Panama and Dallas done; Roatan and Belize next?
The new Cayman Airways flights to Panama City and Dallas/Fort Worth will boost tourism and the wider economy, according to Cayman Islands Premier McKeeva Bush.
Speaking during a media conference to formally announce the routes, Mr. Bush said both routes had been long advocated by the tourism industry and that diversifying tourism’s geographical visitor base would help Cayman avoid effects from economic conditions in the main source market of the United States.
“I don’t put all my eggs in one basket; if we get the right investment and projects … we can maintain [our position] if a downturn comes. We have a buffer, something to buttress us.
“These new routes solidify the United States base [with the Dallas/Fort Worth flight] as well as expanding into the emerging Latin American market [through Panama City],” he said.
The Panama flight is timed to coincide with onward journeys from the major hub to many other destinations including initial targets Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires, both of which have fast-emerging and eager-to-travel middle classes. But it is also to the business community that eyes are turning.
“We had the Chamber of Commerce travel to Panama and they had discussions regarding potential investment in Cayman; not just financial services but expertise. [Regarding Latin America] I ask who has the best transportation planners and everyone has pointed me to Columbia as those with the best expertise. If you have a direct flight there is easier access and communication; you can meet rather than speaking on the phone.
“We are trying to reach the South American investor. We have been up and down to Brazil and have partnerships with the private sector already. There are other destinations in Latin America that can provide various opportunities. Direct access is the best way to go at all times,” Mr. Bush said.
He said the new route to Panama had the potential to save the Cayman Islands money on medical bills. Facilities in Panama, he said, were comparable with Cayman’s long term partners in Florida, but less expensive.
“Government spends say $15 million a year on overseas medical travel. I am expecting I can save $7 million a year by sending a certain amount of tertiary-level care to Panama starting this budget.
“This is going to be big for us so it behoves me to put $500,000 in to save $7 million,” he said.
Pilar Bush, chairman of the Cayman Airways board of directors, said new routes did not automatically translate to large volumes but rather created an air bridge which allowed things to happen.
“It is a long-term investment into strategic economic development,” she said.
Shomari Scott, acting director of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, said data shows that it takes three years to fully build any new route before significant visitation was seen. The Panama route, he said, had been discussed for seven years but in the interim the Brazilian economy had soared. He said that Cayman’s current top source market was New York City, with 8 million people, but that Sao Paolo had 20 million inhabitants with millions entering the middle class each year.
“To put figures to it, in the first nine months of 2011, 1.1 million Brazilian visitors to Florida spent US$1.6 billion – a 60 per cent increase year on year. There is great potential. They want to travel, shop and dine – we have all that here.”
The Dallas market is more tourism-centric with the dive market being particularly targeted. Also, as Fort Worth is a significant hub for American Airlines, service allows Cayman to raise awareness among divers who may be more used to going west to Hawaii.
Mr. Bush also revealed that discussions were under way for a direct Roatan flight.
“The cultures have grown apart, but the historical connection cannot be denied. We have more connections with the Bay Islands than we do with the mainland … we are hoping soon that we can go through the bureaucracy and announce a flight with them.
“And perhaps Belize will figure in this, too. Cayman Airways has planes and they must fly; they are no good on the ground. That is my opinion and that is why we have to have more routes.”
Dates and times
Flights to Dallas/Fort Worth run from 23 June through 2 September. Outgoing flights are on Saturdays at 3.30pm, arriving 7.30pm Dallas time. The return flights leave Dallas on Sundays at 9am and return to Cayman at 1pm local time.
Flights to Panama City run from 28 May to 3 September. Outgoing flights are on Mondays and Thursdays at 11am, arriving 1pm Panama time. The return flights leave Panama at 2pm and return to Cayman at 4pm local time.