We cannot afford to build a cruise berthing facility in George Town. This is true from both an economic, but more importantly an environmental perspective.
The current coalition government is choosing to blatantly ignore the facts presented to them, and by doing so are putting our beloved isle’s future in jeopardy. Despite an environmental impact assessment (EIA) concluding that the dredging of coral will result in significant ecological losses, and an, as yet unpublished consultant’s report finding that Cayman will need to attract 2.5 million cruise passengers per year (requiring a 45 percent increase from 2017) to make the cruise berthing facility financially viable, the government is still choosing to progress with the project in secrecy.
Economic self-interest appears to be the strongest, and sole motivating force behind the project, with supporters of the cruise berthing facility limited to merchants in town, a small number of tour operators, and the multi-billion-dollar cruise companies themselves. However, we cannot let the selfish few who will benefit financially have it their way, while the rest of our nation faces the negative consequences.
The principal concern with the cruise berthing facility is the devastating environmental impact it will have on the George Town harbor and its surroundings, with the dredging, construction and operational phases all having severe impacts. The current concept is set to directly destroy 15 acres of coral reef (a segment of that area is an established Marine Protected Area), with an additional 15-20 acres set to be impacted indirectly. Although supporters of the project will argue this coral can be relocated, coral relocation is prohibitively expensive, success is not guaranteed, and the EIA states that it will not achieve “no net loss.”
Beyond the numerous environmental impacts of the proposed cruise berthing facility are the obvious economic impacts. The EIA estimates the economic losses to be US$10 million per year, a direct consequence of the reef destruction and its impact on the water sports operators that have been operating in the area, while also caring for the environment, for many years. This figure does not even account for the impact the dredging will have on the even more profitable surrounding areas such as Seven Mile Beach.
Even if we are able to attract the 2.5 million cruise passengers needed to make the project viable, which is estimated to cost a whopping $200-300 million, it is questionable whether our local attractions and infrastructure would be able to support such a large number of daily visitors. With traffic in George Town already at a standstill, and tourist attractions such as Stingray City becoming dangerously overcrowded, accommodating these additional 800,000 cruise passengers on an annual basis could have an extensive negative impact on the island.
One of the biggest challenges with this daily influx of cruise ship passengers is balancing their experiences with the experiences of much more valuable overnight guests. The addition of these cruise passengers will result in additional pressure on diving and snorkeling attractions (as the cruise berthing facility will reduce both the number and quality of coral reefs available for visitors and locals alike) and cause overcrowding in already congested areas such as Stingray City and Seven Mile Beach. We cannot afford to see a decrease in invaluable overnight visitors, who spent an average of nearly CI$1,200 in 2017, compared to the KYD$98 the average cruise ship passenger spent during the same period.
With the Department of Environment director Gina Ebanks-Petrie warning that the environmental consequences will be “extremely dire,” newly appointed governor Anwar Choudhury noting that “it is vital that we protect our environment” and the majority of the public being deeply opposed to the project, it is difficult to comprehend why the government is choosing to proceed with the construction of the cruise berthing facility. The economic self-interest of the cruise companies appears to be similar in nature to several MLAs who will derive a significant economic benefit from the numerous businesses they operate in George Town. Those MLAs should distance themselves from the process and recuse themselves from any matter that concerns the cruise berthing facility.
The $200-300 million construction cost for the cruise berthing facility would be much better spent on building new, or improving the existing infrastructure, fighting crime, or finishing the incomplete renovations at John Gray High School. Before this project commences, I propose that the government holds a referendum, and puts the future of our beloved isle in the hands of our people – the same people who will have to live with the severe consequences of the cruise berthing facility if the government continues down this path.