Cruise group ready to ACT

Accelerating the building of the cruise berthing pier, improving cruise tourist facilities and enhancing the cruise experience for guests in Grand Cayman is all part of the agenda for a new cruise tourism private sector group.

Brynley Davies, Robert Hamaty and Renard Moxa

Three of ACTs founding members. From left: Brynley Davies, Robert Hamaty and Renard Moxam
Photo: Cliodhna McGowan

The Association for the Advancement of Cruise Tourism, Cayman Islands is willing to working alongside the government in bringing about changes for the better for cruise tourism here.

Berthing Pier

One of the main objectives for ACT is accelerating the establishment of a cruise berthing facility for George Town.

‘We want to try and fastrack it, because we think it’s urgent,’ explained one of the founding members of the group Robert Hamaty of Tortuga Rum Company.

While they understand that the government has been in negotiations with cruise lines for some time on the berthing issue, it is now becoming critical that it gets built, they believe.

Another founding member, Brynley Davies of The Image Group said, ‘Medium to long term the most important thing for us, the association, is the pier. It has to be the pier. We are the only significant cruise destination in the Caribbean without a pier.

‘That is a fundamental challenge for us as a country in providing a good cruise experience’.

Ms Emma Graham-Taylor of The Image Group explained that Antigua already has two piers and they’re planning a bigger expansion of one of their piers to accept larger ships.

Antigua is on the threshold of hitting the one million cruise passenger mark. Cayman has twice the number of cruise ship passengers and no berthing pier.

Long Term Impacts

Explaining what the lack of a berthing pier potentially means for Cayman, Mr. Davies spoke about the next generation of ships coming out from Royal Caribbean, known as Genesis, to be brought into service in late 2009.

The biggest ship that comes here right now is the Freedom class of ships, which is Freedom and Liberty of the Seas, with 4,000 passengers each. Genesis class will have over 5,000 passengers each.

However, Mr. Davies noted that there has been some speculation that Genesis will not be tendered because of its size.

‘If that is the case, number one Genesis won’t come here. Number two Genesis will replace in its itinerary an existing ship, so it will replace Freedom or Liberty or another Freedom class vessel. That is the likelihood of what will happen based on past experiences.

‘Therefore Cayman won’t just not get Genesis, Cayman will also lose from an itinerary a Freedom class vessel which will move to somewhere else. So we will get a double whammy effect.’

Mr. Hamaty said that competition will then come about with the other cruise lines with the Genesis size ships that also won’t go to tender. ‘And as the years go by and the ships get bigger, no pier no ships,’ he said.

Looking at what cruise tourism does for the Cayman Islands economy, according to the 2006 FCCA Economic Impact of Cruise Tourism on the Cayman Islands nearly 2 million passengers and crew disembarked ships in the Cayman Islands in the 2005-06 cruise year. These visits, along with additional expenditures by the cruise lines generated a total of US$179.7 million in cruise tourism expenditures that year. The industry contributed to 3,705 jobs here and $66 million in wage income in that same year.

Mr. Davies noted that the main message from the organisation is that it is looking forward to working in conjunction with the government in improving cruise tourism in the Cayman Islands. ‘Part of that will be the pier facility and we need to play a part in that because an organisation that represents the whole private sector has to be involved in infrastructure of this magnitude at an early stage so that all of the issues that need to be ironed out can be ironed out before they become a problem, and I think that’s very important.’

Mr. Davies said that those discussions and negotiations between the Minister and the cruise lines, now need to be brought into the public forum.

The Minister has said little on the cruise berthing issue since he announced nearly a year and a half ago that negotiations had begun with cruise partners with a view to providing facilities for four ships to berth.

At September’s annual tourism conference he made reference to the negotiations, saying ‘And I can tell you we’re not going to give away the country. This is the reason why it is taking longer than I expected, because we are going to make sure that Grand Cayman and the Cayman Islands are protected when we enter into that agreement.’

He said it will probably be a 15 to 20 year commitment for both sides.

Bridge a Gap

Another founding member of ACT, Renard Moxam of Island Companies explained how the group is in a position to help bridge a gap between cruise lines, the private sector and the government. ‘We’re based on the front line every single day and we have a lot of interaction experience with the people who we’re trying to cater to – the tourists, and also some of the members have relationships that run a bit deeper than that with executives on the cruise lines’.

Mr. Hamaty emphasised that getting the group together and acting as a co-ordinator between the government, private sector and cruise lines is really the major objective of the association. ‘And to improve on the cruise passenger experience and, an extension from there, to enhance the whole area with everything from signage to cleanliness to give them a good experience. Continuing to grow cruise tourism is really what we’re working towards.’

Manage Growth

In explaining a main objective of the group’s, to continue the growth in cruise tourism, Mr. Hamaty spoke about some of the issues affecting Cayman’s cruise tourism including competition between destinations and fuel costs. He emphasised the need to work together to create a whole experience and top facilities to make the destination exciting for guests. ‘All the other destinations are doing it. Every day they are coming up with different things to attract cruise tourism.’

Ms Graham-Taylor emphasised the need for the growth to be managed.

Mr. Davies noted that one of the fundamental differences between us and a lot of other jurisdictions is that they have been planning and managing their cruise tourism for the last 10 years. These destinations, he said, have now culminated in a very different experience than we are giving to the guests that come here. ‘And it’s not that they get a bad experience here, but the experience could be a lot, lot better and the competition that is now being created in the near area as well as the greater Caribbean area is increasing dramatically’.

Jamaica announced a few months ago that it is going to build a new pier facility in Falmouth capable of taking the largest cruise ships in the world coming out in 2009, while they already have cruise facilities in Ocho Rios and Montego Bay.

Mr. Hamaty added that the importance of berthing is evident in that the cruise lines are investing and assisting governments in building them. This is happening in the case of the Falmouth pier, in Roatan in the Mexican peninsula, and the cruise lines already helped fund piers at Costa Maya, Turks and Caicos and St Maarten. ‘That alone tells you that the option of continuing to tender is not going to be there. It’s so important for them that they are lending the money to get the berthing facility’.

Ms Graham-Taylor said that when the latest ships come out they are put onto older cruise routes, such as the Caribbean, because that then makes the older cruise routes seem more attractive because everyone wants to try out the new ships. This makes Cayman an ‘A’ list port, but if the brand new ships don’t come to Cayman anymore we’re no longer an ‘A’ list port and the knock-on effect of that is not good, she said.

Genesis’ itinerary will be pushed out in the next six months or so, Mr. Davies said. If a destination is not on that initial itinerary it will take a long time to get back on it because it’s a two year process in terms of where they’re booking at, he said. ‘Any ship has its itineraries booked out for at least two years. They’re taking bookings now for the whole of 2008 for these cruise lines because they want to get as many bookings as they can in ahead of time.’

He added, ‘The concern here is that while we appreciate the government’s hard work on the pier facility, we need to accelerate this to take into account the fact that ships like Genesis are coming into the market and we need to do that quickly.’

He said that at this point they had expected the cruise pier plans to be formally announced.

‘So I think this is now the association’s concern that we need to engage the government to move this forward in a positive way. It’s a question of what can we do to work with the government to help accelerate that programme and that’s really where the association’s coming from.’

Mr. Moxam said, ‘We’ve delayed the project far too long and we’re here to help and we want to help push in a positive way’.

Cruise numbers

Speaking on the downturn in cruise tourism arrival numbers in recent months Mr. Davies explained that there are a limited number of cruise ships in the world, especially the primary ships, and the cruise industry is one of the fastest growing leisure industries in the world.

Using Royal Caribbean as an example, he explained that they bought Pullmantar, a large Spanish operator, and they are now moving ships into Pullmantar to serve the European market and will not be focused on the Caribbean like the way they have before.

The medium to long term problem is that the market is broadening very fast.

‘They are sucking ships out of the Caribbean and if you look at that and also at the same time the high level of investment that other ports are making like Jamaica, Roatan, Mexico, St Maarten, Antigua and the very positive way they are doing it with the private and public sector working together to create this infrastructure, then at that stage you have a double whammy effect and Cayman could well get caught out in the middle of that because you have less ships in the Caribbean, more ports to take them to and therefore more choices, and it’s the old supply and demand.’

Lesser numbers of cruise visitors recently have indeed affected business.

Business

Speaking about business at the Camera Store in George Town, Ms Graham-Taylor said, ‘It’s absolutely crucifying’. From a staffing point of view she has to offer full-time employment to a full team of staff even when it’s very slow, because, as she says, they need to pay bills like everyone else. ‘It dropped off very suddenly in May and it’s been a constant effort to keep the people that I employ enthused, uplifted and busy. But it’s feast or famine too. You only have one day a week when you have lots and lots of people and then three or four days a week when there’s nobody.’

Island Companies is down about 20 of its staff. ‘We’re normally up to about 150 or 160 people on staff and we have major reservations about taking on anybody else because of what we believe will be a slower season,’ said Mr. Moxam.

Staff members are on base salary plus commission. ‘If we don’t have the numbers coming through the doors to give them the chance to make that extra money – their bank loans may be paid out of those commissions – so sooner or later if we don’t rectify this situation the bank could start calling saying what about my loan’.

But it’s more than that: Boatswain’s Beach needs numbers through the door to pay for it, bus drivers and taxi drivers need the money. ‘It’s a major trickle down effect,’ Mr. Moxam said.

Mr. Hamaty added that while the season has been forecasted to improve by authorities, there is always a percentage of ships lost in winter season each year because of Nor’westers. With Spotts Dock as the only alternative dock, the association would like to work with government to improve that facility to ensure that ships choose to dock there.

When a ship doesn’t call or changes itinerary the loss is felt from the port fees to the tendering fees to the merchants to the taxi drivers.

In general, Grand Cayman does have a lot going for it as a port of call, the group agrees. With regard to infrastructure, culture, security, safety and cleanliness it is ahead of other destinations. It has first rate shops that allow tourists to pay in US dollars, everything within George Town is in walking distance, it is an English speaking destination and there is no harassment of tourists.

Goals

Along with getting the berthing facility in place, some of the more short term aims of the association include the provision of shading, signage and public lavatories in George Town. In the medium to long term they will be looking into how to improve the impact of pedestrians versus traffic through George Town, in conjunction with the government.

‘George Town doesn’t belong to the cruise ship people only. Whatever improvements we create there it’s for the stay-over visitor also who goes downtown here to shop. It can benefit everybody,’ said Mr. Hamaty.

Indeed, improving the experience of a cruise guest in the Cayman Islands may not only mean they’ll return as a cruise tourist but they could also come back as a stay-over tourist.

There are many wealthy people on board the more luxury ships and the more mass market ships, said Mr. Davies. Giving an example of Freedom of the Seas, a mass market ship, he explained around 600 of its 4,000 passengers would fit into or be higher than the demographic that Cayman is looking for, a real potential to return as stay-over visitors.

Mr. Moxam said an important stage has been reached in the growth of cruise tourism, with two choices. ‘We can either make it the premiere destination throughout the region or we can accept being a second rate player, and I think we need to take the first option. We need to grasp the opportunity and really do it properly.’

ACT is in the process of being formalised as a not-for-profit association. Following this a public meeting will be held at which all people in the cruise industry will be welcomed and invited to join.

An application fee of CI$100 is to be paid and then an annual subscription fee depending on how employees a company has: $100 for 1-10; $250 for 11-25; $1000 for over 25 employees.

All funds will be used to attain the agreed goals of the association.

To contact ACT call Emma Graham-Taylor on 945 3737.

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