Private jet terminal could bring big spenders

Upgrades to general aviation terminal needed

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A new private jet terminal that could offer an exclusive experience to wealthy visitors has been highlighted as one of the key post-COVID infrastructure projects that could help enhance Cayman’s tourism industry.

The Ministry of Tourism’s blueprint for the revival of the sector after the pandemic highlighted high-net-worth travellers as the least-impacted by the recession and the most-likely tourist group to return in the near future.

The Strategic Economic Advisory Council – a network of public- and private-sector leaders set up to craft a new vision for Cayman – highlighted a new and improved general aviation terminal to accommodate a likely increase in private and chartered aircraft as an important priority.

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The panel suggested improvements are needed to create a ‘five-star experience’ for passengers arriving on personal jets.

Highlighting the new WaterMark luxury residences and plans for Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons hotels, the panel suggested the current airport infrastructure was not equipped to meet future demand.

There have already been flashpoints, typically around Easter and Christmas, when Cayman’s capacity to handle private aircraft has been tested.

In March 2018, the Owen Roberts International Airport was brought to a virtual standstill, with three commercial jets diverted to Jamaica and at least two others held on the tarmac in Miami.

Airport officials attributed the logjam to an unprecedented number of private planes arriving at peak time on a Saturday. Over the course of that one day, 53 planes arrived in Grand Cayman, including 22 private jets.

Those kind of problems seem a long way off right now.

Since COVID hit, there has been negligible traffic in the general aviation terminal and Island Air has been badly impacted.

“There has been a very slow trickle of overseas persons leaving Cayman to go back to their homes in North America,” said Marcus Cumber, director of Island Air, which handles incoming private jets.

Marcus Cumber

Longer term, he said, the desire was there to expand the terminal and make improvements, potentially including having Customs and Border Control process passengers in their planes.

Across the industry, he said, the pandemic would slow the growth rate, but over a four-year period, he expects to see an increase in volume, particularly if those new resorts come online.

He is less optimistic about the immediate future amid predictions that COVID could cause continued economic problems into the new year.

Mike Ryan, the developer of The Ritz-Carlton, was involved in previous discussions for enhancements to private air services in Cayman. He said targeting big-spending visitors was a sensible long-term strategy that could pay dividends for the islands’ economy.

“These visitors are going to spend 1,000 times more than a cruise passenger,” he said.

He believes a new private air terminal at the end of the runway, bordering on the North Sound, could provide an ideal solution.

“Imagine if you could step off your plane and onto a dock where you could be transported by water taxi to your accommodation instead of driving by the dump?” he said. “What a difference that would make to the first and last impression of the island.

“I think that would be a pretty easy one to achieve.”


  • 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.
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