As Cayman begins to emerge from an unprecedented series of curfews and lockdowns, thoughts are turning from the impacts of the coronavirus to planning for the rebuild.
The pandemic forced the islands to press pause on a period of growth that had seen tourism hit record levels and work permit and population numbers soar amid a construction and development boom.
Those elements helped bring significant prosperity to many in Cayman. Government’s coffers swelled, unemployment dipped to new lows and cash rolled in for business owners and landlords.
But those drivers of Cayman’s economic success also brought growing pains and stresses that threatened the islands’ laid-back way of life.
Crowded beaches and attractions, roads choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic, diminishing mangroves, and growing pressure on coral reefs and marine life were all points of tension.
There was also a sense of alienation among some Caymanians, who felt the island was changing too rapidly and too drastically.
“For a lot of long-time Caymanians, we feel like we lost our soul a little bit and this is an opportunity to see if we can get it back,” said Anne Briggs, owner and manager of the Sunset House bar and dive operation in George Town.
The idea that the coronavirus presents a chance to rethink Cayman’s direction is one that has taken hold throughout the community.
And while the immediate focus is on getting people back to work, business leaders, pressure groups and citizens throughout the islands are calling for a new vision for the country’s long-term future. Opinions differ on what that should be and how it can be achieved, but there was consensus – among those who spoke to the Cayman Compass – that the coronavirus crisis can be transformed into an opportunity to press the reset button and design a new blueprint for the islands’ future.
Casting a wide net
Government has already begun formulating its own vision for post-COVID Cayman. Various boards and committees have been formulated to deal with immediate practicalities, including how and when to reopen the border.
But Commerce Minister Joey Hew, one of a handful of candidates to lead the Progressives into the next election, has been tasked with coordinating the long-term plan.
In late May, Minister Hew convened the first meeting of the newly formed Strategic Economic Advisory Council.
The group split the economy into six sub categories – tourism and hospitality, technology and infrastructure, financial services, retail, social services and healthcare, and development and construction.
Private sector leaders were appointed to gather information from each sector and develop recommendations. The consultations have been extensive.
Shomari Scott, the business development manager at Health City, said he had formed 10 separate focus groups to formulate recommendations for improvements in healthcare and social services. Pilar Bush, head of marketing at Dart and a former director of tourism, said her group had consulted with more than 120 industry representatives over three weeks to come up with nearly 400 actionable recommendations for the tourism industry.
Those recommendations were being fed back to the main committee in a series of presentations last week.
Colouring outside the lines
It will be for Hew and his government colleagues to decide how to proceed.
“We encouraged people to colour outside the lines and a lot of creative ideas emerged,” he told the Compass.
He believes the pandemic has helped clarify some priorities that were already beginning to emerge before the crisis.
The 90-minute exercise allocation allowed during curfew time saw many people biking and walking on streets that were almost free of cars.
Creating safer roads and reducing vehicle traffic so they can continue to do so safely is a priority, said Hew. In other, less visible areas, infrastructure is in need of an upgrade.
With government and businesses forced to rely on remote working, cracks in the islands’ telecommunications capacity became clear.
“We had several Cabinet meetings that were interrupted because of poor internet service,” said Hew.
Potential partnerships to upgrade the aging Maya-1 undersea telecommunications cable are already being explored.
Rolling out the fibre optic network to all parts of Cayman, so consumers in East End can get equality of service with those in George Town, is another ongoing challenge.
The overall quality of Cayman’s technology infrastructure is something that will need to be addressed if some of the positive trends from the coronavirus crisis are to be maintained; namely, the work-from-home movement and the advances in telemedicine and e-government.
Online driving licence registrations increased from 50-a-week to 250-a-day during the crisis, according to Hew. There is momentum behind a transition towards online transactions that he would like to maintain.
“A lot of focus has been put on tech and the need for better connectivity,” he said.
The overall ambition of Hew’s committee is to formulate a plan for the island’s future.
“We are taking this opportunity to pause and set goals to design a new Cayman. Cayman 2.0,” Hew said.
A new direction for tourism?
One of the biggest casualties of the coronavirus arrival on Cayman’s shores was the plan for new cruise piers in George Town harbour.
While that project may be dead in the water – at least for now – the debate that it started about over-tourism and protecting the island’s natural resources is very much alive.
Linda Clark, a leading member of the community group that pushed for a national referendum on the issue, has started the new ‘civil society network’ Amplify Cayman, with the aim of keeping ‘culture, conservation and community’ at the heart of the national debate.
She believes the pandemic has created a window of opportunity to rethink the development trajectory Cayman has been on for the last two decades.
She highlighted traffic congestion, plastic pollution, landfill fires, loss of beach access, over-tourism and overdevelopment as side effects of that strategy, saying it had all but eliminated the island’s way of life.
“While COVID-19 has created reasons for heightened tension in the community, it has also shown us hope,” she wrote in an emailed response to the Compass.
“Hope that traffic can disappear, endemic Cayman parrots can be heard singing and nesting as noisy leaf-blowers and vehicle engines stop running. Seawater clarity improves while colourful Caribbean fish move more freely across our world-class, but threatened, diverse coral reefs, free from the endless human-made boat engine noise and vibrations.”
She believes the Department of Environment has already provided a blueprint for the future in its document ‘Seizing the Moment to Transition to a Greener Economy’.
The paper recommends a rethink of Cayman’s approach, including a new focus on sustainable tourism, renewable energy, expanded marine parks and land-based national parks.
It also suggests Cayman capitalise on the COVID work-from-home trend and accelerate infrastructure development that promotes cycling, jogging and walking over car use.
Success covered the cracks
For Bush, who heads up the tourism committee helping formulate a new vision for post-COVID-Cayman, it would be a wasted opportunity if the island was to default to the same formula as before.
“In March, the Cayman Islands was booming with record-breaking stayover visitors and growing cruise arrivals. This unprecedented tourism prosperity was concealing several systemic and social issues which the pandemic has laid bare for all to see,” she said.
“Recognising that changes need to be made, our goal was to come up with practical, future-focussed ideas to address these complex problems and take full advantage of the opportunities to chart a better future for our three islands.”
She said the committee had worked tirelessly and canvassed widely over the past few weeks.
Some of the key recommendations to emerge are not directly linked to tourism itself.
“We can’t talk about tourism without looking at transport and workforce development. We can’t talk about any of these issues without talking about technology and infrastructure. Everything is interlinked,” Bush said.
Some of the committee’s key recommendations are around reform of public transport, career training, and rethinking Cayman’s identity as a destination.
“We must grasp the opportunity to set new priorities for our three Cayman Islands and apply different strategies,” she said. “Making good of the crisis means a commitment to create a country brand for which we can all be justly proud. Making good use of the terrible crisis means we cultivate a more sustainable tourism industry, one where success is defined by thriving people, a healthy environment, and a strong, resilient economy.”
Balancing cruise and stayover
Theresa Leacock-Broderick, president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, said any tourism plan would need to find the right balance between cruise and stayover visitors.
She said the ideal of a sustainable tourism product that preserves the islands’ natural attractions and employs more Caymanians has always been the goal, but that is not easily achieved with increased development and a conflict in national priorities.
She said the virus’s halt to the busy industry has created a chance to reset and refocus on how to achieve those goals.
“Even when we open our borders, we won’t go from zero to 100 immediately. That reduction and that pause should give us the opportunity to work on the aspects fundamental to sustainability,” she said, “But unfortunately it is equally difficult to do under economic hardships.”
Leacock-Broderick cited the Vision 2008 exercise as a previous example where the wider community was involved in outlining a vision for the country and again – more recently in 2018 – with the development of the National Tourism Plan.
“I don’t think the vision of what is ideal for our country in terms of our values has changed that much,” she said.
“While there are new opportunities to seize, we face the same obstacles as before. The challenge is always in getting everyone on the same page working cohesively and consistently to achieve it.”
The new normal may not be so different
For Paul Byles, an economist who has advised the government on the impact of the virus and its post-COVID-19 tourism strategy, aspirations for the future should be tempered with a degree of practicality.
Creating new industries and retraining large sections of the population are worthy goals, he agrees. But these things take time and there are people who need a paycheque now.
“There are things we might want to see in the long term but we can’t just say it; we still have to go through the fairly complex process of getting it done,” he said.
“There is a limit to how quickly we can transition jobs; there is a limit to how quickly we can create new industries. The big question for the short term is, how do we maintain stability?”
He believes Cayman’s leaders should tread carefully and avoid making wholesale changes on the basis of predictions about a post-COVID future that is difficult to predict.
He highlighted suggestions that Cayman should outlaw cruise ships as one example of an overreaction he was hearing.
“That is an example where I think we need to avoid the extreme version. No more cruise lines in our tourist model is not realistic.”
He cites 9/11 as a comparable example, where many analysts overreacted on the basis of bleak projections that never happened.
“A lot of people forecast the end of tourism, but we learned to live with the restrictions,” Byles said. “Global travel actually increased significantly over the next 24-36 months.”
If a vaccine is developed in the near future, Byles believes that, with the exception of the work-from-home trend and an increasing reliance on tech, the rest of the world may not change that much.
“The new normal may be a lot more similar to the old normal than many are predicting,” he said.
Public-private partnership needed
For Woody Foster, president of the Chamber of Commerce, Cayman’s successful response to the health crisis creates an opportunity for the islands.
“We have a great story to share. We kept our people safe when many other countries struggled to control the spread of the virus and this will generate considerable interest and appeal for visitors and investors,” he said.
With that optimism comes a note of caution.
“The pandemic and the subsequent travel lockdown demonstrated how vulnerable the Cayman Islands’ economy is to global shocks. We have always known this, but to live it is a completely different story,” he said.
“It will be important that whatever strategies are considered for Cayman 2.0 that we build more resiliency and diversity into our economic model.”
COVID exposed weaknesses
As well as creating problems and opportunities, there is a sense that COVID-19 has accelerated consumer trends and exposed deficiencies for some businesses.
Dale Crighton, another member of the economic advisory committee and director of Crighton Properties, told the Compass in an earlier interview that dealing with suppliers who were behind the times in terms of their IT capacity had been a major headache in getting the construction industry up and running once the lockdown was lifted.
“COVID-19 has forever changed the way many sectors of business will be conducted in the future,” he said.
“Other than the supermarkets, only a handful of local suppliers have anything in place for online ordering and delivery. This is what our future will look like and local suppliers will need to come to grips with this sooner, rather than later.”
Steve McIntosh, of CML Offshore Recruitment, said the pandemic was forcing businesses to adapt at a rate they might not be comfortable with.
He said the crisis had pushed an accelerating rate of change into ‘warp speed’ and many organisations had been caught off-guard because they had been operating in the same way for decades.
“People – whether they are employees, consumers or citizens – have come to expect high speed, total flexibility and convenience in every area of their lives,” McIntosh said. “Now is the time for companies and governments to unleash the outside-the-box thinkers in their ranks and be willing to try something new, accepting the inherent risk that it might not work… or to be left behind when everyone flocks to a more nimble competitor.
“At the risk of stating the obvious, for things to change, we need to be willing to do things differently.”