Cayman’s tourism product provides plenty to boast about: world-renowned diving, the pristine beauty of Seven Mile Beach, a reputation for culinary excellence.
The islands’ strengths are what attracted a record number of visitors in 2018 – nearly 2.4 million – and pushed hotel room rates to the highest in the region.
Those same strengths are also driving anxiety in the hospitality sector, as questions loom about infrastructure, development and preserving what makes Cayman unique.
Handel Whittaker, owner of popular beach bar Calico Jack’s, refers to the refrain: ‘Kill not the goose that lays the golden egg’ – a warning against short-sighted action at the expense of long-term security.
“Being in this business as long as I have and being a local Caymanian, I’ve seen so many drastic changes,” Whittaker says.
“I think if we develop our product cautiously, we will be in great shape. If we continue to rush and build, build, build, I think people will find elsewhere to go. No one wants that to happen.”
Whether Cayman will build is less in question than how Cayman should build.
The development of a cruise port – which Whittaker supports – is just one project aimed at accommodating greater tourist arrivals. Luxury hotel capacity is also poised to grow, with the addition of a 10-storey resort at the southern end of Seven Mile Beach, a seven-storey project at the northern end, and a nine-storey resort in the Beach Bay area of Bodden Town, among others.
Sitting on the deck of his beach bar, it’s easy for Whittaker to observe what drives tourists – and developers – to Cayman.
“You can walk up and down Seven Mile Beach and you have the sense of feeling that ‘this is my beach’. It’s not overcrowded. People enjoy that,” he says.
“People walk up and down Seven Mile Beach with absolute freedom. There’s no fear or worry because it’s safe.”
Overcrowding a growing concern
Online reviews of Seven Mile Beach, however, already indicate that crowding is becoming a concern.
Analysis of visitor feedback on TripAdvisor, included in the 2018 draft National Tourism Plan, indicated 10% of reviews of Seven Mile Beach mentioned crowding.
“It is estimated that Seven Mile Beach receives over 1 million visitors a year, so these percentages become quite significant given its status as one of the main attractions for the destination,” the report states.
Overcrowding was also mentioned in 10% of reviews of Stingray City, with an estimated 1 million visitors a year, and for Cayman Turtle Centre, with 300,000 a year.
The site with the most mentions of “overcrowding” was George Town Harbour and port, where 17% of reviewers used the word. Another 13% described the area as inauthentic.
The yet-to-be implemented tourism plan poses a warning about “the worsening effects of unsustainable tourism practices such as overcrowding”, adding that “the inability to adequately address tourism industry challenges, and threats, and take advantage of strengths and opportunities limits the success and future growth of the Cayman Islands”.
To maintain a balanced tourism product, it’s important to understand the distinction and the interface between cruise tourism and stayover tourism, says Theresa Leacock-Broderick, president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association.
That means being mindful of visitor capacity at popular sites. She suggests leveraging the forces of supply and demand, recognising that sites like Seven Mile Beach and Stingray City cannot sustain large quantities of tourists on their own. That could mean implementing visitor fees for sites like Stingray City and driving tourists to beaches other than Seven Mile.
“We have to be cognizant that that there is a high correlation between diminishing quality and mass volume. We have to know what our capacity is as a country so that we don’t miss that critical point and ensure that we aim for stable prosperity and not growth with diminishing returns,” Leacock-Broderick says.
Many of the growth concerns for Leacock-Broderick, such as ocean pollution, beach erosion and impacts on wildlife, are also top of mind for the Department of Environment.
Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie says decisionmakers lack the data necessary to determine reasonable capacity limits that protect the environment and maintain an enjoyable visitor experience.
At Stingray City and the wildlife interaction zone, for example, visitor limits are set at 1,500 people at a time or 20 licensed boats.
“The limit was not derived from any scientific approach to carrying capacity. It is what the operators themselves were able to accept at that time based on trips they already had booked with commitments to cruise lines,” Ebanks-Petrie says.
“Although there are limits, they weren’t rigorously developed through analysis of any kind on visitor experience or environmental impact, which is really what you ought to be doing.”
A study of southern stingrays by a Simon Fraser University student in 2009 helped advance licensing and visitor limits at the sandbar by warning of long-term health impacts on rays at the tourist site. It highlighted higher injury rates from boats, higher parasite loads from crowding and introduction of non-natural food sources.
In recent years, stingray censuses by the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation have documented an increase in the population. A record 127 stingrays were recorded in the July 2019 census. Of the sexually mature females in the group, 51% were found to be pregnant.
High pregnancy rates in the stingray population appear to be an effect of human intervention.
“They ultrasound them to see how many are pregnant because they seem to be running pregnant all year,” says Tim Austin of the Department of Environment.
“That’s unusual,” Ebanks-Petrie adds. “That’s an artefact of the fact that they are fed a lot. Most animals live in equilibrium with their resource base … If you have more food available than you actually need, that’s when you start to get weird things like being pregnant all year long.”
To further manage access to Stingray City and other marine parks, CITA president Leacock-Broderick suggests additional measures be considered.
“At this point, access is only influenced by the cost of a boating excursion to it, no ‘real estate’ costs so to speak,” she says. “For the most part, the necessary laws and regulations are in place, but we seem to lack the political will and prioritisation to get the enforcement in place.
“Our deficiency in enforcement is unfortunate on so many levels. Besides protecting the natural resources and visitor experiences, robust marine and coastal enforcement and education programmes would also create numerous jobs and in areas that Caymanians traditionally enjoy working in and younger generations are again embracing.”
Following the Compass interview with Leacock-Broderick, several incidents at the sandbar, such as stingray mishandling and injury, reignited debate over limiting access to the site.
Minister of Environment Dwayne Seymour responded with a freeze on issuing commercial boat licences for the attraction.
Ebanks-Petrie says a barrier to implementing informed visitor limits for sites like the sandbar has been the lack of implementation of the National Tourism Plan.
[Department of Tourism Director Rosa Harris declined to be interviewed for this article.]
“We’ve actually as a department have been sort of holding off in terms of what we think we need to do because we think we need to work hand in hand with the Department of Tourism on this and it just made sense to us to address it through this proposed visitor-management plan. But I don’t know where exactly we are,” Ebanks-Petrie says.
Leacock-Broderick adds that the lack of an established plan has impeded the path to a sustainable future.
“As we still have yet to adopt and implement the latest National Tourism Plan, at times it’s difficult to clearly envision our future without a national shared vision that guides national decisions and priorities.
The cruise port referendum speaks beyond that one singular project but also to what the people of the country may be envisioning for their future,” she says.
“Regardless, I beseech everyone working in tourism to aim, first and foremost, to deliver quality experiences, not quantity but quality regardless of what service you provide or whether you work for someone or you are self-employed. We are experiencing growth now, but this continued demand is not guaranteed and it is certainly not sustainable without quality.”
Crunching the numbers
While cruise tourism brings the bulk of foot traffic to Cayman, stayover visitors drive the spending.
In 2018, cruise tourism brought 1.9 million passengers – 80% of the islands’ total tourist arrivals for the year. Stayover guests, in contrast, accounted for more than three-quarters of visitor spending, at US$680.2 million.
Marc Langevin, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, recognises cruise tourism as complementary to the stayover product. Cruise itineraries provide tourists a quick preview of the region and allow them to compare destinations. Langevin adds that travel agents also take advantage of cruise itineraries to evaluate locations and resort options.
For Cayman, cruise tourism has brought positive visibility to the stayover product.
In fact, out of 36 cruise destinations surveyed by the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, Cayman ranked second in 2018, after Cozumel, for how likely tourists said they were to return for a land-based or resort vacation.
“It’s interesting when we talk about cruise ships. It’s a complicated. It’s complementary. You cannot say, ‘choose one or the other’,” Langevin says.
“A lot of our customers, I ask them, is this your first visit in Grand Cayman? Their response quite often is that, ‘Oh no, we came here on a cruise ship. We visited the island and we loved it, so we came back’.”
During 15 years working in Cayman, Langevin says he has observed the tourism product mature and the island develop a clear image as a high-end destination.
As the sector continues to grow, he says, “for me, the question is, what is really the overall intent and vision for the island? I am hearing different things from different people at different times.
“Sometimes I’ve heard in the conversation that they were looking at improving the quality of the people coming. Then I’m hearing this other conversation … that they wanted to increase [numbers]. The question is, are we looking for quantity or quality?”
He points to destinations in Europe, such as Venice and Rome, where cruise tourism and overcrowding have caused backlash.
“They are all right now questioning the value of mass tourism,” he says.
“You can see all of those cities are starting to stress new regulations because they’re realising the detriment it creates and it’s very hard to move back.”
Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corporation, spoke on the balancing act needed in such destinations during a recent visit to Grand Cayman. He named ports like Vanuatu and Barcelona as places that have driven the capacity debate.
“Guests don’t want to come to overcrowded places either and I’m sure locals don’t want to live in a community where everything is congested and overcrowded,” he says.
“So the key to that is finding ways to expose people to all of the wonderful things that are here, distribute the traffic, distribute the guest experiences, so not only do we not have overconcentration of guests but also that they get to experience all the different dimensions of what experiencing Cayman really is.”
As the off-season window shrinks, demand for spaces at sites like Seven Mile Beach will become even more contentious.
Major resorts like the Westin Grand Cayman, for example, stopped providing day passes to cruise tourists in 2017, says general manager Jim Mauer.
Whittaker, of Calico Jack’s, laments the lack of options for cruise tourists on the popular tourist beach.
“We have allowed all of the choice pieces of beach on Seven Mile Beach to be sold and developed for hotels and condos. And having said that, we have left no space for cruise ship passengers to come to the beach,” he says.
Whether tourists will take to alternative beaches is part of an even larger debate, engulfing infrastructure, roads and convenience.
Langevin points out that a drive from downtown to Public Beach takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Going east can mean 30 to 45 minutes on the road.
And then there is the question of location branding.
“If you go to Beverly Hills, you want to go to Sunset [Boulevard]. If you go to Paris, you want to go to Champs-Elysees,” Langevin says.
“And if you go to Grand Cayman, you want to go to Seven Mile Beach.”