Cayman’s tourism industry has had a year of challenges and opportunities.
Since Jane van der Bol took the helm as executive director of the private sector nonprofit lobbying group Cayman Islands Tourism Association in December 2011, she said she had to learn quickly on her feet, but in retrospect it was worth it.
“It was an exciting year,” Ms van der Bol said.
“Tourism has kept us on our toes, but we are still on target to get 310,000 air arrivals without a problem. And although cruise numbers have declined we are improving so I anticipate a very good high season,” she said. “All the accolades the country receives certainly help – Best Island, amongst The Top-25 beaches in the world, best tour with Living the Dream, Best Hotel. We keep popping up everywhere and all these things set us up for success. The air arrivals are showing that.”
The role of executive director, she mused, was one that it wasn’t easy to prepare specifically for, albeit that her background in group sales, attractions, travel agencies and as a water sports company owner had given her a wide grounding in the industry, both as a supplier and buyer.
“We have a quality product and what we need to do is bring tourists here so they choose us over all others. The Cayman Islands is a high-end destination. People pay premium dollar, so we need to deliver a premium experience to them,” she said.
One important part of bringing people to Grand Cayman was the introduction of seasonal Cayman Airways flights from both Dallas and Panama; two markets which had been mooted for a long time.
“It was a great accomplishment after lobbying for these routes,” she said.
“We are still working with Cayman Airways [it was recently announced that the Dallas route would continue through high season 2012/13] and hope to open Panama again [in 2013].
“The Department of Tourism and the tourism association realise that one season will not bring a return. Three to five years are always needed to establish a route and we hope to continue both.”
JetBlue’s arrival has also assisted in bringing more tourists from New York and Boston, she added.
“It was another great accomplishment and all tourism worked together. It is important that we support these gateways and airlines with services and promotions. We have a great relationship now with the Department of Tourism and as this blossoms and grows we work together really well.
“People will not do business with each other if we do not have good relationships,” Ms van der Bol said.
Another development was the introduction of bi-monthly joint marketing meetings between the Department of Tourism and the tourism association. This shared crucible of ideas and realism is more effective than the previous system whereby CITA would meet independently then go to the tourism department with requests and ideas, without any knowledge of what is possible. The airports authority and civil aviation authority also have a big role to play, she added.
Other aspects of people’s choices of islands include safety and a tough approach to crime.
“We are the safest island in the Caribbean and do not tolerate corruption and crime. We will try to keep [visitors] safe.”
Technically-speaking, her tenure has also brought a more corporate approach to the running of the association, which represents more than 200 tourism-related businesses.
“After hitting the ground running with Taste of Cayman 2012 it was very important to regroup and look at running the CITA as a company, albeit a nonprofit one. One highlight was making major changes to the bylaws in order to offer members to add their other businesses at a reduced rate.
“Then there is also associate membership in which individuals can join at an affordable rate. We are reaching out to people who are not used to being part of a bigger organisation,” she said.
An example of this is that while Cayman Craft Market itself is a member, individual vendors can now join and benefit from the networking, assistance, advice and experience of the association.
An app and a revamped CITA website have also been achieved this year.
The executive director is keen to bring the private and public sectors even closer together to stimulate discussion, growth and the ability to react to macroeconomic events.
“One of my big slogans is ‘Strength In Numbers’, or ‘Together For Tourism’. We have reached a point where people get it; in other countries you do not have that.
“One example was the community enhancement fee; it took an island to come together to stop this and the tourism association was right there lobbying against it.” Some concessions that the tourism industry agreed to in lieu of the planned tax included an increase on hotel taxes to 13 per cent from 10 per cent and an increase in airport taxes.*
“This is passed on to the visitor but hits the bottom line of every single business. We become more expensive and that hurts us and puts us at a disadvantage.
“On the other hand, the Cayman Islands must maintain its budget and each sector has been affected, not just tourism,” she said.
One of her major focuses in 2013 will be to try and bring the tourism association, the tourism department, the Ministry of Tourism and the Department of Environment together to try and “bring to life” the long-mooted National Conservation Law.
“The more we can work together the more we can come to solutions. The Department of Environment is bringing professional dolphin experts to the islands to study [lone dolphin] Stinky and Guy Harvey is working on the stats of the decline in the sandbar stingray population,” she added.
“The conservation law is a big law with many parts to it. By coming together we can understand the importance of the law. We may be best served by breaking it up. We can get what we can passed and then work through any conflicts one at a time.”