Mr. Premier, you’re wrong on stayover tourism “failure”

Dear Mr. Premier, you are so highly respected, but on this, you are wrong.

It was with shock that most of us, whilst listening to the you in the Government press briefing, heard you state the words “stay-over tourism is a massive failure”. You were referring to the thousands of people unemployed, the closed hotels, the shut down condos and villas, not to mention the hundreds of expats who are being repatriated; all of which were, before Covid, part of the US$900 million industry of the Cayman Islands.

It is a sector in crisis right now, for sure. A failure, long-term, though? How so, exactly, sir?

Yes, Cayman’s stay over tourism is in a bad way, while the coronavirus keeps potential travellers at home. The entire $2.9 trillion global tourism industry is in a bad way. Many businesses are in a bad way. We are all in this together. Do you mean to predict that Cayman’s stay-over tourism will never bounce back, nor deliver the income we have come to rely upon for our beautiful island? If so, what facts or measures are being drawn upon to make such a bold statement that this is a “massive failure”?

In your speech, Mr. Premier, you suggest the employees and the business owners in the industry are non-Caymanian. Yet 60% of every business must be Caymanian-owned by law. Many local tourism-related businesses are 100% Caymanian. How sure of this statement are you, Mr. Premier? What percentage of tourism-related business shares are Caymanian? It must surely be a majority, because of the restrictions that prevent any other scenario. Caymanian ownership might be a much higher figure than you presume. Why not celebrate this, rather than doom it a failure?

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Your figure on Caymanian employees? That’s true enough, tourism has an expat heavy workforce. And yet, most business owners would welcome a team of Caymanian workers on their payroll; if not for reasons of national pride, then because it is financially savvy for businesses to hire local staff, in efforts to avoid the fees and headache of the complex work permit system, coupled with the complexities of relocating people to a new island. Most of us agree that it is preferable to employ a person who has roots here, someone with a social and cultural network already set up here, someone who won’t be transient half way through their training just because “it’s time to see more of the world”. Business owners want to hire Caymanians in our sector, Mr. Premier, but we just need the Caymanians to turn up, and to try!

In the briefing, you said you had recently asked a leading operator in the tourism sector “How do we get local people to work in the industry?” You said it is the “the big challenge, and the big question.” Absolutely, it is huge, but do we just hang up our hats, do we just give up there?! This leading operator must have come up with a few suggestions, at least? If not, that’s not leadership.

In a recent trip to St. Lucia, D and I were delighted to find that 90% of the workforce we came across in the tourism industry were local. They were wonderful too. The people with the stories, the history lessons they could share, the families they have to support them; the people with the right accents, the amusing colloquialisms, and the unique cultural vibe; these are the people that, when we meet them, make us feel like we are truly travelling and getting to know their country.

Whilst we were hiking up to the top of St. Lucia’s magnificent Gros Piton, with our local female guide, D and I bemoaned how it is such a shame that more Caymanians don’t work as guides, or in restaurants and hotels back home. Our guide at the chocolate plantation was also local, as was the lady who spoke so knowledgeably about the volcanic sulphur springs. The waiters and chefs spoke Creole, and laughed when we asked where they were from. “Where else would we be from?”

When you are the tourist, Mr. Premier, and you go vacationing, who do you want to meet? Not Canadians and Filipinos presumably, unless you are visiting Canada or the Philippines, of course.  We all seek authentic, sustainable tourism. We want to meet the real people who live in the country we travel to. This is what the global tourism industry values. We Caymanians should consider how we can deliver. Why? Because it is a sustainable way of life, and the rewards are handsome!! Not only is it better for our ecosystems, the employees who work in the tourism sector are well remunerated. When I first learned of the figure a server can earn in a year from gratuities alone, I almost fell off my seat. And most of the young expats who fill these server positions have no formal education to speak of. Just two hands, a heart beat and a willingness to learn and delight. They gain experience in a number of places, before bringing their expertise and work ethic to Cayman. Suddenly these servers are earning the same as an average junior associate attorney’s salary, but without the student loan to pay back. Show me a young person who doesn’t want to earn that kind of money.

Mr. Premier, you say that the Caymanian people have to be able to do the work and have to want to do the work in the first place. And now we arrive at the crux of the matter – this is where the real focus needs to start, to bring about the change that needs to happen. Starting in schools, education is at the core of helping children learn that service is not a dirty word. Hospitality is the means to a noble and financially rewarding profession that can last a lifetime. Learning to cook is an art, a science, and a road to opening one’s own restaurant business. The mindset is lacking here, not the opportunity, and many young Caymanians could get more involved with the growth of stay-over tourism, if they just believe in it.

Change the mindset: change the prospects. Apprenticeships can be set up. Courses on hotel and restaurant management can be enhanced and expanded. Exchange programmes can offer travel and training in other countries. Businesses can provide standardised, regulated training programmes with measures and qualifications. The Labour Law can be changed to recognise chefs as professionals, in the same way that artists are already recognised. Wouldn’t it be great, Mr. Premier, if we lived in a country where Caymanians infiltrated every area of one of the largest dynamic growth industries? I am one business owner who is willing to give it a try. We are in this together. When the time comes, let’s make this right.

Claire Pettinai

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