When Southwest launched its inaugural flight from Baltimore last month, it also opened the 25th gateway airport for the Cayman Islands.
The number of flights coming into Grand Cayman and the number of cities that can be reached by direct flights is believed now to be the highest it has ever been.
While this has created congestion concerns at the airport, the impact on the island has been seen in steadily increasing tourism arrivals and revenues at hotels and other businesses.
Data compiled by the Cayman Compass shows it is now possible to fly daily to six metro areas – Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston and Miami in the US, and Kingston, in Jamaica.
There are also regular flights to a further 10 metros including Chicago, Denver and New York in the US; Havana, Cuba; La Ceiba in Honduras and Nassau, Bahamas. Seasonal routes to other destinations, including Detroit and Roatan, Honduras, are also on the annual flight schedule.
There are now flights from Grand Cayman to 25 airports in 21 metro areas. Comparable data for previous years is not available, but tourism chiefs say they have steadily added flights to the schedule over the last decade. The pace of growth has accelerated in recent years with Cayman Airways credited with helping to ‘open up’ new routes and spark market interest from other operators.
The airline has now pulled back on some of its traditionally more popular routes, in Florida and Cuba, as new players have entered the market.
Airline CEO Fabian Whorms said it had “blazed new trails” to many international cities, paving the way for others to follow.
Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said airlines from a handful of destinations had typically flown to and from Cayman. The core routes included Miami, Kingston and Atlanta.
In the last six years, he said, routes had been opened up to New York, Chicago, Roatan, Fort Lauderdale, Dallas and Chicago, among others.
The strategy is expected to continue with Cayman Airways targeting the west coast of the US, something that began this year with the new Denver route.
The grounding of Cayman Airways’ newly-acquired Boeing 737 Max 8 jets earlier this year has stalled that policy for the time being, but Kirkconnell said the long-term plan was to add flights to affluent west coast cities, potentially including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle or Vancouver.
“Opening new gateways is one of the most important things we can do for our tourism product,” he said.
“We expect there to continue to be new opportunities available with our airline partners. We will work with them and with Cayman Airways to look at gateways to benefit the country and our tourism arrivals.”
Marla Dukharan, an economist who was the keynote speaker at a tourism conference in Cayman last year, said adding flights was the single most important thing that Caribbean islands could do to improve their tourism arrivals.
Citing data from International Monetary Fund research, she said focussing on the number of flights, the number of airlines and the number of departure cities had been shown to have the greatest impact.
The other biggest factor that helps or hinders island destinations like Cayman is the US employment rate, according to Dukharan. Building new hotels was found to be statistically insignificant in terms of impacting arrivals, she said.
Kirkconnell said Cayman’s strategy had to be balanced between bringing in new flights and passengers and ensuring there were enough beds for them. He said an agreement with Airbnb, as well as new resorts, including the Kimpton Seafire, had been necessary to accommodate the increase in arrivals.
Cayman’s stayover visitor numbers have grown by more than 50% in the last 10 years – from little over 300,000 in 2008 to 463,000 last year.
Whorms said the number of flights coming into the island was evidence that the strategy of using the national carrier as a tool to bring in more visitors was working.
He said Cayman Airways had launched new services to Dallas, Washington DC, Denver, La Ceiba, Roatan, Panama and Holguin, among others, in the last 10 years. He said the airline had developed the commercial viability of the routes and then foreign airlines, like JetBlue in New York and American Airlines in Dallas, had stepped in when the economic sustainability was established.
“Once sufficient service is available on a given route,” Whorms said, “Cayman Airways will then either remain on a route to ensure competitive fares or may choose to withdraw from a market and pursue the opening of new routes.
“Not all new route explorations have been successful, but more often than not, new service is established and the Cayman Islands have benefited economically, if not for the long term, at least for the duration of service.”