Premier Alden McLaughlin speaks to delegates at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference Tuesday at the Marriott Beach Resort. – Photo: Brent Fuller

The number of Caymanians living here has increased by 70 percent within the past two decades, with the majority of those being “new” Caymanians, Premier Alden McLaughlin told a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference Tuesday.

Mr. McLaughlin said the British Overseas Territory’s overall population had shot up over the past 20 years, going from 37,000 residents in 1997 to more than 63,000 residents by last year – an increase of more than 70 percent.

During roughly that same period, the Caymanian population increased from 21,000 to 36,000 people.

“The growth in the Caymanian population came about by not so much natural increase, but by immigration,” Mr. McLaughlin said “[Some immigrants] became a part of the permanent Cayman fabric.”

How to manage population growth, particularly within the smaller overseas territories and British Crown Dependencies, was the focus of Tuesday morning’s session of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s regional conference, which is being hosted on Grand Cayman this year.

Cayman is far from the only British territory to struggle with limited land space, housing a successful economy and requiring a large number of foreign workers to make that economy run properly. Speaker of the House Juan Paul Watterson from the Isle of Man noted that growing populations and a steady local economy have made the management of available land in the Crown Dependency one of the more controversial issues local lawmakers must address.

“Buy land, they aren’t making it anymore,” Mr. Watterson said, borrowing a quote from American author Mark Twain.

In the Isle of Man, foreign workers are also required to obtain work permits before becoming gainfully employed, Mr. Watterson said. However, after five years in the dependency, they can be granted full permission to work and voting rights as well if their work permit is maintained.

In a small island with an aging working population of native residents, Speaker Watterson said it was absolutely crucial for the Isle of Man to bring in foreign workers to aid the local economy.

“We do want people to come and contribute to our economy,” Mr. Watterson said. “It’s a safeguard, rather than a barrier.”

Premier McLaughlin said Cayman’s importation of foreign labor since the 1970s has created “a unique place in the Caribbean” in terms of hosting a population of more than 63,000 people which contains more than 130 different nationalities.

“Cayman is easily the most cosmopolitan country in the region,” the premier said. “You’re just as likely to hear Spanish or Tagalog spoken in the bars or on the streets these days.”

Cayman’s economy has remained strong, weathering even such events as the 9-11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. and 2004’s devastating Hurricane Ivan, the premier said. However, as early as 2007, it was noted that Cayman’s infrastructure had not kept up with its burgeoning population.

Over the last decade, Cayman has worked on building schools, improving roads and reconstructing Owen Roberts International Airport – amidst a global financial crisis in 2008-2009. All of those projects are still in progress now.

Figures presented to the Cayman Islands Legislative Assembly late last year following a parliamentary question asked by Bodden Town West MLA Chris Saunders indicated that more than 3,700 non-Caymanians had been granted Caymanian status – similar to local citizenship – since 2009.

Mr. Saunders said at the time he obtained the information that he was researching grants of status and awards of permanent residence for information he would later use to update the old “Vision 2008” strategic plan, which would look ahead to Cayman’s next 20 years.

“One of the things I’m mindful of is that we’re looking at the public school population now, we’re looking at a large number of children of Caymanian status holders or PR-holders who will be entitled to receive public school education in the next five years,” he said.