Royal Caribbean has not completely abandoned plans for new cruise berthing facilities in Grand Cayman, the company’s CEO Michael Bayley said on Wednesday.
Asked about the future of that project during an online media forum organised by the Caribbean Tourism Organization, Bayley said it was still “undecided”.
He said, “We literally pressed pause, we will come back to that project probably in the coming months and we will make a decision and, of course, we will talk with the community and the government, so it is undecided I would say.”
Bayley was a key player in the Verdant Isle group that had an agreement with the previous government to partner on new cruise piers in George Town Harbour, pending the outcome of a people-initiated referendum.
He visited Cayman on several occasions to promote the project, which was still in flux prior to the pandemic.
Former Premier Alden McLaughlin announced, as the extent of the impact of COVID-19 became clear last summer, that the project had been abandoned.
Given the strength of community opposition, including from some of the politicians now leading the new PACT coalition government, it seems unlikely that it could be resurrected.
It also appears probable that any attempt to bring back a cruise pier project in Grand Cayman would need to be subject to a referendum.
Answering a question from the Cayman Compass during the Zoom briefing, aired on the CTO’s Facebook page, Bayley acknowledged the situation was complex.
He said, “The Cayman project has been, I would say, in place for many years. Literally, it came to a halt as the pandemic hit. It was complicated because there was some resistance to the idea of the project.
“It was going through a community, political process and we paused it.”
Royal Caribbean had partnered with Carnival Cruise Lines and developers McAlpine and Orion Marine Construction to form Verdant Isle Group which was selected as the “preferred bidder” for the Cayman port project in July 2019. The confirmation of a people-initiated referendum and the ensuing community debate had delayed the project and COVID-19 seemed to have killed it off.
Bayley, speaking Wednesday, insisted developing piers and infrastructure remained important for Caribbean destinations that want to attract cruise ships.
He said Royal Caribbean had moved ahead with new facilities in Galveston, Texas and in the Bahamas, even amid the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis.
He added, “As we look forward, I think the development of piers, improving the port infrastructure is part of the development of tourism.
“I think it has to be done, obviously with sensitivity, but not only Royal Caribbean, the other cruise lines as well, will be engaged with destinations across the Caribbean on these type of projects.”
The cruise line has had no earnings since cruising was shut down in March of last year.
Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International, said the company had weathered the storm thanks to the support of loyal shareholders, creditors and investors and predicted the industry would bounce back in 2022.
“Everyone understands this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime terrible event, so we were able to secure credit to make sure we are financially strong enough to last through this terrible period,” he said.
He emphasised the company’s commitment to the region and predicted a swift recovery, suggesting that interest and bookings were extremely strong from people who had been shut inside without a vacation during lockdowns in their home countries.
“Everybody needs a great vacation in the Caribbean,” he said.
Once it is cleared to begin sailing, he said Royal Caribbean would be going “full steam ahead” and the region would “come back roaring”.
Home porting in the Caribbean
The major cruise lines are still in negotiations with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over possible protocols to lift a “no sail” order which has left the industry and its ships in port for the past year.
He insisted plans to “home port” ships in the Caribbean were not designed to circumvent that order.
Royal Caribbean plans to station ships in the Bahamas, Bermuda and Barbados, running cruises direct from those destinations rather than the US.
Bayley said advance bookings were strong. He said all crew and guests on those ships will be fully vaccinated, with the exception of children, who will be tested before boarding.
None of those itineraries include Cayman. The marine border is still closed to tourists and the previous government had indicated it was unlikely to open to cruising until next year at the earliest, a position the new administration is expected to adopt.
Bayley indicated a desire to work with all governments in the region to safely bring back cruise tourism.
He said the industry has committed to have all crew members fully vaccinated.
“I think where we are headed is towards an environment where the destination population is largely vaccinated, the crew members on our ships will be fully vaccinated and the vast majority of guests will be vaccinated.”
He said the industry would be guided, on protocols for children and a small minority of unvaccinated adult passengers, by guidelines from the CDC and local authorities in destination ports.
He said the pandemic had been “terrible” for the tourism industry and the regional economy but predicted it would soon be in the past.
“I am pretty convinced that 2022 could be one of the biggest travel years in our history, not just for cruise but for the Caribbean.”