Next month, the bulk of the remaining staff and crew of Cayman’s Reef Divers will load up four boats and make the 520 nautical mile, 34-hour ocean crossing to set up shop in Turks and Caicos.
After 16 months without any overseas guests in Cayman, eight staff will join the “Reef Divers armada”, refuelling from portable totes, as they travel to a new outpost.
“We have to go where the tourists are,” said Michael Tibbetts, owner of the business, which is expanding its horizons beyond the Cayman Islands as a survival strategy amid the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and the border closure.
The parent business, JEM Worldwide, which has operations on all three Cayman islands, has bought East Bay Resort on South Caicos island. Tibbetts said expansion beyond Cayman’s borders had always been part of the long-term vision, but had become an immediate necessity in the past year.
Visitors that were booked to visit the Cayman dive resorts will be redirected to the South Caicos operation for the time being, he said.
Tibbetts said the decision to invest elsewhere was accelerated based on short- and long-term fears over the future of the tourism industry in Cayman.
He said he had sold land in Cayman and shelved plans to expand his resorts here in order to focus on the Turks and Caicos project.
Tibbetts, as a multi-generational Caymanian, says he is committed his homeland, but the business has to diversify to survive.
“We are as committed as we can be, but we have to make a business decision and go where we can generate revenue,” he said.
“We are losing millions in our Cayman operations and we certainly will not have a chance to stay in business if we don’t look to operate elsewhere.”
Jason Belport, executive vice president of the business, which includes Little Cayman and Cayman Brac Beach Resorts and Cobalt Coast in West Bay, said multiple guests had vacations cancelled two or three times since March last year and were beginning to become frustrated.
He said the business, which operates under the name Clearly Cayman Resorts, had loyal customers who typically returned for dive trips year-after-year.
“They are out of patience. If we don’t get them in the water soon we are going to lose them.”
Acquiring the new property in Turks and Caicos gives the business an option to cater to its clientele without losing them as repeat customers that may ultimately return to Cayman, he added.
Belport said dive businesses rely on group travel which is often booked well in advance.
Although measures may be announced soon about reopening Cayman, as the island inches towards its vaccination target, he said the lack of a clear schedule was already harming potential business for next year.
“When we do reopen we may find people have already booked somewhere else,” he added.
“We have regular guests wanting to book for 2022 and 2023 and they are going elsewhere.”
Brad Barnett, president of JEM, said guests were taking out their frustrations about the border reopening on the business. He said tourists had initially been understanding of Cayman’s policy on reopening but were now beginning to become impatient and even angry.
Tibbetts said being in more than one location would give his business the versatility to survive future potential shocks to the industry.
The resort JEM Worldwide has acquired in South Caicos currently has 40 rooms and will eventually expand to 120 rooms. Tibbetts said the TCI government had been supportive of the project and the island is currently experiencing record tourism levels.
The Cayman Islands government is seeking to ensure as many people as possible are vaccinated before reopening the borders for tourism. Currently, vaccinated people can visit with a five-day quarantine period, provided their vaccination certificate can be securely verified.
Travellers who have been vaccinated in the US or other countries are still required to quarantine for 10 days. Unvaccinated travellers are required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Cayman.
Restrictions are expected to be eased further as the proportion of vaccinated people on island increases.
An estimated 64% of the island’s population has currently had both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. But the rate of new vaccinations has slowed considerably with fewer than 200 people receiving their first jab since the latest batch arrived on island in mid-June.