The Cayman Turtle Centre is officially debt-free after making the final payment on a $50 million loan. The money was borrowed to build the taxpayer-funded tourism facility at its current location in Boatswain Bay after Hurricane Michelle destroyed much of the old turtle farm in 2001.
At the time, it was envisaged that a cruise jetty would be built close to the center, providing a steady stream of customers. But that project never materialized and the Turtle Centre, as it is now known, has never made a profit.
The center has received an annual subsidy of around $9 million from government to cover its operating losses and to fund repayment of its loans.
Tim Adam, managing director of the center, said the repayment of the loans was testimony to the government and the people of Cayman Islands’ faith in the value of the facility.
Though it will still require government funding – expected to be around $3 million a year – he said the center was worth every penny spent in terms the economic spin-off benefits.
It employs more than 100 people and is an “integral part” of the islands’ tourism product, Mr. Adam said. He added that the value of its turtle release program, which studies show has helped bring Cayman’s wild green sea turtle population back from the brink of extinction, was inestimable.
With the major loan repayment behind them, Mr. Adam said the long-term goal was to try to break even.
“Our aim over the next few years is to try to get to that point,” he said.
He believes a new cruise port in George Town harbor would have a significant impact.
He said the Cayman Turtle Centre attracted a consistent percentage of cruise visitors and more arrivals would mean more revenue. The facility is currently undergoing an image change and focusing on developing more of a conservation and education ethos. Mr. Adam said ecotourism initiatives, such as the public release of hatchlings on Cayman’s beaches, had real potential.
He added that the center was already Cayman’s most popular land-based tourism attraction, pulling in around 300,000 visitors each year.
The long-term debt has been a cloud over the Turtle Centre for more than a decade.
Loans extended by local banks First Caribbean International Bank Cayman Islands and Cayman National Bank were paid off in 2017 and 2016, respectively, with the large initial bond of US$44.6 million finally paid off on March 1 this year.
Stran Bodden, chief officer in the Ministry of Tourism, said it was a momentous day for the attraction.
“Government understands the benefit of the Cayman Turtle Centre and has supported it financially wherever possible, because it sees Cayman Turtle Centre as being both innovative and creative to increase revenue streams. We applaud the continued determination of the Centre to serve the Cayman Islands both as a top-notch tourist attraction, as well as the leader in the area[s] of sea turtle conservation, education and scientific study,” Mr. Bodden said in a statement.
Mr. Adam said all government funding would now be able to go toward the attraction’s mission of bringing in tourists, working with scientists and researchers on turtle conservation, and educating visitors and school groups. The center still also produces farmed turtle meat for the local market, which it sells at a subsidized rate.
“We are grateful to the Cayman Islands Government, and by extension, the people of the Cayman Islands, who have never stopped believing in, and supporting us,” he said.
He also paid tribute to the center’s board of directors.