E. Caribbean's Tourist Hopes it By Marilyn

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After Hurricane Luis, the U.S. Virgin Islands ran an ad Sept. 11 in The New York Times from Lowe & Partners, New York, announcing the islands had emerged unscathed.

Bad timing. Five days later, Hurricane Marilyn, with 105 mph winds, stormed through the chain and Puerto Rico's east coast.

Island officials had yet to make a full damage assessment, but said it could be December before hotels on the islands' tourism capital, St. Thomas, are able to accommodate large-scale tourism.

While the islands clean up from the storms, cruise lines have been scrambling to rewrite itineraries.

Carnival Cruise Lines alone will divert three ships a week from the U.S. Virgin Islands and San Juan, Puerto Rico, to the Caymans and Jamaica, at least through October. The new itineraries will be especially hard for San Juan, which suffered little damage. Yet, because the U.S. Virgin Islands were damaged, that left the line with only one destination in the east Caribbean. So the three Carnival ships will visit the western Caribbean, providing a boon to Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Jamaica.

The Puerto Rico Tourist Co. last week earmarked $2 million for ads to reassure potential visitors the island suffered little damage. Marti Flores Prieto & Wachtel, San Juan, handles the account.

The storm damage leaves the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John facing a devastated season. Some 1.9 million people visited in 1994, spending more than $919 million, according to Virgin Islands figures.

"The success of that whole island grouping is because most people are coming in and out of St. Thomas. It will be more damaging because of that," said Brian Robb, VP-marketing of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a Minneapolis-based travel company that booked more than 150,000 vacationers into the Caribbean in 1994.

Almost as many hotels and resorts operating in the areas worst hit by the two storms were open as closed. In St. Maarten, the Dutch portion of a 37-square-mile island shared with French St. Martin, 10 of 17 hotels surveyed by Robinson, Yesawich & Pepperdine, Orlando, were closed. Some weren't anticipating reopening until 1996. The Caribbean Tourism Organization reported hotels in St. Martin were more seriously damaged than their Dutch neighbors.

In Antigua & Barbuda, 31 of 54 hotels surveyed by the Department of Tourism there reported they would re-open no sooner than Oct. 14, with some reporting re-openings well into 1996.

Travel organizations fear that while most hotels should be operational by December, the tourism infrastructure may not be repaired sufficiently to accommodate visitors. But with peak season running from November through April, some tourists and travel operations aren't taking any chances. Already, Carlson has begun recommending travelers who had planned fall or winter trips to the northeast Caribbean instead try the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Mexico or Hawaii. Some have been steered toward cruises.

In 1994, more than half the 4.6 million cruisers worldwide visited the Caribbean, according to the Cruise Line International Association, New York. After Luis blew through St. Maarten, ships began sailing to St. Thomas and St. Croix.

These daylong stops are vital to the islands' livelihood. In 1994, 718,000 people visited St. Maarten by cruise, according to the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association in Miami. Another 976,900 stopped at San Juan, and 1.24 million the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Delinda Karle contributed to this story.

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