Cayman’s tourism sector saw another record in May with 40,591 air arrivals for the month. It was the first time Cayman exceeded 40,000 passengers in May.
It was also the sixth consecutive month of exceeding that threshold.
Rosa Harris, director at the Department of Tourism, concedes that the growth trajectory might not be sustainable. Speaking at the Chamber of Commerce Economic Forum last week, Harris released the latest statistics with a caveat. “We are not saying we will keep that momentum. But we will ride the wave while we have it.”
The growth in air arrivals is predominantly coming from North America. This includes 500 more passengers in May from the Denver area, where Cayman Airways launched a new route in March, and 600 more passengers from the Southwest region of the US, namely out of Houston and Dallas.
Harris said, “Overall, we believe that aviation stimulates travel.”
Southwest Airlines started servicing out of Houston and American Airlines added more frequent flights from Dallas, in addition to the new Cayman Airways route from Denver.
In June, Cayman welcomed the first flight out of Baltimore on Southwest Airlines.
“We expect to see movement in the Baltimore local area and potentially feeder cities coming through Baltimore,” the DOT director said.
The US and Canada were also the main regions driving stayover tourism growth in 2018.
The US market remained by far the largest source market for Cayman tourism with 385,000 visitors, an increase of 13%. And 27,000 Canadian stayover tourists meant an increase of 7.5%, a reversal from a previous lull.
“Canada is making a very nice comeback,” Harris said. “We know from our partners that when the dollar does not perform well, they don’t travel. And that has stabilised and we see Canadians return to the Cayman Islands. The airlines as well WestJet and Air Canada have also committed more air capacity into the destination.”
Europe represents about 5% of the total volume of stayover tourists. UK and Ireland are the main markets within the European region, but the Department of Tourism is planning to attract more visitors from Germany, where a tour operator will be elected soon to sell the Cayman Islands.
Brazil, Argentina and Mexico on the other hand represent only 2% of the volume, but visitors from these countries travel at different times of the year, which might help stem the seasonal decline of North American visitors each September, October and November.
On a recent trip to the International Luxury Travel Market in Shanghai, the department found that the Cayman Islands “is very much top of mind but from a business perspective”, Harris said, but the travel and real estate opportunities have to be communicated more. To attract more tourists from China, Cayman will have to first obtain the approved destination status from the Chinese government and formulate how to effectively penetrate the market, the DOT director noted.
Cayman’s tourism sector has reached a total capacity of 6,888 rooms.
While Grand Cayman has added the Kimpton Seafire, Locale and a refurbished Margaritaville in the hotel category, most additional capacity has come from smaller properties.
There are currently 351 licensed listings under Airbnb in the Cayman Islands, bringing in tourism at a grassroots level and creating entrepreneurship.
Harris said, “we have come full circle with the distruptor” after at first nobody understood what Airbnb was. Since the government has regulated the niche sector and struck an agreement with Airbnb, the department is now looking at marketing opportunities.
In particular, the department aims to connect small and medium-sized businesses in each district to provide Airbnb stayover tourists with an authentic, local experience that does not involve extensive travel on island. The DOT is planning to host a summit for small businesses, like tour companies and caterers, to better market aspects like the Airbnb Experiences programme, which uses ambassadors to lets visitors experience what locals typically like to do.
“For the first time in our media plan we have bought into Airbnb advertising,” Harris said, “which is why the summit of bringing small- and medium-sized business together is so important, because we have to have an offer, we have to represent the destination.”