Today’s Editorial for January 28: Tourism harbinger

The Department of Tourism issued its final air and cruise arrive statistics late last week and they showed what many merchants, hoteliers and restaurateurs already know: tourism numbers are decreasing.

Even though stay-over tourism figures in 2008 were actually up almost four percent over 2007, a four-month trend of decline to end last year ruined what might have been a double-digit percentage increase for the year.

In addition, cruise passenger arrivals fell 9.5 per cent to the lowest level since 2002.

Cayman’s close encounters with Hurricanes Gustav and Paloma certainly played a role in reducing the tourism numbers, especially the latter storm. But the stay-over arrivals toward the end of the year are probably more a reflection of the worsening global economy and a harbinger of a situation that is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Certainly, we can’t blame the Minister of Tourism Charles Clifford for hurricanes or the global economy. In fact, Cayman is outperforming – percentage wise – many of the other tourism destinations in the region, especially those that cater to mass-market tourism.

However, the signs of things to come were quite evident for Cayman late last year when Mr. Clifford said he believed the tourism industry would perform a least as well this winter season as it did the last winter season. In hindsight, Mr. Clifford might have been being a bit too optimistic, given the realities of the global economic crisis and in particular, the worsening situation in the United States.

Considering about 80 per cent of Cayman’s stay-over tourists come from America, and probably and even higher percentage of cruise ship passengers, we are most likely looking at a significant and serious drop in tourism in 2009. The reluctance of Mr. Clifford to be forthright about this possibility is understandable, with a general election less than four months away.

But political expediency aside, Cayman residents should be made aware of the difficult situation facing businesses that cater to the tourism industry and the employees who work for those businesses.

This is a year for mere survival in the tourism industry. Of course, the financial industry has its own set of challenges to contend with as well, and this might be the year of just surviving for a large portion of Cayman’s populace. If that is the case, we hope our leaders can be honest about the challenges we face, so that everyone knows what to expect.