Pirates Week veterans fear that if the Cayman Islands government abandons the festival’s name it will be shanghaied by another Caribbean destination.
For over 30 years, the country has built up the Pirates Week Festival’s brand name to be synonymous with Cayman as a premier tourist event. Year after year, thousands of tourists from the US, Canada and Europe have flocked to the Cayman to dress up like pirates and participate in the festivities.
But the Pirates Week Festival could disappear altogether. Within days of being re-elected as the Leader of Government Business, McKeeva Bush announced the government will change the name and the focus from piracy to turtling schooners and other seafaring themes.
A volunteer pirate since the festival officially started in 1978, Darvin Ebanks, who goes by the pirate name Captain Black Terrence said there is a reason why Disney World has made billions off its pirate theme parks and movie franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean” and Las Vegas has built up its pirate’s shows. People and children love the mystique and romance, costumes and fantasy surrounding pirate stories.
“Any country in the Caribbean could pick up the name and make a fortune on it,” says Ebanks. “The name Pirates Week is a marketing tool to jumpstart the rest of the festival which includes Heritage Week and Heritage days.
“I know people from the US and Canada who have been coming for the last 10 to 15 years to dress up like pirates for Pirates Week. Children are fascinated by our fake guns and swords. And they love to take pictures with us and get our medallions.
“I have seen 8,000 to 10,000 people come down to the harbour to watch the festival landing. I have seen the determination of people to come out in the pouring rain, no matter what. And we are just going to throw it away after 31 years?”
When it comes to tourism and culture, Ebanks knows what he is talking about. Having worked in the tourism industry for decades, Ebanks was honoured as an industry pioneer by the Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. He is also a board director for the Catboat Club and council member for the National Trust.
The festival’s origins came about when the hotels, restaurants, retail shops and car rentals companies asked the then Tourism Minister Jim Bodden for help in attracting tourists during the slow summer months. Bodden and another business man Mike Lockwood came up with the concept of Pirates Week as a fun-filled event for adults and families.
Years after his death, Bodden was honoured as Cayman’s first national hero. Today, Pirates Week Festival is heralded as the most successful festival in the Cayman Islands says his surviving daughter Mary Trumbach.
While Pirates Week is still an effective marketing tool for the tourist industry, after three decades, it has also become part of Cayman’s culture says Trumbach.
“Pirates Weeks was our first festival and it was a unique idea,” says Trumbach. “It was created by our first national hero, my father, during the days when the struggling economy was just getting Cayman on the map as a tourist destination.
“Now we have a downward economy and we are facing hard times here. Why change a good thing that has worked for over 30 years?”
The Bush decree
The decision to change the Pirates Week Festival’s name was driven by two factors according to Bush. The country’s Christian heritage and international politics. The Pirates Week name could be associated with Somali’s pirates, which have hijacked numerous merchants ships in recent years.
“Our reputation as an offshore jurisdiction among some influencers in North America and Europe remains unjustifiably tainted,” Bush stated at a recent press briefing. “For us, the image of piracy or theft or hijacking, as it is also called, is not one that we can afford to embrace at this time. I think it’s prudent that we do everything in our power to remove any perceptions of or associations with piracy from the Cayman Islands.”
While travelling throughout Europe, numerous heads of state asked about Cayman’s piracy said Bush. But he was unclear if these were questions during the heat of negotiations or polite chitchat which occurs in elevators or over tea.
Since Bush made this announcement, Trumbach has been inundated with phone calls from people in the tourism business. She has been stopped in the street and grocery store by people worried about the fate of the Pirates Week Festival.
“This analogy to Somali’s pirates is ludicrous and ridiculous. We are on the other side of the world. With all due respect, I think Bush is placating to [certain] churches,” added Trumbach.
She was careful to add that it is only limited segments of the Christian community, which are against Pirates Week. In fact, some church-based schools such as St. Ignatius are involved in the festival’s activities such as Children’s Fun Fair Day.
Rebranding the pirates
It can take several years and millions of dollars to create a successful brand says international marketing expert Kim Ketchell of Chowder Inc, the same company which has worked with the Tourism Department on advertising strategy for years and produced the Cayman Went feature film. Before rebranding a tourist event like Pirates Week, it is critical to make sure thorough research is done she added.
Or the results could be like the Coca-Cola Company’s rebranding fiasco. Consumers in mass rejected the rebranded New Coke. To hold onto their customers the company had to bring back the old formula so the company spent a lot of money to quickly introduce the old Coke brand as the rebranded Coca-Cola Classic. Like the cola wars, competition for the tourism market in the Caribbean is fierce.
For tourism rebranding, Ketchell recommends focus groups, which ask consumers about awareness, benefits and value of the event. The focus group would dig deep into the feelings and loyalty to the festival’s name.
Conducting research with tourism partners is crucial such as travel agents, wholesalers, hotels, taxis, retail shops and other tourist-related businesses. They work with tourists day-to-day and have a handle on industry trends.
Piracy glorifies sin
The president of the Minister’s Association and pastor of Red Bay Church of God said the association did not drive the initiative to change the name of Pirates Week Festival. But now that it has started, the Minister’s Association is supporting the name change.
“We need to be careful what we glorify,” says Pastor Thompson. “Pirates were not good people.
“In the 23 years that I have lived here, I have never gone to a Pirate’s landing, because I don’t want to be associated with what pirates stood for.”
Another pastor and business man William Peguero said there has been a silent majority within the community that does not support Pirates Week. Because piracy such as stealing and violence does not represent Cayman’s true heritage. And while mature adults understand the festival and its pirates are fantasy, young children can get confused between what is fake and what is real says Peguero. The enormous amount of violence on TV shows and video games already have a negative impact on children, Pirates Week just reinforces that he says.
In the weeks since Bush’s announcement, a groundswell of support for Pirates Week has emerged. A Facebook group ”Save Pirates Week” has nearly 2,000 members. There is an online petition to save the festival.
Several locals dressed up as pirates and marched up and down the streets of George Town Harbour, protesting the name change.
If government gets rid of the Pirates Week name, because it is offensive then what is next say local pirates?
“Should they get rid of the Post Office Hell in West Bay?” says Duke Tibbetts also known as Big Cannon Jack.
Or tell a local company to get rid of the Jolly Roger pirate ship because it glorifies pirates? Or ban retail shops from selling T-shirts with popular pirate themes says Tibbetts.
The Pirates Week Festival does not glorify violence and thieving says Ebanks.. In 30 years, there have been no incidents of burglary or violence during the festival says Ebanks. And at the end of the festival, the governor is recaptured and pirates are put on trial so good ultimately wins over evil, just like the Disney movies and theme parks says Ebanks.
One of the nice things about Pirates Week is that everyone benefits. Every year, Caymanian ladies set up food stalls, selling fried fish, conch stew and curry chicken. These ladies can easily make $3000 during the two biggest days of the festival. That money means the world to these ladies. They can buy their children and grandchildren school books or take a little trip to Miami says Ebanks.
“So many people have volunteered their time over the years to make this festival happen. Two years ago, 30 of us were honoured for our work on Pirates Week.
“And then a new government comes in and decides the name will be changed and we have no say in it at all,” says Ebanks.
If the elected politicians were smart, they would capitalise on the Pirates Week brand instead of getting rid of it. And negotiate with Disney Studios to use Cayman for location filming for its next Pirates of the Caribbean movie says Ebanks.
He knows plenty of Caymanians who would dress up as pirates to work as movie extras.
Using Cayman as a film location such as the Pirates of the Caribbean would inject a lot of money into a local economy added Ketchell.
In spite of the community uproar, Bush has remained steadfast. A committee is being set up to hold a competition for the name change. Bush has not said anything publically about doing market research or putting the Pirates Week name up to a vote.
If the festival’s name is changed, the turnout will slowly die off says Ebanks. Not right away, but slowly over two to three years. With a name like Cultural Week or Heritage Week, the festival will lose the magic and excitement of the original Pirates Week. No amount of money poured into marketing campaigns will attract the same number of tourists or locals says Ebanks. And a golden era in tourism will be lost.
Sidebar: Highlights for Pirates Week 2009
13 November: 5K Run, Pirate Costume contest, Miss Festival Queen Costume contest, fireworks display, Songfest, street dance and food festival
14 November: 5K Sea Swim, Teens Own Disco, street dance and food festival, Landing Pageant.
15 November: Children’s fun fair, underwater treasure hunt.
16 November: East End Heritage Day
17 November: West Bay Heritage Day
18 November: North Side Heritage Day, swim meet
19 November: Bodden Town Heritage Day
20 November: George Town Heritage Day, swim meet
21 November: Golf tournament, swim meet, Savannah/Newlands Heritage Day, Cardboard boat race, Trial of the Pirates, fireworks, Teens Own Disco, street dance finale.
22 November: 10K Run, swim meet, darts tournament
27-28 November: Cayman Brac weekend
TBA: Little Cayman