Plans for a new cruise port in George Town harbor will move forward, Premier Alden Mclaughlin announced Wednesday afternoon.
Mr. McLaughlin said government had considered the environmental and economic implications and agreed to allow the project to proceed to the next stage.
“The decision to be made is not whether we want to build cruise berthing, it is whether we want to remain in the cruise business in any significant way,” he said.
“The decision is whether many hundreds of people and families who today rely on jobs created as a result of cruise tourism have those jobs next year and in the years to come.”
He said negotiations would now take place with cruise lines and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to agree on designs for the port, as well as a financing model for the project, which has an estimated minimum cost of $150 million.
Mr. McLaughlin said the financing model would seek to ensure cruise lines have “major skin in the game” to guarantee passenger volumes over the financing period.
The announcement, at the Chamber of Commerce’s legislative luncheon, follows months of public debate in the wake of an environmental impact assessment highlighting the level of destruction of coral reefs in the proposed construction area, as well as the knock-on effect on adjacent reefs.
Keith Sahm, one of the leaders of the Save Cayman anti-port campaign, said the decision was disappointing.
“It was not unexpected, but I think it is a sad day for the country,” he said. “Once they do this, there is no turning back.”
Chris Kirkconnell, of rival campaign group Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future, welcomed the news, saying he was pleased government had looked at the “whole picture” and decided to push ahead with the project.
He said he felt the decision was “touch and go” for several months.
Mr. McLaughlin, in his speech at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, said government had considered the environmental impact assessment as well as the final business case, which has yet to be publicly released.
“We as a government have been called upon by the proponents and opponents of the cruise dock to decide on protecting the environment or protecting the economy. Life is seldom so cut and dry, but we believe our approach will find the right balance,” he said.
He acknowledged that the environmental impact assessment had indicated damage to reef structures in the “immediate vicinity” of the harbor, but said the study also indicated there would be no impact on Seven Mile Beach.
“That was a major concern that has now been put to rest,” he said.
Cabinet has yet to formalize its decision on the project, Mr. McLaughlin said. He told guests at the Chamber lunch that government has “agreed on the merits of building a cruise port and enhanced cargo port.”
Environment Minister Wayne Panton was off island on vacation when the announcement was made Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
Mr. McLaughlin said in his speech that government would take into account the mitigation measures put forward in the environmental report.
“There will not be [dredging] in George Town harbor tomorrow or next week or next month. We will proceed carefully and seek to do whatever it takes to ensure minimum environmental impact.”
Mr. McLaughlin added that Cayman had spent 40 years building its cruise industry and had to protect it.
“The project will not only help safeguard our important cruise business into the future, it will also enlarge our cargo port and protect existing jobs and bring many new jobs in the project phase, leading to many hundreds of jobs well into the future.”
He added, “I have heard what those who worry about the environmental impact have said, but one thing is certain in my mind, economic benefits aside, if we continue to anchor cruise ships in George Town harbor as we have done these past 40 years, in a decade or two there will be very little coral there for anybody to enjoy or argue about.”
Supporters of the cruise dock have argued that it will allow larger ships, which do not use tenders, to come to Cayman and will also mean more time on shore for cruise visitors, leading to more spending. They say Cayman is the only island in the region without a port, and not in the process of building one, and suggest that unless the project goes ahead, cruise numbers will decline.
Mr. Kirkconnell, also vice president of operations at Kirk Freeport, added that there are still obstacles to overcome before the project is guaranteed to get off the ground.
“It is a step towards a cruise berthing facility, but there is still a lot of work to be done. We need to make sure it is done in the right way and everything that can be done to protect the environment is done,” he said.
Statistics from other jurisdictions, he said, suggest that Cayman would see a surge in economic benefit from the port, greater than the PwC business case report indicated.
Mr. Sahm, general manager of Sunset House, said he was not convinced by the economic arguments and feels the decision, prior to the release of the PwC final business case, is premature.