Holiday travelers are still finding their beach.
After three major hurricanes this fall, bookings are surging to unscathed Caribbean islands for Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as to Hawaii and other warm-weather destinations. Those spots will be more crowded because of the destruction elsewhere that have left some island resorts expecting to stay closed through most of next year.
The number of airline tickets already sold for Jamaica jumped 17% for Thanksgiving trips and 8% for Christmas compared with the same buying period last year, according to Airlines Reporting Corp., which processes tickets for travel agencies. The number of passengers already ticketed for the Cayman Islands is up 11% for Thanksgiving and 19% for Christmas. Barbados is up 37% for Christmas, ARC says.
Tickets sold for the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Maarten and Turks and Caicos have plunged. The islands hit hard by Irma, Maria or both continue to struggle with slow recovery. Puerto Rico faces shortages of food, water, electricity and housing. The U.S. Virgin Islands remain under a nighttime curfew.
Rather than abandoning the Caribbean, beach-lovers have shiftedto undamaged islands. “The hurricane season is over and they know what’s available. I think we’re all a bit surprised at the strength of this region,’’ says
Marriott’s global officer for digital, distribution, revenue management and sales.
Overall, holiday travel looks strong again. Airlines for America, the industry lobbying group, forecasts a 3% increase in passengers over Thanksgiving. And increased discount airline competition is keeping airfare about the same as last year, or even lower in some markets. “For Thanksgiving and Christmas, prices seem to be holding steady,” says
vice president of North American marketing for the online travel agency Kayak.
The average ticket price sold for travel within the U.S., Caribbean and Mexico has been $480 for Thanksgiving trips, up 1%, and $553 for Christmas, up 3.5% compared with the same buying period of 2016, ARC says.
Marriott, which still has nine resorts closed in the Caribbean out of 215 in the region, expected increased bookings in Phoenix, Orlando, Fla., and other popular inland winter hot spots. There’s been some, Mr. King says. But the firm has been surprised with double-digit growth at destinations like Aruba, Grand Cayman and some Mexican beach resorts, as well as Hawaii.
The storms have created some buying opportunities, though fares to beach spots proving popular are running more expensive than a year ago. To remind travelers that it wasn’t damaged by Hurricane Irma and grab the attention of people who had to change their plans, Miami Beach’s Visitor and Convention Authority has arranged for several hotels to offer up to a 25% discount. It’s rare to see a deal that sweet offered over the holidays, spokeswoman
Travel companies say right after Halloween is the time people get serious about booking trips over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Consumers have about another week to book for Thanksgiving before prices start spiking, according to fare-tracking firm Hopper. For Christmas, prices typically are lowest in early October and then start rising slowly before big increases hit in early December.
Hopper chief data scientist
says he thinks people may be waiting longer to make plans this year. “Uncertainty is still out there from storms and ongoing recovery,” he says.
Some destinations have benefited from both increased airline service and travelers displaced from places hit hard by storms. Interest is up for holiday trips to Europe, Kayak says, with the number of searches surging 25%.
for a trip from the U.S. to London over Thanksgiving are up 20% compared with last year, with roughly a 5% drop in the average ticket price. That’s largely a result of more flights across the Atlantic creating more competition. It’s the same story for Christmas: Paris is almost 60% more popular, while air ticket prices are down around 10%, Expedia says.
Hawaii is benefiting from increased airline service from the West Coast to the islands, and perhaps from people choosing to avoid Caribbean beaches this year. ARC says the number of tickets to Honolulu for Christmas is already up 17%. Prices have run 5% higher than last year.
On Puerto Rico, devastated by Hurricane Maria, hotels that are able to operate are housing relief workers. Two cruise ships have also ceased normal operations to provide housing for relief workers. It will be some time before tourism resumes, travel companies say.
On the U.S. Virgin Islands, some resorts have declared themselves closed for a year or more while they rebuild. Others able to operate are housing relief workers at least through the end of October.
Tourism commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty, who has been visiting airline headquarters to coordinate resumption of flights with hotel reopening plans, says St. Croix received less damage than St. Thomas and St. John.
Major hotels on St. Croix will reopen to guests ahead of the holidays. At least two St. Croix hotels, Divi Carina Bay and Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach, will remain closed into 2018.
On St. Thomas, significant resorts will be closed most of next year. “The good news is that a year from now, we’ll have all new product” on St. Thomas,
says. Cruise-ship visits will resume service to the island this year. Restaurants and shopping will be open, many beaches look good and water has tested safe for swimming, she says. “Nature just has a way of taking care of itself,” she says.
Ms. Nicholson-Doty says the tourism department is working to set up volunteer opportunities for visitors to participate in cleanup and rebuilding efforts. And conditions on the islands are improving slowly. Airports on St. Thomas and St. Croix are operational, schools have reopened and there are no longer huge lines at grocery stores and gas stations.
“We are celebrating each milestone,” she says.
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