Tourism business owners are contemplating whether to shut their doors in the face of continued uncertainty over the future of the industry.
“Why should we stay open now? Why should we bother?” Steve Broadbelt, owner of Ocean Frontiers questioned during an emergency meeting of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association Friday morning.
“How long can we suck it up and carry on? Should we just close up until there is a date and a plan?”
CITA leaders spelled out the reality facing the industry, projecting low occupancy through the end of 2022 — even if Cayman opens in January.
Association president Marc Langevin said it would be up to each business to do their projections and see if they could hang on. He said CITA would push for a firm reopening date, so that visitors could book vacations for next year with confidence.
“We know Christmas is gone. Say goodbye to Christmas,” he told a crowd of around 100 business owners at the Marriott, with more watching on Zoom. “But we can rebuild from that if we have a date.”
Langevin emphasised that a firm, non-negotiable reopening date — accompanied by a plan to manage the logistics of COVID outbreaks — was the number one wish for the industry.
Several tourism leaders suggested Cayman now faces a long, slow road to win back the trust of airline partners, booking agents and repeat guests. CITA estimates that it will take at least five years to build back the island’s customer base.
Theresa Leacock-Broderick, immediate past president of the association, warned that some loyal Cayman visitors would now have established new relationships in other destinations.
Facing the potential of a third year of cancellations in Cayman, she said many in the accommodations sector fear permanent damage to their businesses.
She expressed concern that decision-making over the border was being driven by “hysteria”, rather than science and data. With or without tourism, she said Cayman would have to learn to live with COVID in the community.
‘We are casualties’
Leacock-Broderick said tourism businesses — many of them multi-generational Caymanian family businesses — had borne the brunt of the impact of the pandemic and border closure.
“In tourism, we have been the villains because we have been begging for the opportunity to go out and make a living,” she said.
“We haven’t been begging for handouts; we have been saying just give us the chance to make a living again.
“We are casualties, we are not villains. We are casualties.”
Leacock-Broderick added that business owners could be entitled to compensation because the right to earn a livelihood had been removed.
“I have numerous members of my family that depend on tourism — we are not begging any more, we are not being greedy — we have to survive,” she said.
Cancellations flood in
Markus Mueri, owner of NM Ventures restaurant group, which includes Abacus and Karoo, highlighted some of the impact on the industry, saying cancellations of bookings had begun almost immediately after Tuesday’s announcement.
“It is tough. It has been tough up to now and now it gets even harder,” said Mueri, highlighting the impact on local trade and Christmas parties.
Juliet Cumber-Forget, owner of Cayman Villas, said her inbox had been flooded with cancellation emails since Tuesday. She said the the failure to remove quarantine was a “deal-breaker” for overseas guests — even those who own property — and every booking, other than a handful of staycations, had been cancelled through the end of January.
She said she was running the business at a loss and, like many in the sector, was struggling to keep her few remaining staff on the payroll.
“It’s a very scary time for tourism employers right now,” she said, in a separate interview with the Cayman Compass. “Many of us don’t want to think about the ‘what if’, because the next phase for us could potentially be to let our remaining staff go, close up shop completely and look for another job ourselves,” she added.
“With the stark realisation that we are going to have another winter season with no tourists, this is looking like the only option for many businesses that simply do not have enough resources to ‘hang on’ any longer.”
She said the condos and villas sector generates 70% of its total revenue during the winter season and typically guests book 3-6 months in advance, meaning there would be a time lag for any possible recovery to kick in after an opening date is confirmed.
Speaking at Friday’s meeting, Langevin said every business faced the same problem to some degree. Without clarity over the opening date, he said guests would not book. The loss of the high season, he emphasised, impacts the whole of 2022 and has repercussions for the ability of businesses to maintain current staffing levels, let alone proceed with plans to rehire unemployed workers.
There remain concerns — even after reopening — about the vaccination verification process, which currently excludes many US states.
Prior to this week’s announcement, Leacock-Broderick said that was the key concern for the industry and was fuelling cancellations.
“Even if we reopened, we were still not going to get enough visitors coming to the island unless we found an alternative [to the current vaccination verification scheme],” she said.