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Irma effect on tourism mixed

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Florida could recover from Hurricane Irma’s wrath in time for its busy tourism season this winter, but that’s likely not the case for harder-hit Caribbean islands including St. Martin/St. Maarten, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and Barbuda, according to travel experts’ early reads.

Damage assessments still were underway yesterday, but impacts on Florida’s $100 billion tourism industry likely will be short term and not affect winter’s high-travel season that starts in mid-December.

“It does look, so far, that Florida will probably recover a bit quicker than some of the worst-hit Caribbean islands, and that’s because, from what we can tell, there’s less damage, and generally the infrastructure and government support is a little bit better,” said Sarah Schlichter, senior editor of

Florida attracted nearly 113 million tourists last year, supporting more than 1.4 million jobs. Some closed airports and cruise ports were expected to resume operations last night and today. Delta Air Lines and American Airlines planned to restart some service last night, with flights to harder-hit areas like Key West not expected until later.

“Obviously Key West is going to suffer, because they got hit with a Category 5 (hurricane),” said George Hobica, founder of

Planned travel in the near future to the Florida Keys island chain should be postponed, the Florida Keys Tourism Council tweeted yesterday.

Walt Disney Co. said it would reopen its Florida theme parks today, and Universal Orlando planned to resume operations today as well.

The storm damage likely won’t have an effect on Florida airfares, according to Hobica. “Airfares already are pretty rock-bottom to Florida this time of year, simply because it’s a slow period,” he said. “Some people don’t go to these regions simply because they know it’s hurricane time.”

Some Caribbean islands, meanwhile, could lose significant tourist dollars if cruise lines have to avoid them and hotels and resorts don’t reopen for some time. Several stops at cruise ports of call sustained extensive damage, including St. Thomas, St. John, St. Maarten and Cuba. At least 15 ports were damaged, with eight almost destroyed, according to the website Norwegian won’t be sending ships to the eastern Caribbean until November at the earliest and will reroute cruises to western stops.

“I don’t think too many people are going to be flying to those islands this winter,” Hobica said.

The Caribbean’s busy tourist time falls during the winter holidays through spring break. The “ABC islands” — Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire — stand to benefit in the immediate term, because they’re outside the hurricane belt and considered safer bets.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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