Cruise line boss claims piers could mean 2.5 million passengers

Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas, pictured in George Town Harbour. The company is now part of a consortium aiming to build a cruise dock in Grand Cayman. – Photo: Chris Court

A new cruise berthing facility in Grand Cayman could see visitor numbers surge to 2.5 million per year, the president of Royal Caribbean International said this week.

Michael Bayley, president and CEO of the company and one of the partners in the Verdant Isle consortium behind a $200 million proposal for the dock, claimed cruise visitation could grow as much as 40% on the back of the project. He said this would mean increased tourism spending and tax revenue for Cayman.

Cayman attracted between 1.7 million and 1.9 million cruise passengers annually over the last three years.

Some opponents of the project have expressed concern that Cayman is not currently equipped to handle a significant increase in cruise visitors, with concerns over limited beach space and stress on infrastructure.

Bayley, speaking by phone in an interview with the Cayman Compass, acknowledged those issues were valid. He believes increased visitation will bring new business opportunities for Caymanians, but he said it was ultimately up to Cayman’s leaders and Cayman’s community to decide what kind of tourism growth the island needs.

He said Royal Caribbean and its partners believe the port project is a ‘win-win’ for Cayman and the cruise companies. But he said they would walk away with no hard feelings if the result of the people-initiated referendum goes against them.

Bayley insisted there was no government money going into the project and Verdant Isle will swallow any financial losses from their investment if the Cayman people vote against the port project.

He said, “I think the right phrase is that we would be out of luck. There is not a penny coming from the government.

“Verdant Isle is a business and a group of people who have come together with what we believe is a great proposal, and we are hoping that people see that and we will go forward.

“We also understand that sometimes things don’t go your way, you cut your losses and walk away. We will obviously move on to other destinations and will invest elsewhere.”

Bayley will be visiting the Cayman Islands next week and plans to meet with community groups and the public to talk about the project and share concept designs.

He said the company did not have any preference or input on when and how the referendum takes place, saying it was a matter for the Cayman community.

“Whatever is determined about the referendum process is not our business,” he said.

“Our only business is to put forward what we think is a win-win proposal. We think the merits of what we have proposed stand pretty tall.”

Michael Bayley

He said he would emphasise what he considers to be the strengths of the deal. He claimed the port development would double the volume of cargo that could come in to Cayman, boost tourism spending and environmental tax revenue and help create jobs and economic opportunities.

He cited an expected increase in cruise passengers as one of the main economic benefits from the project, highlighting the current requirement to use tender boats as a “constraint on growth”.

He said, “Our current projection is the number will increase to 2.5 million. That is probably a conservative number.

“The bigger question is the overall master planning infrastructure, upland development and opportunities and how Cayman folks want to manage inbound tourism for cruise.”

Some campaigners who have expressed doubts about the dock project have highlighted ‘over tourism’ among their key concerns.

In a letter to the Compass last month, the Cruise Port Referendum Cayman group argued that Grand Cayman’s infrastructure was not equipped to handle “mass cruise tourism”.

Citing a Department of Tourism report that pitched Cayman’s cruise capacity at around 2.1 million, the group called for a comprehensive assessment of Cayman’s carrying capacity. The business case for the project also highlighted concerns about impact on the road network, shopping, restaurant facilities and natural attractions.

Bayley accepted there were valid concerns. He suggested a cruise berthing facility would mean better scheduling of ships, so that a net increase in passengers would not have such a significant impact on daily capacity. He added that the influx of passengers would create economic opportunity for Caymanians to create businesses to handle that growth.

But he said it was ultimately a matter for the country to decide. “It is about planning and deciding as a community, what kind of tourism growth do you want?”

Based on his estimate of an increase of around 700,000 passengers annually, he said the dock would mean more money for government coffers, including environmental taxes, despite a portion of the per-passenger head tax being diverted to repay Verdant Isle.

Without a dock, he said cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, would still visit Cayman. But he said numbers would likely decrease in the coming years as the company moves to larger ships.

Royal Caribbean CEO and president Michael Bayley in his own words …

On the financing

“We have been made aware that there is a concern that some of the cost of this project will be borne by the people of Cayman. I can assure you that this is 100% financed by the consortium. There is not one dollar that comes out of Cayman to fundamentally double the cargo capacity and significantly improve the efficiency of cruise tourism. We are committed to this. We think it makes perfect sense and we know the strength of the cruise business, we know how popular this is. We take on all of the risk of the project.”

On the referendum

“At the end of the day, you can have a proposition, but it only ever works if everybody feels good about it. We are not trying to do something that is bad for anybody, we are not trying to do something that is going to create issues for people. If, at the end of the day, someone turns around and says ‘we don’t want you to do that’, it’s OK, that’s OK. We feel the same way sometimes about things.

On the passenger projections

“I believe the number today is around 1.8 million. Our current projection is the number will increase to 2.5 million. That is probably a conservative number. The bigger question is the overall masterplanning, infrastructure, upland development opportunities and how the community and Cayman folks want to manage the inbound tourism from cruise.”
On why he believes the project is necessary
“The ships have certainly become larger, and it is a lot more complex to bring all these tourists ashore. It is just very practical to be able to build a facility that can receive the ships in the proper manner. Like the airport, you need a good facility to manage the incoming tourists.”

On environmental concerns

“We are quite committed to sustainability and environmentally responsible practices. We will work closely with Department of Environment on design and construction to minimise impact.”

On Cayman’s cruise future if the dock is not built

“Cayman is a popular destination. We have been coming to Cayman for 50 years and hopefully we will continue to come for another 50 years, but at the end of the day you have to look at the reality of it. If we can’t create the infrastructure and facilities to better receive the guests as our ships get bigger, it is not unrealistic to think that volume of guests and the number of ships will decline.”

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