Fellow Caymanians, residents and visitors: Happy New Year. 2014 is behind us with all its challenges, disappointments and successes. 2015 stretches before us like the black ribbon of a new untraveled road.
The new year gives us the opportunity for new starts, for resolutions and renewed enthusiasm. As we start this new year, it is my prayer that each of us remembers the feelings of the season just passed. I said in my Christmas message to the country that I wished that we could capture the enchantment of Christmas and sprinkle it throughout the year, keeping up the feelings of goodwill and charity for each other, because it is that goodwill and charity that will help see us through both good and challenging times.
The opportunities that await us in the new year to continue to build on the accomplishments of the past year are amazing, including our improved economy and the return of public and investor confidence in Cayman. But there is a lot that still needs to be done and your government will continue to work hard to improve the environment for business and the economic and employment opportunities for Caymanians and residents and to make Cayman an even better place to live, work and do business.
I spoke before of a restored confidence, and this is demonstrated by the much-improved financial position of the country. We have returned to surplus budgets because we applied our minds to improving revenues but also to saving money where we can and to being more efficient in how we do things. And we have achieved this without increasing taxes on the public. This restored confidence was also shown when yet again your government was able to have a budget approved by the UK without issue.
Both the elected government and the civil service have played their part in this accomplishment. We have come a long way in the short time we have been in office and are well on track to becoming fully compliant with all the ratio requirements of the Public Management and Finance Law by the end of the next fiscal year. This will mean we no longer need the UK’s approval with respect to the budget.
As finances improve we have also sought to reduce the fees charged by government where possible.
The Progressives-led Administration was determined in the 2014/15 fiscal year to reduce the cost of doing business in the Cayman Islands. Because of government’s actions, businesses will see economic relief through reduced import duties to licensed traders on many of the goods that are consumed daily in the Cayman Islands. As we all know, the private sector is the engine that drives our economy. That is why we have also lowered or removed fees for small businesses to help ensure the survival of this market segment and to encourage the growth of new businesses. In the new year we will continue to welcome the development of new businesses and will work hard to assist them.
We will also begin this new year with a reduction in the duty charged on diesel that Caribbean Utilities Company uses to generate the electricity each of us uses to power our homes and businesses. The reduction should mean that we see not only reduced electricity costs at home, but that businesses pass along those savings to consumers through price cuts.
In July, government plans to give the civil service a 4 percent cost of living adjustment. It has been many years since Civil Servants have had a salary adjustment to recognise the increased cost of living in Cayman – this is a first step in correcting this. Economic analysis proves that an increase in worker take home pay will naturally lead to an increase in government revenue from increased consumption; an increase in employment as a result of increased demand for services; a reduction in the demand for social benefits as families are able to afford more on their own; and an increase in construction, as families are able to better qualify for mortgages or afford home improvements. So you see, the cost of living adjustment will not only bode well for the deserving men and women of the civil service who will receive it, but the economy of our entire country will also be stimulated.
In the new year much of our economic growth, and employment, is going to depend not only on government upgrades to the Owen Roberts International Airport, restarting work on the John Gray school hall, as well as major road-works for the George Town revitalisation project, but also on private sector or public/private construction projects such as hotel and condominium developments; large residential and commercial developments, the George Town cruise ship berthing facility, and the expansion of the East-West Arterial roadway as well as continuing work on the development of solid waste management strategy.
It is through these ventures that new employment will be created directly and indirectly from construction and in the operation of these projects once completed. Increasing tourist arrivals, coupled with new hotels, will mean more full time jobs as well as more income received by all of those who work in this important segment. They will also create business opportunities.
I am happy to report that government’s negotiations with Dart to amend the terms of the NRA agreement are on the right track. Our discussions continue to be meaningful and productive and I am confident that we are now near the end of this saga.
We will continue to seek opportunities to diversify the economy, including strengthening our intellectual property and copyright laws to attract technology and other businesses to Cayman. This is not a dream; we are already in talks with several tech businesses that want to locate to Cayman or bring more of their business here.
The new year will also see the introduction of a pilot programme offering VIP concierge services at the Owen Roberts International Airport for business people to be fast-tracked through Immigration and Customs when they come into and leave the country. We will also see an increase in enrolment at the internationally accredited Cayman Islands School of Hospitality, which this government opened last September. Twenty-five students have already enrolled in the programme and this year that number will be doubled so that 50 more Caymanian students can train and take up their rightful places in the tourism industry.
Speaking of tourism, our arrival figures – both stay-over and cruise – continue to soar. The Minister of Tourism is expecting even better numbers in the coming new year. Up to October this past year we had 312,542 air arrivals and 1,287,066 cruise visitors. Those numbers compare to 277,628 air arrivals in 2013 and 1,070,926 visitors coming to us by cruise ships in that same year.
As we put an even more concentrated effort into our tourism industry, we will also be working internationally in the new year to lure new investment and further shore up our Financial Services Industry.
We will continue to partner with Cayman Finance to further promote the Financial Services Industry. I take this opportunity to welcome Jude Scott as the new CEO of Cayman Finance. While challenges continue to arise with respect to the Financial Industry, most recently in the demand by the UK for the Cayman Islands and other British Territories to agree to the establishment of public registries on beneficial ownership of companies and other legal entities registered here, government and the industry continue to work together to find solutions to these challenges.
While we grow and support our two main pillars of the economy, this next year will see a more concentrated effort of government working within itself to make improvements.
The Progressives-led administration is working with government to make the services it provides easier to obtain and more affordable for you, the users. We recently hired a director of e-government to oversee government’s transition to fully integrated online-services to reduce costs and ensure greater efficiencies in
managing government. government will also be centralising procurement of goods and services to leverage its immense buying power and to ensure it gets the best service and pricing possible. Improvements will also be seen as government moves forward with cost-cutting initiatives.
The Sister Islands’ economies will continue to be a main focus of this government in 2015 and it is my hope that we can repeat a visit of the Legislative Assembly to Cayman Brac in the new year. It was such a pleasure last year to be able to take the seat of government to the Brac so that Caymanians from that Island and Little Cayman could experience the work of legislators’ first-hand. It also greatly benefits us, as lawmakers.
To ensure the Sister Islands are sustainably developed, government plans to complete the fourth changing room, the track and swimming pool at the Cayman Brac Sports Complex to encourage sports tourism as well as complete works to convert the Bluff hurricane shelter site into a new Cayman Brac school campus. As we continue to grow the economy, and therefore work opportunities for our people in 2015, we must also pay attention to what is happening to our social fabric and in particular in addressing the causes and impacts of criminality in our society. We are committed to working with law enforcement to stamp out the scourge of armed robberies. But we are equally committed to creating job opportunities as well as providing programmes that assist individuals in finding employment.
I again appeal to employers and business owners, especially as the economy continues to improve, to give more Caymanians employment opportunities, even if that means that you need to train them. government is doing its part to create the environment that allows businesses to succeed and to provide educational and training opportunities for potential employees. But we do need greater involvement, investment and commitment to hiring Caymanians from the business community if we are to return to full employment.
At the start of our journey down the road of 2015, we must recall that in 2014 we remembered the 10th-year anniversary of Hurricane Ivan that dealt such a devastating blow to Grand Cayman and the 6th-year anniversary of Hurricane Paloma that brought Cayman Brac to its knees. We will begin a new hurricane season in June and it is my prayer that come December we can again celebrate Cayman Thanksgiving, which we recognised as a sanctioned holiday this past year, giving thanks that God has once again spared us of the wrath of Mother Nature.
For each of us, 2015 is a new beginning. The outcomes each of us experiences on this new, untraveled road will be equal to the efforts, and indeed the attitudes that we put into this uncharted journey. Our future will be what we make it.
But I am forever an optimist. I believe the future of the Cayman Islands is bright. The sense of certainty and confidence we felt at the beginning of 2014 continues to gain momentum and is taking us into 2015. We are only going to get better and better.
Despite the negativity about all things Cayman and Caymanian that has unfortunately become the stock-in-trade of certain media houses, Cayman is still one of the best places in the world in which to live, work, invest and play. There is much to celebrate about this country. My prayer is that in the new year, the positive things about Cayman and Caymanians, the things which make us unique and attractive to the rest of the world, could be given even half the prominence in the media as is given to the bad news stories. There is much good in these Islands and its people. It would be good to see it in a news story now and again.
Just as in any new year, there is much to be done and while the road ahead will not be all smooth, I am confident that government will meet these challenges head on, just as I hope each of you will in your personal and professional lives.
In closing, I share the sentiments of Benjamin Franklin, which I have taken the liberty to paraphrase: “Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbours, and let each new year find you a better man, or woman”.
On behalf of government, I wish each of you a very happy and prosperous new year. May God continue to find favour with these Beloved Isles Cayman.