After Shomari, 
what next for DOT?

Shomari Scott is bidding adieu to the Cayman Islands government at the end of December, marking the end of his ascent to the top of the Department of Tourism.

Mr. Scott joined the department as an intern in 1996 and has led the department since 2009. Reportedly, he is departing government for the private sector. Mr. Scott, who won the Young Caymanian Leadership Award earlier this year, hasn’t yet said publicly what his new occupation will be, but he says he will continue to work for the good of the country.

Mr. Scott’s tenure as tourism director coincided with a major global recession, yet he can point to successes in the form of increased numbers of stay-over visitors to Cayman, although that has been accompanied by declines in cruise tourists.

Because of the nature of tourism marketing, it may not be possible to measure precisely the impact that Mr. Scott or his department have had on the number of people who choose to vacation in Cayman and how much they spend. With Mr. Scott’s having announced his intended departure but not yet left the building, it is far too soon to cast criticisms, praise too highly or assign a particular grade to Mr. Scott’s overall performance.

However, now is an ideal opportunity to ponder the government’s role in promoting tourism, including giving serious consideration to transforming the tourism department into a private-sector entity or even eliminating the department altogether.

The department’s primary function is to be the marketing/public relations firm for the country — essentially to make Cayman look attractive to potential customers and draw them in. The department also performs ancillary duties such as providing training for the tourism industry, inspecting and licensing hotels, collecting tourism taxes and compiling statistics on the industry.

In addition to headquarters in Cayman, the department has branches in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. The department’s budget is approximately $20 million per year.

The Miller-Shaw report of 2010 points out that – as opposed to Cayman’s other economic pillar of financial services – “Tourism accounts for a relatively small share of government revenue directly, but generates substantial income for the islands generally. Moreover, tourism drives a substantial flow of imports, and thus indirectly accounts for substantial government revenue.”

The tourism department’s promotion of Cayman as a destination mainly benefits the private sector, not government’s coffers. Therefore, a credible argument can be made that the private sector, not the government, should pay for it.

Further, the tourism department (and its hefty budget) has been manipulated by successive elected ministers. The activities of the department are often determined not by informed professionals, but according to the whims and caprices of individual politicians.

Cayman’s tourism sector should not continue to be exposed to the inherent arbitrariness of the political class. The industry is far too competitive and much too important to the country.

It’s time for a wholesale reevaluation of government’s role in promoting and regulating tourism. “Privatization” is a concept popular in theory but almost nonexistent in practice. The Department of Tourism, at this juncture, may be the ideal opportunity for government to turn rhetoric into reality.