Campaigners were celebrating a historic first for the Cayman Islands this week after the Elections Office confirmed the target had been reached to trigger a people-initiated referendum on the cruise port project.

The fate of the planned $200 million development in George Town harbour now lies in the hands of the public.

More than 25% of the electorate, 5,305 registered voters, signed a petition calling for a referendum and filled out an affidavit confirming their position to Elections Office staff during a three-month verification process.

The announcement Wednesday is the culmination of a year-long effort from campaign group Cruise Port Referendum Cayman.

Linda Clark, an accountant and marine science masters graduate, who was heavily involved in the campaign, said it was a landmark moment for democracy in the Cayman Islands and the overseas territories.

The public vote on the project, expected to take place later this year, possibly as early as mid-November, will be the first people-initiated referendum in any of Britain’s Overseas Territories.

Clark said Caymanians from different backgrounds had come together and put in countless man-hours to get to this point. She said their success in triggering a referendum had come against the odds and in the face of significant pressure from government, which is advocating for the dock.

“We have shown that a group of people who want the best for their country can come together and make a difference,” she said. “I think we have achieved something that many people thought we would never be able to achieve. We have to take a deep breath and consider what a historic moment this is for our territory.”

She said the petition put the decision in the hands of the people and it was now imperative that as much information as possible was made public to allow them to make an informed decision.

“The petition is only an indication that enough people want to participate on this issue,” she said. “The referendum is the mechanism to understand the people’s views.”

In a brief statement to the Cayman Compass Wednesday night, Premier Alden McLaughlin thanked the Elections Office for its efforts in verifying the petition.

He said, “I am extremely proud of the professional and expeditious manner in which the Elections Office, led by Supervisor of Elections Wesley Howell, has executed the verification process. I commend them for an excellent job carried out amidst much scepticism and criticism.

“The Government now looks forward to receiving the petition so that the next steps regarding the holding of the referendum may be taken.”

Governor Martyn Roper also paid tribute to Howell and his team and said his office would continue to monitor the process through to the public vote.

In a statement issued on Thursday, he said, “It is clear that the threshold to trigger a referendum has been reached and the Elections Office will now be working to ensure that this is conducted in a fair, transparent and professional manner.

“This will be a historic moment for the Cayman Islands and a reflection of the mature democracy that has evolved here.

“I will continue to attach importance to ensuring good governance, fairness and the integrity of the referendum.”

Opposition leader Arden McLean also weighed in on the issue, saying he was pleased to see that a referendum would take place. He said attention should now turn to ensuring that process was carried out fairly.

“There are a number of questions regarding how this process will be organised, how observers will be appointed, and, of course, what the actual question will be and when will the Referendum be held,” he said.

The Opposition has supported calls for a referendum and criticised the verification process, which required every signature to be independently verified, as “excessive, bordering on political interference”. McLean also criticised government for failing to introduce a general referendum law which would have made the process clearer and more transparent.

In the absence of any statute, Clark said campaigners had been required to rely on the vague wording of the Constitution.

“There is no guidelines for this process, and it felt like we had a moving target,” she said. “We had to keep matching whatever they asked us to do, but we were able to do that. This is a really proud moment for us.”

Citing the expense of the project, damage to coral reefs in George Town harbour and concerns over lack of information about key details of the development, the campaigners argued the people should be allowed to decide whether or not the cruise piers should be built.

Government has argued that the piers will be funded by cruise passengers and will help secure the future of the cruise industry in Cayman, safeguarding jobs and creating new economic opportunities.