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What’s the way forward?

Apparently put on the back burner while financial services matters were first deal t with when the UDP government took office just over a year ago, tourism appears to have been placed firmly in the spotlight with new developments set to ensure the industry takes its rightful place as the second pillar of Cayman’s economy. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull speaks with tourism professionals at the recent Cayman Islands Tourism Exchange, to hear what they believe should be top priorities for both the public and private sectors for this most vital of industries.
 
Unprecedented efforts from both the private and public sectors to protect and promote Cayman’s financial services industry have taken place in the last year or so, with tax information exchange agreements signed almost monthly with a plethora of countries, and an aggressive marketing campaign led by Cayman Finance, the umbrella association for Cayman’s financial services associations.
 
Up-to-date that same passion has not been spent on Cayman’s tourism industry, which has suffered a severe dent in visitors since the 2008/2009 economic downturn. Now, with positive arrival figures every month this year [at the time of writing] the push to get Cayman’s tourism product up-to-speed and surpassing the competition has never been more timely, according to the experts.
 
The Cayman Islands Tourism Exchange, now in its ninth year and held at the Westin Casuarina Resort, is a valuable tool in strengthening the tourism product, inviting tourism partners from all over the world, such as wholesalers and travel agents, to congregate for a session of meetings and visits, thus simultaneously allowing Cayman to showcase its latest tourism product offerings. 
 
A slew of new developments
Deputy Premier Juliana O’Connor Connolly stepped in for the Premier McKeeva Bush giving an opening presentation to the CITE delegates. Highlighting the new push for tourism development within the public sector, she outlined key areas of development such as the cruise berthing facility, scheduled for completion by the end of 2012, Devy Shetty’s US$2 billion Narayana Cayman University Medical Center which, it is anticipated, will attract medical tourists in their thousands and new airlift services, such as the latest Delta Airlines non-stop flight between Grand Cayman and JFK, which began last month.   

Partnership strengthens
Trina Christian, executive director with the Cayman Islands Tourism Association says the development of the new The Ministerial Council for Tourism and Development and the Tourism Advisory Council will hopefully make a positive difference to the way the industry is to move forward.
 
“These entities will only serve to strengthen the public/private sector partnerships that already exist,” she says. “Combining our efforts mean we can make a lot more noise in the marketplace and really sell this destination properly.”
 
Cognisant of the fact that budget cuts are being made across the board, including the tourism budget, Christian says she is particularly looking forward to having more insight as to the costs of the government’s tourism marketing initiatives.
 
“Looking at return on investment, we are invited to comment on which initiatives we believe ought to be enhanced and which ought to be scrapped. But without the full picture, which includes the costs of such projects, it’s difficult to identify where the weaknesses are without the full breakdown. So we are very much looking forward to strengthening our relationship via our representation on the Tourism Advisory Council [on which the CITA has four representatives] in this way,” she states.
 
Christian stresses: “It should be highlighted that providing private sector input in this way does not mean that we are trying to tell government how to do their jobs. We are here to assist and advise to achieve better results for the good of the product as a whole. We will then be able to prioritise in an informed manner.”
 
Statistics are a fundamental part of that information process but Christian says the Economic and Statistics Office does not currently provide data in a format that is useful to the industry when it comes to the economic impact of tourism on the country.
 
“There is currently no data that Cabinet can provide to support the true economic impact of tourism on the economy and therefore decision-makers find it difficult to make informed decisions,” she states. “An economic impact study is now extremely timely.”
 
Harry Lalli, president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, says although he has not [at the time of writing] had a chance to meet with Ministerial Council or the Tourism Advisory council, he believes both are set up for inward investment for the Cayman Islands.
 
“If they are successful in bringing more investment to the Islands, then we will hopefully get more properties that can be made into boutique and name brand hotels,” he says.
 
Lalli thinks that the public and private sectors need to work together, “as both play an integral part of the tourism product.”
 
He continues: “Our immigration department, especially those who work at the airport, are the first people a tourist meets and one of the last people they meet as they leave the island. First impressions are everything and I believe the Pride training workshop is important for both the private and public sectors to have the employees take to be good ambassadors for the Cayman Islands.”

Combining tourism with finance
Christian is delighted that the Ministry of Tourism now encompasses the Ministry of Finance, as she believes there are strong synergies between the two offices that can be exploited to the advantage of both.
 
“I see this as a logical direction for both industries,” she confirms. “I think in the past we have overlooked that one of the reasons people want to conduct business here is the superior product we can offer guests once they are here.”
 
Christian believes that the benefits for both industries go hand in hand: tourism benefits from business visitors and businesses benefit from their clients actually wanting to come and conduct business here.
 
“This requires a different approach when it comes to marketing the destination,” she said. “We need to pool resources and share information to properly get the message out. We have to do a better job in this regard all round.”
 
The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Investment Conference, which took place in Puerto Rico in May, was well attended by tourism professionals from Cayman.
 
Christian, who was one such attendee, says that from speaking with other delegates it was obvious that the Cayman Islands tourism product was held in high regard by the Association’s members, yet the message about recent improvements and developments had not been heard and their rather antiquated view of Cayman’s tourism product was in need of an update.
 
“Their information was dated but they were pleased to hear about new developments,” she says. “It is evident that Cayman leads in terms of infrastructure, stability of airlift and ease of doing business. This little gem in the Caribbean should not be overlooked and needs constant promotion.”

Getting immigration up to speed
Now that the Ministry of Financial Services, Tourism and Development seems to be finally focusing on tourism, Christian says tourism partners within the industry are excited about the new impetus and hungry for business. The ability of the immigration system to smoothly handle work permit applications will play an integral part in the success (or failure) of the industry moving forward.
 
Christian says: “Delays in the processing of work permits at any time will be a deterrent to doing business, but at this current time of economic crisis it is even more crucial that they are processed quickly. We cannot afford any delays.”
 
Christian says the private sector tourism businesses do not expect all work permits to simply be rubber stamped but she does feel that those businesses in good standing with  business staffing plans that clearly outline the need for permits ought to be able to expect a speedy service.
 
“The process needs to be expedited,” she confirms.
 
Christian is disheartened by the increases in work permit fees that have effectively doubled for the industry, placing even greater pressure on an already pressurised industry.
 
The fact that the accreditation process, set to be implemented as of last moth [at the time of writing] will initially only be focusing on the financial services industry is another cause for concern.
 
Christian says: “The purpose of the accreditation system, on which the Immigration Department received extensive input from the tourism industry, was to reward all good corporate citizens and companies in good standing with a top tier service, not just those in the financial services industry. Hotels in particular require a large proportion of work permits and ought to be rewarded in this manner.”
 
She adds: “It is a fact of life that within the tourism industry there is a large proportion of the workforce that are from overseas. I challenge anyone to personally contact me if they have a Caymanian who is willing to work in the industry and who appreciates the long hours required and I will find employment for them. Although the rewards are numerous in many ways, it is a challenge is to put on a smile every day and work the hours industry professionals do.”

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