The latest National Tourism Management Plan found that the Cayman Islands should aim to position itself as a “distinctive, quality Caribbean destination for the discerning visitor,” and that a tourism strategy should be predicated on “increasing the value rather than the volume of visitors.” Some believe that the way to achieve such goals is to focus on the experience of cruise visitors and build a proposed cruise berthing facility.
But other stakeholders say the cruise berthing facility will damage the very product that the country is selling to visitors, and that a strategic tourism plan must have a different focus.
Bud Johnson was born and raised in Cayman and has been working in the tourism industry since 1986. The general manager of Atlantis Submarines is against the current plan to build the cruise dock. The company takes guests on night- and day-time tours in George Town harbor. It caters to cruise passengers, stay-over guests and residents evenly.
Environmentalists have predicted that businesses like Atlantis, which capitalize on the port’s clear blue water, will be forced to close shop once dredging for the proposed cruise berthing facility begins, and the water in the area becomes murky.
But Mr. Johnson’s reasons for opposing the dock have nothing to do with his business, which he says will be difficult to maintain either way.
“I’m not worried about my future,” Mr. Johnson said. “I’m worried about Cayman’s future.”
He approaches the issue from a business perspective.
“If you look at total arrival numbers, 20 percent of passengers come by air and they (account for) 80 percent of on-island spending,” Mr. Johnson said. He says by catering to the cruise ship passengers, “you’re making a huge chunk of investment at the lowest producing segment. You should be taking that 200 million and making sure air arrivals go up.”
Visitors by air to the Cayman Islands accounted for 17 percent of all 1.82 million arrivals in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, but made up 76 percent of the CI$496 million tourists spent that year, according to the annual Cayman Islands Compendium of Statistics.
If a pier is going to be built, Mr. Johnson thinks it should only be large enough to accommodate one ship at a time, in order to effectively manage overcrowding and strategically control arrivals.
Some of the country’s strengths mentioned in the 2009-2013 National Tourism Management Plan, which was titled “A New Focus,” included political stability, safety, cleanliness, world-class diving, great beaches and a range of water sport activities.
Cathy Church, a renowned underwater photographer who operates a shop at Sunset House, says the island’s international appeal lies within or just outside of the harbor itself.
“There is clear water which people love to see,” Ms. Church said. “There are two wrecks. There are fish the cruise people are always paying to see … It’s a saleable product.”
But she worries that these things will be lost if the cruise berthing facility is built. She says that many will regret a decision to build the dock.
Ms. Church thinks Cayman could gain a competitive advantage by not building the berthing facility.
“If all the other big countries are busy building docks and piers and so forth, mucking up their water, when you hear that Grand Cayman hasn’t done that, you can get off the ship in a tender and you go over lovely, clean water on your way to the dock … we’re going to be unique,” Ms. Church said. “We’re going to be the only guys left standing with lovely untouched coral reefs.
Rod McDowall, operations manager of Red Sail Sports, also agrees that environmental protection should be prioritized. He says that if the Cayman Islands strives to keep the marine environment protected, “we’d be such a shining example in the Caribbean.”
“We don’t have a lot of attractions top-side,” Mr. McDowall said. “Water is really all we’ve got.”
Mr. McDowall agrees with Mr. Johnson that the economic contribution of stay-over visitors exceeds that of cruise visitors, largely because so much investment in the country – especially in real estate – is driven by stay-over visitors. He says the country’s focus should stay on the top-end market of visitors, where it has been for the past 40 years.
Attracting that top-end segment of the market is something cruise berthing supporters are concerned with, too.
Matthew Bishop, CEO of Cayman Distributors Group Ltd. and Island Companies Ltd., which operates retail shops in the George Town harbor area, says he supports the berthing proposal because it will drive economic growth.
“We want to see the island grow,” Bishop said. “It’s not either or.”
Mr. Bishop says he believes a “responsible, holistic” tourism policy should account for both cruise and stay-over visitors, and that the country can do well with both.
The cruise ship industry is changing dramatically, Mr. Bishop says. Not only is it moving towards bigger ships, but the industry is expanding to destinations like Alaska.
“So no longer is the cruise industry simply just the Caribbean,” he said. “We are having to fight for our piece of that share.”
Mr. Bishop says the type of tourists the country wants are those who spend more money here, and “they’re the tourists we’re increasingly going to lose if we don’t put in the cruise berthing facility.”
Mr. Bishop says both sides have put forward very strong arguments, and that he loves the country for many of the same reasons environmentalists do.
“(I) wouldn’t want to see it diminished in any way,” he said.
Mr. Bishop worries that people aren’t taking into account how much the country suffered during the last recession.
“The world got sick, and Cayman got sicker,” he said. “There are really clear economic reasons why the island needs to see these kinds of developments.
“The tourism industry is critical here. We have to make sure that whatever policy we move forward with is one that affects our long-term interests,” Mr. Bishop added.
Tim Adam, managing director of the Cayman Turtle Farm, also supports the cruise berthing proposal.
He believes there are a number of ways to mitigate negative impacts on the environment.
Mr. Adam says that building a new cruise dock isn’t just beneficial for the future of the Turtle Farm, but that it will also have long-term economic and social benefits for the country as a whole.
Mr. Adam believes the industry is essential to the sustainability of the local economy.
“Without a vibrant cruise industry, downtown simply won’t exist,” he said.
Mr. Adam’s view is that the cruise industry is changing and that it is imperative that the country keeps up with its competitors in the region.
That is also the stance of the pro-port group “Cayman’s Port. Cayman’s Future.,” which states on its website that “a decline in cruise tourist arrivals will have grave consequences for Caymanian jobs and businesses.”
“Right now the country, is already missing out on the larger Oasis-class cruise ships, and statistically bigger-spending passengers,” he said.
Mr. McDowall of Red Sail Sports says the country can’t forsake cruise visitors for stay-over ones, or vice versa.
“You need to have both,” he says, “And that’s where the heads of everyone need to come toget
her and come up with a plan.”