Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines were in advanced negotiations with government and Port Authority officials in early 2012 over upgrades to the Royal Watler dock that would have allowed the Genesis class mega-ships to visit Grand Cayman.
Emails between senior officials, released under the Freedom of Information Law, suggest a tentative agreement had been reached, in principle, to tender the 6,000-passenger ships.
The argument that mega-ships do not use tenders has been cited to advance the case for cruise piers in George Town harbor. The documents indicate that, at least in 2012, Royal Caribbean was open to negotiation on the issue.
A draft schedule had been worked out for the Allure of the Seas ship to make weekly calls between June and October 2012, provided the Port Authority made upgrades to allow for security screening of passengers at the port.
Emails from Shomari Scott, director of tourism at the time, indicate the upgrades could lead to the ship making 11 calls to Grand Cayman during that period, bringing a total of just over 60,000 passengers.
The messages do not indicate why the plan fell through.
Mr. Scott told the Cayman Compass on Thursday that government had been keen to push ahead, but Royal Caribbean had cooled on the plan in the aftermath of the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship in Italy, which created huge public relations concerns around safety of mega-ships and for the industry in general.
Prior to that incident, Mr. Scott believes an agreement had been reached for what would have been a pilot program for tendering those ships. He said, “They were willing at a time to test it out.”
He said it would have been a temporary measure, but some officials believed that if the test was successful, the cruise line could have been persuaded to tender on an ongoing basis.
The emails indicate that Royal Caribbean had given government a wish list, including premium anchor positions and reductions in tender fees, to help make the agreement happen.
A government presentation indicates a price tag of just under $700,000 for a new shore-side security building and modifications to the landing area to allow for two-level unloading.
Opponents of the dock argue that the proposal demonstrates that building new piers is not the only option available to allow mega-ships to come to Cayman.
Save Cayman, a group opposing construction of a cruise ship berthing dock in George Town obtained the emails through an open records request. The group says the correspondence provides evidence that tendering is logistically possible and that cruise lines could be open to negotiation.
Supporters of a new cruise facility say the fact that the plan did not materialize and that no cruise ship of that size has ever visited Grand Cayman is powerful proof that Royal Caribbean will not tender the larger vessels – even if it is technically possible.
Attracting the mega-ships to Cayman has been put forward as one of the benefits of having cruise piers in George Town harbor.
Keith Sahm, general manager of Sunset House and spokesman for Save Cayman, said the negotiations showed it was feasible to tender the mega-ships, despite claims to the contrary.
“What it shows to me,” he said, “is that the ships could have been tendered and coming into Grand Cayman from as far back as 2012.
“Obviously this arrangement fell through, but it shows that it is possible. I believe if government would stand their ground and protect our island and our crystal-clear waters, an agreement could be reached to tender these ships.”
Robert Hamaty, owner of Tortuga Rum Company and a member of the pro-cruise ship dock organization Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future, said he was aware that former Premier Bush had been trying to get an agreement to tender the larger ships in 2011 and 2012.
“Cruise visits were down and everybody was closing up shop,” Mr. Hamaty said. “It was something that the country really needed, and I understand Mr. Bush was doing whatever he could to encourage those ships to tender here. I don’t know how far it got, but we do know that Royal Caribbean has said tendering these cruise ships is not passenger friendly.
“They have made their decision. I don’t know of any port where these ships have tendered.”