Cruise berthing: Calming Cayman's roiled waters

Before the debate over George Town cruise berthing goes too far off the deep end, let us attempt to steer the conversation back toward calmer waters.

A month after the publication of a $2.5 million environmental impact assessment of the proposed port project — with the report detailing negative consequences such as damaged and destroyed coral habitat, as well as the loss and degradation of manmade dive sites — Cayman Islands officials have hired a new set of consultants, at a purported cost of US$27,000, to scrutinize the seabed in George Town Harbour for a second time.

The circumstances are somewhat notable (fishy, perhaps?), considering that, whereas this government administration has loudly trumpeted each previous incremental step in the cruise berthing process, the public only learned about this new study by following the marl road to government’s back door. So much for tendering; so much for transparency.

The more cynical among us may even suspect that, à la the infamously “sanitized” report on behavior in Cayman public schools, government officials were trying to sneak in a do-over because the original EIA document said things they didn’t like, or didn’t want others to hear.

Meanwhile, the opponents to the cruise port have undertaken their own research effort, sending divers and cameras down to explore the areas that might be impacted by the proposed piers.

We have a problem with the way both groups are pursuing the cruise berthing discussion. Their approach is, in a word, too “one-dimensional.” Before Cayman invests additional time and resources into scouring the seabed and tallying up each coral colony, sponge, shark, turtle and lionfish, we should be utilizing the vast data already compiled to contemplate the downtown cruise project in a much broader context.

For example, building the cruise piers is expected to result in the annual arrival of some 2.3 million cruise visitors (compared to 1.6 million in 2014, or the record 1.9 million in 2006).

How will Grand Cayman (and our roads and tourist facilities) efficiently manage all of those visitors, especially since officials have shown no indication of pursuing the significant upgrades to related infrastructure that have been recommended by consultants?

What impact will the influx of cruise passengers have on the future development of downtown George Town, or on the behavior of our steadily-growing stay-over tourist population?

Most fundamentally, how do our officials expect to pay for the $150 million-plus capital project, without wholly dedicating existing revenue streams from taxes on arriving cruise passengers, and without creating premium upland development reserved for the benefit of the private sector partner?

In regard to this extremely important issue of cruise berthing, Compass reporters are being bombarded with strident sounds emanating from all megaphones. However, at this point neither side, pro or con, has presented a full, nuanced argument that considers all factors at play. (This is understandable, as each side is arguing to “win,” not necessarily to inform.)
The cruise dock is a hugely significant decision that should not be made by virtue of one group yelling at another.

Missing from this debate are reasonably objective voices of rationality. Where are Minister of Environment Wayne Panton, Director of the Department of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie, or even the much-ballyhooed National Conservation Council? What do they think about the EIA and the new parallel study?

The Cayman Islands Tourism Association on Thursday finally made its opinion of the proposal known when it released a statement saying it did not “at this time” support the cruise berthing facilities plan, following input from its members and a review of the environmental impact assessment and outlined business case.

There is no doubt that a massive cruise berthing facility will affect the marine environment in George Town Harbour and negatively impact businesses that depend on that body of water and the reefs and shipwrecks it contains.

However, that, to us, is only one factor in a wide-ranging conversation that Cayman should be having on the cruise dock, but which — although the idea has been on the table for several decades — we have not yet even come close to conducting.

Our minds, and our pages, are open for the debate.


  1. The missing link in all these arguments is the cruise lines. We have seen plenty of extravagant claims about their intentions but no actual hard evidence of anything.

    If my understanding of the situation is correct, none of the main players have even been invited by anyone (including the media) to make any direct input into this debate. It would also seem that the main point of contact for CIG has been the FCCA who in reality have little or no control over the industry”s future plans.

    So what is the cruise lines take on this?

    If the dock is not built, will they really stop coming?

    If the dock is built, will they guarantee to increase arrivals to generate the revenue required to recoup the costs?

    Will the mega-liners ever come to Grand Cayman or will they, as one well-connected source suggests, simply develop into huge, self-contained floating resorts linking destinations like Labadee and Amber Cove that were purpose built for them?

    If the dock is built, how will it impact cruise arrivals during the estimated two years that it will take to clear the site, which obviously includes most of the current passenger facilities, and build the structure? In blunt terms, will the cruise lines be willing to continue landing their passengers when the area turns into a massive construction site? If not, and they have to suspend operations during the build, will they ever come back again? That last question is particularly relevant in the context of what is happening in Cuba.

    In amongst all the pro and anti propaganda there is one crucial factor missing and that is answers to some very basic questions about the intentions of the customers who will use this dock. In simple terms, nobody is doing any market research.

    Right now this debate seems to be polarising into two lines of thought that both claim the proverbial sky is falling. One side believes that building the dock will destroy vital aspects of Grand Cayman”s attraction as a stay-over destination while the other states (without offering any actual evidence) that without the dock the cruise lines will desert the island and the economy will collapse.

    In their respective arguments both sides paint a dismal picture of the future but I will put forward an even worse one. If you get this wrong and build a dock that the cruise lines do not want and have no intention of supporting, you run a serious risk of piling up a toxic legacy in the form of a mountain of public debt that will make Mt Trashmore look like a molehill. Those who want to build the dock need to remember that once started it is an irreversible process so assessment of the funding aspects had better be a heck of a lot better than what currently look like little more than guesstimates drawn up to make headlines.

    And just to make my position clear on this. If the dock is going to be self-funding and create lasting benefits for the people of the Cayman Islands as a whole rather than just propping up a few vested interests, it needs to be built. The problem I have is that there is no evidence this is the case. In fact the more I read from the pro-dock lobby the less convinced I am that they have a valid case.

  2. If you ask me this is all a big charade to bounce around until the elections and to create the appearance that work is being done, the PPM is forging ahead with the Port plan, when in actuality I don’t think they really expect it to even get started during their rule. This is like doing research on and making plans for buying a house when you have no money for it just to look like you’re trying. Typical political pandering on the taxpayer’s dime.

  3. A few thoughts…the trend seems to be toward larger ships and they don’t tender. Our neighbors ( competitors )in the Western Caribbean offer docking and so will Cuba. Who’s to say that Cayman will even remain on the W. Caribbean itinerary if the we don’t accommodate the cruise lines and, more importantly, their passengers. Making people ( including elderly and kids ) stand in the sun for several hours to re-board does not make for a fun/memorable process. I think the Islands will always be visited by the cruise-lines, because of the diverse opportunities and experiences offered to guests that can’t be duplicated on a ship. There’s no doubt the stay-over tourists spends more…how could they not with food, hotel, transportation, etc…However, how many cruise passengers saw Grand Cayman first by ship, fell in love and returned as a hotel guest? I would venture to say that number is significant. I also hear about how poor and cheap cruise passengers are, which is a horrible way to speak about Island guests. Grand Cayman doesn’t receive the Oasis class ships which feature luxurious suites/cabins unlike the typical Carnival ship – Of the luxury Celebrity ships that call on Grand Cayman, whose to say the most affluent even get off the ship because the don’t wish to endure the tender process? Seems to me Grand Cayman either needs to welcome cruise tourists with proper piers and infrastructure or stop the decades long studies/discussions and concentrate our energies on other tourism avenues. The proverbial paralysis of analysis.

  4. @Bob William. To start off with after two decades there is still no evidence that cruise visitors return as stay-over tourists in any numbers. This is just another myth perpetrated by the pro-cruise lobby. In contrast, and based on feedback from the tourism and dive industry, there is significant evidence that branding any destination as a prime cruise destination has had a negative impact on stay-over tourism.
    As for the mega-liners? Look at the itineraries online, this a whole new ball game that does not cater for the old island hopping style of cruising. They are not coming here whatever you do.
    Whilst I appreciate the honesty of your comments they contain way too much "what if" and that is the whole problem. This project is way too big to be left to wishful thinking.

  5. People keep talking stay over versus cruise ship but how long before there is enough people to accommodate Camana bay and George town? 4-5 years ? What about the airport it still won’t have sky bridges. So who or which high end guests coming ? The reality is that Grand Cayman will not have high-end guests in hotels except for Ritz.

  6. I do work with cruise guests and the majority of them do not have a problem with the tender system. With a not well designed terminal we managed up to 1.9 million guests. If an effort is made to improve the flow and experience of people for both the terminal and town, we can provide a great service to that 1.9 million without having to build a costly dock(risky in both terms, environmentally and financially. Do we really need 2.3 million cruise tourists? When enough is enough? And I also think that we are missing the point thinking that this project will only affect a few coral reefs and a few dive operators. The "ifs" are many. This project could affect other reefs along 7 Mile Beach and the beach itself.The overcrowding of roads and other attractions will in fact have a negative effect in all visitors. It already does as our cruise tourism directly competes with the stay over visitors. Many other businesses that are silent of an opinion today, could be severely impacted. As the Impact Assessment experts said, they could not guarantee other negative effects would not occur. Even the slim chance that some of these problems might develop over time, should be enough not to risk our island. The possibility of earning some more dollars at the risk of losing it all just doesn’t make sense.
    Cayman should stop listening to the Mermaid’s song of the cruise lines, stop worrying about Cuba and star thinking on our island, the beauty we have to offer without having to accessorize by destroying the environment. We do have some very brilliant people in Cayman Islands, capable of great ideas and they do have the best intentions toward our country. Unfortunately most of those who are part of making the final decisions do not scuba dive, do not have the same close affinity to the reefs and its marine life and do not understand or believe the negative impact to the natural environment and its consequences to the entire island. There are many other improvements we can do to enhance the experience of visiting our island and a dock should not be at the top of that list.

  7. My statistics tutor loved to quote the FACT that 100% of people killed by Polar Bears had drunk water or a waterbased drink in the previous 3 days!

    The point is, instinctively it APPEARS that drinking water increases the RISK of Polar Bear attack (clearly absurd), and the truth only becomes clear when you ask the opposite question;-
    How many people NOT killed by polar bears drank water in the preceding 3 days (the Null Hypothesis).

    Many of the statements in the EIA are just like the Polar Bear Quote and their actual meaning will only become clear once we ask the ”opposite” question.

    One of the common quotes is that we need Cruise Ship tourists as they will return as stayovers? This may ONCE have been the case but in the days of the internet, social media and tripadvisor is it still true?

    I don’t know – but it is very easy to find out;- ASK arriving air passengers if they have been here on a cruise and if so was that the major factor in their choice. I’ve seen what the cruise shippers experience and can’t believe their Turbo Tourism Bitesized Cayman experience would have as positive an impact as is being suggested?

    It maybe that CITA’s adverts and Facebook do much more good for Cayman than people give credit for.

    We’ve just seen a headline showing 2.1% growth (this is without a dock), so extrapolated over 20 years (as they did for the dock assessment) how would this compare?

    200 Million income from the dock DOESN’T mean ZERO without it!

    Even IF the plan is to go ”cruise” at the expense of stayover, Does the dock HAVE to be in GT? The waterfront would look better without massive ships blocking the view.

    Keep asking the both sides of the question – its the only way to get the whole picture.

  8. @David Williams. Point taken. I like open discussions and other thoughtful opinions. What I do find interesting in reading comments is the fierce environmental positions and if stay-over tourism is so important why is there a mountainous dump in the center of the tourism district – Why aren’t people as concerned with protecting other humans as they are with the reefs – Cayman has no national recycling program. Surely this would help limit the trash piling up on that mountain and yet the voices of protest are barely audible. In my opinion, Cayman is at a pivotal moment and I think we all want what’s best for this country. Healthy debate can only help.

  9. Oh, finally a dive master who works with cruise guests. Could you tell how many dives per year you make with cruise guests versus stay over on Balboa, Cali and Kittiwake? Do you pickup your guests at several hotels and condos or do they use the 7 mile or Harbour drive road? Do you use an independent bus driver or another employee? Is your company growing or expanding or shrinking? Do the diving guests like more night dive, wall dives or shipwreck dives?
    1.9-2.3 million guests are not coming at one time. As our customers increase we place them in busses and larger capacity boats like in the old days of Holiday Inn when they put them in larger boats ( Holiday diver). Did they need to use 4 boats a day plus night dives or was there a demand by guests at the hotel? According to United Nations Environment Program they say:
    "The UNEP said that diving tourist have an impact on the reef . They conclude there shouldn’t be anymore then 5000-6000 divers per site per year." That would mean to help the reefs recover and financially speaking their dollar value would just drop through the floor. Would Scuba Divers try to tell me how they would choose who is allowed to dive those particular reefs?
    If the other reefs could be effected then why are we not building a cruise ship facility and cargo facility. To allow the 1200-1500 feet of wall that has been used everyday by 12-15 ton anchors and 200 lb. links that plow the reef every time that they come in?
    "The true beauty" of our island is the beach. But only tourist and owners can use it accept for a small portion of public beaches. Plus the price of food and liquor is the real reason there are less people spending. Just greed pure greed.
    Went on the Panama charter and sat in Albrook mall and watched people who averaged US$ 20 per day come in by the hundreds and each left with a bag in their hand. We have people here who are going broke can’t pay their Elect.,water, ins, school fees ,etc. as they try to jiggle there diminishing salaries.
    They are not working for hotels or Dive shops. A Divemaster makes between 8-12 per hour . How does a person survive on such a small salary in this economy?I would say that we need more ships . They are gone by 3-4 pm. Certainly prices would come down .
    I will never forget how Peter used to pass by in the mornings and tell Ron Kipp that another one of his boats had mysteriously sunk. People here for over 30 years have been asking for a dock. Its time. We need to bring down prices on this island only by a larger volume of people or customers. It has to happen or this island will sink for sure. Retired Caymanian NAUI and PADI Dive Instructor

  10. @David Miller. If you can find anywhere to site a high end resort I might take your comments seriously.

    The reality is that it is no good building an up market resort if you base it in the middle of an area that is over-developed, grid-locked, saturated with day trippers and dominated by a stinking heap of garbage.

    Despite what DoT might believe charging US600 a night for a hotel room that costs US150 anywhere else does not make it high end.

    As for jet bridges at the airport? Talk to the Germans about this because they have no problems using ground transportation out to remote stands at all their major airports. At a small airport like ORIA jet bridges make no sense.

    @Bob William. This attitude to recycling defeats me. I first came here in March 1992. The hotel I stayed in had a simple waste disposal system where everything went in big plastic barrels. They put waste food, glass, metal, plastic, whatever in there and it all went off to the dump. 23 years on and nothing has changed. The same goes for solar energy. If they can build solar farms and put viable solar panels on buildings in England why not here?

    It is almost like the people responsible do not understand what goes on in the real world.

  11. @Bob William
    good points and questions.
    Homostupids have created their own problems such as mountainous dump in the center of the tourism district and obviously don’t care how it affects them or stay-over tourists. They won’t protest until something really dramatic happens.
    I don’t believe that coral reefs are in the business of destroying itself, and if they could voice their protest, they would.

  12. @Dave Williams: Anywhere East is where high end should go. That’s where it started. Cayman Kai, Kaibo and Tortuga Club. Ironwood will bring back what we lost if the road can ever be approved. Then "East" won’t have to go "West". The saving of transportation and time. But the East has been blocked for too long a time.
    @Bob Williams, The knowing that the dump is there causes shock and revulsion. But I’m sure you probably go there (Camana) more then me? Tourism was in the east from over 40 years ago. You probably didn’t see it because you weren’t here.
    Also it was dredged to make it. All the way from Cayman Kai to Starfish Point!! But of course all the people who have never seen a dredge or been on a dredge or been in the water after the dredge don’t really know. Can anybody tell me why you would go to Rum Point or Kaibo if the dredging killed all the grass and star fish?
    We all have to agree that everywhere large boats and ships go they dredge. Because it fills up and becomes shallower . So they have to dredge back again. It’s a win-win situation.
    Even the North Sound has gotten shallower. When there were schooners anchored in the North Sound they used to careen them for maintenance and repair. Today you can walk in those area with your chest out of water.