Although cruise passenger arrivals have fallen by over 30 per cent for both August and September 2007 from last year Minister for Tourism Charles Clifford is not overly concerned.
‘While this particular summer we’ve seen decreases in cruise arrivals we fully expect a very strong winter for cruise arrivals,’ he told a live televised media press briefing Thursday morning.
He also stated that based on discussions he has had with them, the cruise lines are clearly here for the long term.
Figures just released by the Department of Tourism show that this past September the cruise sector experienced a 37 per cent decrease on last September’s figure. Following last year’s 110,971 cruise passengers in September this year there were only 69,802.
In August the drop had been nearly 31 per cent on August 2006, with 144,179 for last year and 99,753 cruise passengers this year.
The drop for the third quarter of this year (July, August, September) from the same period last year is 26.24 per cent, or down from 377,931 last year to 278,751 passengers this year.
However, for the year to date cruise arrivals are 2.96 per cent ahead of where they were last year, at 1.36 million compared to 1.32 million.
The Minister said that after Hurricane Wilma, which occurred in October 2005, at the request of the cruise lines and the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association in particular, Grand Cayman received a lot more cruise calls than had been anticipated because of the damage that had been caused to some of the ports in Mexico and in particular Cozumel.
‘. . . you’ll remember the cries from the public about the numbers being too large on certain days,’ he said.
‘Now those ports in Cozumel and other areas of Mexico have been rebuilt and as a result there has been some redistribution of the cruise ships and I think that what you see now as a decline in the summer is not necessarily a decline when you compare it to the years prior to Hurricane Wilma and Hurricane Ivan.’
Indeed, September of 2002 and 2001 had similar numbers to this year, at 69,328 and just fewer than 65,000 respectively. But the year 2003 saw 113,258 cruise visitors in the month. In fact, 2003 had the largest number of cruise passengers here, at 1.81 million.
Noting that a strong winter is expected for cruise tourism, the Minister said, ‘I’m not overly concerned about the cruise numbers. I think that given the discussions we’ve had with the cruise lines recently and their restated commitment to helping us improve the infrastructure in Cayman that they are clearly here for the long term.’
Explaining further why he does not see the fall in numbers as an issue for concern, the Minister said, ‘Even when you speak to the merchants some of them will tell you that on days when they have three or four ships in the George Town harbour they actually make more money than on days that they have six or seven. Their reasoning for that is that it gets too crowded and people get fed up; people who would otherwise come to their stores see it as being too crowded and they don’t bother.’
Speaking about the larger ships coming online in the cruise industry the Minister said, ‘So you may see, for example, even during the winter, that we may have fewer calls, but if you look at the capacity of those ships it’s much greater than it was a year or two ago because they are building bigger ships.
‘And what they do is take the smaller ships and redeploy them in other areas that they are trying to develop and you saw them do that in places like Alaska and the Mediterranean and even to an extent now in Asia.’
Noting the competition in the cruise market, not just for Cayman but for the region, the Minister said the cruise lines are really about to get into the Asian market and there is an increase in demand in the European market. ‘They [the cruise lines] told us they cannot produce the ships fast enough to supply demand,’ he said.
The Minister also explained why he did not attend the recent the recent annual FCCA conference. This year it was held in Cozumel having been hosted in Grand Cayman last year.
Mr. Clifford explained that he was to be one of a delegation of Caribbean tourism ministers to attend the event in Cozumel to talk directly with the CEOs and presidents of the various cruise lines.
‘Unfortunately neither I nor the Minister for Trinidad and Tobago could make it to Cozumel but the other members of the delegation did and I got an update from them when we were in Puerto Rico recently for the Caribbean Tourism Organisation conference.’
Minister Clifford said because of challenges with airlift into Cozumel he made the decision not to go. ‘It was going to essentially take away two days from my schedule to get there and get back for a meeting that was going to last two hours.’
When asked about the lack of government representation in general at that conference and how it could give a perception that the government is not committed to cruise tourism, Mr. Clifford said others say the government focuses almost exclusively on cruise tourism, ‘which of course isn’t true,’ he added.
He noted that the government really does not spend any money on marketing cruise tourism because the cruise lines say the key thing for their clientele on the western Caribbean itinerary is a stop in Grand Cayman.
‘So I think the Ministry’s absence from Cozumel this year really doesn’t make a statement one way or another,’ he said. While in Puerto Rico recently the Minister said he had an opportunity to talk to the FCCA representative Michele Paige and Michael Ronan from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.
‘We had very good discussions there about the future and about the infrastructure in Cayman so the relationship is still very strong.’