In Cayman’s dive industry, where the vast majority of customers are tourists, operators now are depending on local residents for business and trying to keep their heads above water until the borders reopen.
A number of dive operators who spoke with the Cayman Compass this month say they were seeing about 5% of the business they normally would at this time of year.
Furloughs, weekday shutdowns, shorter opening hours and cost-cutting are all part of the norm now for dive companies.
Even when borders reopen, restarting businesses, bringing staff back on island or replacing those who have left, will also be a challenge.
Jason Washington, of Ambassador Divers, says, “I don’t think my situation is much different to anyone else’s. I’ve furloughed seven staff and I have two staff on island, not including myself.”
He, like all other operators, now depends entirely on local divers, but admits that business from that quarter has dropped off.
“After the lockdown was lifted, we were doing three-to-four dive trips a week. Now it’s only weekends, maybe once a week,” he says.
The local market is just not big enough to sustain the large number of water-sports operators on island, Washington says, adding, “I fear we are playing this gruesome game of last man standing.”
Sergio Coni, of Don Foster’s, agrees.
“Operators are struggling right now because there is a limited pool of local divers. There are a lot of residents diving, but obviously, it’s not easy to maintain a business with this because of all the expenses you have – the overheads still continue to be high.”
But it is the resident dive community that nonetheless is keeping businesses open, he says. “The local diving population has really stepped up a lot in terms of providing support as much as they can.”
That group of divers is also expanding somewhat. With no prospect of going on vacation this year, more people have been learning how to dive, or divers who haven’t been in the water in years are doing refresher courses and heading back to visit the reefs, Coni says.
“We’ve done quite a few [dive] certifications and some people are doing nitrox and advanced classes. … I’ve seen a lot of people who were new divers and now they’re seasoned divers.”
Coni operates his business on an on-demand basis during the week. If someone wants to go shore diving from the Don Foster’s site, they call Coni, who lives nearby and will come in and give them an air tank. At weekends, Don Foster’s is open for boat and shore diving.
In East End, Ocean Frontiers has also altered its schedule.
“We’ve closed midweek, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and on Mondays if they’re public holidays,” says Ocean Frontiers’ Steve Broadbelt.
“We just had to close. People are working during the week, and those who aren’t working can’t afford to go diving.
“After lockdown, there was a surge of pent-up demand, but that’s run its course. It was great while it lasted.”
He says the domestic market has “just slowed down the bleeding” as operators still must pay for health insurance, liability insurance, property insurance and other costs. “But shutting down would be even more expensive. … Everyone is in the same boat.”
Broadbelt had recently bought new boats for his operation, spending more than $1 million on them. “Now they are sitting empty most of the time. We’re at about 3% capacity,” he says.
Another worry, Broadbelt says, is “you lose your talent to other places. Chefs, boat captains, guides. I’ve been able to keep our top guys with us. Some left and plan to come back when we reopen.”
Targeting a new generation
At Sunset Divers, shore diving remains popular among residents, says Emma Jane Fisher, the company’s sales and marketing manager.
“Sunset Divers has a strong core of resident divers that use our shore facilities, however we have found it difficult to attract those divers onto our boats. We are able to offer boat trips any day of the week, but do have to meet our minimums to at least break even,” she says.
Fisher says Sunset is operating with a much-smaller crew of instructors than before lockdown. Like other operators, the company is trying to find new ways to boost local interest, including targeting a new generation of divers.
“We have a great bunch of youth divers that have learnt to dive together and are now continuing their diving education at Sunset Divers,” Fisher says. “We are offering afterschool guided shore dives … kids’ boats with shallow dive sites and scuba camps during the holidays.”
Another new avenue the company is exploring as part of its efforts to attract on-island customers is team-building experiences for corporate clients or groups that want to dive together.
Uncertain border reopening
At a recent Cayman Islands Tourism Association meeting, industry representatives, including dive operators, claimed there is a lack of transparency from government on the next phase of border reopening. They called on government to introduce pre-arrival COVID-19 testing for visitors, which they say could enable the quarantine period to be cut from the present minimum of 14 days.
Divetech’s Jo Mikutowicz says it’s vital that the tourism industry get some insight into when the borders may reopen.
“One thing that is so difficult right now,” she says, “is not having a plan for the business because there is no clear plan on border reopening. The border reopening happening in early 2021 versus the border reopening not happening for another year or longer are two completely different ways forward and it’s very difficult to make a plan about how to move forward with the business when you don’t know how long this will go on for.”
In the meantime, her operation has been trying to offer different or unique experiences “to keep residents diving and involved in the water-sports industry here in Cayman”.
“Just having a presence out on the water in general is important to keep that forward momentum going and showing the world that we are still here and waiting for their return,” she says, but acknowledges that “by no means is this sustainable for the long term – we need tourism back”.