The Cayman Compass invited Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell and Leader of the Opposition Ezzard Miller to present their views as advocates for and against the cruise pier dock, respectively, to the Cayman Islands public.
Leader of the Opposition Ezzard Miller
Once upon a time, there was an Italian who wanted to migrate to America. When he was in Italy, he heard that the streets in America were paved with gold. When he arrived in America, he found out three things:
- The streets in America were not paved with gold;
- The streets in America were not paved at all;
- They expected him to pave it.
Unlike the Italian, the Opposition understands that the road to the cruise berthing facility is not paved with gold and that, ultimately, it is the Caymanian people that will have to pave it.
To be clear, the Opposition supports and promotes cruise tourism and the role it can, does, and should play in developing our tourism economy.
We understand that many Caymanians rely on cruise tourism to make a living, whether as employees or as small or large business owners.
We support and will continue to advocate for the continued well-being of cruise business, especially with regard to the benefits that should accrue to Caymanians.
However, the proposed cruise berthing pier would be the largest single commitment to date of any Government of the Cayman Islands.
As such, the project demands a rigorous examination of the need, costs – financial, environmental and otherwise – as well as the consequences, obvious and unintended, that the people of these Islands will ultimately have to shoulder, as well as the alternative.
At the heart of the Opposition’s analysis is that despite so far avoiding the bandwagon mentality adopted by so many of our Caribbean brethren who have caved to cruise pressure to build piers, the Cayman Islands has maintained its No. 2 ranking among cruise ports in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Cayman has achieved this through a strong track record for passenger satisfaction.
Against this background, the Opposition has sought answers to these questions:
- Is Cayman lagging behind in passenger ratings? No.
- Are there complaints about the existing tender service? No.
- Is the local cruise industry losing ground? No.
- Has docking in other destinations resulted in greater passenger satisfaction with visits? No.
- Are mega-ships able to disembark passengers with the necessary efficiency via tenders? Yes.
We therefore challenge Government to identify the problem that the pier is solving and that could not be addressed by another less expensive strategy. If Government cannot do so convincingly, then this massive spending should not be embarked upon.
A solid argument against Government’s single-minded focus on building a pier is that the linchpin in industry growth is visitor satisfaction.
So, pivotal in resolving this debate is the question of how much of a difference this massive investment would make to passenger enjoyment and the likelihood of return visits.
To interrogate this, we suggest starting with careful research and analysis of visitor concerns:
What are passengers’ current concerns?
Right at the top of the list is the cost of goods and services. Among those concerns is the exorbitant costs of local excursions onboard ship. For example, it has been well documented that a snorkeling trip that may cost US$8 per passenger landside is sold at the rate of US$30 on board ship.
Another big factor impacting customer satisfaction is congestion: As the envisaged 20,000 or more passengers from the four mega (Oasis class) ships that the dock is designed to accommodate spill out onto our streets, the resulting congestion will be a major buzzkill for visitors. It will most certainly lower their enjoyment of our beaches and other on-island attractions.
The obvious answer is to maintain an appropriate ceiling on cruise passengers, rather than to focus on facilitating even larger influxes of visitors.
Customer satisfaction is also linked to first-class ground excursions that are efficient, dependable and that maintain the warm Cayman experience that customers are seeking.
Another factor figuring in enhanced customer satisfaction is an emphasis on processing passengers more efficiently. Passenger satisfaction is linked to the degree to which ports are able to process passengers efficiently and seamlessly as they arrive and depart. This would require modern, comfortable reception and departure areas facilitating efficient processing.
At the moment, disembarking and returning passengers are processed on ship. Moving the bulk of this function to an efficient passenger boarding area, adopting the airline model, would require a level of investment by government or the private sector. It would, however, be a much less costly intervention than building a pier.
Resolving these issues will increase passenger satisfaction and lead to higher return rate among cruise passengers, and conversion of cruise passengers into stay-over passengers, who spend 11 times more than a cruise ship passenger.
The costs of building the cruise berthing facility
Of critical concern is the CI$200 million cost.
The Government alleges that the Caymanian people will not be required to pay for it, and the secrecy shrouding the handling of this massive enterprise makes that claim difficult to refute.
However, we know the financing package will entail a loss to the people of these islands of some US$500,000,000 in forfeited cruise passenger fees over the next 25 years.
Another consideration is the resulting losses to George Town area businesses, varying from US$407 million to US$670 million over the same period, according to three different studies.
Environmental impacts are of equal concern. However, as the plan for the dock has apparently changed since the 2013 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), it is difficult to tackle this issue with any realism.
So, what if we do not build the pier – will the cruise industry disappear?
The answer is a resounding no, because the need for a pier is based on a number of misconceptions and fallacies underpinning the Government’s projections and assumptions about industry operations:
The misconception that Cayman’s cruise industry will decline: Rather than declining, the number of cruise ship passengers has increased between a cumulative 15 percent and 20 percent since 2013, representing a minimum 3 percent increase, rather than the Government’s forecast 1 percent annual reduction in passengers.
The fallacy that mega-ships cannot be tendered: This fallacy is refuted here in the Cayman Islands on a daily basis. As a case in point, back in 2006 when Royal Caribbean’s first “Freedom” class ship (accommodating 4,000 plus) made its debut, the company had excluded the Cayman Islands on its itinerary, claiming that its ships could not be tendered. Following a resulting decline in sales, however, the ships returned within a short period.
Today, Freedom-class ships, with at times two or more in port, each disembark up to 4,000 passengers by tender within a couple of hours.
The fallacy that tendering takes more time than docking: Government’s own Environmental Impact Assessment study and PricewaterhouseCoopers Outline Business Case concur that piers will not allow faster disembarkation and loading of passengers.
The misconception that a dock would facilitate longer port stays: The departure time from Cayman is predicated on the scheduled arrival time at the next port of call, as confirmed by the Business Research & Economic Advisors (BREA) report that provides professional market and economic analyses.
According to BREA, the average time in ports with piers is 4.6 hours, as against the average time in Cayman of 4 hours.
The misconception that longer periods in port would result in increased spending: Even if docking could result in longer periods in port, there is no documented evidence that greater spending would ensue, a conclusion supported by logic and common sense. Passengers are likely to maintain maximum spending allocations for each port.
Further, an examination of cruise passenger spending fails to support the notion that increased spending would boost the local economy.
According to figures by the Caribbean Tourism Association, passenger on-shore expenditure goes mostly to duty-free shopping, and much less on tours and attractions. Very little is spent on food.
Unfortunately, both the UDP and the PPM governments have failed to acknowledge this.
Instead, they continue to subscribe to the discredited notion of “trickle-down economics.”
With the vision of the port waiting in the wings, the coalition is doubling down on trickle down.
And what if we do build the pier and are able to dock four Oasis-class ships (accommodating 5,000-plus passengers) in port at one time. Who will benefit and at what cost?
How do you fancy 20,000 or more passengers bustling through George Town and blanketing the beach and shoreline with chairs and bodies?
With a degree of this chaotic atmosphere already being experienced, we can have a good idea of impacts.
A further grave concern is the oversight of Government’s Outline Business Case of an assessment of the carrying capacity for cruise passengers for George Town, Seven Mile Beach, or, for that matter, the whole of Grand Cayman.
An evaluation of carrying capacity is essential as there will obviously come a time when escalating numbers of passengers will have diminishing returns.
Strengthening cruise passenger experience
In the final analysis, we must focus on strengthening cruise passenger experience and not caving to pressure to build a pier that the preponderance of evidence shows will not necessarily contribute to sustainable growth. In conjunction with this, tendering has shown itself to be a viable and suitable alternative.
Regardless, however, experience clearly shows that the cruise industry thrives when passengers derive the greatest satisfaction and value for money.
In other words, it is customer satisfaction that will keep passengers coming, not a costly pier.
In one final note, you may have wondered what happened to that Italian immigrant. Well, he went into the cruise business and is now telling us that the road to cruise berthing is paved with gold.