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Hurricane zone still open to tourism

Some areas were unscathed; others are in bad shape

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NEW YORK — Talk about an exclusive vacation.

When Ken and Linda Jordan of Rochester Hills, Mich., landed their single-engine plane on Cayman Brac on Oct. 1 for a weeklong trip they'd planned months before, they were the first tourists to visit since Hurricane Ivan.

And as the sole guests at the Divi Tiara Beach Hotel, they enjoyed being spoiled by the staff and having use of a 40-foot dive boat all to themselves.

"It's been wonderful, and the diving is excellent," said Ken Jordan as he and his wife sipped cocktails.

Cayman Brac and Little Cayman — the sister islands of Grand Cayman — were relatively unscathed by the storms that hit the Caribbean, Florida and other coastal areas in August and September.

But what the tourism industry throughout the region fears is that the vacationing public will have a hard time distinguishing between places that took direct hits from the storms — like Grand Cayman, where 70 percent of buildings were damaged, or Pensacola, Fla. — and places that are up and running, like Cayman Brac or Miami.

In the Caribbean, Grand Cayman and Grenada were hit hardest by the storms, but Grand Bahama, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Turks & Caicos islands and Cuba also sustained damage of varying degrees. (Haiti suffered the worst effects but is not considered a major tourism destination.)

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, "the vast majority of destinations . . . are ready today to welcome and pamper guests," said Karen Ford Warner of the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Even in some places hit by storms, damage was spotty. For example, Hurricane Ivan damaged thousands of homes on Jamaica's south coast but largely spared the northern tourist hubs of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. A smattering of hotels in the resort towns of Negril and Treasure Beach received severe damage but are expected to reopen in a few months, said Godfrey Dyer, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association.

"Jamaica is as beautiful as ever," Dyer said. "The northern section where most of the hotels are was spared."

Andy Newman, who handles public relations for the Florida Keys, says he is fighting "a huge misperception around the country that the Florida Keys were devastated when they are not. We have absolutely no lingering damage."

Many TV viewers saw footage of the Keys being evacuated, but they may not realize that the hurricanes ended up missing Key Largo, Key West and the rest of the primary island chain.

"With both the Caribbean and Florida, the way the news has reported it, it seems like, 'Stay away from the entire Caribbean and the entire state of Florida,' " said Francesca Bonavita, vice president for product and brand development at American Express.

"Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, the Keys, Tampa, St. Pete, Clearwater, Amelia Island — those are all fine. People can book with confidence," she added.

"Our tourism is the industry that was most damaged, and not because of structural damage but because of perceptual damage," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "No hotels are closed. No businesses were lost. We are absolutely unblemished. The beach had minimal erosion."

Because so many Americans have friends and family who have retired to Florida, some travelers may be basing their perceptions on reports from homeowners struggling to get repairs.

"The reason you're hearing conflicting reports is that there were residential areas that were severely damaged," said Danielle Courtenay with the Orlando-area convention and visitors bureau. But while individuals may have to wait for contractors and insurance money, hotels and theme parks are "built to withstand the winds and they do have the crews to get things up and operating," Courtenay said.

"The theme parks — Disney, Universal, Sea World, Discovery — were all open within a day of every storm," she added. "Are people still trying to get their roofs fixed in residential areas? Yes. But most of the areas where tourists are going, you could not tell there was a storm."

The St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention & Visitors Bureau is so concerned about false impressions that it posted post-hurricane photos on the Web to prove its beaches were unaffected. (Press "Click here" at www.floridasbeach.com/news/StormInfo.aspx to see the pictures.)

The tourism industry's concerns about misperceptions are justified. One in five vacationers said they were less likely to visit Florida this year following the battering the state took from Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, according to a survey by Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown & Russell.

Asked to rate their perception of the damage, 38 percent of those surveyed said they believed the Florida Keys suffered "extreme damage," with

34 percent saying the Tampa/St. Petersburg area was hit hard and 27 percent saying so for Miami. Yet those areas received, at worst, minimal damage — barely anything compared to places that were truly hard-hit, such as Pensacola and other parts of the Panhandle, or the Punta Gorda-Port Charlotte region.

Only two of Florida's 158 state parks remain closed — Hontoon Island State Park and Avalon State Park. And reconstruction is under way in areas that were affected, such as Fort Myers and Sanibel and Captiva islands, where "90 percents of the beaches and properties will be open by Christmas," according to Nancy Hamilton of the Lee County Visitors & Convention Bureau.

Deborah Dunn, an editor for Conde Nast Traveler, headed to the Bahamas shortly after the hurricanes to research vacation destinations for the magazine's December issue.

Dunn found that at places like Atlantis, a hugely popular resort in Nassau, "you certainly couldn't tell" that there had been a hurricane. In contrast, Grand Bahama Island, which was hit hard by the storm, is "in the midst of wild reconstruction," she said.

Even so, Dunn said she would not advise people to stay away. "The best thing to do is to just ask a lot of questions," she said. "It really depends on where you're going. The west end of the island was hit the worst. Bahama Bay is upside-down and closed indefinitely. The rest of the resorts — some are up and running, others are closed."

Paris Permenter, who wrote the Jamaica chapter for Fodor's Caribbean guide and operates a Web site called www.lovetripper.com specializing in honeymoon travel and destination weddings, said that travelers should consider what they plan to do on their vacations before booking on an island affected by the hurricanes.

"For guests who primarily want to enjoy a resort and some fun in the sun, it's back to business as usual at most properties," she said. But "travelers looking for real peace and quiet will want to do a lot of research into on-site renovations and reconstruction projects. Also, guests who want to go off the beaten path, whether that means a mountain bike trip or a visit to coffee plantations, should be prepared for more ongoing reconstruction away from the resort areas, which will be the first areas to return to normal."

In the Dominican Republic, Luis Simo, deputy director of tourism, reported landscape damage and major cleanups in some areas like Punta Cana but said other areas, like Santo Domingo, show no aftereffects. In La Romana, the Casa de Campo resort, which was just named the Caribbean's No. 1 family-friendly resort by Travel + Leisure magazine, received a lot of rain from the storms but its facilities were undamaged, a spokeswoman said.

Gulf Shores, Ala., a popular destination among snowbirds and retirees from northern states, took a direct hit from Hurricane Ivan. Bebe Gauntt, from the local Convention & Visitors Bureau, stressed that while 95 percent of local accommodations are intact, "they are going to need some TLC to get them back up to their standards. Some of the amenities have to be replaced."

By late October, two-thirds of golf courses and marinas had reopened. Several major fall events, including a shrimp festival, fishing rodeo and bird-banding event, were canceled, but a songwriters' festival scheduled for Nov. 11 is proceeding, and a popular spring bird-banding event is set to take place April 2 to 16 at Fort Morgan State Historical Park, a major flyover point for birds returning from South America.

"By spring," pledged Gauntt, "we're going to be back and running."