Balancing quantity with quality should be a key consideration for tourism destinations like the Cayman Islands, according to two guest speakers at the 2018 Annual Tourism Conference.

Economist Marla Dukharan, the keynote speaker at the event at the Westin resort, said Tuesday the issue was a deep philosophical question that many islands across the Caribbean were facing.

“Do you really want more tourists, or do you want more spend per tourist?” she asked.

She said the Cayman Islands was the “gold standard” in the region for a well-run economy and praised the new national tourism plan and the process government has gone through, including a business case and environmental impact study, as it considers the cruise port development.

But, she said, the island would also need to determine what level of tourism it considered optimal in the long term.

“Most countries are just trying to grow numbers,” she said.

“There is an optimal number of arrivals. You don’t want to grow ad infinitum; you don’t want to grow forever and end up crowding out locals.

“It is about quality versus quantity. Insofar as you have hotel rooms to fill, you want quantity, but there comes a point where you ask, how many more hotels are you going to build, how many more planes can you land. Don’t you just want to have more quality and more spend per capita rather than just continuing to grow?”

Ms. Dukharan was speaking generally, rather than about cruise tourism in particular. She said the question was a key consideration for destinations across the Caribbean.

Bryan Kinkade, publisher of AFAR Media, a travel media company, touched on the same point in a later panel discussion. He said larger, faster planes and generally cheaper travel were opening up more and more destinations to a growing middle class all over the world. In some destinations in Europe and the U.S., he said “over-tourism” was a bigger problem than attracting visitors.

“The number of tourists are really starting to have an impact on the infrastructure and the quality of life, as well as with the tourist experience,” he said. “You can only imagine what that would look like here [in Grand Cayman] in five years if not properly managed.

“How do you spread people out more? Stingray City with 50 boats crowded around sunset could very quickly become an unsustainable experience that tourists wouldn’t want to return to.”

Ms. Dukharan compared Cayman favorably to its Caribbean neighbors, saying very few other islands had a comprehensive national tourism plan.

She said the Caribbean, in general, was losing market share in the tourism industry, partly because of a lack of strategic planning.

According to the International Monetary Fund, she said, the number of flights was the biggest driver of tourism to a destination. Surprisingly, she said, adding new hotels had almost no impact in itself on tourism arrivals. She also highlighted IMF statistics that show the region as the most expensive in the world on the “week at the beach” price index.

Many Caribbean destinations, she said, are compounding the problem with excessive airline and airport taxes. In some cases, taxes cost more than the ticket itself, she said. The Cayman Islands is somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as airport taxes go, levying US$58 per passenger. Ms. Dukharan said it was a “perverse approach” for Caribbean islands to overtax tourists.

“I think we should make it cheaper for people to come here, and when they come, encourage them to spend that money on experiences and goods and services,” she said.

She also highlighted the gender gap in the Caribbean and in the tourism industry in particular, saying there were very few female tourism ministers, CEOs or company owners.

She said women were a huge under-used resource, and countries like Iceland had demonstrated that progressive policies on child care and flexible working hours could help bring more women into the workforce and boost the economy.

Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell also spoke at the conference, highlighting some of the achievements made in tourism in Cayman over the past few years and the future hotel growth expected in the coming years. Director of Tourism Rosa Harris gave an update on the department’s marketing plans and recent campaigns, including an advertising campaign using actors Grace and Trai Byers to market to couples.

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  1. About two decades ago the Compass (obviously under the previous ownership) published an editorial on a theme that to me was broadly suggesting (and I am working from memory here) that when it comes to tourism, ‘Some is good, more is better and too much is just enough.’ However, anyone who does any gardening is familiar with applying weedkillers, which work by stimulating growth in the weeds that cannot be sustained. In effect, the weeds actually ‘grow themselves to death’ and the same principle can apply to the tourism industry if you’re not careful.

    One of the great dangers with tourism is that resorts and destinations often only discover they’ve got things wrong when the numbers start dropping off. In the 1990s I spent a lot of time in what was then a very popular Red Sea resort. The numbers were so good that the county’s national carrier upgraded their services to it out of London Heathrow from Boeing 757s to 767s and finally 747s. There were also at least four UK tour operators, along with numerous companies in Europe, Scandinavia and the former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, selling package holidays out there. It was boom time and people cashed in on it. In four years the unspoilt beachfront view I had enjoyed during my first visit there in April 1991 was blocked by three huge 4/5 star hotels. In one year ten hotels, including several very big names, opened their doors for the first time. Hotels just sprung up everywhere. Then the problems started. The dive operations, which had always been the key to the resort’s success, discovered that their traditional customer base didn’t like the changes. Worse, as the resort opened up to mass tourism the other watersports operators started to apply pressure on the authorities to bring in moves to restrict diving – whole areas suddenly became off-limits because having divers in them interfered with the operation of things like glass-bottom boats. It was a complete train wreck in the making and the rot set in pretty quickly. I was out there when one of the founders of the dive business was escorted from his 18-month-old hotel by court officials – he’d defaulted on the loan and the bank had sold the property. To make matters worse the country to their immediate south started doing deals with major hotel chains that opened up miles of previously unspoilt desert coastline to the traditional markets that the resort had prospered from. In the space of less than a decade over-development and unexpected competition destroyed the place.

    In July 2010 we were staying in one of the new hotels to the South and it was an easy day trip north to see how bad things had got. A rep with one of the tour companies had already told me that they’d quit the resort completely and moved all their business across the border but what I found on my return was staggering. There were few if any foreign tourists in the place and businesses were dying on their feet. Many of the hotels had been sold off and re-branded but mostly as tax write-offs, they weren’t doing much business. A landmark underwater restaurant that I’d seen installed was pretty much derelict and all my favourite watering holes (trust me there were a lot of them!) were either shut or dead. The place was effectively closed.

    So what does that experience have to do with the Cayman Islands?

    First of all you’ve got a neighbour to the South, Cuba, that could easily pull off a similar turn around on you and steal your tourism business. The second is that once you lose a customer base it is very hard to get it back. With the on-going issues in the region the whole area to the South of my Red Sea resort is now shut down. In was there in 2011, roughly six months after the ‘Revolution’, and there were eight guests in my 200-room hotel. Despite this the tourists aren’t returning to the hotels in the North. The country’s national airline hasn’t even re-instated the resort on its UK website, the only airline offering direct flights from the UK has gone bust as has the last UK tour operator listing the resort. It’s like the place has disappeared off the tourism map.

    Going back to the gardening analogy. Customers are like plants – if you look after them you’ll be able to enjoy them for many years but it doesn’t take much to upset the balance and kill them off.