The tourism market in East End and North Side is vastly different from Seven Mile Beach. The serene eastern districts are a great getaway for visitors to the island and ideal for staycations. The population density is much lower than in West Bay, George Town or Savannah. The vibe is more Caribbean and less Florida.
But these attributes of fewer crowds and more peace and tranquility have come back to haunt the eastern part of Grand Cayman, as the total absence of stayover visitors and cruise tourists is hitting businesses hard.
Not only are businesses in East End and North Side few and far between, they are also much more reliant on tourism than those in other parts of the island.
Sharlene Brenkus at the Wyndham Reef Resort says the notion that Cayman can somehow manage the tourism downturn because proportionally there are fewer Caymanians impacted by the pause in visitor arrivals is false.
Even ancillary industries are affected by the complete lack of tourism. Everything is interrelated, Brenkus says, from local farmers, retail businesses, security services and the supermarket across the road from the Wyndham and Morritt’s, which has less foot-traffic from the resorts, to landlords who cannot find tenants for their rental properties.
“In April, we went from 110 employees to less than 30. And 50% of our staff was Caymanian. So, the idea that Caymanians are not employed in hotels and in tourism-dependent businesses is not the reality – there are Caymanians severely affected by the pause in tourism arrivals and it is only going to get worse.”
She added, “I’ve had staff literally text me and say, you know, I’m dying here. I can’t afford electricity, I’m bathing in the ocean, I have no food.”
Offering the Wyndham as an isolation facility where returning travellers can go into quarantine is the only reason the resort has not shut down.
While the resort initially offered staycations on Saturdays and Sundays from early July, under the social-distancing protocols at the time, guests were still cautious about leaving their rooms.
“The hotel was full on the weekend, but you would not see a soul on the beach, no one came to the bar, no one ordered food,” Brenkus said. “Running a resort where you only open two days out of the week is not sustainable from a staffing or financial perspective.”
Meanwhile, tourist attractions like Crystal Caves in North Side have been closed since March.
Matthew Adam, who runs Cayman Safari and took over the running of Crystal Caves in March, said his tour business only had one work-permit holder and the 15 staff at Crystal Caves are all Caymanian. Except for two, they are from the North Side area.
When the lockdown forced Crystal Caves to shut down, Adam said he sought help and contacted various government departments to find new work for the staff.
“They have other skills, they can do other things, other than being a tour guide, or a maintenance worker. And you know, they’re willing to do anything, to just try and make it through, but I didn’t get any response,” he said. “So, it has been very frustrating.”
When he pressed the Department of Tourism during a tour of the caves in August for their reopening projections, Adam said, the department responded it could not share those with external partners.
“How the heck, as a business, am I supposed to plan, if the department that is tasked with planning does not want to share this information with the attractions?”
During the lockdown, Adam changed the Cayman Safari tour business into a delivery service for Doctors Express and other companies; that kept a reservation specialist and a driver employed.
But while the business is still ongoing and provides a paycheque to the drivers, it is not enough to cover the expenses. For a tourist attraction like Crystal Caves, local visitors are not enough to even open on a limited basis. Currently, the business is applying for a grant to be able to open for functions and school trips that would cover a few positions for a limited time.
Restaurants in the districts are equally affected.
Ron Hargrave, who owns three restaurants – Tukka, Eagle Ray’s and Taco Cantina – in East End, said the last seven months have been “a very hard struggle”.
About 85% of his business come from either the 380 rooms at the Wyndham and Morritt’s or from private holiday rentals.
With the tourism business having dried up completely, Taco Cantina had to close on 20 March and has not reopened since. Eagle Ray’s, which like Taco Cantina is located next to the Ocean Frontiers dive resort, reopened after the lockdown, then reduced openings to the weekends and had to close in October.
The restaurant’s lionfish tacos and all the specials that were offered to draw local guests have moved over to Tukka. Even as other restaurants in the eastern districts are closing or offering only limited hours and reduced menus, there has been no noticeable pick-up in business.
“You know, we’re only drawing from a very, very small pool of locals that actually have an expendable income that will come out and eat in the restaurant,” Hargrave said.
Only a quarter of the 60 staff at his restaurants remain employed and on weekdays there is barely anything for them to do.
“I could legitimately close Tukka from Monday to Friday, and open just for the weekends,” he said. “But what do I do with the staff that I have?”
The only pick-up in business is during school holidays, when families venture east for day trips or staycations. But as soon as the school terms starts, he said, “we go into our own sort of lockdown out here”.
While even in the Seven Mile Beach area a lot of businesses are struggling, the economic situation there is very different, Hargrave said. “There is a lot more money around.”
Although he is riding out the storm trying to cut overheads with just one set of bills and utilities, the situation is not sustainable. He said some form of tourism industry is desperately needed.
“The Lighthouse has closed down fulltime now. We’re dying out here,” he said.
Before the lockdown, Lighthouse owner Giuseppe Gatta said 11 of the restaurant’s 25 staff were Caymanian. About 70% of the business came from tourists. “We tried to stay open in order to give a little bit of work to everybody, even if it was two or three days or a few hours, so everybody had some income,” he said.
The restaurant offered expanded take-out, deliveries and a daily roadside barbecue, in addition to its usual menu.
But after seven months of putting money into the business to stay afloat and no end to the border closures in sight, the restaurant had to be put up for sale.
“Without the tourists we cannot survive, although the local economy was very supportive of us, but there wasn’t enough,” Gatta said.
Waiting for the border reopening
Business owners are concerned that since Cayman is in low season now, the lack of tourism is not having the same pronounced effect that it will have from December to April.
Most businesses, from retailers to the hospitality industry, are expecting to be hit even harder in the next months, with negative repercussions for the whole of 2021.
Government has maintained that it will be guided by science in its reopening approach. Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell indicated at last week’s Cayman Islands Tourism Association meeting that Cayman could soon have access to a COVID-19 vaccine which may enable the islands to reopen borders early next year.
While government is waiting for a vaccine to become available, that may not be the panacea everyone is hoping for. “Does the Cayman public really want a vaccine or is that going to be another unknown moving forward?” Hargrave wonders.
The solution advocated by many business owners involves mandatory pre-testing of visitors to the island, if possible, in combination with shorter quarantine periods and re-testing.
Brenkus notes that Bermuda has developed such a model with a very low number of people testing positive days after arrival.
In fact, Bermuda has managed to restart its tourism industry, albeit at a lower level, and so far experienced fewer confirmed coronavirus cases than Cayman – 223 compared with 257 – despite having carried out almost twice as many tests.
Visitors to Bermuda have to provide a negative COVID-19 test and are tested again on arrival at the airport as well as on the fourth, eighth and 14th day of their trip.
Hargrave said, “We need some form of manageable tourism that keeps us going, to be around in six to 12 months.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included a quote incorrectly stating that Kaibo was closed. Kaibo continues to operate and is open every weekend. The Compass regrets the error.