Cruise berthing: Pros and cons begin to crystallize

You can’t make a rum cake without breaking a few eggs — and you can’t build a new cruise pier in George Town harbor without demolishing a significant amount of coral reef.

As the recently published Environmental Impact Assessment illustrates, the proposed Grand Cayman cruise berthing facility is of such magnitude that its construction and operation will have unavoidable negative effects on the surrounding aquatic environment, including the destruction of 15 acres of coral reef, as well as “increased stress on and degradation of” an additional 15-20 acres of reef.

The dredging for the project will result in the loss of one of the Cayman Islands’ signature dive sites: the ever-popular wreck of the Balboa, a 375-foot freighter that sank in 1932. Further, according to the report, turbidity plumes (i.e. vast quantities of muck and mire stirred up by dredging and operations) may degrade the quality of diving at the spectacular Devil’s Grotto caverns off Eden Rock, and the Cali shipwreck, a 200-foot-long four-masted schooner which sank in 1944.

Quantifying the impacts in terms of dollars — that tourists won’t be spending on recreation and watersport activities in the harbor — consultants estimate that the damage to marine resources will cost Cayman about $100 million to $165 million over 20 years. That’s the negative side of the ledger (and doesn’t include the intrinsic, emotional and thus unquantifiable dimensions of how people may feel about doing harm to coral reefs and the living creatures they support).

On the plus side, an earlier report, focusing on the business case for the project, estimated that the new cruise port would create nearly 1,000 jobs and inject $250 million or more into the local economy over 20 years. The project, as contemplated, would include two piers with space for four large cruise ships (including two suitable for the largest Oasis class vessels), but would not do away with the need for tender operations on days when five or more cruise ships are in port.

The new Environmental Impact Assessment contains other items of interest, such as the consideration that some of the impacted reef, and also the Balboa, could be “relocated” out of harm’s way. However, that effort could cost some $13 million, with no guarantees that it will work, and with the caveat that a coral relocation program cannot possibly save all of the coral from being destroyed.

In their assessment, consultants suggested a revised design for the port that would decrease the amount of dredging required, but would increase the area of “reclaimed” land to 7.7 acres, which could potentially be used for shops, restaurants and administrative buildings.

We commend EIA consultants Baird and Associates for their report, which in our opinion appears to be methodical, objective and thorough. In other words, the report contains just the kind of information that Cayman’s leaders, and Cayman’s people, require in order to make the best decisions for the common good of our country.

At this time, the Editorial Board has not arrived at a determination of whether or not Cayman should pursue the construction of cruise piers in George Town — or, if so, where cruise berthing should rank, in terms of priority and urgency, on the list of major capital projects, including Owen Roberts International Airport and the George Town Landfill.

Our conclusions will become clearer as more information, such as that contained in the EIA, becomes available — particularly in regard to hard financial numbers, specifically, how Cayman officials plan to pay for the project under the restrictions of the U.K.’s Framework for Fiscal Responsibility and what our country can expect to receive in return. No project as significant as cruise berthing will be free from negative consequences. The ultimate question will be: “Is it worth it?”


  1. The one thing that seems to be missing from this is any solid input from the cruise lines. Everything I have read from them so far is very vague and non-committal. That is rather worrying when you see the way they are publicly champing at the proverbial bit waiting for Cuba to open up.

    In fact if you compare the enthusiastic comments being made by senior cruise line executives about Cuba with the deafening silence from them on this cruise dock project you start to wonder what their future plans really are. One CEO recently said that any lack of infrastructure in Cuba was no problem because they could create their own. This suggests that they are already prepared to put large amounts of money into Cuba, a commitment that remains noticeably absent here.

    It might be worth actually asking yourselves what will be happening during the 20 years mentioned in this report and while you are at it consider whether the projected financial benefits are remotely realistic or just fantasy?

    Based on the figures quoted the estimated net gain over 20 years seems to be around 135million, or a bit under 7million a year. Put another way that means that, working at projected capacity, it will be 16 years before this project has any hope of breaking even. That is assuming it all comes in on budget and ignores losses caused by the potential negative impact on stayover tourism.

    Maybe those figures are wrong or maybe I have misread them but in a very volatile tourist industry this looks like a very high risk game to me with a lot to lose and very little to gain.

  2. Editors — when forming your opinion on this plan, please be alert to the risks — if you come out against what the government wants to do it could be viewed as treasonous!!!

  3. The outline doesn’t state how many jobs will be lost by the project going ahead. A lot of the tender operators, the people who run the snorkel tours to Cali and dives to Eden Rock… There is no guarantee that if you build it,they will keep coming. The cruise lines in the past have proven to be very fickle with tour operators and if you piss them off they can drop you or an entire destination. Is it really worth it as David Williams so clearly pointed out? What is the value of having dead reefs? Once they are gone you will never have them back…

  4. I cannot see any sensible answer other than No to the Question of whether it’s worth it. Especially when there’s so many other more pressing needs and when the country is strapped for cash and inundated already with debt. Again I ask has anyone at considered just upgrading the tendering program and making it a better experience for Cruise chip visitors. Or actually considering alternate locations other than George Town.

  5. Personally I am not in favour of expanding the port to accommodate cruise ships as proposed. I am sympathetic to the George Town merchants but if we were to invest even 10% of the docks projected cost, or some $25 million, into a serious revitalization of George Town I think we might get a similar improvement in short term job creation, as well as many of the benefits of what all that concrete and dead reef bring. To all you merchants, what do you think is going to happen with all that upland development?

    I don’t think we should follow the rest of the cruise ship crowd around the Caribbean and go bulk, leave that to Cuba and bring people that actually spend money here.

    Can we get our attention back on something more important. Fix the Dump. That would be better for tourism, not to mention those that live here.


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