We agree, in principle, with the idea of a strategic plan outlining goals and priorities for the Cayman Islands’ critical tourism sector. We also would concede that government has a necessary role in establishing the broad parameters in which the tourism industry must operate. That interest is properly expressed through the enactment of laws (no gambling or topless beaches), regulations (zoning, noise, Sunday retail restrictions) and establishing and enforcing practices that are conducive to domestic tranquility (safety and security, in particular).
Beyond that tourism is, and should be, primarily, a private sector undertaking. Whenever government trespasses into that space – say by either owning, operating or subsidizing attractions (think the Cayman Turtle Centre and Pedro St. James), it competes with private operators and diminishes the real demands of the marketplace.
It is in this context that we comment on the five-year tourism “plan,” prepared by the Ministry and Department of Tourism and released yesterday. Ironically, the five-year plan has taken more than two years to produce, and it’s far from done. The current draft itself is largely based on public comment already solicited this spring at community meetings held on all three islands. And now the ministry is seeking yet more public input.
As Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell explains, “It is imperative that the community remains involved in the process because ultimately, this very important economic pillar of our society can only thrive with your support.”
Well, maybe …
At some point, public input and decision-making-by-consensus becomes more of an exercise in CYA than in leadership. Reports are delayed (this one is months behind its due date) and leading-edge recommendations are diluted – or eliminated entirely.
In this case, the draft contains largely a long list of known problems and challenges, including: Slow and frustrating airport experiences; deficiencies in public transportation and taxi regulation; inadequate solid waste and recycling services; congestion and overcrowding in key areas; chaotic concessions on public beaches; and a general lack of forward thinking.
Let us dare state what the report did not address (other than acknowledging its existence): This country has yet to resolve whether its future lies in being a high-end stay-over jurisdiction or a mass-market cruise ship destination.
BOTH may be the safe answer. Certainly, each makes substantial contributions to the economy – but the reality is they may not be mutually compatible.
Simply put, cruise tourism is a volume industry – the more the better – while stay-over tourism is about quality over quantity. Adjectives such as “exclusive,” “private” or “elite” are attractions to an upscale market but anathema to those with both limited dollars and time.
Already Cayman crams into its extremely limited land mass more than 1.7 million cruise ship visitors, and the proposed new cruise pier project supposedly would need to add a few hundred thousand more, for hours longer each day, in order to be financially viable.
As the report points out, already Cayman’s most desirable attractions (Seven Mile Beach and Stingray City) are becoming so overcrowded that they are becoming less desirable. In the immortal words of seer and sage Yogi Berra, “Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded.”
So which is it to be? Stay-over tourism or cruise ship tourism?
Answer that question and then it will be much easier to address follow-on questions such as: Should we build the $200 million cruise dock or should we plan to expand, replace or relocate Grand Cayman’s Owen Roberts International Airport?