Diving industry suffers downturn

Diving has endured a difficult year with retailers, providers and businesses seeing a significant downturn in their figures.

That’s the message from the latest dive industry survey undertaken by William Clein, in which 235 retailers and dive-related businesses were polled.

The average decrease in gross revenues across all businesses for the third quarter of 2009 was down -7.4 per cent compared to the same period in 2008, with retailers suffering the most with a decrease of 8.8 per cent.

New certifications were down also, retailers posting an average decline of 9.3 per cent and independent instructors decreasing in terms of certification by 16.3 per cent. Here in Cayman Islands, while this January there were 253 dive instructor/dive master certifications, by November that had dropped to 202 – a 12 per cent drop.

Steve Broadbelt of Ocean Frontiers said that there is also an aging population in terms of divers.

‘The biggest challenge the dive industry faces over the next 10 years is that the average age of the certified diver is going up and we need to do more to make it interesting for the younger crowd in their 20s and 30s,’ he said. ‘We need more Caymanians to dive; it’s like living in Aspen and not knowing how to ski. I would love to see more participating in diving, enjoying and seeing the coral reefs which would do more for conservation and career opportunities in this industry.’

Economics have played a large part in the downturn, but locally the effects of Hurricane Ivan had a large impact and many large operators ceased activities in Cayman, said Rod MacDowall of Red Sail Sports.

‘There are more individual operators which are of course a very important part of their industry but they don’t have the financial or marketing power,’ he said.

He said that during the 80s and 90s Cayman was a major player on the global scene but that position as world leaders in diving, promotion and marketing subsequently fell away due to increased competition and cheaper travel costs to newer destinations who were targeting the dive tourism market.

‘Suddenly all our repeat guests had all these new great places to go where they’d get looked after the same way Cayman used to look after them,’ he said.

Strategies to help the diving industry look to the future here include maintaining customer service, equipment and marketing standards and looking after the environment.

‘If we are not careful it’d be very easy to do things to compromise [Cayman’s] marine environment and marine life,’ said Mr. McDowall. ‘It’s very fragile and that has to be our priority. People are more environmentally-aware which is positive but I think on a government level we’re not doing as much as we used to do.’

Mr. Broadbelt added that something as basic as teaching children to swim was an essential first step toward attracting the dive instructors of the future.

‘[D]iving together is a family activity which is more the case here than in other destinations,’ he said. ‘Kids are learning to dive and coming into the sport but not as many as we’d like to see. If we don’t make a serious effort to increase that it will affect Cayman.’

There are projects already in progress such as the sinking of the USS Kittiwake, a Chanticleer-class submarine that will form an artificial reef. The project has taken up some seven years to date and is still being discussed.

It is seen as an exciting development which has many scientific upsides such as the study of shipwrecks and their effect on the marine life in the immediate vicinity and on neighbouring reefs. Mr. McDowall said it is vitally important to constantly think of ways to move forward to retain interest.

‘It’s so easy to lose your position in a competitive market like this one and it’s so hard to get it back,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to be proactive in all aspects to maintain your edge.’