The facility loses millions each year, but according to local officials – it might be worth it
It is Cayman’s most popular land-based tourist attraction; the second most popular tourist attraction overall in the Islands.
Some 230,000 visitors each year come to visit the Cayman Turtle Farm.
Yet it has also lost an average of $9.75 million a year over the last four government budget cycles, including a projected $10.5 million loss in the current year. Roughly $6 million of that amount involves public funds that will go toward retiring debts the tourist attraction simply cannot pay on its own.
In addition, the man in charge has said even when that debt is fully paid off – sometime around 2019 – the Turtle Farm will still lose somewhere between $3 million and $4 million in operating costs each year unless serious changes are made, including the installation of a cruise ship dock in West Bay district.
Turtle Farm critics, said Managing Director Tim Adam, do not appreciate the total value of the farm to the Islands.
“While the Cayman Turtle Farm is currently not operating at a profit, the business model embraces this redevelopment and expanded mission,” farm officials noted. “In recent years, the Cayman Turtle Farm has cut operating expenditures and overhead costs and improved revenues while also continually maintaining and enhancing the facility to be a world-class tourist attraction.”
The facility has maintained visitor numbers despite a decline in the overall number of cruise passengers coming to Cayman over the last few years.
Adam says the farm is much more to the Cayman Islands in a cultural sense, but also in an economic one.
Not only to some 230,000 people who visit the farm each year, those visitors use local buses, taxis and tour vehicles to get there; supporting the local transportation business.
The Turtle Farm employs about 87 people – 95 per cent of whom are local residents. It also purchases goods and services in the local economy and gives tourists a tour option that they can’t take advantage of anywhere else in the world.
“The operational deficit isn’t the sum total of what the Turtle Farm contributes,” Mr. Adam sais. “It has a significant positive impact on the local economy.”
So what to do with the Cayman Turtle Farm? Compasspoint put the question to West Bay candidates, in whose district the tourism attraction falls.
“In order to reduce the amount of subsidies given to the Turtle Farm, government needs to focus their efforts and resources on attracting more stayover tourists, to the facility,” said Mervin Smith, an independent West Bay candidate supported by the Coalition for Cayman. “If the focus is solely on attracting cruise ship visitors, the Turtle Farm will continue to lose potential revenue and remain dependent on government assistance.”
Rather than government pushing the product to different visitors, members of the People’s Progressive Movement party in West Bay advised making that someone else’s responsibility.
“The Cayman Turtle Farm constitutes a significant threat to government’s fiscal sustainability,” read a statement submitted by the four West Bay Progressives candidates; Dalkeith Bothwell, Woody DaCosta, Capt. Bryan Ebanks and Ray Farrington. “A Progressives administration will address this problem by inviting private interests to purchase and operate either the entire enterprise or portions thereof.”
Privatisation of the Turtle Farm was suggested in the 2010 Miller-Shaw consultancy report commissioned by government. However, selling off the turtle-breeding and selling section of the facility is a sore subject to say the least; and one unlikely to get support from West Bay voters according to independent candidate Andrea Christian.
“All efforts to reduce the subsidy should be undertaken, including privatisation of the park, but retaining the farm under the control, ownership and management of the Cayman Islands government,” Ms Christian said.
Having said that, Ms Christian agrees that the farm is an iconic attraction, creating employment opportunities in West Bay district.
“It’s presence and purpose carries a special bond for all Caymanians,” she said.
Getting rid of the Turtle Farm entirely through privatisation is not something West Bay independent Dwene Ebanks supports. Mr. Ebanks said the farm has “huge historical significance” and stands as a one-of-a-kind attraction in the world. The Cayman Turtle Farm is the only facility in the world that operates as a turtle meat farm/tourism facility/conservation centre.
“Any consideration for the reduction of a subsidy needs to address the above reality,” Mr. Ebanks said. “Prior to the building of the new current facility the Turtle Farm operations were profitable.
“This strongly indicates that there are components at the current farm that has become too costly to operate. I would support measures to joint ownership of the farm, its significance to the West Bay community and this country….is too great to be left entirely to the profit motive of private business.”
The PPM candidates agreed that “all efforts should be taken” to maintain the section of the farm that has been historically viable.
“A new Progressives administration will invite private interests, such as a cruise line, to operate at the very least the water park portion of the attraction,” the candidates said. “Private investors are best placed to enhance the attractions at the Turtle Farm, but any agreement would include the provision of retail space for local artists and craftspeople.”
Mr. Smith said it was “unfortunate” the farm had seen so much bad press in recent years.
“To repair that image internationally, I believe great emphasis must be placed on conservation,” he said. “We also need to ensure that the turtles released into the wild are healthy so we do not adversely affect the wild population.”
That last issue has been the topic of much discuss following the October release of an animal rights’ group report on the Cayman Turtle Farm, which suggested, among other things that turtles with diseases were being released from the farm.
Turtle Farm officials have denied those particular claims and, according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, have more recently attempted to discount nearly all the claims made in its report.
The WSPA approached the farm about changing some of its operations to come more in line with a sea turtle research facility, rather than turtle meat production.
The farm said the public release of the WSPA report was consistent with a “public smear campaign” against the tourism facility.
“Negotiations [with the Turtle Farm] are proving difficult as the farm has made several demands WSPA is unwilling to meet, including renouncing some of the findings from our undercover investigation and accepting the farm’s recent inspection report as ‘authoritative’,” a statement sent from the society’s Neil D’Cruze indicated. “WSPA cannot treat the farm’s report authoritatively as it only looks at the symptoms of poor welfare rather than the causes.
“Even if the farm was to fulfil every one of the report’s recommendations, turtles would still suffer and the same problems would continue to reoccur.”
The society said it hoped the new government elected in May would “re-evaluate the future of the Cayman Turtle Farm”.
Managing Director Adam has lambasted the WSPA and accused the organisation of simply attempting to shut the farm down.
“The difficulty with trying to engage in a dialogue with WSPA is finding an agreeable direction for dialogue
to proceed toward,” Mr. Adam said. “WSPA proposed that [the Turtle Farm] must stop visitors touching or holding turtles, and that [the Turtle Farm] must stop farming turtles for meat. Neither of those are end-goals that [the farm] is in a position to negotiate.”