Dive tourism facing challenges

Future plans to grow the sport of scuba diving in the Cayman Islands, a sport which has had its share of challenges, were discussed this week by the public and private sectors.

The Cayman Islands Tourism Association’s watersports committee met with the Department of Tourism Tuesday in order to refine Cayman’s strategies to grow the sport over the next two years.

Although it was not known at press time what the outcome of this week’s meeting had been, it is clear that diving has been up against challenges in the past 15 years and has suffered because of it.

‘The sport is in the mature phase of its lifecycle and the major certifying agencies, manufacturers and trade associations are developing strategies to deal with these challenges,’ explained Director of Tourism Pilar Bush in a response to questions on the dive industry from the Caymanian Compass.

The sport has been suffering from a flat rate of growth and even periods of decline, she said.

‘Over the past decades, the average active traveller has more and more choice of leisure activities and on average less and less time to participate in leisure activities,’ Ms Bush said.

The CITA’s Immediate Past President Rod McDowall noted, ‘There’s a lot of competition out there and people have options to go to lots of different places. I don’t think we’ve as many repeat visitors as we used to. It’s just a general competition factor.’

The main challenge, Ms Bush said, is that the sport of diving was at its peak in terms of active participation and rate of new certification the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Showing the sport as more of a social activity and including scuba diving imagery in mainstream consumer travel marketing have been strategies previously employed by DoT to market the sport, along with getting active younger celebrities such as Jessica Alba on island to learn to dive as a way of broadening the appeal of the sport.

The 9/11 terrorism attacks in the United States did not help the dive industry either, and the Caribbean hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 negatively impacted diving in the region.

Both Mr McDowall and CITA’s Watersports Director Ron Kipp noted that diving here peaked back in 1998 and has been soft since then.

‘The dive industry has been very ill since 1998, right along with the general stay-over tourism market,’ said Mr. Kipp.

Mr. McDowall stressed that the stay-over sector is the bread and butter of the diving industry and less focus on this sector is detrimental to the dive industry.

Steve Broadbelt, chairman of the CITA Watersports Committee, said of the dive industry, ‘We have the same challenges as all tourism businesses, and that is the need to increase air arrivals.’ He puts the health of the dive industry at six on a scale of one to 10.

The industry has also changed from around the time of 9/11 in that many of the big operators are gone. A number of businesses closed down because of Hurricane Ivan, also.

Bob Soto’s, Parrots Landing, Treasure Island Divers and Fisheye are all closed.

Now there are lots more smaller operators, and it’s more difficult than previously to make a living, said Mr. McDowall.

Immigration, fuel costs, the usual ongoing issues of dock and beach access, marine resource management and the cost of doing business are challenges facing the industry locally.

Runaway costs have made most businesses very marginally profitable, said Mr. Kipp. ‘Costs which have caused our product to be both perceived and in reality too expensive.’

Cost of living is also affecting staffing, said Mr. Kipp. ‘The dive industry was always a ‘fun’ industry that many people entered for its lifestyle, not financial rewards. But you must make enough money to pay the rent on your shared living space, eat, etcetera. That is a very tough challenge for most diving employees today.’

September and October, as always, are slow again for most operators in the business.

Mr. Kipp said it has been very bad since June and that this year September and October seem ‘terrible’ for the dive industry.

However, he does point out that dive operators must do their part to bring in business. ‘If you ask a dive operator just what he or she did to generate business in September/October you get a blank stare of non-comprehension.’

Mr. Broadbelt said that at his own business, Ocean Frontiers, they lost their boat dock in Hurricane Dean and as a result business was down approximately 25 per cent from September 2006.

‘Other operators have reported a 15 per cent downturn in business in September 2007 from 2006.’

But Mr. Broadbelt noted that putting a spotlight on one specific month is no way to make a business decision and that the year as a whole should be given a lot more weight. Therefore, year to date in 2007 business is up six per cent on the same period at Ocean Frontiers.

Mr. Broadbelt said that most dive businesses are not back to 2003 levels as yet since Hurricane Ivan, but from information shared within the CITA, that benchmark is being closed in on.

Although it is difficult to get accurate dive numbers, without a single reporting agency for the sport, the Director of Tourism said she is encouraged by recent reports of an increase rate of new diver certifications and they hope to get better information during the upcoming DEMA show in Orlando later this month.

Loss of some of the more ‘affordable’ properties on the island can be seen as another factor that could turn some divers away.

‘There is always room for more budget oriented accommodations,’ said Mr. McDowall.

Mr. Kipp mentioned the loss of Treasure Island, Indies Suites, Seaview, the Sleep Inn, Cayman Islander, Divi Tiara, Spanish Bay Reef and soon to go Beach Club. ‘I used to market more divers into the Treasure Island and Seaview than the entire island does today,’ he said.

The loss of some properties has put Cayman out of the budget of some divers, Mr. Broadbelt said.

‘However, don’t get the impression that divers don’t have any money – 70 per cent of Ocean Frontiers customers have an average household income well in excess of $100,000 per annum.’

While the DoT collects general visitor expenditure information, it does not have detailed information on the relative spending of divers vis-à-vis other types of visitors with which to provide an accurate assessment of their unique and relative value to the destination, said Ms Bush.

One concern that Mr. McDowall voiced is that diving is not in the primary section of the Cayman Islands target audience.

‘I think it is important not to lose the fact that Cayman diving has been very important for the islands over the last 30 years,’ he said.

But the Director of Tourism noted that the dive market remains a key target group for the Cayman Islands. ‘It is the second most important category so it remains very important at this stage,’ she said.

The dive market lies in the ‘extender’ target with romance, beyond the core targets of families and travel trade.

Ms Bush explained, ‘The Cayman Islands target visitor profile is arrived at in consultation with and with full participation of the CI private sector, dive’s relative position reflects the government and private sector’s respective assessment of its value to the country.’

Ms Bush said that there has not been any decrease in the marketing efforts of the Cayman Islands as a dive destination and a full mix of advertising, public relations, special events, tradeshows, on-island dive fams, and direct marketing are used to promote the sport in all three islands.

The Director noted that the Cayman Islands has leadership equity in the sport of scuba diving and it remains an important asset in the marketing portfolio of the three Cayman Islands.

CITA meets regularly with DoT and occasionally with the Ministry.

‘Communication is always open but the solutions for the challenges we face are a work in progress,’ said Mr. Broadbelt.

He did note that the dive industry is very excited about the Kittiwake Shipwreck project for sinking in 2008 and that the government has always given tremendous support to make this happen.

Indeed, Mr. Kipp believes that getting this project underway could prove to be as major a boon to the diving industry as Stingray City was to the snorkelling group.

The dive industry is also very thankful to Cayman Airways for adding non-stop flights from JFK. ‘This has made a positive impact on most tourism businesses and we look forward to new efforts to increase air arrivals and stay-over tourism,’ said Mr. Broadbelt.