Amid another record-breaking year for tourism in the Cayman Islands, one controversial development was never far from the headlines.

Debate over government’s plans for a cruise berthing facility in George Town harbor was still raging at year’s end, with campaigners claiming they are close to the number of signatures required to trigger a referendum on the issue.

The Progressives-led coalition government has made incremental progress as it seeks to find a consortium of companies willing to design, build, finance and maintain the project.

Three finalists are competing in the final stage of the bid process, with cruise giants Carnival and Royal Caribbean already lined up to help fund the development.

Government continues to market the project as a major economic boon for the islands that will bring business without impacting government revenue. But a growing band of campaigners has cast doubt on this claim and raised questions over the project, highlighting environmental damage, the potential for cost overruns and the threat posed by growing cruise tourism to Cayman’s natural resources.

The battle for public opinion has been fought in rival public meetings, on radio airwaves, social media and in bars and coffee shops around the island. The jury was still out at the end of 2018, with the verdict likely to come in early next year.

Either the campaigners will reach their target of signatures and force a public vote, or government will grant a contract for the project and the work will begin in earnest.

Construction staff erect girders at the Owen Roberts International Airport in May last year. Airport officials anticipate a February completion date. – Photo: Alvaro Serey

The airport

Though it dominated the public debate, the cruise berthing facility was not the only major public infrastructure project under the microscope in 2018.

The renovation of the airport has been moving toward completion throughout the year. Initially scheduled for a December opening, it has now been pushed back to February as work continues on fitting out shops and bars in the departure lounge.

Tourism high season was beset by problems with overcrowding both in the skies and in the terminal, but airport bosses say this kind of congestion should be a thing of the past now that the expanded terminal is complete.

Tourists coming through Owen Roberts International Airport next year may still see signs of work in progress, but in terms of functionality, they will find the expansion largely complete.

The final bill for that project, initially pitched at $55 million, remains unconfirmed. Opposition politicians have raised concerns about overspending on the development and it seems likely that the final cost will be at least $10 million beyond that initial projection.

Once complete, the expansion will almost triple the capacity of the airport.

Passengers disembark at Spotts Dock in December from a tender boat that delivered them from the Carnival Magic cruise ship. – Photos: Alvaro Serey

Arrival figures

That extra space continues to be much needed, as Cayman’s tourism boom shows no sign of slowing down.

Boosted by the troubles of hurricane-hit island rivals in the eastern Caribbean, the islands had recorded a 12 percent increase in stayover tourism through the end of October.

The final figures will not be in until January, but Cayman was on track to significantly beat the 418,403 visitors that arrived by air in 2017, which was a record in itself. Cruise arrivals meanwhile were expected to hit at least 1.9 million, the highest level since 2006.

An artist’s impression of the five-star hotel planned for the Pageant Beach site.

Hotel projects

Developers and hoteliers are confident that the stayover tourism success story will continue.

A number of private-sector projects made significant progress in 2017. Plans for a 10-story, five-star resort at the site of the old Pageant Beach hotel were approved in January. Plans for the project, initially headed by Howard Hospitality Group but also involving New Jersey-based Madison Hill Properties, include 351 rooms and six swimming pools.

Luxury hotel chain Hyatt announced a deal to operate the hotel in February, targeting a 2020 opening. No start date had been outlined for the construction project by the year’s end, however.

A long-discussed plan for a hotel at Beach Bay also took a step forward with the announcement of a partnership with Mandarin Oriental to manage the finished property. There was no word, though, on when construction would begin.

One project that made concrete progress is NCB’s boutique hotel. Construction is currently under way on the 60-suite business and wellness hotel. Situated opposite Kirk Market on North Church Street, it is the first major tourism development in George Town in decades.

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