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Six ways travelers can contribute to relief and recovery in this storm-battered region

The images from the Caribbean following Hurricane Irma are horrendous and heartbreaking. Barbuda is now uninhabited, and 99 percent of its buildings destroyed. The normally lush Virgin Islands now look brown from space. Anguilla, St. Maarten, St. Bart’s, Cuba, and Turks and Caicos have all suffered extensive damage and flooding, and even islands not directly in Irma’s path suffered infrastructure collapses from the wind. Estimates of damage in the region stand at $13 billion. 

Then, Hurricane Maria tore through Dominica with a Category 5 direct hit, devastating Puerto Rico and, unbelievably, the Virgin Islands too. 

“After this unprecedented devastation, the Caribbean needs our help,” says AFAR Media cofounder and CEO Greg Sullivan. “Travelers—those of us who count locations and people in the Caribbean as dear to our hearts—owe a special obligation, but it’s hard to know what to do.”

“Individual tourism companies are doing a great job helping out right now,” says Mike Rea, the CEO of Tourism Cares, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that serves as a charitable community for the travel and tourism industry. (AFAR is a Chairman’s Circle Member of the organization.) “Unfortunately—but powerfully—disasters give us a time and a place to come together to use our resources.”

Tourism Cares is administering the Caribbean Tourism Recovery Fund to help with short- and long-term recovery efforts. The organization has partnered with the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association, which will provide access to regional and local tourism boards and serve to supply an on-the-ground view of needs and results. Tourism Cares will raise and distribute funds and leverage relationships with trade press, tour operators, travel buyers and agents, and universities—an entire industry that can work to find small giving opportunities that directly benefit local communities. 

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“If you love this place,” Rea says, “you understand that tourism itself and the industry can play a big role in the recovery. In addition to homes, people need jobs. There’s a clear role for tourism to rebuild institutions to support the workforce.” 

Here are six suggestions for travelers who want to help:

1. Give to more than one charity.  Diversify, just as you would with any other investment. Give to multiple organizations, each with different goals.

2. Give to recovery, not just immediate relief: “In the first year to year and a half,” Rea says, “give to help ensure that recovery goes as well as possible, that the region comes back when and where it can. But there’s renewal phase, when it’s important to invest in social enterprise.” Recovery done well requires different kinds of organizations and capacities.

3. Fund local organizations. Travelers may have a better insight into what makes a place special and will know how to give appropriately. 

4. Save some giving for later. “No matter how much you plan on giving, take some of it and set it aside for year-end holiday giving,” says Rea. “The picture of local needs will be very different at that time, allowing new choices for making an impact, even with a small contribution.”

5. Volunteer. Yes, “voluntourism” gets a bad rap, but there are likely to be some very real ways to help in the Caribbean in the next few years.

6. Just go. “The best way we can help is to return when we can and to encourage our friends to visit,” says Sullivan. The scars of Irma and Maria aren’t going away any time soon. But though the palms may be thinner and a trail or two still washed out, the culture of the Caribbean will be very much alive. Go to the places you love and spend your tourist dollars in ways that benefit the local economy. That, in the long term, is what will make recovery a reality.

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“The tourism industry in the Caribbean is huge, no doubt, and they’re doing a great job,” says Rea. “But when the recovery effort starts to include travelers, then we’ve got real power to make things better.”

>> Next: This is the State of the British Virgin Islands after Irma