Last week Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell acknowledged that tourism is in free fall and will not pick up for some time. Borders will remain closed until at least September and cruise ships are unlikely to return before the end of the year.
Kirkconnell said government’s forthcoming medium-to-long-term tourism plan would include incentive packages for businesses to “reinvent themselves”, and new forms of education to help Caymanians retrain and gain the skill sets needed to move into jobs in new areas.
In other words, many businesses and professions catering to tourists will have to adopt a new business model involving different customers.
Government is right to act now and correct in recognising that when tourism activity does resume, there will be a completely new way of doing business.
And much less of it.
Simply waiting for the tourism industry, especially the cruise sector, to return is not an option.
Any business that relies on tourists will be left adrift, just like the 80,000 crew members who are currently abandoned at sea on their cruise ships.
Holiday destinations around the world are assessing how they can adapt to this new reality. Mass tourism is under examination everywhere, from Venice, Italy, to the ski resorts of Austria, from the Maldives to California.
They all face the same problem. No matter what kind of temperature-taking or high-speed testing and medical passports are available, social distancing will be with us until a vaccine is found.
That is at least 18 months, some experts say 36 months, away. In the meantime, scientists are telling us, there will be a second wave and possibly a third wave of infections.
Under these conditions, it may be possible to separate beach chairs and leave larger gaps between restaurant tables. But cramming hordes of tourists on party boats and tour buses is simply no longer possible.
The health crisis is challenging holiday destinations and operators to give the popular marketing term “sustainable tourism” actual meaning.
Rebuilding tourism in Cayman from the ground up can make it fundamentally stronger, if we consider all the structural weaknesses that were apparent before the pandemic.
When economist Marla Dukharan was asked last week how to exploit the potential of the blue economy, she said governments in the region first had to “reckon with the cruise industry”.
In the online presentation organised by the Cayman Islands CFA Society, she described the cruise lines as more of “a threat than an opportunity” for tourism.
The economist from Trinidad pointed to the practice of the cruise lines extracting concessions and allowances when picking destinations which are locked in competition with each other.
She noted how most of what cruise passengers consume is not sourced locally.
And she emphasised the cruise lines’ poor track record when it comes to air pollution and waste, with many ships still dumping their trash in the sea.
In Cayman, we could add to that list the insufficient infrastructure to deal with 1.8 million cruise ship tourists per year, both in terms of traffic as well as the lack of available attractions on island.
Or how the cruise lines’ stranglehold on revenue streams for local businesses put dive operators like Don Foster’s in jeopardy long before the COVID-19 crisis forced the business to shut down.
Arguably, most of the ills of George Town, which finds itself subject to perpetual and unsuccessful rejuvenation strategies, are also the result of cruise tourism.
Not to mention the risk that the industry continues to pose to public health. It is difficult to see when Cayman can open its borders to the super-spreader that brought the islands its patient zero.
Let’s not forget, this first case involved a ship that was not allowed to dock in Jamaica but after some negotiation declared safe to land in Cayman, before it also brought the disease to the Dominican Republic. It is abundantly clear that the cruise industry has not been the most reliable and truthful partner in this.
No matter what anyone’s personal feelings about cruise tourism are, we have to get used to the idea that it will not be around for some time.
Social distancing and cruise shippers are simply incompatible.
The new realities around travel call for a general shift away from pure volume-based mass tourism, which in Cayman is synonymous with cruise ships, to quality-oriented, high-end tourism.
The halt to the planned cruise berthing facility in the wake of public protests has set the tone.
If there was ever an opportune time to rethink our tourism product, it is now.
Cayman will need to take a new direction, one that does not involve the cruise industry.
The main objection to this is that thousands of jobs depend on cruise tourism.
The sad truth is these jobs no longer exist. While they could eventually return, we cannot wait that long.
We must accept that a massive retraining programme is required for all those who have lost their jobs in the tourism industry.
Clinging to the old paradigm of mass cruise tourism is no longer a possibility, under the present circumstances. If we are to embrace the ‘new normal’, we must ensure we have a workforce that is prepared and willing to take up the jobs that are created in the revamped tourism industry and in other fields.