Preserving Cayman's natural beauty is considered essential to attracting sustainable tourism post COVID. Pictured here is Jasmin Muratagic of Seven Mile Paddle. Photo: Sabrina Stecyk.

In a leafy corner of East End, the Cayman Parrot Sanctuary has quietly established itself as the island’s newest natural attraction.

For chef Ron Hargrave, who runs three restaurants in the district, opening the venue has been the high point of a year in which COVID-19 has decimated the bottom line of his businesses.

For Cayman, it is an example of the kind of nature-based attraction that could prosper in the post-COVID world.

Hargrave, who was also part of the Strategic Economic Advisory Council network which helped draw up a new vision for tourism, believes protecting and celebrating Cayman’s natural wonders will be a big part of the formula for a successful future.

“Tourists want to be in touch with nature and they want to see things that make Cayman special,” he said. “Sustainable tourism is about focussing on the native and natural attractions that make us unique as a destination.”

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He believes COVID-19 has already had a profound impact on the way people look at both travel and nature.

People are less interested in crowded beaches or cities and more keen to connect with nature and each other in low-impact ways.

“They want to go where they can be safe and back in sync with nature,” said Hargrave.

Ron Hargrave has opened a parrot sanctuary in East End.

“We already have beautiful natural flora and fauna and it is just about bringing these things to the surface.”

His ideas align nicely with some of the key strategies of the RB5 National Tourism Plan – government’s blueprint for a post-COVID recovery.

“As a result of the pandemic, the experts predict that many more travellers will actively seek out less crowded trips, searching for privacy and a greater sense of calm and peacefulness. Off-the-beaten-track and natural destinations are sure to become even more in demand,” that document stated.

Turning plans into action

Lisa Hurlston, a member of the National Conservation Council and climate change consultant, was impressed with the document.

“I think it is a good plan because it put the natural environment and sustainable development so squarely at the centre,” she said.

But she is wary, having seen such commitments in long-term plans before that have not translated into meaningful action at the policy level.

It is too easy, she warns, to simply use the words ‘sustainable tourism’ as a marketing tool. Globally it has become so common, it has almost become devoid of real meaning.

Hurlston believes Cayman can use the United Nations World Tourism Organization guidance as a framework for how it implements sustainable tourism.

One key aspect, she says, is that genuinely sustainable tourism must take into account the views and wishes of the host community.

“What COVID has raised and to an extent what the cruise debate raised is that the community was saying this type of tourism is not for us.”

While sustainable tourism is about new natural attractions like the parrot sanctuary and potentially Cayman’s new protected areas, she says it is also about the things you decide not to do.

Putting carrying capacities on attractions like Stingray City, enforcing coastal set-backs for development and not building a cruise dock are all policies that might appear antithetical to the goal of bringing back tourist dollars.

Hurlston believes this is not necessarily the case.

Tourists might pay more, for example, for a small group kayak trip through the mangroves with an educated guide than for a 50-person boat ride across the sound.

More ecological tourism, such as kayaking trips to explore Cayman’s mangroves, could help educate visitors about the natural wonders of the Cayman Islands.

Beyond dollars and cents

However, she says, simply adding up dollars and cents can provide a false picture of the true worth of attractions and the cost of infrastructure.

“Sustainable tourism involves a full accounting of the impacts that you don’t normally see on your national balance sheet,” she said.

Natural capital accounting, which incorporates less-tangible ‘ecosystem services’ such as the value of a reef for fishermen and divers or the cultural worth of a shipwreck, is increasingly being used in some jurisdictions to help determine the balance between development and natural preservation.

Cayman’s sharks are a natural attraction for scuba divers. Photo: James Whittaker

It is a formula that could be adapted, Hurlston believes, to help prevent damaging the appeal of an attraction though over-use.

Through her work on the SEAC group, Hurlston said the message came through loud and clear that the industry did not want a return to unmanaged growth.

She said it was essential that sustainable tourism didn’t just become a buzz word that was used to sell Cayman on a false premise.

The goal, she said, would be an industry that both locals and tourists were proud of and invested in maintaining.

“It has to be about making sure the experience is meeting the needs of our visitors as well as our own goals and expectations,” she said.

  • 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.

See also:

Could super yachts be a new niche for Cayman?

Digital nomads offer new tourism opportunities

Private jet terminal could bring big spenders

Medical tourism still a long term option for Cayman

Casinos not worth the gamble for now

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