Cruise tourism bad for environment

With all due respect, I am not sure the math supports the intensity of the cruise industry’s convictions about the benefits of their business.

The CTO will tell you it takes 10 or more cruise passengers to equal the economic benefit of one stay over guest. In other words, for every additional stayover visitor attracted to the Cayman Islands you could kindly ask ten cruise passengers to stay home. No loss in tourism revenue and a dramatic increase in peace and quiet. Fewer crowds mean better experiences and better word of mouth.

Just because the economic cost of tourism density is difficult to measure does not mean it doesn’t count. When tourists keep running into other tourists they tell 10 friends back home that the destination is too touristy. Who can argue that the hustle and bustle greeting most cruise passengers does justice to the true Caymanian experience? What stories do those visitors tell of the Cayman Islands when they return home? Assuming after a week or two at sea cruise passengers can even distinguish one duty free from port from the next.

Too often tourism only looks at what visitors spend ignoring what it cost to attract them. For example, every additional overnight guest reduces the pressure to expand ship berthing facilities saving hundreds of millions in infrastructure expenditures; money that could be spent improving schools and other public facilities. What is the social cost when a destination offers first rate port facilities to visitors and third rate educations to residents?

The fewer cruise ships that come to the Cayman Islands, the clearer the water and the better the scuba diving. While the economics of water clarity are difficult to measure, it still matters. Divers spend more money than stayover guests so increasing water clarity increases tourism revenue exponentially while reducing tourism pressure.

Before we can have an informed debate about the merits of cruise tourism, we need to consider how much of every visitor dollar spent in the Cayman Islands actually remains in the Cayman Islands. According to the UN, on a worldwide basis roughly 30 cents of every visitor dollar remains in the destination.

Cruise passengers have higher economic leakage rates than stayover visitors because more of their money passes through the hands of global corporations. So a dollar spent by a cruise passenger might be worth half that of a stayover visitor.

So, if we could count everything that really matters, we might find that it takes 30-40 cruise passengers to equal the benefits of a single stayover guest. Still liking the benefits?

At the end of the day how the Cayman Islands chooses to develop tourism cannot be answered in economic terms alone. Until the costs of tourism are measured in social and environmental terms as well, the answers will always steer us in the wrong direction.

Andy Dumaine