Which port in a storm?

The Cayman Islands is on the cusp of significant changes to the port system. Following years of discussions and several false starts, it now looks like the construction of piers to enable cruise ships to berth at George Town will go ahead.

The construction of two finger piers at the north and south sides of Royal Watler is being developed by GLF, Royal Construction. On 18 February Premier McKeeva Bush, representatives of the Port Authority of the Cayman Islands, engineers and officials of the Simulation, Training, Assessment and Research Center of Fort Lauderdale gathered around a world-class 3D simulation facility to drive through the latest designs in a mock-up of a cruise ship bridge surrounded by 3D screens that fully represented the approach to the planned piers.

The test is therefore as close to real-world conditions as is possible and the premier was pleased with what he saw. “It made me see exactly how it is going to work,” he said.

A detailed report is due from the STAR Center, which will inform the developers on all data. The simulation was run several times by cruise ship captains under various weather and sea conditions.

Need for berthing
The need for a cruise berthing port has been agreed by many over the years and Stefan Baraud, chairman of the Port Authority of the Cayman Islands, said cruise tourism has immediate economic benefits as Cayman was a marquee destination.

However, he also noted that with a move toward bigger ships, particularly by Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, it was not feasible to tender vessels of this size, so a pier would be essential to retain and increase market share.

Being able to dock in George Town would enable ships to stay longer in port, increasing passenger spend and stimulate retail, tours and restaurants because passengers could walk on and off the ship. “Without infrastructure improvements Cayman is at a competitive disadvantage and will continue to lose business,” warned Mr. Baraud. He added that Cayman has the opportunity to develop the gold standard for ports in the Caribbean, with attractions to showcase Cayman and offer different experiences to cruise passengers.
The cargo question

In previous years, cargo operations had run concurrently with cruise. However, the decision was taken to halt cargo operations during cruise hours for safety and tourism reasons and the cargo port now operates at night and weekends when there are no cruise ships.

Mr. Baraud said that in the long term it may be necessary to move the cargo operations from the current location, particularly if population growth goes as forecast. “Relocation may become important because adverse weather can mean we cannot receive cargo, which affects commerce and our way of life. By relocating cargo to a protected location, it would ensure incidents [where a ship was unable to dock due to heavy seas] were reduced. “And with cruise berthing meaning ships may stay longer in port, revitalising downtown in the evenings, there may be an overlap with cargo, which of course nobody wants,” he said.
In the interim, it may be possible to greenscape or fence off the current cargo port, which runs in conjunction with the unloading and distribution facility in Industrial Park.

Premier Bush also indicated that there was interest from a Chinese developer in becoming involved with a project that would create a cruise ship jetty in West Bay, adjacent to the Cayman Turtle Farm. This would be part of an upgrade of the farm itself although at present the project is at the stage of a ministry Memorandum of Understanding, which would then need to still go through Cabinet. The premier also announced that there were discussions under way regarding a possible development of a cruise pier and associated facilities at Cayman Brac. Talks are ongoing.

Go East, young man
While the George Town port is intended as a public-private sector partnership driven by government, another developer has been active in promoting an idea for an East End Seaport.

Joseph Imparato owns the 1,500-acre site at High Rock and has presented discussions for the facility, which he says will provide the Cayman Islands with a multi-purpose, world class seaport. When fully built it could include a hotel and restaurant; mega yacht marina with state of the art amenities; cruise ship home porting and terminal; container cargo port; port management facilities; and a hydrocarbon storage facility.

The rationale, according to developers, is that the existing location of cargo and bulk oil facilities inhibits development and at times conflicts with existing land use. The planned infrastructure at the new location would allow for a 25 to 30 year timeline of unconstrained growth from existing activities and creation of new economic activities.

The High Rock location is uninhabited and away from any current infrastructure, there is no barrier reef and the government owns adjoining land that could be built on as a port authority facility. The facility would be privately funded in phase one – the excavation – through sale of the fill generated, and phase two – infrastructure – would be private-public partnerships.

However, public opinion on the port has been divided. Opponents of the project have indicated that it is merely a way for the developer to source valuable fill, that the current cargo port is now only being used at 30 per cent of its facility and growing at one per cent each year. MLA Ezzard Miller told a meeting that the cost of passenger air fare to get to a cruise ship reduced likelihood of home porting and that there would be issues with security, waste disposal and supplies. The pipeline required to transport fuel to George Town would be in danger of leakage and that there may be a threat of storm surge bringing water intrusion.

Mr. Imparato noted that an environmental impact assessment would include hydrologic modelling, coastal dynamics modelling, marine resources and upland resources surveys. It would be conducted by Hesperides Group in accordance with World Bank standards and concerns over water lens proximity and nearby dive sites would also be addressed.

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