The proposed cruise berthing facility in George Town harbor could bring half a million more cruise passengers to Grand Cayman annually. Proponents say the facility could be a boon to the economy: half a million more visitors shopping, taking taxis to the beach, buying rum punches and sampling local foods, trying their hand at various water sports and signing up for excursions to tour some of the attractions around the island.
But some are now wondering if the island and its attractions can accommodate such an influx of visitors. Moreover, can the quality of the experience that visitors (cruise passengers and stay-over travelers alike) currently have on their trips to Grand Cayman be maintained as the number of cruise ship passengers disembarking in the harbor increases so significantly? The answers vary greatly depending on what sites and what experiences are being considered.
Of utmost concern to many is how the cruise berthing facility will affect Seven Mile Beach. According to the environmental impact assessment, since Seven Mile Beach is located outside of the “direct impact zone” of the facility, it will not be directly affected environmentally by the construction or operation of the facility in George Town harbor.
Environmental impact aside, according to the Revised National Tourism Management Plan 2009-2013, there is already a “perceived over-development of the western end of Grand Cayman” which is “without adequate open space.”
“On the beaches, there is conflict over rights of access and congestion at bars and restaurants,” the plan states, adding that there is severe traffic and inadequate transportation to attractions and that the “psychological capacity would appear to be somewhat below the technical capacity of moving the passengers from the ships to the destinations, but there has been no attempt at measurement.”
The environmental impact assessment states that it’s “difficult to directly estimate the capacity” of Seven Mile Beach, and that it is expected that the beach will have “some ability” to accommodate more cruise guests. With its proximity to the harbor, Seven Mile Beach will probably continue to be a good bet for future cruise passengers. However, as the Tourism Management Plan states, “many sun-seekers want to do more than just lie on a beach all day, every day.”
Two of the most popular excursion activities for cruise passengers who are looking to explore beyond the beach are visits to the Cayman Turtle Farm and visits to Stingray City. The environmental impact assessment states that the uniqueness of these two sites is “particularly critical for the cruise industry, where passengers are offered very similar experiences at the various itinerary destinations.”
The majority of visitors to the Cayman Turtle Farm are cruise ship passengers, and, according to an economic impact study done by PwC last year, the Cayman Turtle Farm only uses a fraction of its overall capacity even during the busiest tourism season. The facility is expected to be able to easily accommodate the increase of cruise ship passenger visits.
Tim Adam, managing director of the Cayman Turtle Farm, says that the attraction, which currently employs 90 Caymanians, could employ even more if the cruise berthing facility is built and more visitors come to the site. Speaking in a video posted online by the pro-cruise dock group “Cayman’s Port. Cayman’s Future.” he says that “cruise tourism is very much part of our lifeblood that we cannot do without if we are to survive as the organization that we are today.”
Stingray City, on the other hand, is bursting at the seams, according to many of the tour operators who take visitors there. Its popularity is no surprise, given that the experience, which allows visitors to hold and feed the animals in the open sea, is so unique.
Mario Bertolino is a co-owner of Acquarius Sea Tours, which takes passengers to the site. He calls Stingray City a “time-bomb” and that he’d rather see fewer visitors, who are willing to pay more for the experience, come there. Mr. Bertolino says that although he has a license to carry 40 passengers at a time to the site, he never takes more than 25 people.
“We need fewer people in the water,” Mr. Bertolino said. “We don’t need more; we need less cruise ships.”
Rod McDowall, operations manager of Red Sail Sports, which takes visitors to the sandbar on 65-foot catamarans, calls Stingray City “a zoo.” He says that most visitors have no preconceived concept of what the experience is going to be like, so even on crowded days, first-time visitors usually have a good experience.
“But when you look at it as we look at it, there every day, there is certainly a distinct difference in the quality of the experience when there’s 800 as opposed to 200 people there,” Mr. McDowall said.
Scientists who have researched the stingrays found that many stay on the outskirts of the sandbar on the most crowded days.
Stingray City is currently operating close to its capacity and would not be able to accommodate a significant increase in visitors.
Mr. McDowall says that if cruise passenger arrivals annually begin to exceed 1.5 million, then the quality of the overall tourism product will start to go down.
“You want people to have a positive experience all the way around and then hopefully come back as stay-over visitors,” Mr. McDowall said. “You do get some conversions so it needs to be a good experience whatever it is.”
Mr. McDowall says he doesn’t think anyone is arguing that the cruise industry isn’t important, only that it needs to be better managed.
“I think the only thing we don’t do well with cruise is manage it,” he said. “It’s always been one of those things we’ve just gone and taken whatever wants to come without any real good planning or management as to how that affects the infrastructure of the environment and the products that we have.”
Of course, tourist destinations aren’t going to be the only places potentially affected by the influx in daily short-term visitors. Another issue with the potential to affect both visitors to the island and residents is the impact that the proposed cruise berthing facility might have on traffic, both while it is under construction and when it is in operation. As the environmental impact assessment notes, there are already a number of traffic problems in downtown George Town and Harbour Drive.
During the construction phase of the proposed cruise berthing facility, which is slated to last for three years, congestion due to traffic from construction equipment moving to and from the site will slow traffic, as well as contribute to a deterioration of the roads.
The environmental impact assessment states that the volume of vehicular traffic isn’t expected to increase significantly (although travel times do increase when ships are in port). The bigger concern is managing pedestrian traffic. According to the environmental impact assessment, the intersection at Harbour Drive and Fort Street already has 1,250 pedestrians per hour on cruise days, and the proposed cruise berthing facility will significantly increase that number. The environmental impact assessment found that if nothing is done to mitigate the effects of this increase in pedestrian traffic, then travel times could increase between 50 and 200 percent.
The George Town Revitalization Project and the National Roads Authority Priority for Road Network improvements will help mitigate the negative effects to traffic conditions in downto
wn George Town should the cruise berthing project move forward, but the environmental impact assessment states that travel time will only be reduced if there is significant planning considering pedestrians as well as vehicles.
A travel management plan that prioritizes pedestrians will include adding raised intersections and crosswalks that allow people to cross the road in multiple directions at the same time and improve their visibility to drivers. Another suggestion made in the environmental impact assessment to deal with the increase in disembarking passengers is to create a small sheltered craft harbor so that boats can be used to transport tourists instead of buses or taxis. The environmental impact assessment also recommended that the Ministry of Planning and the National Roads Authority promote “sustainable modes of transit” like walking, cycling, car-sharing and public transport.
The best-case scenario put forth by the environmental impact assessment is that travel time could actually be reduced by 50 percent from what it currently is if the traffic management plan accompanying the cruise berthing construction prioritizes pedestrians.