On a bright August day in George Town, the shimmering turquoise waters lap gently against the ironshore coastline.
Stretching out to the horizon, there is barely a boat in sight.
The vast white hulls of the cruise ships that typically dominate the waterfront on days like these are conspicuous by their absence.
Behind the padlocked gates of the Royal Watler Cruise Terminal there is no sign of movement.
All is quiet on the streets of the capital; no throngs of sunburned tourists jostling for position on the zebra crossings, no dancing policeman directing traffic, no shoppers casually browsing the T-shirt and sunglasses stands around the Bayshore Mall.
A year ago, the country was engaged in a heated debate about the wisdom of a government plan to build a $200 million berthing facility that sought to attract 2.5 million passengers to these shores annually.
With Premier Alden McLaughlin declaring the cruise pier project a ‘dead duck’ and the impact of the coronavirus ravaging the bottom lines of the key industry players, the central questions about the sector have shifted.
What kind of cruise industry will emerge from the shadow of the pandemic and does Cayman want to be part of it?
‘Death knell for mass tourism’
Even the strongest voices in the anti-pier movement believe cruise tourism has a role in Cayman’s future.
Johann Moxam, one of the leaders of the campaign against the dock, said it was never the intention of those who supported holding a referendum to suggest there was no value in the sector.
But he said plans to attract 2.5 million visitors were unsustainable before COVID-19 struck and completely unrealistic in its aftermath. “The reality is that Cayman’s current infrastructure can’t accommodate those kind of numbers. It would be irresponsible to recreate that sort of target,” he said.
David Carmichael, of Caribbean Marine Services, which provides tender-boat services to the cruise lines, said the entire industry could be in limbo until a vaccine is found.
He said the pandemic had done more damage to his business than any cruise pier project could have done. But he believes Cayman’s long-term strategy post-COVID will necessarily involve less focus on mass tourism.
“If anything came out of the port fight, it was that the appetite to have much more than 2 million guests on this island is not there. If you can’t make money out of 1.5 million people, going to 2.5 million is not the answer.”
He believes those concerns are gone for the foreseeable future. If and when cruise lines do get back to business, he expects to see fewer ships and fewer passengers.
“For the next 10 years we have seen the death knell for mass tourism,” he said.
Moxam argues that Cayman’s strategy should be to go after a smaller number of higher-spending visitors.
“We should target the lines that demonstrate they have the clientele to buy more than a T-shirt and a bottle of water,” he said.
“We need to have realistic expectations of what cruise tourism will look like. That needs to be a number that is manageable, realistic and in the best interests of Cayman.”
Quality versus quantity
There is some agreement here between factions on both sides of the debate.
Chris Kirkconnell, vice president of Kirk Freeport Group, and Noel March, owner of De Medicine Man retail outlet, were among the founding members of the ‘Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future’ group.
Both men say the idea that the pier project was purely designed to flood Cayman with ever-increasing numbers of tourists is a red herring.
March said he would be fine with putting a cap on the overall number of cruise visitors to the island, so long as they were the “right visitors”.
“We have to make sure we get the best passengers that spend the most money,” he said.
Kirkconnell believes it is a misconception that all cruise passengers are low spenders.
“There is a certain portion of the cruise industry that is quite mass-driven and that distorts perceptions of the value that the upper end has to offer. We have to pick the right lines and the right consumers to target.”
Where the two sides of the debate differ is in their impressions of where those higher spending consumers can be found. While Cruise Port Referendum Cayman believes targeting smaller ships with more affluent customers is the best path to prosperity for Cayman, Kirkconnell argues that the newer Oasis-class ships have been shown to have a higher spend per person.
A new dock debate?
Kirkconnell believes the debate over the dock could resurface in a different form as Cayman contemplates its long-term future.
He believes most cruise lines will not use tender boats as long as COVID-19 remains a concern.
“I think the dock debate will become a completely different version,” he said. “It won’t be about whether we are more efficient with a dock, it will be about whether we are going to have cruise tourism at all if the major lines will not tender.”
March acknowledged the current pier project was likely dead but encouraged government to go back to the drawing board and consider a new plan.
He believes a single finger pier with a remit to attract the highest-spending visitors rather than the highest volume of passengers would attract support.
Kirkconnell believes the economic value of the sector will become more apparent in its prolonged absence.
“With the pension drop that just happened, people are getting along, but that is going to run out. We have a Band-Aid in place, but at some point it is going to become very apparent that a lot of these jobs no longer exist and without cruise they aren’t coming back.”
Kirk Freeport has closed 11 of its 19 stores and let half of its staff go since the borders closed in March.
“We are being conservative but we are not factoring cruise into our projections for the next 12 months,” he said.
He believes people may have a different view now than they did a year ago over the need to put in infrastructure to attract tourists.
“I think some people’s opinions might change when the reality of the situation becomes more apparent. We are not guessing any more. We can see the impact of having no tourists.”
‘Tendering is still feasible’
As the operator of a business that depends on cruise tourism but faced being made redundant by the dock, Carmichael sees both sides of the equation.
He has a fleet of 17 purpose-built boats that are designed for one job and one job only – bringing cruise passengers the short distance from ship to shore.
Without cruise tourism, the business won’t survive. But without the tenders, there can be no cruise tourism in Cayman for the foreseeable future.
Even if the dock project had been approved, it would have been three years away from construction. Planning and procuring a new project could take years.
A coronavirus vaccine will surely be developed sooner.
Carmichael disputes that Caribbean Marine Services’ tender boats will not be viable in the new environment. He said the boats are open to the air, can be quickly cleaned after every run and, even at half capacity, can carry more passengers than the enclosed tender boats that usually serve cruise ships.
If the cruise lines begin operating again, he is confident he can find a way to service them.
Cayman has ‘bargaining power’
Moxam said it was ‘convenient and disingenuous’ to suggest that Cayman would still need a dock, because cruise ships may not tender in the post-COVID environment.
He said this was just a different version of the same line used to push the original project.
“The government has to do a better job of convincing the public that cruise tourism will only be a success if there is cruise berthing,” he said.
He suggested that Cayman has underestimated its power at the bargaining table as one of the most coveted destinations in the western Caribbean.
If and when cruise lines do come back, he said, it should be on Cayman’s terms.
“This is an opportunity to have frank discussions with the cruise lines and let them understand that it can’t be business as usual.”
Any new impetus for cruise tourism should involve a better deal for the tour operators, water-sports businesses and attractions that rely on the industry, he said.
“People are making less money from those industries in 2020 than they were in 1998,” Moxam said.
“From my perspective, the Cayman Islands has to work hard and do a better job of representing the interest of all those Cayman Islands businesses to ensure a better and fairer deal is made between the cruise lines and the service providers on island.”
Broadening the debate
For Michelle Lockwood, one of the leaders of the Cruise Port Referendum Cayman group, the debate has to move on. She believes the question of cruise infrastructure should be incorporated into a wider discussion of what the island wants from tourism.
“Whatever it is, we have to make sure it is a quality experience for us, as well as for the tourists,” she said.
Though she is not yet convinced that the pier plans are truly defeated, she believes the cruise industry in general will suffer the after-effects of the coronavirus for years to come.
The role cruise ships played initially in spreading the disease through the Caribbean, along with the economic and public-relations hit they have suffered since, will likely mean a mass tourism strategy is not viable in the near future.
Lockwood is encouraged to see the conversation moving towards ‘sustainable tourism’ and she is hopeful that government and private-sector leaders will see that as the best approach.
She believes a ‘carrying capacity’ should be established for the island.
“Sustainable development is becoming a buzz word but we need to define what that means. What is our ideal number of people? What are we willing to sacrifice to bring them here?
“I think the conversation is going in the right direction. I hope that sustainable tourism will become the catchphrase for Cayman and that people will understand it more.”
Though she opposed the dock, Lockwood accepts the logic of some of the arguments for cruise tourism.
She said there was a lower entry barrier for people to own their own boats and buses and work in the cruise sector than to own a hotel.
“I would love to figure out a way to meet in the middle,” she said. “I am not against any Caymanian thriving in the economy. If that is what the pro-port agenda was about, I can’t argue with that, I agree with that. The problem is when you destroy the environment and our quality of life to get there.”