Environmental protection and economic growth have typically been viewed as opposite sides of the argument in the debate over Cayman’s long-term future.
But a green stimulus, including investment in renewable energy, eco-tourism and walking and cycle paths, could help protect our resources and create jobs, according to the authors of a report proposing a sustainable approach to the post-COVID recovery.
Construction has been highlighted by government leaders as an industry that can help carry the islands’ economy amid a sustained downturn in tourism.
But researchers at the Cayman Islands Department of Environment believe the crisis has created an opportunity to rethink the island’s approach to development.
It is not a binary choice between saving jobs and protecting the island’s natural beauty and biodiversity.
You can have both, says DOE director Gina Ebanks-Petrie.
She said the paper, ‘Seizing the Moment to Transition to a Greener Economy’, published by the DOE and the National Conservation Council last month, was primarily about jobs and business opportunities.
“We have to think about doing things in a more sustainable way,” she said. “But the focus of that report was very much on economic opportunities within the green space.”
Tim Austin, deputy director of the DOE, acknowledged that “putting food on the table” had to be a priority for government, with unemployment likely to reach record levels in the aftermath of the crisis.
But he believes Cayman can have the best of both worlds.
“My firm belief is that this is really about stimulating the economy,” he said. “People need to get back to work and there is a way to do it sustainably. We tried to tie all our recommendations to job creation.”
Genuine sustainable tourism and renewable energy are viewed as the main areas with significant potential for jobs growth.
Other measures, such as ‘green loans’ to retrofit buildings with solar panels, and duty waivers for electric vehicles and sustainable appliances, are highlighted as a means to generate business.
“A lot of economic recovery measures are about getting people to spend money,” said Lauren Dombowsky, one of the authors of the report.
She said a lot of the measures outlined involved either direct government spending on sustainable infrastructure – cycles and pathways, for example – or methods such as duty waivers and low-interest loans to support business growth.
Questions over the future of Cayman’s tourism industry are central to any post-COVID-19 analysis.
Long before the pandemic was on the radar, the saga over a plan to build cruise piers in George Town harbour had already generated a national debate about the direction of the industry.
Though government was staunchly in favour of cruise piers and a growth in cruise tourism – a strategy which it believed would maximise job opportunities for Caymanians – it has acknowledged that project is now dead.
Long-term questions linger about the viability of the cruise industry, and many businesses and workers who relied on those tourists may have to be retrained.
Ebanks-Petrie believes the crisis presents an chance for the islands to reposition themselves as a genuine sustainable tourism destination.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to rethink the relationship with tourism,” she said. “The community is calling out for things to be different.”
She believes there is a tendency to view environmental protection as a niche issue or as a barrier to economic goals, but the world is changing and tourists are now prepared to pay a premium for authentic nature-based travel, she said.
“We underestimate the potential there is to market the country from a more sustainable stand point,” she added.
But she warned that Cayman cannot just pitch itself as a sustainable destination – it has to deliver.
Ebanks-Petrie said the pause in tourism arrivals during the current crisis had helped people see the island at its best – uncrowded beaches, clear waters teeming with resurgent sea-life, and quiet roads safe for cycling and walking.
She hopes some of those attributes can be preserved as Grand Cayman welcomes back tourists. And she believes many visitors would be prepared to pay a premium price at sites like Stingray City, for example, if a carrying capacity was established and crowds were restricted.
The same philosophy could go for the whole island, she said, with fewer tourists spending more money for a different type of experience.
“We need tourism back but in a way that works for people here so that Caymanians are employed in a meaningful way, with wages they can live off, with the resources being properly managed so the environment is preserved and people can make money.”
Almost everyone agrees that Cayman has a threshold in terms of growth and development.
The debate centres around where that threshold lies.
While some believe the islands could be home to 100,000 people or more in the next decade, other voices in the community have been calling for a check on growth.
Wendy Johnston, head of he DOE’s environmental management unit, said economic diversification, including schemes to direct construction towards retro fitting existing buildings, could help preserve the island’s remaining natural resources.
“There is a real reliance on development for jobs in whatever form that takes, and that is not a sustainable economic model to follow in the long term,” she said. “We have to move away from that being the pillar holding up the economy, and reduce our reliance on that sector.”
Reports require action
Many of the ideas highlighted by the DOE are not new.
Similar proposals can be found in the National Tourism Plan, the National Energy Policy and the National Climate Change Policy. The Development Plan, currently in the works, also articulates some similar goals.
Ebanks-Petrie said long-term plans often get subordinated to more immediate short-term priorities.
“We tend to avoid the moment where the rubber hits the road,” she said.
She believes the current crisis represents an opportunity to inject new urgency into implementing those ideas.
“I am not saying it is easy or that our report has all the answers; far from it,” she said.
“Hard work needs to be done to come up with the solutions that will work for us and to implement them. If we waste this opportunity, I am concerned about what happens next.”