Campaigners protesting plans for a new cruise port in George Town harbour have raised fresh concerns about the island’s ‘carrying capacity’ following projections that the new piers could see cruise arrivals surge to 2.5 million passengers per year.

That prediction, made by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines CEO Michael Bayley, one of the partners in the Verdant Isle group, would mean 600,000 extra visitors, compared with the 1.9 million tourists that arrived at the port in 2018.

According to the Cruise Port Referendum Cayman campaign, that is more than the island can handle.

In a press release Thursday, the group highlighted a Department of Tourism report that pitched Cayman’s cruise capacity at around 2.1 million passengers “to maintain the delicate equilibrium between cruise and overnight tourism”.

They also questioned whether the anticipated economic impact from those additional arrivals was worth the cost to Cayman’s natural resources, highlighting an environmental impact report which put the economic value of George Town’s reefs at more than US$23 million a year.

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Opposition legislator Chris Saunders also responded to Bayley’s claims, suggesting there was no evidence that a new port would mean more passenger arrivals. Saunders said Jamaica had three ports with cruise piers but still had significantly fewer passengers than Cayman, based on figures for June this year.

CPR Cayman, in its statement, said, “Rather than pushing Cayman beyond its natural limits, we would welcome discussions with Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines, on how the cruise lines can work collaboratively with local stakeholders to ensure mutually beneficial sustainable development of the sector.”

Bayley is scheduled to visit Cayman next week and is expected to meet with the CPR Cayman group, among others.

Funding formula

The group also disputed Bayley’s claims that the cost of the project would not be borne by the Cayman people.

Bayley told the Compass, “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.”

CPR Cayman highlighted that the funding formula for the project involves a $2.32 reduction in the per-passenger head tax that goes to the central government. Based on last year’s arrival figures of 1.9 million passengers, that would mean $4.4 million less revenue for government coffers.

Using the projected number of 2.5 million arrivals, CPR Cayman calculates that government would lose out on $5.8 million a year because of this ‘concession’.

The Cayman Islands government and Verdant Isle say that cruise arrival numbers will decrease without a port. They suggest the increase in arrival numbers the port is expected to facilitate means government will not lose out on net head tax revenue, despite the lower per-passenger rate.

CPR Cayman also points out that Verdant Isle can expect to receive more than $450 million over 25 years from its passenger fees, in return for its $200 million upfront investment.

“Where is the value for money in this?” The group questions in its release.

It adds that the project, if it does bring the anticipated arrival numbers, will necessitate more public spending on infrastructure.

“Required feasibility studies and public infrastructure costs remain either unassessed or publicly undisclosed, such as the George Town Revitalisation, road upgrades and other infrastructure costs, including waste management, and Spotts Dock upgrades,” the group states.

Environmental loss

Commenting on Bayley’s stated commitment to responsible environmental practices, the group suggests there is no way to mitigate the anticipated loss of coral reef in the harbour.

Citing the environmental impact assessment on the project that calculated the annual economic benefits from the reefs in the harbour at between US$23 and US$26 million, the group warns the project will have a “devastating impact” on these sites, including adjacent dive sites like Soto’s Reef and Eden Rock,

“The very reefs that draw visitors to our shores and provide invaluable protection in storms, have been valued at US$650 million over the next 25 years. Will the promised benefits truly outweigh this enormous economic, cultural and ecological loss of our natural capital?” CPR Cayman asked.

The group also renewed calls for more information to be made public in advance of the referendum, including an updated environmental impact assessment on the new design, detailed designs for the new plan and the business case.

They also want more information on the financial arrangement, such as details of any conditions or ‘force majeure’ clauses that benefit Verdant Isle in case of hurricanes, recessions or other impacts on passenger numbers.

Bayley, in his interview with the Compass earlier this week, said there were no such clauses in the proposed agreement and the risk was all on Verdant Isle. He said detailed plans and concept designs would be unveiled during his visit next week.

Jamaica comparison

Opposition legislator Saunders said Jamaica, despite its three cruise ports, had seen a reduction in passengers.

Highlighting June’s arrival figures, he pointed out that 40,000 more passengers had sailed into George Town than Jamaica had in total at its three ports in Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Falmouth.

“If Jamaica has three main ports all with piers and Cayman has one port with no piers and both Cayman and Jamaica are on the same western itinerary, why did Cayman get 57% more passengers than Jamaica in June 2019?” he asked.

He urged people not to be fooled by the passenger projections, and insisted, “The cruise lines already pulled a fast one on Jamaica and they trying to do the same with Cayman. Let’s not make the same mistakes Jamaica made”.

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  1. Mr. Saunders Jamaica shouldn’t be the comparison. Mexico’s island of Cozumel is a much better comparison. It is about the same size in population and landmass. The number of visitors who arrived in Mexico on cruise ships hit a 10-year high in 2018, the majority of them stopping at Cozumel in Quintana Roo.

    Data from the General Coordination of Ports and the Merchant Marine showed that more than 7.84 million passengers arrived at Mexican ports on 2,603 cruise ships last year.

    Cozumel was the most popular destination, with more than 4.2 million cruise ship passengers – 54% of the total – disembarking on the island, located off the coast of Playa del Carmen.