As the finer details of cruise berthing in George Town have begun to come into focus, accordingly the two sides, for and against the proposal, have begun to coalesce.
But before the situation crystallizes into an intractable conflict, and perhaps becomes characterized by personalities, politics and ideologies, rather than pragmatism, we think it is instructive to take several steps back and consider the idea, and the reality, within a broader context.
How, and where, does cruise berthing fit in with plans for downtown, Grand Cayman’s tourism strategy, and the Cayman Islands’ lengthy list of major capital projects and other priorities?
In regard to the cruise berthing proposal currently on the table, we have on one side a group of proponents pointing to estimates of 1,000 new jobs and an added $250 million or more into the local economy over 20 years. On the other side, we have a group of opponents pointing to predictions of the destruction or degradation of coral reef and dive sites, leading to an economic loss of about $100 million to $165 million over 20 years.
The table having been set, local businessman and former Chamber of Commerce President Johann Moxam introduces the relevant topic of discussion: “Are the costs — economic, environmental and social costs — worth the benefits?”
From our standpoint, it’s a close call — too close, at the moment, for us to issue an “up or down” assessment for what would constitute a public investment of some $150 million or more (since we’re dealing with government, probably more … maybe a lot more).
So allow us to take some time and survey the rest of the room.
How does cruise berthing fit in with a vision for a revitalized downtown George Town? If we go forward with the cruise dock, then presumably cruise tourism is the future of downtown. Can “new urbanist,” mixed-use residential/commercial development coexist with throngs of tourists in the shadow of massive ships? Does the cruise dock preclude such a transformation? Is such development desirable or possible, in the absence of a dock?
What role, and how prominent a role, does Cayman want cruise visitors to play in our overall tourism strategy? Is there a “critical mass” where cruise tourism actually acts as a deterrent to stay-over tourism? Or is more of both always better because cruise passengers feed the businesses that cater to people who arrive by airplane, and vice versa?
If we have to choose, which is our priority: pursuing the US$55 million Owen Roberts International Airport project, or the $150 million-plus cruise dock?
We as a country have limited public resources — in terms of money, manpower, ministerial management and time. Meanwhile, ever-battling for those resources are a seemingly unlimited number of projects and proposals that also stake strong claims to immediacy and importance, for instance: the George Town landfill, Grand Cayman’s wastewater system, Grand Cayman’s airport, road upgrades (including improvements in and around downtown that consultants say are needed to make cruise berthing successful), the East-West Arterial extension, street maintenance, a proper mental health facility, new correctional facilities, the unfinished John Gray High School construction project, the delivery of primary and secondary education, University College of the Cayman Islands, the new courthouse, a new police headquarters, etc.
With budgetary constraints and the next election less than two years away, our government must focus on doing a few things correctly, rather than many all at once, if we are to accomplish a single one of them.
The proposed cruise berthing facility is a very large, ambitious and high-profile project that will make a lasting impact on Cayman, presumably in many ways for better, but also perhaps for worse. The question we ask at this time is, given the pros and cons, and the wider context, where does the cruise dock rank among other costly capital projects and major initiatives that are also in Cayman’s “need” category?