In October 2005, Hurricane Wilma slammed into the Yucatan Coast of Mexico and the Island of Cozumel went from being the No. 1 cruise port in the world to having no cruise visitors whatsoever.
All three of its cruise ship docks were seriously damaged, the Mexican Government spent millions repairing the docks and it was months before the cruise ships started to come back.
Here in Cayman, when Hurricane Ivan paid its visit, the country was still reliant on boat tenders to ferry passengers and, as a result, the cruise ships were able to return relatively quickly and provide a vital source of revenue in the aftermath of the hurricane.
Chairman of the Port Authority Mr. Wayne Panton said Monday the drawings for the new cruise ship berthing facility in George Town are still not finalised, but they are trying to get the drawing complete and the contract signed as soon as possible.
He explained the proposed berthing facility will only offer space for four ships and therefore there would continue to be a need for tenders to cope with the days when there are more than four ships in the harbour.
He added they will also be needed when there are Northwest storms to bring cruise passengers into Spott’s dock.
CayCompass.com contacted the owners of the tenders, Caribbean Marine Services, to see whether they expect their business to continue to be viable after the building of the cruise dock and if they plan to keep staff on payroll and carry on offering the tender service or if they plan to sell part or all of their fleet.
Unfortunately they were unable to make any comment at this time.
A check of the Port Authority website showed that in 2006, there were only 57 days when the tenders would have been needed, because there were five or more ships in port, which included a five month stretch where there were only two days when the tenders would be needed.
It therefore seems highly probable that seafarers in the industry would have to be laid off and one would expect a considerable downsizing of the tender fleet, if Caribbean Marine Services can even continue to remain a viable business.
According to Mr. Panton, there are still various issues that need to be ironed out as regards to the dock and the board is now working to secure the best possible deal for the Port Authority and the Cayman Islands Government.
The Port Authority Board is studying logistical issues, including the possibility that the dock could potentially allow up to 15,000 passengers to come ashore much more rapidly than the tender system.
According to Mr. Panton the tenders stagger the arrival of the tourists and to some extent they prevent excessive congestion in the downtown area. As a result the board is now looking at the possibility of additional infrastructure to handle much larger volumes of people, in a considerably shorter period of time.
Mr. Panton said the berthing facility is likely to be extended out from the existing dock and the Red Spot Bay where fishermen clean and sell their catch, should not be impacted or covered up with concrete.
At earlier press conferences, Mr. Charles Clifford, Minister responsible for the Port has stated that one of the main benefits of the cruise dock is that it would enable visitors to remain longer in Cayman, however while the dock may speed things up somewhat and allow some additional time for tours and shopping, the ships are likely to continue to operate on a similar schedule, because they are under pressure to get back out to sea and out of Cayman territorial waters, so they can open up their lucrative casino operations.
Until the deal is signed, it is not known exactly how much the cruise ship berthing facility will cost the country, but the minister has said it will be financed by the cruise lines.
It will then be paid back with the per head tax that is levied for each cruise visitor that arrives in Port.
Part of that fee is made up of the environmental protection surcharge, which has been the source of some debate in the past; Director of the Department of Environment Dr. Gina Ebanks-Petrie has said she would like to see this money ring fenced for genuine environmental causes, such as the purchase of Central Mangrove Wetland.