Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell has been one of the leading figures in the push for a cruise berthing facility in Grand Cayman. In a featured interview, we asked him to answer some of the key questions around the development and explain why he believes it is in the island’s best interest.
Why do you want to build the piers?
From a government standpoint, we have a responsibility to create opportunity. We have had tremendous success with our stayover tourism. We grew it in a sustainable way.
With cruise we are basically at a fork in the road. We know that based on the PwC report (the business case for this project) that a cruise berthing facility will be needed to continue to grow the product. If we don’t take advantage of that opportunity the report says that our cruise business will start to fall away. We have also had that confirmed by the different cruise lines.
That section of our tourism product employs 4,500 people, it provides over $200 million a year in income and it represents over 80% of the employment for Caymanians in the industry.
So we believe it is extremely important for us to follow the path forward for cruise berthing.
Cruise arrival numbers have increased significantly over the last five years. Is there any real evidence to suggest they would go down without piers?
Our partners are the largest cruise lines in the world. We have no reason to doubt what they tell us when they say they are moving, because of economies of scale, to larger ships that give the highest rate of return.
The cruise lines are growing their business but if every port they go to has a cruise berthing facility and Cayman does not, it makes a lot of sense to think that at some point in time you are going to fall away as a favoured destination.
We want to develop our product to where we attract cruise ships all year round.
We have been told by Royal Caribbean and Carnival that they want to bring more ships here during the summer.
We have also been told by MSC, Disney, Royal Caribbean and Carnival that their larger vessels are not built to be tendered. These newer vessels carry a clientele that has the highest spend.
We want to be able to expand our seasonality to where it flattens it out through the summer and attracts the customer that spends the most money.
Do you believe Cayman has the carrying capacity for all these new cruise tourists?
Take a look at our average arrival statistics over the last 10 years. We do 200,000 in January, 170,000 in February, 194,000 in March, 146,000 in April, then all of a sudden, boom. It drops to less than 100,000 a month for the summer.
The growth that we want for the industry that will take us to 2.5 million is not in January, February or March, but it is in June, July and August when we have capacity. We have had days over the last three years when we have had 23,000 passengers in George Town and we have been able to handle them. We know the carrying capacity is there because we have done it.
A target of 2.5 million passengers is now being mentioned, but the initial report put 2.3m as the capacity. Why has that changed?
We have always said we want to build this in a sustainable way. We will do a high of 1.8m this year; what you don’t want is to do 2.5m next year. You grow in a managed way, trying to put more of your business in the summer season and pick up 4 or 5%. You flatten out the season and bring more people into the industry that can participate.
Can you really control when the cruise lines choose to come here?
The Port Authority will be in control and can mandate and set the number of passengers that can come ashore on any given day. The cruise lines want to come here in the summer.
The CEO of Royal Caribbean has said they have vessels that pass here every week during the summer. They are the Oasis class. They would like to stop in Grand Cayman but they will not stop unless we have piers. Carnival has said the same thing.
What is to say we build piers and cruise numbers decline anyway?
The way that this deal is structured, the partners that are building it are the two largest cruise lines in the world. If they are going to pay off their investment they have to bring passengers here to pay for it. If they don’t bring the passengers they don’t get paid. The competitive playing field is levelled because they own in Roatan, they helped build Falmouth, Labadie (a private island off Haiti) they own, Dominican Republic they own, they are buying and building in the Bahamas every day, they are expanding in Mexico. These are all cruise berthing piers that they have interest in and that they will go to, to pay off their investment.
What other work and infrastructure expense will be needed to support this development?
There will be a master plan for George Town. The National Roads Authority input calls for a spoke road that creates easier transit. It looks at a couple of different options for pedestrianising areas around Fort Street. Nothing is settled yet.
Of course, roads and infrastructure cost money, but whether we do cruise berthing or not there has to be improvements in the road system itself for George Town. For the master plan to include the expansion of cruise berthing, that is a very positive thing when you look at the development of the country
You have been asked about the list of jobs this project will create. Is there a list?
The types of jobs that are going to be available during construction include labourers, electricians, welders, masons, heavy equipment operators, iron workers, planners, administrative staff, divers, skilled tradesmen, engineers, foremen and operators.
This is construction being done by McAlpine – a local company that we all know – and Meisner (now Orion) that we all know and have comfort that they deliver a great product.
The people that have called me about jobs, I tell them to get in touch with McAlpine. They are going to have hundreds of jobs.
What about after construction?
The BREA report (cruise industry market research report) says that the Cayman Islands generated direct employment for 2,507 residents and $49.9m in annual wages. Adding indirect contribution that results in spending at those local businesses, the industry created jobs for 4,622 people and paid $92.2m in wages. The different types of jobs are around shore excursions, restaurants, bars, taxis, shopping, entertainment, local crafts, electronics. The businesses that are there now should expect they are going to have to hire more people. More importantly, there is going to be more entrepreneurial jobs available.
The reports also indicate jobs will be lost in the water sports industry and from the tender company, among others.
The reports looked at what would be lost, including from diving in the harbour, and what would be gained and concluded there was an economic gain overall.
There would certainly be an exit strategy for businesses that are going to be affected.
If it is water sports, they are mobile and would look for other areas of opportunity where they could dive. Cayman has 365 dive sites so there are going to be other sites that are available. The government is sensitive to the fact that businesses are going to be challenged and there is certainly a conversation to be had with them.
What about the tenders? Is there a plan in place for the construction period and for that business in the long term?
We are certainly working on it but nothing has been finalised.
We will do what we can to help them. I think we have the best tender operation in the world. This is a business that has helped the country develop its tourism industry and we want to work with them on an exit strategy.
Do you support going ahead if the majority on the day vote ‘no’ to the port, but the bar for the referendum is not met?
The government policy of the day is to create opportunity for the people of the country. It is extremely important for us to give opportunity for the thousands of people that work in this industry rather than to stop and not provide opportunity for them to be employed and move forward and build our economy.
Do you believe people have enough information to vote?
Because of the way we had to build the project we did a design build finance maintain model and all the information as we have got it [has been put] in a very timely manner on the Support our Tourism website and is there now.
There is a massive amount of reports – thousands of pages available. Everything we have, we have put out. We believe people have not seen it or gone to the website and are thirsty for information.
So we have undertaken in a very aggressive manner with every channel we know – social media YouTube, radio ads, interviews – to get as much information out to the public as we possibly can. Everything we have, we are putting out in every different channel we have. What is disingenuous is the idea that we have information we are not putting out. It is simply not true.