Top stories of 2015: Cruise plan divided Cayman in 2015

Plans for a new cruise terminal in George Town harbor dominated the headlines and divided the Cayman Islands community throughout 2015. 

Duty-free shopping versus the dive industry, high-volume cruise passengers versus upscale stay-over tourists or simply the economy versus the environment, the public debate took on many shapes throughout the year. 

While the concept of cruise piers in the capital has been discussed for years, the prospect of the plan finally coming to fruition sparked a new level of intense discussion. 

The release of an Environmental Impact Assessment demonstrating the extent of the likely damage to coral reefs in the harbor and the impact on adjacent dive sites was the catalyst for organized opposition. 

The dive industry and those concerned about the environment combined in opposition with some who questioned the economic wisdom of spending around $200 million on the dock, led by campaign group Save Cayman. 

That spilled over into public protest in October, when around 300 people took to the streets waving placards and urging government to think again about the plan. 

On the other side of the argument, retailers in George Town and advocates in government argued that a new dock was essential if Cayman wanted to stay in the cruise industry in a meaningful way. 

A rival campaign group, Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future, emerged to promote the dock, arguing that hundreds of jobs in the capital and beyond depended on it. 

The Cayman Islands Tourism Association and the National Conservation Council were among those that expressed opposition to the project in its current form. 

By the end of the year, however, government was forging ahead, citing economic projections in an outline business case produced by PwC as evidence that it would generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the country’s economy. 

Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell and Premier Alden McLaughlin announced at a press conference in November that they would proceed to the next stage – negotiations with the cruise industry to find a funding model for development. 

Mr. Kirkconnell said government had listened to the public and had weighed the data in a dozen reports before making its decision. He said the fact that the environmental impact assessment had shown there would be no impact on Seven Mile Beach gave the government confidence to proceed. 

The key point of contention for many divers and environmental advocates remains the potential damage to the reef. Depending on which report one reads and the level of mitigation measures deployed, the project could result in the loss of somewhere between 10 and 15 acres of coral reef habitat. Historically important dive sites like the wreck of the Balboa would also be lost, while economically valuable sites like Devil’s Grotto could be impacted. The level of those impacts remains a source of debate. 

Adrian Briggs, owner of Sunset Divers and also part owner of the tender company that ferries cruise passengers from ship to port, reflected the vast majority of comments at a public meeting in June, describing the project as a “death sentence” for large areas of reef on the west side of the island. 

Robert Hamaty, owner of Tortuga Rum Company, and Gerry Kirkconnell, owner of Kirk Freeport, were among a group of business leaders who articulated the opposite side of the argument. 

Without a new dock, they said, cruise tourist arrivals would likely plummet over the next decade, impacting jobs in all tourism sectors, including retail, water sports and taxi and tour operators. 

Others stepped into the debate with new ideas. James Whittaker, the GreenTech business owner, promoted a plan to use cable cars to transport cruise passengers from a jetty beyond the reef platform, eliminating the need for dredging. Bo Miller and Reginald Delapenha were among a group of businessmen promoting the idea of a floating dock. 

Those ideas appear to have gained little traction with government, though officials have agreed to look at alternatives for moving the dock into deeper water. 

With negotiations over a funding partnerships with cruise lines and the need for Foreign Commonwealth Office approval, the cruise issue is far from settled. 

Premier McLaughlin admitted as much when, during an October press conference, he said that the progress of the plan depended on demonstrating to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that it would be self-funding. 

“We are still a long way from saying this project is a go,” he reflected. 

Expect the saga to continue long into 2016. 

Cruise ships in George Town.
Cruise ships in George Town.

This illustration shows the proposed cruise berthing facility in George Town.

This illustration shows the proposed cruise berthing facility in George Town.