Dominica Is Still Recovering From Hurricane Maria (But You Can Help)

Trails like this one are vital to the recovery of Dominica's ecotourism industry. Joseph Thomas Photography/Shutterstock

Like Puerto Rico, the independent island nation of Dominica was hit especially hard by Hurricane Maria last year. Anglophone Dominica, located between the French territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe, has long seemed a prime spot for tourism development. However, this development has been slow, partly by choice and partly because Dominica does not have the typical "tropical idyll" landscapes that resort builders favor.

In the five or 10 years before Maria hit, Dominica decided to embrace its uniqueness rather than attempting to mimic other Caribbean destinations. Boutique hotels and resorts cater to people interested in nature and the island's abundant hot springs. Dominica also started welcoming cruise ships to help bolster its travel industry. By early 2017, things seemed to be going well for the island.

Disaster strikes

hurricane damage on Dominica
About 95 percent of buildings on Dominica were damaged by the hurricane. JEAN-FRANCOIS Manuel/

Hurricane Maria put a halt to this unique tourism story. Post-storm reports told of extensive damage. A majority of the buildings in the country lost their roofs. Power was cut with lines rendered irreparable. Some of the destruction came from the island's abundant waterways which flooded, causing landslides and washing away major sections of roads and trails.

In a few hours, Maria turned what could have been a Caribbean success story into a narrative of disaster. To make matters worse, Dominica's important agricultural industry was hit especially hard as well. Aside from its nature, Dominica is best known as a bread basket — or perhaps "fruit basket" is more accurate — for the Caribbean. With a year's worth of mangoes, bananas and other crops destroyed, an island that once grew enough to export had to rely on rations to make sure everyone had sustenance to survive.

With 95 percent of buildings on the island damaged and most uninhabitable, most of the population of 71,000 was forced to live in shelters, stay with relatives, or simply leave the island and seek work elsewhere. Major overseas investors left after the storm, leaving fewer employment opportunities for people who wanted to stay and rebuild.

A slow recovery

cruise ship docked on the island of Dominica
Dominica has welcomed cruise ships with limited shore excursions to help bolster tourism. Richard Goldberg/Shutterstock

Dominica's recovery, like Puerto Rico's, has been slow, but Dominica's decision to embrace its nature may be helping. The water in the same rivers that caused landslides, remained clean after the storm. The island was also able to get cleaned up enough to accept cruise ships at the start of 2018. The limited nature of "shore excursions" meant that they could start seeing tourists again even though much of the island was still impassible.

A place that bills itself as the Nature Island needs trails and interior roadways that allow people to access nature. This infrastructure remains in poor shape because clearing trails of tens of thousands of fallen trees and repairing washed out sections is tedious work that has to be performed, mostly by hand. Even so, some of the most popular attractions, including geothermally heated Boiling Lake, the second largest hot lake on Earth, are open and accessible.

A handful of hotels have opened, and regional airlines are once again serving Dominica (though there are no direct commercial flights from the U.S.) Like Puerto Rico, Dominica needs tourists in these early days of recovery to build income and momentum.

Tourists help rebuild

For those who want to get involved in the recovery process, some resorts and travel firms are offering voluntourism opportunities where guests get to stay at a reasonable rate and then participate in cleanup, trail clearing or other recovery activities.

Admittedly, the whole process is still in its early stages. Major hotels and resorts are planning to open in late 2018 or early 2019. While the main tourism website for the country has not been completely updated since before Maria, a special site, Dominica Update, offers the latest news on where to stay and also on voluntourism programs.

An official Rediscover Dominica campaign is offering a free night stay with a minimum four nights booking at participating hotels on the island.

Building a climate-resilient nation

Boiling Lake, Geothermal spring on Dominica
Dominica's geothermal activity is key for both tourism and energy. Göran Höglund/Flickr

Like other places affected by natural disasters, the initial shock of the devastating storm has given way to plans to "build back better."

These plans go well beyond rebuilding the once-promising tourism scene. Entire communities are being rebuilt in more-sheltered, less-flood-prone areas. Buildings will have better hurricane resistance, and a network of shelters will provide supplies and support so that the response to future storms can be faster and more effective. There are also plans to develop a geothermal energy system. That would make the island greener than it already is, and it would also help to restore power more quickly after a storm.

The United Nations, regional group CARICOM and the Commonwealth of Nations (Dominica is a member state) are all providing funding on some level. The rebuilding process will still take time, but the long-term results could see Dominica not only continue its ecotourism development, but also become one of the world's first truly climate-resilient nations.