When Hurricane Irma hit Antigua and Barbuda back in September 2017, a whole island nation was displaced and disrupted. This small Caribbean nation of less than a hundred thousand people had never experienced anything like it. Though fatalities were mercilessly low, damage to buildings and the tourist economy was considerable, especially on the smaller island of Barbuda. Dr. Dario Item, Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the UNWTO, shares the story of the impact of the hurricane and how his country has bounced back.
How big was Hurricane Irma?
Ambassador Dario Item: Irma was the biggest natural disaster we have ever faced. We’ve never seen anything like it. A huge storm hit from the Atlantic and the winds were as high as three hundred kilometres an hour. No other storm in the Atlantic has ever been recorded at that level. We have storms and hurricanes here every year but nothing – absolutely nothing – as big as Irma.
How did it affect Antigua and Barbuda?
Ambassador Dario Item: The two islands were hit in different ways. the eye of the hurricane hit Barbuda, which is the smaller and less developed part of our nation. In Barbuda, every single house, every single business, was affected. Antigua was hit, but nowhere near as badly, so as a government we undertook a massive rescue mission to Barbuda. The whole of the population had to be moved to Antigua. It just wasn’t safe to remain in Barbuda when the storm damage was at its worst. You can’t imagine how bad it was.
So how long were did people have to stay in Antigua?
Ambassador Dario Item: The longest stay was for a few months, with Antiguans helping their friends and relatives from Barbuda. Most people want to go back to Barbuda as soon as they could. Their homes were there, their lives, their businesses. They needed to get things back on line and repair their homes and villages. People pulled together to repair the damage.
And did Barbuda recover fully?
Ambassador Dario Item: It’s been like a miracle in Barbuda. Before Irma most of the tourists who come to our islands – and there’s a lot of them – usually just stayed in Antigua. But Irma was a chance to rethink what was possible for Barbuda too. Barbuda has the same great beaches, the same sunshine, the same beautiful Caribbean Sea. It has rich reefs too, so huge tourism potential. So as we repaired and rebuilt, we looked to boost Barbuda more. To try and build a more tourist economy there too.
So how is Barbuda as a tourist destination now?
Ambassador Dario Item: You would never have believed it, but there are more opportunities for tourism in Barbuda now than before Irma. New hotels, more choice, and more restaurants too. Irma could have killed Barbuda but it wasn’t a death for tourism here, it was a rebirth. To use a phrase that’s become really topical, the people built back better.
With tourism numbers growing since both Irma and the worldwide Covid pandemic, Antigua and Barbuda is definitely bouncing back.