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Want to assist hurricane victims? Here's why planning a vacation could help.

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Duty free shops and upscale jewelry stores fill the winding streets and narrow cobblestone alleys of downtown Charlotte Amalie. Nearby, Vendors Plaza caters to tourists with a dozen or so tents selling souvenirs.

But months after the hurricanes, a stillness has fallen over the normally bustling harbor town in St. Thomas.

“You can sit here all day, and you don't make even a sale,” said Laurie Chapman, a vendor selling an assortment of tie-dye and U.S. Virgin Islands-themed T-shirts. “We never experienced something like that before.”

Most of Chapman’s merchandise was destroyed when two Category 5 storms tore through St. Thomas in September.

What Hurricanes Irma and Maria didn’t take, thieves did. Chapman lost everything when her van was broken into a few weeks after Maria.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are a popular tourist destination, drawing 1.7 cruise ship passengers to St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix in 2016.

The tourism industry accounts for roughly $1.2 billion in revenue and about 30 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands' GDP.

Irma and Maria dealt a major blow to many tourism activities. Travelers are only now just starting to trickle back.

“It’s going to be challenging for us over the next year," Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty said. "The recovery will take the better part of 2018."

Nicholson-Doty is worried the storms' “serious economic impact” will only be compounded if tourists avoid travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Although the cruise ships have mostly returned, some 70 percent of hotels remain closed or open only to contractors, according to Nicholson-Doty. Most of the major hotels won’t re-open until late in 2018.

That's unwelcome news for the thousands of hotel workers that U.S. Virgin Islands Hotel & Tourism Association President Lisa Hamilton says were laid off after the storms.

With five of the major hotels damaged across St. Thomas and St. John, Hamilton estimates the storms cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars. Four months later, she said, hotels are still going through claims with insurance agents.

“It will be the 2019 season, I think, before things are back to normal."
Lisa Hamilton, U.S. Virgin Islands Hotel & Tourism Association
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Across the Caribbean, hurricane-affected territories and island nations have seen a decline in tourism. According to aviation consultant ICF, airlines cut more than one million seats to the Caribbean this winter season.

These destinations, however, are reminding visitors that despite the hurricanes, they’re still open for business. The Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, the trade association representing the cruise industry, has launched TheCaribbeanIsOpen.com to raise awareness that the majority of islands in the Caribbean are operating normally.

On its Facebook page, the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism is incorporating into its posts the hashtag #USVIStillNice.

Nicholson-Doty is hopeful future travelers will find a new and improved U.S. Virgin Islands when they visit. The storm damage is an opportunity, she said, for hotels and businesses to revamp their current accommodations.

“The reality of the reconstruction process means that we’re going to have a much better product in 2019," Nicholson-Doty said.

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