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An aerial view of the houses destroyed by Irma at the island of St. Martin September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Christophe Ena/Pool(reuters_tickers)
By Alistair Smout
(Reuters) - On Friday, a cruise ship carrying around 3,000 passengers will dock at St. John's harbour in the Caribbean island of Antigua. It will not be where the passengers expected to land when they booked, however.
The Carnival Plc ship was meant to dock in Saint Martin, 100 miles (160 km) to the northwest. However, Hurricane Irma devastated the island, wrecking its port and infrastructure, and leaving it out of bounds for tourists.
Antiguan officials now expect the Carnival Fascination to visit every Friday, and have gotten about 25 calls from major cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd and Norwegian Cruise Lines looking to make stops through the end of the year.
For Asot Michael, Antigua and Barbuda's minister for tourism, the unexpected arrival of thousands of tourists is a bittersweet bonus.
"We are going to be benefiting. I don't want to benefit from others' misfortune after such a disaster," Michael said.
"But because the port is so damaged in Saint Martin, so damaged in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, we're getting some of those cancellations. Those cruise lines now are making ports of call into Antigua."
Hurricane Irma left behind a stark divide in the Caribbean ahead of the winter tourism season that is the region's economic lifeblood. As travel to the region picks up again, cruise lines, hotels, airlines and other companies are directing customers to places that are able to host them, and away from the worst-hit areas.
Popular winter vacation spots such as Saint Martin, the British Virgin Islands and Saint Barthelemy that were devastated by the storm could be sidelined for weeks or months.
In 2016, 29.3 million tourists visited the Caribbean and spent $35.5 billion, both new records, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
“For Saint Martin and Saint Bart, the holiday season looks very compromised," said Jean-Pierre Mas, chairman of French travel agency federation SNAV. "My sentiment is that the winter season is lost. Decisions to book for the winter season are taken right now."
Busy tourist destinations in the western Caribbean, such as Barbados and Trinidad, were well away from the path of the storm. Cozumel, on Mexico's Gulf Coast, got four additional visits this week as ships were rerouted to avoid the storm's impact, although Cozumel tourism officials said three cruises were cancelled.
Florida, which was anticipating another record year for its $100 billion a year tourism industry, is expected to rebound in time for the peak winter travel months, Moody's Analytics said earlier this week. Walt Disney Co reopened its Orlando Disney World theme park on Sept. 12. The Florida Keys, however, wrestled with more severe storm damage.
Some travel companies said they are still assessing the situation and had not made firm decisions about rerouting ships.
Tour operator Virgin Holidays said that it was beginning to return to regular operations in Antigua, despite damage to some properties on the island.
"Antigua wasn't as badly damaged as we feared, and we have reopened tourism there, although three resorts are currently not on sale because of the damage," a spokesman for Virgin Atlantic said. "Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia are three big tourist examples that were not impacted."
However, the small island of Saint Martin, which France shares with the Netherlands, could miss out on much of its tourism season.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday vowed to swiftly rebuild the islands of the French Caribbean, including Saint Martin, and a French public reinsurance body estimated a cost of at least 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) from the damage there and in Saint Barthelemy.
Hurricane Irma badly damaged many hotels on the island, such as AccorHotels Mercure hotel. A spokeswoman for Accor said that while nobody had been hurt, the hotel would be closed until Jan. 8 at least.
While 70 hotel rooms remain operational, they are being used to house military forces and other staff that are supporting the relief effort. AccorHotels is offering cancellation and reimbursement for those who had booked stays at the hotel.
($1 = 0.8395 euros)
(Reporting by Alistair Smout in London; Additional reporting by Dominique Vidalon in Paris; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)