It is more than six years since government started the ball rolling on the current project for cruise piers in George Town Harbour.
And it is almost two decades since the idea of berthing facilities first appeared on the political radar.
Now, it looks likely to come down to a people’s vote on 19 Dec. on the latest plan – a $200 million project for two cruise piers and upgraded cargo facilities in the capital.
The next two days of debate in the Legislative Assembly will focus on the details of the referendum: the question, the rules and regulations, and the key points of how the poll will be organised and the votes counted. There may yet be potential for the poll to be delayed into next year, with the Opposition pushing for amendments to the process and campaigners contemplating legal action.
Once the referendum date is confirmed, the wider public debate will expand to focus on the broader issue of whether or not the Cayman Islands should go forward with the expanded cruise and cargo facility.
The impact on employment, the environment, quality of life for stayover tourists and residents, and government’s coffers are among the key points of contention between those for and against.
Government claims the piers are necessary if Cayman wants to stay in the cruise business.
Premier Alden McLaughlin told the Cayman Compass that government’s aim is to protect jobs and create opportunities for Caymanians.
“The new cruise berths mean more jobs and income for Caymanians,” he said. “If we don’t build these facilities, all the indications are that our cruise tourism will diminish – jobs will be lost and our economy will suffer.”
Johann Moxam, one of the leaders of the Cruise Port Referendum Cayman group which triggered the people-initiated referendum with a petition of more than 5,000 voters, said claims that the project was essential to the survival of cruise tourism were not substantiated by the available evidence, including recent increases in cruise arrivals.
He said the campaign group had been born out of widespread concerns over what he describes as a “lack of transparency and accountability” around the project.
Moxam rejected suggestions that government had a mandate, based on its election manifesto, to proceed with the port and said the referendum movement had developed into broader questioning of government’s agenda and attitude.
“In the past 12 months, it [the campaign] has evolved to become something larger – a rejection of the traditional, closed-door style of politics by politicians who took their election as full permission to do what they want when they want,” he said. “They have insulted the intelligence of the Caymanian voters.”
McLaughlin previously has defended government’s approach to the project, saying the nature of the bid process meant that many of the key details, including the cost, financing model and designs, could not be released until recently.
In an emailed statement to the Compass, he said government’s aim in promoting the port project is simply to allow the new class of larger ships to visit and for their passengers to spend more money, particularly in the slower summer months.
He added that the improvements to the cargo facility – a contentious inclusion in the referendum question because they were not in the original plans and were not part of the petition – were essential for Cayman. Cargo was first included in the project plans in 2015, according to government.
“The cargo handling we’ve got cannot sustain our current population, let alone as our population grows,” McLaughlin said. “The only way we can afford this enhanced facility is if it’s linked to the cruise berthing. The current cruise and cargo project builds more cargo space, provides for maintenance, with payment coming from cruise passengers. A win for Cayman and Caymanians.”
Moxam, in a separate statement to the Compass, said a broad cross section of the public was unsatisfied with the lack of transparency and formal communication from the government.
“When one considers the tactics deployed by the elected government,” he added, “their consistent misrepresentation of the facts in an expensive PR campaign that unravels daily and the fundamental lack of respect shown by our elected leaders for the principles of participatory democracy, they only have themselves to blame for this referendum.”
Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said government had put all available information in the public domain.
He said there was a “massive amount” of reports and information out there and government had used all available PR resources to get it out to the public in a digestible form.
Kirkconnell said the islands are at a “fork in the road” when it comes to cruise tourism. He said investment in the dock was needed to support the jobs that depend on the industry in the long term.
The opposition political group goes into Monday’s debate focussed on a series of concerns about the Referendum Bill that sets the rules for the vote.
Alva Suckoo, deputy leader of the Opposition, said members would be raising concerns about the timing of the poll and the disenfranchisement of 200-plus electors who recently registered to vote but will not be included on the official list until 1 Jan.
He said the Opposition also wants to see votes broken down on a constituency-by-constituency basis. Suckoo said it was a politically self-serving strategy for the government to opt for one national count.
“Government is concerned that the turnout, and opposition to the port in certain constituencies will shock certain members of the government bench,” he claimed.