Taking a snorkel trip with Don Foster’s dive shop. Enjoying an afternoon at the beach at Calico Jack’s. Plunging beneath the sea’s surface on a submarine with Atlantis and finishing it off with a night at Royal Palms.
It could be a Trip Advisor list of a great way to spend a day in Grand Cayman in the middle of peak tourist season.
Instead, it is a roll-call of some of the first business casualties of the coronavirus.
Because of the border closure, the tourism industry and, therefore, some of the island’s best-known businesses, have been among those hit first and hit hardest.
The Cayman Compass reported on the loss of Calico Jack’s and Don Foster’s last week. Royal Palms publicly announced that its temporary closure had become permanent, after 22 years in business, on social media at around the same time.
“Saying any more at this time is just too painful,” the business said in a Facebook post.
There has been less publicity around the closure of Atlantis Submarines – another long-established tourism business, but the company’s liquidators confirmed to the Compass this week that it would be closing its doors.
“The Atlantis business was impacted by the COVID-19 restrictions and particularly the closing of the island to tourists,” said Christopher Smith of RH Restructuring.
“With no prospect of the position improving in the short term, the directors and shareholders took the difficult decision to place the company into liquidation.”
Those are the most high-profile casualties. There are likely to have been many more.
Projection of more than 10,000 job losses
An economic impact report prepared for the Chamber of Commerce last week indicated likely job losses of between 10,000 and 14,000 by the end of the year, depending on how long lockdown conditions continue.
At least 1,400 people were laid off between 13 March, when the cruise-ship ban and social-gathering restrictions came into effect, and 17 April, according to a Chamber survey of more than 300 businesses cited in the report.
Many of those surveyed said they would have to let more employees go in the coming weeks.
The first wave of impacts is being felt by businesses that depend on cruise tourism the most. Shaun Ebanks, of K’Man Sun Splash Watersports and a former head of the Land and Sea Co-op, said many small operators would have quietly shut up shop without so much as hanging up a sign.
Bigger businesses are not immune.
Chris Kirkconnell, of Kirk Freeport, which has been forced to shutter its 20 duty free and jewellery stores because of the curfew order, said lay-offs, some temporary, some permanent, had been unavoidable.
He hopes to be able to open a handful of stores if and when the domestic economy reopens, but he acknowledged there was a danger that some could close permanently.
“We are really anxious to see if and what business there is locally so we can gauge what the next 6-8 months looks like,” he said. “We do have a good local market, but cruise and stayover is the majority of our business.”
The current plan is to open around five stores, with the rest remaining closed until Christmas at least.
“I think there is definitely going to be some permanent loss of stores,” Kirkconnell said.
Small operators look to refocus
For water-sports businesses and tourism operators that depend heavily on high volume from cruise ships, there is little prospect of any business for the rest of the year.
Ebanks, whose K’Man Sun Splash company specialises in Stingray City and Sandbar tours, said there was a silver lining in government’s loan and grant programme for small and micro businesses that can refocus on the domestic economy.
“I have been working on a new business plan because, in my opinion, our business is dead in the water for a long time to come,” he said.
“I don’t see tourism, especially cruise tourism, getting back to the level it was at for the next couple of years. Even when this virus goes away, people are going to be broke and stuck with bills they can’t pay.”
He said he was collaborating with a handful of other operators to come up with a business plan.
“I know government has had thousands of applicants for grants,” he added. “It really shows, if there was any doubt, that we depend on the cruise industry.”
Dive operator hopeful of local business
One small business hoping to push through on the local market is West Bay scuba diving operator Divetech. The business, famous for its signature pink boats, believes it can survive on Cayman’s thriving dive community until the tourists come back.
Jo Mikutowicz, who owns the business, said, “Divetech is going to open as soon as we can. I am keeping all my staff and, hopefully, we will be able to forge ahead.
“A lot of people have been cooped up inside, so I think diving is going to be more popular than ever, once people are allowed to do it.”
She said she was more confident than some that the tourists would be back.
“Business will return and, when it does, we will be ready,” Mikutowicz added.
She is not a lone voice.
Another business leader sounding a confident note is Jim Mauer, who runs the Westin resort.
Once the crisis is over, he expects business to come back quickly.
Though he acknowledged people would have less disposable income, he said there was “pent-up demand”, and if Cayman can weather the storm and come out with its reputation as a safe destination enhanced, he believes the islands will be well positioned to bounce back.
“Our hotel has done well over the past 10 years and expects to do well over the next 10 years,” he said.
The success of tourism, particularly over the last three ears, has helped enable the Westin to keep its staff paid through the closure. Mauer said that would continue through to June at least.
Future of tourism
Mauer has not ruled out the possibility that visitors could return in the latter half of this year.
Currently, the airport is closed until at least 30 May and, though he acknowledges that is likely to be extended, he said the situation was changing constantly. While he believes it is correct that the industry will not be back at full throttle until 2021, he said that does not necessarily mean there will be no visitors this year.
“We are prepared to open if and when that is an option,” said Mauer, who also runs Sunshine Suites.
“We understand it will be very limited, obviously, and with appropriate testing, until at least December.”
He said keeping staff on the payroll was an investment in the hotels’ best asset and would mean they were committed and ready to go once the doors reopen.
The hotels are also working internally on new procedures around disinfecting rooms and re-organising public spaces to prepare for what post-COVID-19 tourism might look like. He said guests would expect an evolution in cleanliness, among other things.
“The question isn’t when do we get back to normal, the question is what is the new normal and how do we prepare for it?”