|By Martha Brannigan, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 10, 2008 - -Hurricane Ike is chewing up South Florida's huge cruise industry, and ship operators have scrambled to revise itineraries to steer clear of the massive storm.
Tourist facilities in Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands, were badly damaged by the storm, and Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines said its cruise facility in Grand Turk will be closed indefinitely. Carnival spokesman Tim Gallagher said the company's cruise terminal sustained roof damage and lost landscaping, although the company's pier, built to Category 5 hurricane standards, was undamaged.
The cruise terminal, which was built by parent company Carnival Corp. for about $60 million, opened in May 2006. It was slated to get 400,000 passengers this year, but will now lose an unknown number of visitors because of the hurricane-related closing.
While damage to Carnival's facility itself may not take long to repair, Gallagher said, the resumption of cruises to the island will depend on when its tourism infrastructure is back in place. "There is a lot of devastation there," he said.
About 80 percent of homes on the main island are reported damaged, but the Turks & Caicos Islands Tourism Board said it expected many hotels and restaurants in Providenciales, where the international airport is located, to be operating this week.
Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos -- where damage is extensive -- bore the brunt of Hurricane Ike, according to the tourism board. There were no reports of injuries or fatalities in the island chain, which is 575 miles southeast of Miami.
Providenciales International Airport has reopened for emergency flights and phone service and power in the Grace Bay area of Providenciales have been restored.
In recent days, cruise lines redrew itineraries to dodge the storm.
The Carnival Liberty, which sailed from Miami on Saturday, for instance, switched to a western Caribbean itinerary, including the Cayman Islands; Cozumel, Mexico; Belize, and Roatan, Honduras, instead of its original plans to head eastward to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; San Juan; and Grand Turk.
"We're making decisions based on forecasted tracks for the storms and sometimes we have to alter the altered itinerary because they don't always follow the forecasts," Gallagher said.
For the past several weeks, as a string of tropical storms and hurricanes has rolled in from the Atlantic, Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has been holding two daily conference calls with a team of about 20 staffers to manage the storm situations. The cruise operator posts itinerary updates on its website in the morning and evening.
"We have a multidisciplinary team, with marine, deployment and hotel employees looking at the storm: how big it is, how fast it's moving, and how it might affect our different itineraries," said Michael Sheehan, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean.
Whenever possible, he said, one destination is swapped for another, although occasionally a ship may have to make fewer ports of call. "That's the rare exception," he added.
Even outside the Caribbean, the weather has been a problem for cruise operators. When Tropical Storm Hanna powered up the East Coast, both Royal Caribbean and Carnival had to revamp some schedules to stay clear of the storm.
A host of other travel plans similarly have been disrupted.
Maria Aral, president of ABC Charters, which operates air-charter service to Cuba from Miami, said Monday's flight to Havana was postponed until Wednesday because of the hurricane.
"American Eagle [the flight operator] decided it didn't want to take the risk," Aral said. However, a flight slated to fly Tuesday from Miami to Holguin operated normally, she added.
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