Turtle Farm report:
 An 'attraction'
 in the tank

Successive governments of the Cayman Islands are renowned for requisitioning reports from consultants — usually at great expense — and then putting them on a shelf, unacted upon, to gather dust.

That is precisely what the current government should do with the recently released PwC report on the Cayman Turtle Farm.

The general thrust of the report, as trumpeted by the Turtle Farm, is that the attraction generates large economic benefits to Cayman despite massive government subsidies and poor performance as measured by such metrics as ticket sales and return on investment.

Curiously, PwC’s “Economic Impact Study of the Cayman Turtle Farm” was finished in May 2013 but not tabled in the Legislative Assembly until just last week.

According to the report, in 2012 the Turtle Farm had a total positive economic impact of US$11.1 million, compared to a subsidy of about US$4 million per year.

However, the report conveniently disregards a number of significant factors, such as the full Turtle Farm subsidy amount is US$12 million, not US$4 million. An accountant would explain (patiently, we presume) to us non-accountants that the report presented its figures as it did because much of the subsidy is used for debt servicing, not operations). Point well taken. It’s still US$12 million per year out of government coffers.

However, pay attention further to the report, and you will discover that as a tourist attraction, the Turtle Farm is a financial flop. Even with a captive stream of cruise ship passengers, and even if the George Town dock is built, attendance is far too low for the Turtle Farm ever to recoup its operating expenses.

In fact, the Turtle Farm would make an ideal case study for the Harvard Business School on why governments should provide services, not run businesses.

The “Boatswain’s Beach” expansion, pushed by then-Leader of Government Business McKeeva Bush, was an exercise in parochial politics. Even Mr. Bush, the staunchest of Turtle Farm supporters, has acknowledged the Turtle Farm is unlikely ever to succeed financially without a new cruise dock in the neighborhood.

From the outset, the government’s strategy has been to manipulate markets, distorting everything from the price of turtle meat to force-feeding visitors into the facility with sweetheart deals for the cruise ship companies (which, the report now points out, are the biggest financial beneficiaries of this losing enterprise).

PwC does sneak in a more practical assessment of the situation in the final paragraph of its 35-page report: It concedes that the bloated Turtle Farm should consider downsizing its operations, laying off employees and selling assets.

The last paragraph of the report should have been the first.

A further thought: Instead of hiring an international accounting firm in an apparent attempt to justify the continued existence of the Turtle Farm, government leaders perhaps should have convened a panel of local entrepreneurs who have started or turned around companies in Cayman: For starters, might we suggest Gene Thompson, Joe Imparato, A.L. Thompson, Andreas Ugland, Fraser Wellon, and certainly someone from the Dart, Kirk or Foster’s groups.

Unlike the government, these businesspeople would never be content to lose millions of dollars per year and carry on, as Turtle Farm management has been known to do, about high hopes for its harvest of hatchlings.

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