An eco-system of businesses has built up on the island to service and provision these opulent vessels – one of the mainstays of Antigua’s tourism industry.
Chandlers provide supplies, mechanics and sail makers service the vessels, on-shore agents help organise charters and land-based activities for the wealthy guests, while the bars and restaurants survive off the associated custom.
“English Harbour relies on the yachts to create employment and bring money in,” says James Benson of yachting agency BWA Antigua.
The industry has proved relatively COVID-proof so far, with many owners and crew riding out the pandemic on their boats.
If Cayman is looking for a new niche to tap into in the aftermath of the pandemic, the yachting industry has much to recommend it, according to Laura Esteve, Americas vice president for BWA Yachting, which helped manage the Americas Cup in Bermuda and advised the territory on a policy to attract leisure yachts.
“It is non-invasive tourism,” she said. “With cruise ships, you can get thousands of people arriving and being quite disruptive, but the yachts rarely have more than 12 guests and they are usually the kind of tourists you want because they have a lot of money. They won’t just buy an ice cream and a T-shirt.”
Cayman gets marginal yachting business
While there are huge potential benefits from attracting mega-yachts to Cayman, there are also significant challenges, principally a lack of infrastructure.
Currently, around a dozen super-yachts – luxurious vessels in the 100-feet-plus range – visit Cayman each year, according to industry estimates.
Without a marina that can accommodate the vessels, they sit at anchor off the western side of the island.
While that is fine for a visit, Benson says it is not an adequate basis for an industry.
“In terms of persuading boats to stay for a longer period, you need that marina infrastructure and a whole service industry that goes along with it,” he said.
“It creates employment and it brings a lot of money into the country but you would have to make that investment.”
Antigua has five marinas that can accommodate yachts of up to about 394 feet. The sector is becoming an increasingly important factor in the island’s tourism product.
Wealthy yacht-owners and their clients typically use private planes and are expected to be impervious to the impacts of a COVID-inspired recession.
Alternative to cruise?
Joseph Woods, director of the Port Authority of the Cayman Islands, said getting involved in the mega-yacht industry was an interesting proposition that would need to be carefully examined.
He said it was unlikely to provide an alternative to the cruise sector, but could have potential as another component of the island’s tourism product.
The key challenge, said Woods, is the current lack of infrastructure. Resolving that would likely bring new conflicts, he believes.
“Cayman has no facilities to berth mega-yachts whatsoever and the only side of the island that they can anchor and tender ashore is on the west side of Grand Cayman,” he said.
“Anchoring comes with a risk of damaging coral. So how many are willing to take that sort of risk?”
Before Cayman considers moving forward, he said, the start point would be a business case that included an analysis of the costs and benefits, including the potential environmental impact.
A deep water channel in the North Sound?
Another, and likely more controversial, alternative to anchoring mega-yachts off the west side of Grand Cayman is a deeper channel into the North Sound.
That is what Ritz-Carlton developer Mike Ryan proposed when the resort was first built, and again when the country was searching for new ideas to bring in revenue after the 2008 financial crisis.
Ryan believes if Cayman is serious about attracting mega-yachts, it will still require some dredging to create a channel from Fisherman’s Rock, at the entrance to the North Sound, through which boats can pass to access marinas at Dragon Bay and George Town Yacht Club.
“They don’t want to sit at anchor off George Town and roll around all night,” he said.
Ryan believes a channel in the North Sound might be controversial, but could also have benefits, by containing large vessels to a single navigation route.
He is no longer involved with The Ritz-Carlton and is currently developing the Fin luxury residences on South Church Street in George Town.
As far as mega-yachting goes, he said, “I no longer have a dog in the fight.”
Nonetheless, he believes a world-class ‘yacht basin’ would be an important component of a pivot away from cruise tourism towards the kind of visitors that would bring wealth and investment to Cayman.
Along with enhanced private jet facilities, Ryan said it could add to Cayman’s cache as an exclusive five-star destination.
“Mega-yachts are a huge business wherever they go,” he said. “Antigua has a whole economy built around it.”
Tim Bradley manages Pro Yacht, which provides support to most of the super yachts that come through Cayman. He said most of the services they require are already available here.
“The feedback we have had has always been very good, even with the consideration that the yachts have to anchor off George Town or Seven Mile Beach.”
Bradley said geography was another major challenge in terms of attracting a greater number of mega-yachts.
“We are a little bit out of that loop where most of the yachts go during the winter months,” he said.
An alternate option, he said, might be to target larger luxury sport fishers in the 50- to 100-foot range.
Those boats would require less, if any, new infrastructure to accommodate them and have the advantage of a significant presence in the region already.
“They are already in our backyard fishing the tournaments in the Southeast US, Mexico and further south in Costa Rica and Panama,” he said.
Bradley believes these boat owners are potential long-term investors in Cayman.
“If Cayman wants to tap into that market, which I think they should, it is more about a really solid marketing plan,” he said.
Committing to the mega-yacht industry would require significantly more research, Bradley believes.
“The question is, will you get the return on the investment? The infrastructure costs are going to be pretty substantial,” he said. “It is a big industry and a lot of those yachts and charter captains have their destinations picked out and their itineraries planned well in advance; they don’t just pitch up at a new destination without some thought.
“That (mega-yachts) would be a bigger project and a long-term project but I think it is worth exploring.”
- This story is part of a feature series this week looking at possible new niches for the tourism industry. Look out for stories every day on different sectors and the pros and cons of pursuing them to bring jobs and economic impact to the island.