Tourism Board.
Varadero in particular, said Dawson, is ready for business, with the exception of four resorts in Sunwing’s portfolio: Blau Marina Varadero, Paradisus Varadero, Blau Privilege Cayo Libertad, and the Royal Service section at Paradisus Princesa del Mar. Clients at these four properties have already been moved or given similar options.
At the height of the hurricanes, Sunwing had about 7,500 clients in Cuba, “more than all other tour operators combined”, said Dawson. The company successfully moved all clients from the Cayos to Varadero, and then transported them back home when Irma changed course.
The Cayos, said Dawson, are still rebuilding, but local authorities have assured Sunwing that infrastructure and properties will be back up and running within a month’s time.
St. Maarten, however, did not fare as well. The damage on the island has been so extensive that Sunwing will not be back this winter. The company had approximately 4,000 clients booked for St. Maarten this winter.
“We’ve changed their flights and have given them options for another destination. Some have cancelled but we’ve tried to give them a matching trip. So we’ve added seats to Jamaica, Antigua and Cancun to try to replace it and give them similar options,” he said, adding that more clients have changed their trips rather than cancelled.
Other destinations well outside the hurricane belt are still doing really well and have not slowed down a bit, like Costa Rica and Aruba. And yet Dawson noted that Sunwing has seen a slow-down in new bookings to Cuba and the Caribbean as a whole, which is why the company’s #1 priority right now is to get the message out that it’s not only safe to travel, but now is probably the best time to go.
“The damage has been very localized, the whole region isn’t devastated,” he said. “The islands need tourism to help rebuild. Visiting now is the best thing we can do.”
To read more of our interview with Andrew Dawson, check out the lead story in the Oct. 12 issue of Travelweek. To subscribe, click here.