Amid vocal and organised opposition to the cruise berthing project, a group of likeminded businessmen formed their own lobby group to spread a different message about the port.
The men behind ‘Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future’ say their group is about more than self-interest.
The businesses, which range from small ‘mom and pop’ operations to large duty-free shopping chains like Kirk Freeport, say they support the port principally because they believe it will protect Caymanian jobs.
Citing numbers from a report by US-based Business Research and Economic Advisors for the cruise industry, the group highlights that the sector supports some 4,000 jobs, the majority of them Caymanian.
Noel March, one of the founding members of the group, runs a small downtown retail outlet called De Medicine Man.
He said he became involved because he was concerned that the Oasis class mega-ships, which he believes carry higher spending passengers, were passing Cayman by.
Though he acknowledges that stayover tourists spend significantly more money on island, he said cruise tourism is crucial for employment.
“The percentage of Caymanians in cruise tourism is higher when it comes to the labour force, even though the overall spend is lower,” March said.
“A high percentage of that money goes to the small Caymanian operators rather than to a hotel chain. Caymanians don’t own the Ritz or the Westin.”
March has firsthand experience of the impact of a decline in cruise numbers. He said he had been forced to close a much larger outlet in the Thompson Building in George Town and become a one-man business after numbers dipped in 2013.
Shaun Ebanks, another member of the group, who runs the small business K-Man Sun Splash Watersports, agrees with that analysis.
He said bigger operations, like Red Sail Sports, which has outlets within several of the hotels, tended to dominate the stayover tourists.
“I would love to have 20 people from the hotels every day to fill my boat but that’s not what happens,” he said.
“If it was not for the cruise ships you wouldn’t see too many local operators out there.”
Attracting ‘five-star’ passengers
Though the cruise lines have acknowledged they will still come to Cayman if a cruise port is not built, members of the group note that executives from both Carnival and Royal Caribbean have said numbers will likely decrease over time.
Equally important, said Chris Kirkconnell, vice president of the Kirk Freeport group, which has multiple jewellery and duty-free outlets in George Town, is the type of ships that Cayman attracts.
He said the Oasis class ships were renowned for having higher spending passengers. Likening cruise ships to hotel brands, he said Cayman was currently in the three-star market when it could be attracting five-star clientele.
Kirkconnell said he and the other businesses involved in the group are upfront about their aims – to protect their business and in doing so to protect jobs. He said Kirk Freeport employs around 230 people, more than 70% of them Caymanian.
At its peak, he said, the business employed about 350 people.
“We are not trying to sell a story,” he said. “We want to make sure people understand the real facts of how cruise tourism works. There are a lot of other versions being told and we want to get our point out there, too.”
Rum cakes and duty free
Robert Hamaty, owner of Tortuga Rum Company, endorses the viewpoint that mega ships will bring bigger spenders. He said he had seen evidence of this at his outlets at the port in Falmouth, Jamaica and in the Bahamas.
Though his business has grown over the last four decades and caters to locals and stayover tourists, he said its origins were built on cruise. Hamaty has four outlets on the waterfront, including two at the Royal Watler Cruise Terminal, and says much of the income for the business, which now employs 150 people, comes from selling rum cakes and duty-free liquor to tourists.
He said he was supporting the port, despite not getting any commitment from government that he or any of the other retailers working at Royal Watler would get ‘first refusal’ for slots in the new dock.
Even if the referendum successfully stops the project, he believes the issue is something Cayman will have to confront again within a decade. He said the older, smaller ships were “heading for the scrapyard” and future governments would have to consider enhancing facilities for cruise and cargo.
Hamaty said he appreciated that some people had environmental concerns but said other options cited for port facilities, including the North Sound and Red Bay, would involve more significant damage.
He added that people should be worried about jobs as well, highlighting how a decline in arrivals in 2012 and 2013 led to lay- offs and business closures.
“People can’t eat coral,” he added.
‘The little guys will lose out big time’
Ebanks, who makes his living from watersports, said he understood concerns about environmental damage. But he said the loss of what he believes is just a small percentage of Cayman’s reef system was a trade-off worth making in this case.
He denies that a vote for the port is a vote for big business, saying cruise tourism is the bread and butter for many small operators.
“The Kirkconnells will be all right,” he said.“Itisthelittleguys like myself that will lose big time if this business takes a turn for the worse.”
Whatever happens, he said he hopes that the country will accept the result of the referendum vote and move on.
“I hope it goes through, but whatever happens, I hope all of us on both sides can work together in the best interests of the country,” Ebanks said.
“I admire the CPR group for what they have achieved and for standing up for what they believe. At the end of the day, we may want different things, but we are all Caymanians trying to do what is best for the country.”