Thu | Dec 14, 2017

Snapshot of Irma’s impact on business

Published:Sunday | September 10, 2017 | 12:00 AM
A 'Closed For Business' sign is strung across palm trees outside Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami, Friday, September 8, 2017.

After knocking down parts of the vital tourism industry in the Caribbean, Hurricane Irma spun towards Florida, another vacation haven.

Tourism accounts for 1.4 million jobs in the Sunshine State, where more than 112 million people visited last year and spent US$109 billion. Resorts and hotels there could suffer instant destruction from Irma's winds or lingering damage if vacationers stay away.

"We will still have our beaches after Irma, but some people who were planning to come to Florida will change those plans," said Sean Snaith, an economics professor at the University of Central Florida. "They may postpone, or change destinations."

In the Caribbean, at least 21 people were killed when Irma slammed into the islands as one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever. Heavy damage was reported on St Martin, St Barts and other famous beach destinations.

Roads and airports will need to be repaired or even rebuilt, and it's uncertain whether that can be done in time for the winter high season on the hardest-hit islands. Wealthier islands with more private insurance will fare better, said Gabriel Torres, an analyst for Moody's Investors Service who has studied the effect of storms in the Caribbean.

"It has an impact on tourism because some hotels will decide not to rebuild or take a long time to rebuild, and that's lost revenue," Torres said. "That can take years to recover."

Torres said St. Martin, which is divided into Dutch Sint Maarten and French Saint-Martin, will benefit as their European patrons provide aid for rebuilding.

If there is any consolation, it may be that "the damage to tourism is going to be less than feared because a great many popular islands have been spared," including Aruba, Bonaire and CuraÁao, said Arthur Frommer, the founder of Frommer's travel guides.

More than 4,600 flights in the storm's path have been cancelled, including flights this weekend in Florida, and the number is expected to soar, according to tracking service FlightAware.com.

That means more lost revenue for the airlines, which cancelled about 11,000 flights when flooding from Hurricane Harvey shut down both main Houston airports for several days.

United Airlines and Southwest Airlines were hit hardest by Harvey. Savanthi Syth, an airline analyst for Raymond James, said JetBlue Airways, Allegiant Air and Spirit Airlines were most vulnerable to Irma because of their higher concentration of flights that touch Florida and the Caribbean. Among the larger carriers, American Airlines has the most exposure to Irma, Syth said.

Irma could be a devastating blow to a Florida citrus industry that is already reeling from a decade-long infestation of citrus greening disease, which leads to fewer and bitter-tasting fruit.

If the storm's path takes it through the centre of the state - the citrus-growing region - it could rip oranges and grapefruit from their branches or even uproot trees, said Lisa Lochridge, spokeswoman for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

"This has the potential to be devastating," Lochridge said.

- AP