• ‘Irma’ forces cruise ships to other areas

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    Caribbean and southern Florida islands swamped or leveled by Hurricane Irma have left local travel agencies scrambling to re-book customers for new destinations months and years in advance.

    Last week, Irma rolled over the northern Caribbean with Category-5 force, leaving at least 25 people dead and damaging or destroying nearly every structure on islands including Antigua, Barbuda, the US and British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos, Saint Barts and Saint Martin. Thousands were left homeless and infrastructure was heavily damaged.

    With popular tourist destinations in those areas destroyed or heavily damaged, hotels are no longer accepting bookings through at least December, while cruises are either cancelled so their ships could be pressed into rescue duties, or changed to visit areas less devastated by the storm, said Colleen Peterson, owner of Hempfield-based Port of Call Travel.

    Miami ports reopening
    CruiseCritic.com reported that most Florida ports were reopening this week as the US Coast Guard inspected them for damage, though reopening Miami, the busiest US cruise port, was delayed by sunken sailboats in the channel. Some cruises were stuck out at sea while the hurricane passed, while others will be shortened and their passengers given discounts as the ships return to port.

    “Most [cruise]ships have stops in Saint Martin, and a lot are going to the western Caribbean instead,” Peterson said. “There’s no date they’ll be resuming. It’s probably at least until December because they’re still assessing damage.”

    The fine print on most cruise contracts allows the cruise lines to change itineraries or destinations, she said.

    Joseph Kiernan, owner of Upper Saint Clair-based Travel Leaders, said his agency this week was frantically trying to re-book customers for other destinations or later dates. Saint Martin probably won’t be able to accept tourists for a year or two while it rebuilds, he said.

    “The next few weeks are going to be non-productive, as far as bringing new business; we’re just going to be re-booking people,” Kiernan said.

    Spokesman Paul Berry said Spirit Airlines resumed flights in and out of Fort Lauderdale as soon as the airport reopened there earlier this week. He said there has since been no hurricane-related impact on flight bookings to that area from Pittsburgh International Airport, which has been handling all of the airline’s Southwestern Pennsylvania traffic since the runway at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity is temporarily closed for repaving.

    But the storm caused a major disruption at the airline’s suburban Miami headquarters and with its daily flights in South Florida.

    “Prior to the hurricane, Florida-based team members evacuated to other locations for their safety and we repositioned dozens of aircraft,” Berry said on Thursday. “We are working around the clock to get these crews and aircraft back in place so they can operate their respective flights and expect the operation to get back on track over the next couple of days.”

    “We will be putting affected customers on other Spirit flights, or in many instances other airlines, to ensure they get to their destinations,” Berry added.

    Meanwhile, demand for areas not damaged by the storm is expected to go up as bookings are redirected there.

    “It’s a little challenging because there are limited destinations for the rest of the season,” Peterson said. “Every day we get updates from hotels. A lot aren’t taking new guests until December.”

    Cruise lines, airlines and hotels were largely waiving fees for cancellations or re-bookings related to the hurricane, making it easier to change plans. said Marita Williams, manager of travel promotions and product development at AAA East Central’s office in East Liberty.

    “The good side, if there is a good side to this, is that this wasn’t the peak season for these areas,” Williams said, meaning there were fewer tourists heading for the storm-struck areas or stranded there by the hurricanes.

    Orlando theme parks, always year-round draws, were less affected than the coasts, and the Florida Keys tend to be busier in the summer, she said.

    TNS

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