Calico’s owner: ‘We should have built piers years ago’

Handel Whittaker is one of the most recognisable faces on Seven Mile Beach. After nearly two decades as the proprietor of Calico Jack’s and even longer in the tourism industry, he has a lot to say about how the island is changing and what the future might hold.

Though he supports cruise tourism and a new dock, he has broader concerns about development and over tourism. Whittaker sat down with Issues reporter Kayla Young to share his views on a variety of topics.
Here’s what he had to say:

On tourism in Cayman:

Needless to say, I support tourism 100%. It has been my life. I’ve been in the hospitality business all of my life.

I think over the years, our tourism product has improved dramatically with the addition of the Ritz hotel, the Kimpton, the Westin. They’ve all done a fantastic job of attracting high-end tourists.

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Having said that, I think that we have to be very careful and cautious that we don’t overbuild the tourism product.

I know there is talk about adding more hotels and I think we need to improve our infrastructure before we start building more condos and more hotels. People come here for relaxation and they come here for the beautiful, crystal-clear waters and Seven Mile Beach.

If we overbuild, then we’ll be just like any overbuilt destination and people won’t come here.

In my experience over the years, talking to hundreds of people, they love the tranquility of the Cayman Islands. It is safe. People are friendly. It’s a diverse society. People like that. But we have to be very, very careful that we don’t ruin what we have.

On building along Seven Mile Beach:

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. People walk up and down Seven Mile Beach with absolute freedom.

There’s no fear or worry because it’s safe, but if we add another three, four, five hotels that means we’re going to have twice as many people walking the beach. We’re going to have twice as many cars on the road.

And we’ll have twice as many restaurants. That increases the population. The warmness of the island will be gone. We have to be very careful that we preserve what we have.

I don’t think we should rush to build another entity [on Seven Mile Beach]. I think people need to have some breathing room and I say that as a local and looking after the tourist perspective.

People come here to my place every day and they comment, ‘Wow, I was here last year and I can’t believe how the island is changing.’ If you put that in context of people who have been coming here 20, 25 years, they’re having a culture shock.

On growth:

I can remember when our population was under 10,000 people. If something happened in West Bay, [then] North Side, East End, Bodden Town was up in arms.

We shared a common goal. Now, it’s like you went to bed and you woke up and there’s been an absolute transformation.

It’s somewhat of a culture shock. In all honesty, I knew that this island would develop but I didn’t envision the pace that it’s being developed at.

I think a lot of the older Caymanians, they’re having some reservations about it. As well they should be.

We all strive to have a better life. But development should be done on a timely basis so that everyone can enjoy what we have and not just a chosen group.

On infrastructure:

We need to come up with more roads and, personally, I think the powers that be should entertain the idea of putting a moratorium on cars.

Coming from North Side, 20 years ago, I could get up at 6 o’clock in the morning, take a shave and a shower, and I would be in town by 7. Now, in 2019, I get up at 4:30 in the morning to try to get here by 6:30, 7 o’clock in the morning.

We definitely need to do something about the roads, specifically for the eastern districts. Because everyone works in town. Most of the schools are in town.

On the cruise port:

Needless to say, I support the cruise ship facility. There is real concern about the impact on Seven Mile Beach.

I put my trust in the powers that be that they’ve done the adequate research, that putting a cruise ship pier in George Town won’t affect Seven Mile Beach. I don’t think it will.

We have developed a strong cruise ship business in the Cayman Islands. Quite frankly, we should have had a cruise ship pier 35 years ago. It’s like the can you keep kicking down the road. I feel if we fail, I don’t think we’ll ever see a cruise ship facility.

There is much talk that we need a cruise ship facility but that George Town is not the place.

We have built a town around cruise ships. It is the most accessible.

I think the cruise ship companies have an arguable point. The ships are getting bigger.

A couple of years ago, you would have five ships servicing one area. So if a company can take two ships and do the same work as five, needless to say, they’re saving money and making money at the same time.

I think it’s important that we go ahead with the cruise pier. Bringing in larger ships will be highly beneficial to us.

On accommodating large passenger arrivals:

We will have to do something about the downtown area.

We will have to do some reevaluating of the road system. Some of those roads will have to be closed off. I know people love to have that drive in the morning so they can look out to the ocean. And I do as well.

It becomes quite obvious that when you have that many people in the downtown area, you have to get rid of the vehicle traffic. It can’t work.
We need to come up with a plan that can make George Town more cruise-ship friendly.

On tourist access:

The Cayman Islands, as I see it, our tourism product was sold to the world as the beautiful Seven Mile Beach.

People really don’t come to the Cayman Islands for shopping. They come here for the beautiful waters, for the gorgeous beaches and just having a great time.

One of the things that I’ve seen that has happened over the years is – and I blame this on government, free enterprise – 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.

If you come to Seven Mile Beach on a busy cruise ship day and you want to go on the Public Beach, it is a problem. It is a huge problem for you to get from your car to the ocean.

The powers that be need to address [it]. This is a serious problem that we face.

On the future of Calico Jack’s:

We started as a little shack [17 years ago]. I remember when we first opened, we (had) no liquor licence. I opened at 9 o’clock, closed at 6, selling hamburgers, chicken sandwiches and sodas.

Today it’s probably one of the best-known beach bars in the entire Caribbean and all over the world.

Calico Jack’s is the spot. I’m very proud that I’ve been able to develop something that people can enjoy. That’s my forte. I love to make people happy. In all honesty, I hate to see it go. But that’s life. You have to move on.

We’re still in talks with the powers that be. I’m hoping that sometime in the near future we can come to some kind of an agreement.

On growing the tourism product:

I think government and the private sector need to work in tandem. We have a great product. There’s no question about it.

We have to be extremely cautious that we don’t, as they say, kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

Being in this business as long as I have and being a local Caymanian, I’ve seen so many drastic changes.

I’ve heard so many different comments from new arrivals and older arrivals. We need to slow it down a little bit. There’s no question about it. 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.

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