A Caribbean Paradise Lost? Nope

Paradise Lost?

Watching images of the devastation wrought this past hurricane season, it was hard not to wonder if paradise had literally been lost. When the tons of debris that choked bays and piled on beaches was all cleared away, would it leave behind the sparkling sands and stunning aquamarine waters that had previously drawn travelers from across the globe?

Judy Dlugacz, owner of Olivia Travel, known for its lesbian cruises, was also watching those images with a sinking feeling. “For 25 years or more — actually, since 1990 — we’ve been going to the Caribbean … we’re very intimately connected, as are many of our cruise passengers. So, on a very personal level it was upsetting.”

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Fortunately, there’s good news. As Holland America reported in November, “Across the Caribbean, 43 of the region’s estimated 48 ports are fully operational today, having received minimal or no damage from the storms.”

Ports are also open for travelers going to places that will take time to recover, Dlugacz says. “The cruise industry ... and the tourism industry is so important to these islands that those are going to be things that get up rapidly. The ports are going to be there, the trips are going to go there, they’re going to make sure that the beaches are clear.”

For example, although parts of Puerto Rico are still struggling with water and electricity outages, things are up and running in the capital, San Juan, and the old city — where most tourists flock — survived relatively well. While not all LGBT venues were so lucky, plenty were, including the gay hot spot Circo Bar, which features four different areas with unique vibes. San Juan’s queer-friendly Marriott hotels — which host an LGBT guide to Puerto Rico on Traveler.Marriott.com — are also open, even if communication can be difficult. (It took passing notes via Diamond Public Relations, to get a written statement from an unidentified Marriott spokesperson, who says the island is an especially ideal destination for “those interested in adding purpose to their travel.”)

Olivia Travel is working with locals and Celebrity  Cruises to do just that. Dlugacz says many travelers on Olivia’s 45th Anniversary Caribbean Cruise (celebrating the company’s launch, in 1973) this spring will stay in San Juan after disembarkation to volunteer. “We have an amazing group of women who are constantly giving, wherever we go,” she says. “We’ll [also] have people bring things on the trip for the different islands, particularly for San Juan.”

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Gay-owned Atlantis Events and RSVP Vacations are also dedicated to Caribbean recovery, and have joined forces with the LGBT organization Alturi in raising money to support local LGBT communities.

Industry partners also got involved. The parent companies of Carnival and Holland America (on which a RSVP cruise is sailing) pledged to raise $5 million for relief and recovery efforts. Royal Caribbean Cruises, the parent company of both Royal Caribbean (on which Atlantis is sailing) and Celebrity (on which both Olivia and R Family Vacations are cruising), pledged to match donations of up to $1 million and also canceled cruises in the wake of the hurricanes in order to evacuate thousands from the impacted islands.

Industry insiders say it may sound trite, but the best thing people can do to support the islands is to visit them. “Tourism is so important to these islands,” Dlugacz says. “It’s the bread and butter of most of these islands in terms of the economics.”

“Tourism feeds the livelihoods of so many island residents and is essential to achieving a full recovery,” adds an unnamed Marriott spokesperson. “The best thing vacationers can do for the Caribbean is to travel and explore this beautiful part of the world.”

“Our being there is really important,” Dlugacz reiterates. “Because the economy can really use help wherever we go.”

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Always about more than simply travel, LGBT travelers and companies like Olivia, R Family Vacations, Atlantis, and RSVP, have, as Dlugacz reminds us, also “made a lot of difference in the Caribbean in terms of the development of more positive view of the LGBT community. We are [now] very beloved in the places that we go.”

Wanna Go? 2018 LGBT cruises to the Caribbean:

February 11-18:
RSVP Vacations sails on Holland America’s Koningsdam ship to St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic, and the private island
of Half Moon Cay. (RSVPVacations.com)

March 4-11:
R Family Vacations cruises the Western Caribbean on Celebrity’s Silhouette, which will stop in Key West, Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Grand Cayman.  (RFamilyVacations.com)

March 18-25:
Atlantis Events has a Southern Caribbean Cruise sailing from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and stopping at Barbados, St. Lucia, Martinique, and St. Maarten on Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas. (AtlantisEvents.com)

April 2-9:
Olivia Travel celebrates its 45th anniversary with a cruise on Celebrity’s Summit, which is even helmed by a female captain. It sails to Punta Cana, St. Croix, St. Lucia, San Juan, and Labadee (a private luxury island off the coast of Haiti, where visitors have made up the largest proportion of Haiti’s tourism revenue since the 1980s). (Olivia.com)

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