Some long established local water-sports operators are voicing serious concerns about safety of boats and crowds at the sandbar.
Although Mr. Peter Milburn of Peter Milburn’s Dive Cayman is assertive that cruise ships are very important for the island’s tourism, he maintains that they are not giving the water-sports operators a fair break.
‘I realise how important the cruise business is to the island, but I feel that the government needs to work with them to ensure that local people are getting fair payment for trips.’
In reference to snorkel trips booked through the cruise lines, the local operators are loading more people on their boats to compensate through numbers for the lower prices being paid to them directly by the cruise ships, he said.
‘These operators do a wonderful job and need to be paid far more for what they put into it,’ he said, noting that their service includes pick-up from the cruise dock.
Mr. Milburn claims that the cruise ships are making a profit of between 50 per cent to 66 per cent for these snorkel trips.
Cayman Islands’ dive pioneer Bob Soto echoes these sentiments, saying that some operators overload the boats to make up for the poor money they make from the cruise ships.
This is something the government needs to address, he said.
‘We have a good reputation and we don’t want to lose it,’ he said.
Captain Dexter Ebanks of Dexter’s Fantasea Tours describes the sandbar as chaotic on busy days.
‘It cannot continue the way its going,’ he said.
‘I do not want to even go out when there are lots of ships in,’ he said, explaining that recently he has nearly had his boat hit by others pulling in too close to him.
‘I’m totally disgusted with the way things have gotten out there and if something is not done something serious is going to happen,’ he asserted.
‘In the Cayman Islands we have a quality product and a substandard service,’ he said in reference to the sandbar trips.
President of the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association Michelle Paige says the cruise lines have to mark up the prices of their tours to make money.
The tour excursions that they arrange involve collateral pieces being printed, and advertising the tours on the ships’ websites. ‘The cruise lines are in business to make money too,’ she said.
Certain passengers want these organised tours, she said, because those the cruise lines use to provide the excursions have been totally checked out to ensure they are up to certain standards and insured.
‘They (the cruise lines) are taking on a huge risk with these tours, and need insurance too,’ she said.
Mr. Milburn also questions if the cruise passenger is getting value for money, as one of 50 to 100 people on some boats. Through the cruise lines, passengers can pay between US$45 to US$50 for a basic two and a half hour snorkel and Stingray City trip.
‘We want to ensure that these people become return visitors, but how will they after being jammed onto a boat?’ he asked.
Mr. Milburn said he has seen close to 1,000 people standing on the sandbar at once. ‘I do believe that several boats go out dangerously overloaded,’ he said.
Captain Ebanks noted that some boats still go out to the sandbar when it is very choppy. ‘There’s no compromise for safety,’ he said.
However, regulations for the sandbar have been drafted and are under review by the Government, which will result in the sandbar being a special management area.
‘The idea is to manage the numbers on the sandbar,’ explained Director for the Department of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie.
Minister for Tourism and the Environment Charles Clifford could not be reached Tuesday morning for comment on when these regulations are to come into effect.
Mr. Milburn believes if these regulations could be put in place and then pressure was put on the cruise ships, the sandbar could be afforded more exclusivity as a protected area.
‘If we have a fatality or fatalities we’re in serious trouble,’ he said.
‘It will send tourism way back and we may or may not recover.’
He asserted, ‘Accidents will happen, but we need to ensure that our boats are as safe as possible to lessen the chances’.
Although he does not have contracts for sandbar trips with the cruise ships Mr. Milburn does get business from trips booked independently by cruise guests, as does Captain Dexter Ebanks of Dexter’s Fantasea Tours.
Mr. Milburn asserts that he has seen cases of cruise tourists being told that unless they go on an excursion arranged through the cruise ship, they do not have first priority in leaving the ship when it gets into port.
He feels that by this the cruise ships are sending out a poor message to customers – that they should only go on the trips the cruise lines recommend.
Ms Paige said that disembarkation in Cayman is a special case because it involves tendering. She affirmed that those booked on tours through the cruise line do have priority with tenders because of the deadlines they have to meet, and if there is room on tenders, those who have arranged tours independently may be put on early tenders also.
Mr. Milburn praised former Minister for Tourism McKeeva Bush for previously working on a deal with the Land and Sea Co-Op and the cruise ships to spread out business a little more and help get liability insurance for some operators.
Mr. Milburn also asks if now is a good time to put a moratorium on water-sports’ licences.
He explained that with more and more operators coming into the business, the slices of pie available are getting smaller and smaller.
Captain Ebanks agrees that there are now too many operators.
Another idea Mr. Milburn firmly believes in is that people should be charged money to use marine parks and this money could then be earmarked for environmental protection only.
Meanwhile, the Office of the Complaints Commissioner is doing an investigation into safety and the regulation of small commercial water-borne vessels in the Cayman Islands.