Beaches Destroyed: Tourism After Hurricane Irma Faces Huge Losses, With Tourists Already Canceling Trips

Rain and wind sweep over empty roads as Hurricane Irma arrives into southwest Florida, in Bonita Springs, Florida, September 10. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The white sand beaches of the Caribbean that lure tourists from across the globe and fuel local economies were devastated in the wake of Hurricane Irma, with some tourism officials predicting loses in the billions of dollars. In St. Thomas, four people died. In Barbuda, damages were estimated to reach $100 million after about 95 percent of the island's buildings were destroyed.

The timing couldn't be worse, with hotels, airlines, cruises and attractions generally counting on the fall and winter months to fuel annual revenue as armies of tourists flee their cold and blustery hometowns in northern hemispheres. And there could be more destruction soon, with Hurricane Jose, another powerful Category 4 storm, expected to whack the islands later this week.

"Any disruption in the tourism industry is a disruption of our livelihood," Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO) spokesman Hugh Riley told Reuters.

Irma has already been dubbed one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in decades, killing 21 people and flattening property across tropical destinations such as St. Martin, Cuba and Barbuda. Florida's tiny, but the popular Key West region was pummeled Sunday morning, as the storm struck the state with heavy winds and rains.

Jack Richards, president of Pleasant Holidays, a U.S.-based tour operator, told Reuters he was expecting losses in the billions during the area's busiest tourist season, from December to April. Roughly 26 million foreign visitors spending more $31 billion were expected to fly to the Caribbean this year, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) projected. But that number is expected to drop as tourists avoid storm damaged areas over the coming months.

"Can this be repaired in time? The infrastructure to rebuild these countries simply isn't there," Richards said. "This is just massive."

In the Bahamas, the storm sucked up water from the shoreline, leaving beaches bare. "I am in disbelief right now... This is Long Island, Bahamas and the ocean water is missing!!!" tweeted @Kaydi_K. "That's as far as they see. #HurricaneIrma." The two-minute video was later retweeted more than 100,000 times.

Wayne Neely, a forecaster with the Bahamas' Department of Meteorology, said the water would return and residents should remain cautious. "Care must be taken in this case because the water often returns with even greater fury," Neely said in a Facebook post.

In Cuba, Hurricane Irma hit Saturday the island nation's northern coast, where all-inclusive resorts and tourists destinations have increasingly attracted visitors from Europe, Canada and the U.S. in recent years. Roughly 5,000 tourists were evacuated from Cuba's north-central coast.

Cuban officials said they were working to restore power and clear roads amid heavy flooding. Residents of "the capital should know that the flooding is going to last more than 36 hours, in other words, it is going to persist," Civil Defense Col. Luis Angel Macareno said late Saturday, The Associated Press reported.