Editorial for August 21: Royal Watler's first impressions

For years, street vendors have been hawking trinkets and foodstuffs to cruise ship passengers disembarking tender boats at the Royal Watler terminal.

Many of these informal businesses – known Caribbean-wide as “higglers” – consist of little more than a tricycle or cart, often shaded by a colourful beach umbrella. In some cases, it’s not even that elaborate a setup.

But these entrepreneurs now say they have been moved off the pier as part of a clampdown on those operating without licenses and insurance, as the Cayman Islands government has launched a wider clean-up of one of the main gateways to the territory. Vendors on public beaches faced similar action earlier this year.

It’s undeniable that first impressions go a long way. That is even more so the case when trying to market and sell a first-class tourism destination.

Concerns over unpleasantly long lines to disembark and re-board cruise ships via tender boats, poor quality taxi and bus service, rogue tour guides and little or no protection from the elements have long plagued the cruise ship visitor’s experience in our downtown capital.

And while street vendors may be considered a colorful part of Caribbean life, for many tourists, the hawkers and hustlers in vacation areas selling arts, crafts and jewelry can also be a nuisance seen as peddling unwanted “junk.”

One of the enduring image problems faced by our neighbor Jamaica is the sense that someone is always trying to sell you something – sometimes pretty aggressively – while you’re trying to enjoy your vacation there. Jamaican authorities have tried with varying success to crack down and force vendors to register with trade associations or local government, but cases of harassment of visitors remain a debilitating disease afflicting its tourism product as it can fuel feelings of fear among visitors.

Fortunately, the Cayman Islands has never been viewed in that light, and it must remain that way.
But on the flip side, it is worth noting that the Cayman Islands has never truly achieved its full potential as a premier upscale tourist destination. One relatively inexpensive way to address that would be to invest the necessary resources into a gateway that welcomes hundreds of thousands of guests each year with the aesthetics and landscaping beauty worthy of a first-class destination – to say nothing of rectifying the shabby environs at Spotts that meet those cruise ship passengers unfortunate enough to call on Grand Cayman during inclement weather.

The visitor experience when passengers first disembark cruise ships is vital in their decision making as to whether they choose to return as higher-spending stay-over tourists, or even perhaps something more valuable – investors in residential property.

Robert Hamaty, of the Royal Watler Trader’s Association, which represents vendors with a physical presence on the dock, said the clampdown had not affected the brick and mortar types, and, that in the wake of the cleanup, the overall site was looking better.

And Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said government is looking at establishing craft markets across the island, including at public beaches, so that displaced vendors had a home.

Some of these vendors are colorful local characters and genuine craftsmen with worthwhile products to sell. They are part of the Cayman Islands tourism product, too.

Bringing their informal businesses under the guise of proper registration and regulation would be the best way to both protect the livelihoods of the operators themselves and promote the desired image of the Cayman Islands.

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