Government rejected calls from the Opposition for a referendum to be held on the controversial cruise pier project after a lengthy debate in the Legislative Assembly that ran into the early hours of Friday morning.
Following the failure of the private members’ motion, Opposition members indicated they would now throw their weight behind a public push for a people’s referendum.
A community-led campaign is seeking to collect signatures from 25 percent of the electorate in order to trigger a mandatory poll on the port project.
Opposition leader Ezzard Miller had sought to persuade government to voluntarily put the decision in the hands of the public.
Motion fails 11 votes to 6
Speaking at the opening of the debate at the Aston Rutty Civic Centre on Cayman Brac on Thursday, Mr. Miller said the issue of cruise berthing had been mired in controversy on all sides for decades and a referendum was the best way to resolve it.
His motion failed by 11 votes to 6. It was supported by all members of the official opposition and independent member Kenneth Bryan and opposed by all on the government benches, with the exception of West Bay legislator Bernie Bush who was not present when the vote was called around 1 a.m. on Friday.
Mr. Miller spoke out against cruise berthing in his speech, saying it was a solution to a problem that did not exist. He said cruise tourism had grown 20 percent in the last five years and there was no evidence that a dock was necessary.
Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell, in a lengthy rebuttal, said thousands of Caymanian families depended on the cruise industry for their livelihoods. Though recent cruise arrival figures have been good, he said, the long-term trend of the industry was toward mega-ships that would not use tenders.
Mr. Miller, in his initial speech, raised numerous objections to the port plan. He said Cayman was proceeding based on “bullying, intimidation and threats” from the cruise industry that were not grounded in reality.
He said there was no evidence to support the idea that cruise tourism in Cayman would seriously decline without a dock.
He also disputed government’s claims that the country would not foot the bill for the piers – saying Cayman would lose millions of dollars annually in revenue if passenger head taxes and tender fees were diverted to pay for the berthing facility.
The Opposition leader questioned whether the Cayman Islands could even handle the 2.3 million cruise passengers government hopes the planned port will attract to Grand Cayman annually.
He warned that an extra half-a-million visitors, on top of current annual arrival levels, could have an impact on already crowded tourist spots, like Seven Mile Beach and Stingray City.
Serious overcrowding could end up damaging the more valuable stay-over tourism sector, Mr. Miller said.
He said there was no evidence that cruise passengers were unhappy with tendering and suggested that cruise lines had previously threatened to pull out of Cayman only to come back because their passengers demanded it.
He acknowledged that government had published multiple reports on the project, including a business case report study citing the potential for significant economic benefits.
But, he said, these reports were filled with holes and inconsistencies.
He highlighted the assumption in the business case report, produced in 2013, that cruise tourism would reduce by one percent each year without cruise piers and would increase by one percent each year with piers.
Many of the financial calculations in that report were based on this assumption, but Mr. Miller said it had been proven wrong over the past five years.
“Congratulations to the minister; he has turned the whole report upside down,” he said.
“We have had 20 percent growth in cruise tourism since he took office. Congratulations. There is no indication it is going to go the way this report said it was going to go from 2013. The document is irrelevant. It can’t have any significance any more.”
In his response, Mr. Kirkconnell said Cayman’s cruise numbers would have declined last year if it were not for an influx of ships diverted from hurricane-hit islands in the eastern Caribbean.
He said the long-term trend of the industry toward larger ships, that would not tender, would catch up with Cayman eventually.
“It is easy to get lost in the status quo and believe the cruise industry is here to stay,” Mr. Kirkconnell said. “I can assure you with a degree of high certainty that if we sit back and do nothing and rest on our laurels, that will not be the case in years to come.
“How can I be so sure? The cruise lines have shown us.”
He said the president of Royal Caribbean Cruises had publicly stated its mega-ships would not tender, while Carnival Cruise Line had just ordered a new line of larger ships.
When those vessels are put into service, he said, Cayman needed to be ready to accommodate them. He said the opening up of Cuba to tourism posed another new threat to Cayman’s share of the industry and if the country did not build a dock, the cruise business would go elsewhere.
$200 million estimated cost
Mr. Kirkconnell said the cost of the project, including upgrades to the cargo dock and accounting for a modified design to move the piers into deeper water, was now estimated at around $200 million.
He said the exact price and design would be determined through the bid process. Three final bidders, as yet unnamed, have until November to submit proposals to design, build, finance and maintain the piers. Mr. Kirkconnell said many of the details would be ironed out in this selection process.
“We tell exactly what we know and we wait and see what the bidders come back with,” he added.
He said government had gone through a painstaking process of hiring some of the best financial, engineering and environmental consultants in the world to produce a package of publicly available reports that formed the basis for the decision to proceed with the project.
The culmination of this, he said, was the final PwC report. He said this had taken into account all factors, including the financial losses associated with damage to reefs in the harbor and indicated an overall economic benefit to the country of somewhere between $400 million and $1.7 billion.
Looking back to the early days of tourism in Cayman, he said, the island had to be prepared to take bold decisions to prepare for its future.
“Think about sea plane when it used to land in the North Sound and a little boat would go next to that plane and tender the passenger to shore. Where would we be today if we had stopped at that point?” he asked.
Several other members weighed in on the issue during the 10-hour debate.
Opposition Deputy Leader Alva Suckoo said government’s decision not to support the motion meant the opposition political group would now join the community push for a people-initiated referendum.
He said there were too many unanswered questions about the project, including the identity of the bidders and the details of the new design. He also questioned whether a second environmental impact assessment would be necessary now that the design had changed.
George Town Central MLA Mr. Bryan questioned what the harm of holding a referendum would be.
He said if government believed the project was supported by the public, then they had no reason to fear a public vote.
Austin Harris, independent legislator for Prospect and part of the coalition government, said that after 10 years of speaking out against the dock on his radio show, he now supported the initiative.
“In the national best interest, my eyes have been opened to the potential that these developments represent to the people of the country,” he said.
“Only a fool and a dead man can’t change his mind.”