Cayman had a total of 5,566 stayover visitors in the year since the pandemic began – about half of what the island would see in a single week during normal times.
Though the borders have been effectively closed since the outbreak hit Cayman’s shores in March 2020, there has been a trickle of tourists arriving on the occasional flights that have been coming in from London and Miami.
There have been no cruise visitors during that time.
Air arrivals peaked just before Christmas with 1,704 visitors flying into the island in November and December of last year.
That contrasts starkly with the nearly 100,000 visitors that came to Cayman over the same period in 2019.
The low numbers, published by the Department of Tourism and up-to-date through the end of the first quarter of 2021, come as no surprise, given the impact of the pandemic and the continuing restrictions on travel, including a 10-14 day quarantine period for anyone arriving on the island.
Limited eligibility for travelling to Cayman
Cayman Islands Tourism Association president Marc Langevin said he was amazed there were as many as 5,000 visitors since COVID-19 began.
“Nobody came here for a vacation,” he said.
The visitor numbers are likely to have come from government’s global citizen concierge programme, long-stay tourists who own property on island and relatives of residents who were prepared to quarantine in order to come to Cayman.
Returning residents and temporary workers would not be recorded in the stats.
In 2019, Cayman’s tourism industry had hit record levels. There were just over 502,000 air arrivals and more than 1.8 million cruise visitors during that year.
At the time, government hailed the economic impact of those arrivals on the island’s economy.
Ministry of Tourism officials pointed to around $1 billion in annual spending from tourists in the Cayman Islands as a sign of strength both for the government’s coffers and for private businesses.
The full impact of the COVID-induced decline has yet to be enumerated. There have been few business closures but restaurants say they are struggling to survive and hotels are losing money each month to keep the lights on in anticipation of reopening.
Government continues to subsidise its tourism businesses to keep them fully staffed as the crisis continues. Cayman Airways, for example, which has kept 400 staff on full pay throughout the pandemic, was given an additional $16.3 million through a supplementary budget appropriation to help cover loss of revenue through the end of 2020. It is likely that more funds will need to be allocated in 2021.
Langevin said the main danger now was the lack of certainty surrounding the reopening.
As the US starts to return to normal, there has been a huge surge in interest in travel.
Festive season at risk
Langevin said many customers were booking holidays now for the end of the year.
“We are not seeing the bookings we would expect for the last quarter of 2021 or for early 2022. Customers and travel agents are going for the path of least resistance and booking places that they know will be open. Everyone else (other islands) is enjoying a huge bounce.
“Customers are calling and asking if we are going to be open but we don’t have a message and that is becoming scary.”
He said Cayman risked missing the booking window for high season.
“The festive season is at risk,” he added.
The pandemic has already had an historic impact on tourism that far eclipses the damage done during past disasters, including Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
The previous record low for a calendar year for tourism was 167,760 in 2005 – the year after the storm, which hit in September, levelling hotels, homes and businesses across the island.
The total number of visitors for 2020 was 121,819 – a figure which was bolstered by record-breaking months in January and February before the pandemic hit mid-March.
Meetings between CITA and government over a plan for reopening that prioritises the hiring of Caymanians have been ongoing for some weeks.
Just over 70% of Cayman’s population has now had at least one dose of the vaccine and a new batch of more than 11,000 vaccines is arriving on island Wednesday.