Grim numbers for high season
Statistics revealing a substantial drop in both stay-over and cruise ship visitors to Cayman in January were released Friday as Tourism Minister Charles Clifford unveiled the country’s new five-year tourism development plan.
The plan, called the National Tourism Management Policy for 2009-2013, does not anticipate much tourism market growth in the short to medium term and focuses rather on efforts to maintain Cayman’s current market share.
However, Minister Clifford told the Legislative Assembly that the islands needed to continue to focus on sustainable development and product recognition to remain in a strong position when the current global financial crisis eases.
‘This is not a year of business as usual,’ Mr. Clifford said during his address on the tourism policy. ‘Cayman’s tourism industry remains cautiously optimistic about performance in the short term while expectations for growth in the medium term have been tempered in favour of strategies to preserve market share and brand awareness.’
‘All of our research confirms that (the tourism) product remains relevant and desired by our target audience who, while travelling less than before, are still committed to travel.’
Concerns about travelling less appear to be well founded according to the latest tourism numbers.
Air arrivals for January dropped by more than nine per cent compared to January 2008. It marked the fifth straight month of decline for air travellers coming to Cayman.
Cruise ship numbers for January dipped even further, by some 17 per cent from January 2008. The total number for cruise visitors this January even dropped below what was recorded in January 2005, in the months after Hurricane Ivan devastated Cayman.
Visitors from all targeted areas, save continental Europe, declined in January 2009 compared to January 2008. Large drops in visitors from the south-east, south-west and western US were seen, along with a steep decline in visitors from Canada.
However, Minister Clifford pointed out that Cayman continues to outperform many other tourist destinations in the Caribbean, which have forecast visitor drops of some 30 per cent.
He also noted, that with the exception of Spirit Airlines and Air Jamaica, major air carriers have either kept or even added to direct travel routes to the Cayman Islands.
‘The result was a small increase in the number of seats into the destination even as some of our competitors saw a sharp decrease in airlift,’ he said.
The minister also lauded the performance of Cayman Airways. The national air carrier has recently expanded service into Washington, DC and began offering seasonal service to Chicago as well.
The sharp drop in cruise ship visitors also may be viewed as a cloud with a silver lining in some sections of the community. Mr. Clifford said a recent survey done by the Department of Tourism revealed that 84 per cent of respondents felt there was a need to control cruise ship arrivals and minimise environmental damage from those ships and their visitors.
The survey also showed 81 per cent of those who responded wanted to control new development, particularly on Grand Cayman.
Efforts to expand tourism into the eastern districts will reflect the desires of residents and the tourism industry, Mr. Clifford said.
‘This included calls to restrict the height of new developments to three stories as opposed to the current allowable height of five stories,’ the minister said. ‘These recommendations are endorsed in principle for new developments.’
Tourism in the ‘Go East’ initiative will look a lot different than what can currently be seen along Cayman’s main visitor hot spot, Seven Mile Beach. Those activities will include promoting nature tours, deep sea and reef fishing, agri-tourism, crafts, and on-the-beach retail and concession. The tourism policy would also allow for bed and breakfast establishments and some watersports activities in the eastern districts.
Despite fewer overseas visitors being recorded in January 2009, Mr. Clifford said ‘secondary tourism markets,’ such as Canada and Europe did see substantial growth in 2008. He said the national tourism policy also calls for a longer-term look at South America as a secondary tourist market. Research into the viability of that market is being conducted now, he said.
Cayman depends heavily on US visitors who, as of 2008, still accounted for roughly 80 per cent of the islands’ tourism earnings.
Consumer confidence in the US sank to 38 per cent in January, and Mr. Clifford said his ministry was recently advised to ‘remain realistic’ in setting its goals. He said the new national tourism policy reflected that advice.
‘It will take great cooperation on the part of marketers to ensure the destination continues to stand out among the crowd and region,’ Mr. Clifford said.