Business leaders say cruise decline would cost jobs
A group of Grand Cayman business leaders has warned the island will be frozen out of the cruise industry if a new dock is not built in George Town.
Government is facing calls to abandon plans for a $150 million berthing facility after a report revealed the environmental costs to coral reefs and the potential economic damage to the diving and snorkeling industry in the capital.
But business owners who rely on cruise passengers say the consequences of doing nothing could be far worse.
Robert Hamaty, the owner of Tortuga Rum Company, said a serious decline in cruise tourist arrivals would have grave consequences for jobs in the territory.
“This is a critical decision for the future of this country. If a port is not built, then the next generation and the following generation are going to suffer tremendously,” he said.
Gerry Kirkconnell, managing director of Kirk Freeport, said the cruise lines had indicated clearly that they would reduce their operations in Cayman if a dock was not built.
“Cruise tourism would not disappear completely, but I believe we would see arrivals drop to a million or less.
“If we lose 600,000 tourists, businesses are going to lose out anyway and it won’t just be water sports business in George Town. It will be everyone from taxi drivers to retailers and Stingray City tours.”
Kirk Freeport, which does significant trade with cruise passengers in its jewelry stores, currently employs 220 people.
Chris Kirkconnell, the company’s vice-president of operations, said that could change very quickly if the dock did not go ahead.
“We have gone into our reserves to keep our shops open and to keep people employed,” he said. “If we heard today there was not going to be a dock, then there would be a drastic drop in our operations. Over the years we could drop as much as 50 percent.”
Mr. Hamaty, whose company employs 120 people, said he closed four outlets when cruise tourism dipped in the wake of the global recession. He said he would like to reopen and expand again, but he believes building a dock is the only way to ensure the resurgence in passenger numbers is maintained.
“It is not me I am fighting for. We are fighting for the business for our employees.”
Last year, 1.6 million tourists visited Cayman on cruise ships. Numbers dipped to below 1.4 million in 2013. The businesses believe that successful lobbying of the cruise industry that a dock was in the works, along with the economic climate in Europe, is behind the recent revival.
“A couple of years ago George Town was a ghost town. The numbers have picked up and everybody has forgotten that. The businesses have become complacent,” said Mr. Hamaty.
According to Department of Tourism surveys, cruise tourists spend an average of $90 each on the island. Mr. Kirkconnell said the value of cruise tourism is being grossly underestimated by those who oppose the port project.
“There is no question about the economic value of the cruise industry. You would have to be blind not to see it,” he said.
Mr. Hamaty and Mr. (Gerry) Kirkconnell, who is also deputy director of the Port Authority, were members of the now defunct Association for the Advancement of Cruise Tourism.
Along with other businessmen in George Town and beyond, they are attempting to band together again to show support for the dock project in the face of growing opposition. The vast majority of people at a public meeting last week strongly opposed the dock.
Ronnie Anglin of Captain Marvin’s Watersports said he felt the meeting was dominated by “environmentalists” and was not representative of the wider public view.
Matt Bishop of Island Companies said, “This group of people has a vested interest in the environment. Without the clear water, the coral reefs and the best beach in the world, people are not going to come here. There is a balance that has to be struck. We need to make sure as a business community that our voice is heard too.”
Chris Kirkconnell said the country is already missing out on the larger Oasis class cruise ships, and statistically bigger spending passengers, because it does not have a dock.
He said the emergence of Cuba as a player in the industry and the construction of new ports across the region have the potential to seriously harm Cayman’s place in the industry.
“You can’t take a donkey to a horse race,” he said.