Over the past two months, our Cayman 2.0 series has cast a wide net in an effort to determine what changes the coronavirus crisis will bring to Cayman.
In a series of special features, we examined both the consequences of the virus and the ideas for how we can come out the other side.
Here, we summarise 10 of the most intriguing ideas for the islands’ future. These are not the Compass’s suggestions, but are gleaned from dozens of interviews, reports, public discussions and round tables, compiled as part of this series.
1. Affordable high-quality internet for all
The coronavirus crisis revealed the extent to which we rely on technology, and accelerated the adoption of smartphone and web-based services in almost every area of our lives.
Working from home, ordering food through Let’s Eat or Beto, renewing vehicle licences, attending school, and seeing the doctor were all facilitated by technology during the pandemic.
Expanding on that leap forward is an imperative for the future, outlined by the Chamber of Commerce, the SEAC group, and many business leaders and tech experts who spoke to the Compass.
With that goal comes concern that no one is left behind. As technology becomes more central to the way we live, access to affordable, high-quality internet becomes less of a luxury and more of a human right, as Shomari Scott, chief business officer for Health City Cayman Islands pointed out in our ‘Smart Island’ feature on tech economy.
Opinions differ on how to achieve that goal, but a new sub-sea cable, a fund levied from telecoms companies to build out fibre-optic cable island-wide, and government subsidies to provide internet access for the less-well-off have all been proposed.
2. Develop a tech economy
Linked to the goal of better and cheaper tech infrastructure is the belief that such investment could help drive a new pillar of the islands’ economy.
Commerce Minister Joey Hew, speaking at the CEO conference earlier this month, said developing a tech sector that could make Cayman the ‘Silicon Valley of the Caribbean’ would help develop and diversify the post-COVID economy.
The desire for the islands’ infrastructure to catch up with the needs of the business community has been articulated again and again during the pandemic.
That is not only to service the needs of existing business, but also to create the technical and regulatory environment required to attract and develop new businesses.
Mike Mannisto, a partner at professional-service company EY, believes the digital-identity industry could be a new pillar of the islands’ economy, comparable with the current funds sector.
Blair Lifford, of Salt Wireless, told the Compass that investment in the right areas could make Cayman a ‘smart island’ that can attract new types of business.
3. Commit to sustainable tourism
The tourism industry has been the principal victim of the pandemic in the Cayman Islands so far.
Thousands of people have lost jobs, several businesses have closed down, and others are hanging on in hope that the borders will reopen in time for them to stay afloat.
The post-pandemic world is likely to mean fewer crowds and a greater demand for ‘natural destinations’, according to the Ministry of Tourism’s recovery plan, ‘RB5 – The Road Back to 500K Air Arrivals’.
The document highlights visitor management plans for key attractions, like the Stingray City Sandbar, globally recognised sustainable-tourism certifications, and a pivot in marketing strategy to further focus on Cayman’s natural attributes.
The Department of Environment, in its own report ‘Seizing the Moment to Transition to a Greener Economy’, highlights the expansion of marine parks, training of certified nature guides, and a recalibration of the balance between development and the environment as concrete steps that Cayman could take towards genuinely sustainable tourism.
4. Invest in renewable energy
Advocates of a ‘green recovery’ point to the fact that investment in this sector is both an economic and a jobs plan, as well as an environmental one.
Clean energy is the fastest growing industry in North America.
CUC has highlighted plans for large solar farms to help Cayman transition to renewables.
But the Cayman Renewable Energy Association, in a recommendation that has been adopted by the Strategic Economic Advisory Council, advises that the greatest jobs growth is in ‘distributed generation’ – including, but not limited to, rooftop solar.
“You can come out of high school into this industry and make really good money, or if you have a master’s degree, you can make twice as much on the engineering side,” James Whittaker, president of CREA told the Compass as part of our feature on a green recovery. “There is a broad range of job types and that is what Cayman needs.”
The advisory council has recommended investment in training for Caymanians in this industry, as well as an expansion to the Consumer Owned Renewable Energy programme which facilitates rooftop solar.
5. Wholesale reform of public transport
One of the legacies of lockdown that most Cayman Islands residents would like to see last is the sharp drop in traffic.
With thousands out of work, gridlock on the roads has eased and the question has become, how does Cayman bring back those jobs and that economic success without bringing back the side effects?
One of the answers being put forward is to establish the Cayman Transit Company as a public-private initiative supported by government subsidies.
The aim would be to award service contracts for bus transport with minimum standards for frequency, quality and coverage.
It would utilise larger buses and ferries for longer journeys and smaller vehicles for inter-district transport, Marc Langevin, general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and a member of the tourism network that made the recommendation, told the Compass.
Under the proposal, the company would provide a salary to drivers – regardless of the popularity of their routes – to ensure consistency of service across the island. It would also provide employment for hundreds of drivers and tour-bus operators left without work, potentially over the long term, because of the collapse of the cruise industry.
A continuation of the work-from-home trend and investment in bicycle paths and walkways have also been highlighted as answers to the traffic problem.
6. A world-class university
Investment in higher education, in one form or another, has been highlighted as a central element of ensuring Caymanians can take up opportunities in both the existing economy and the economy of the future.
At the most ambitious edge of that thought process is the concept of expanding the islands’ higher education offerings to create a world-class, accredited university that offers four-year programmes that align with the requirements of the private sector.
EY partner Mannisto, who is also a trustee at the International College of the Cayman Islands, made the proposal in our feature on workforce development.
He said Cayman is a centre of excellence for business, tourism, financial services and healthcare, and is seeking to develop its technology and renewable-energy sectors and should look to have the programmes on island to match.
Mannisto believes overseas students could be attracted to the islands to help cover the cost of what should be a not-for-profit institution.
7. Capitalise on the work-from-home trend
One of the more obvious consequences of the coronavirus lockdown was that people shifted to working from home.
Perhaps more surprising was that many employees found that they liked it and multiple businesses discovered remote working had few ill-effects on their ability to do business.
While there were issues with internet speeds in the outer districts, the forced experiment was broadly deemed a success.
In a Chamber of Commerce survey, almost half of those who responded said they were considering incorporating remote working into their business plans going forward.
Several businesses, including Fountainhead public-relations firm and CML Recruitment, have already gone fully remote.
Steve McIntosh, of CML, said shucking off the expense of the office could be a viable survival strategy for many businesses in Cayman.
He said the island could also capitalise on the global trend for remote working by following the lead of Barbados and Bermuda and marketing itself to guest workers who could live in Cayman and remain working overseas.
8. Link training to workforce needs
The absence of clear data on the qualifications and skill sets of those left unemployed by the coronavirus crisis has been highlighted as a symptom of a wider problem.
Wil Pineau, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, believes a skills analysis of everyone registered as unemployed with the government’s Workforce Opportunities and Residency Cayman would be a good first step towards matching them with jobs or appropriate training opportunities.
Longer term, he believes an annual labour forecast which predicts job growth and highlights the areas where there are going to be opportunities is vital. That data could be used to develop education programmes, dictate work-permit policy, and direct scholarship funding, he told the Compass as part of our feature on workforce development.
He believes that can also make it easier for businesses by making work permits cheaper and more accessible in areas where Cayman does not have expertise.
Michael Myles, of Inspire Cayman Training, added that there is already sufficient evidence, through work-permit data, to show that investment in high-level vocational training would pay dividends.
Funding for training in existing and growing trades, ranging from air-conditioning technicians and solar engineers, to mechanics and cellphone repair specialists, should be central to any workforce-development strategy, he said.
9. The end of the road for the cruise pier?
A year on from the now- moribund debate over a new berthing facility in George Town, the cruise sector is still the elephant in the room in any discussion of the islands’ tourism future.
The pier project may be dead for now, but if and how cruisers return and in what quantity, remains a key question.
The economic future looks bleakest for small businesses that relied on the high-volume churn of daily cruise arrivals. Tour bus operators and small watersports businesses, with capital invested in their vessels and vehicles, have been left jobless with overheads that match the thriving pre-pandemic tourism economy.
Uncertainty over how the virus will develop and how the industry, which suffered an economic and public-relations disaster, will respond makes it difficult to chart a course for the Cayman Islands, Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell told the Cayman Compass.
While there are still advocates for berthing facilities – possibly including a single pier – the project appears to be over for now.
Advocates for sustainable tourism are encouraging government to forget about the pier and recalibrate the economy to focus on stayover tourism.
Whether by necessity or desire, government appears to be heeding that advice – at least in the short term.
10. Financial aid for economic victims
Though there is no clear consensus on how best to help the economic victims of the coronavirus crisis, it is evident that both government and the charitable sector will face an increased burden for some time to come.
The Needs Assessment Unit has seen a sharp rise in demand for its services, a new $1,000-a-month stipend has been set up for unemployed Caymanians in the tourism industry, and charities like Acts of Random Kindness and Meals on Wheels continue to see demand for their services.
The pensions payout provided temporary relief for some, but the problem of how government can best help those in need, at a time when its own income is dropping rapidly, remains a difficult one.
The Strategic Economic Advisory Council has proposed a central coordinating body for all aid, whether from government or the charitable sector, to monitor programmes, avoid duplication of services, and ensure they are meeting the needs of the community.
Meanwhile, the R3 Cayman Foundation has raised significant private-sector funding to invest in supporting charities.
The first batch of grants, totalling US$500,000, was primarily focussed on relief efforts for those who were most seriously impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Cash went to charities like ARK, Feed Our Future, and Meals on Wheels, which have been providing meals and food vouchers to those in need.
Despite those efforts, it appears likely that government will still need to carve out significant funds for stipends and NAU payments until the impact of retraining programmes filters through or the tourism industry returns.