While the Caribbean region has seen one of the greatest booms in stayover tourism numbers the Cayman Islands has been left behind writes journalist Basia Pioro McGuire.
The way to make Cayman more attractive is to make provision for a longer runway and a place for super yachts to berth.
“Looking at the issue of extending the runway, how can we expand our tourism market if we don’t move beyond the same four or five traditional hubs in the USA?” asks Dragon Bay Developer Michael Ryan.
“If we are to expand our market to Europe, the Far East and the Middle East, where there are plenty of people who would like to come here, we have to improve our airport. For instance Barbados’ market is almost entirely based on long haul flights from the UK and Europe. And yet even places like St. Lucia and Haiti have better runways and airports than Cayman – it’s embarrassing.”
He acknowledges it is well known he is not a big fan of cruise tourism but does recognise its place in Cayman’s tourism product.
“However, if we are going to have it, we need to attract the best boats, and make it attractive to disembark here. You are not going to do that by having visitors taking a tender to a terminal where they are baking in the hot sun and getting hassled by tour operators.”
He notes that Cayman’s market has not grown in a decade.
“While we have 200,000 to 250,000 unique stayover visitors per year, we have a million cruise passengers; these are the people who spread by word of mouth Cayman’s reputation, for good or ill, around the marketplace,” he says.
“We need to improve our product if we don’t want to slip further and further in the cruise market and if we want to improve our image to attract new investment and visitors.”
Floating some ideas
Ryan says to move forward Cayman has to look at itself and ask where we have an unique advantage for the international community to see us as one of the choice places to visit.
“A terrific opportunity is opening up. Until now, we have not been part of the luxury yacht market, even though 85 per cent of all super yachts are actually registered in Cayman,” says Ryan.
That’s due to geography, as Cayman is outside traditional cruising areas like the eastern Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
He says a lot of the people who own these yachts go to places where they can find first class facilities and the reassurance they can put their boat in a safe place. The Bahamas, St. Maarten, St. Lucia, BVI, USVI are all expanding to improve their facilities.
“However, with Cuba opening up, thanks to Obama, it has changed everything for us with regard to that market,” says Ryan.
“It’s one thing we can actually thank Obama for.”
Specifically, Cuba is opening up for yachting, and these yacht owners will be interested in visiting its beautiful south coast.
“Suddenly we find ourselves in a central location, right in the middle of Cuba, the Yucatan and the eastern Caribbean. Cayman’s traditional position as a hub can be recaptured,” he says.
He notes there are a lot of people with $20 million to $50 million yachts that would see a great benefit to visiting Cayman.
“They would love to cruise to Cuba, but there is no way they would leave their yachts or their jets there,” he says. “They could instead leave their boats in Cayman and use Cayman as a base for the western Caribbean.”
He says a longer runway and a deepwater channel to the North Sound are both needed for this idea to work. But something else is needed as well.
“We don’t need new laws, or new regulations for this to happen. We need courage,” says Ryan.
He cites past Cayman figures like Vassel Johnson, Big Jim Bodden, and Captain Kirkconnell, who, in his words, “got things done”.
“These days, we have been so busy analysing ourselves, navel gazing so long, suddenly we find ourselves sitting still.
An initiative like this needs courage, and honesty, all wrapped up together with a vision for growth,” says Ryan.
“The problem is, huge decisions are being made based on what’s being said on talk shows! Instead, let’s have a debate based on the facts; not on emotion. If the facts state that this is a good idea, then let’s do it. If not, then not,” he continues.
“We are not breaking new ground here. We have hundreds of other places that have done exactly the same things we are discussing, to look to for what does and doesn’t work, we need to use the best practices model.”
A National Conservation Law has been publicly discussed and is slated to go to the Legislative Assembly this year.
Department of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie has said that if the conservation law was in place, the North Sound dredging project would trigger an environmental impact assessment, which would provide solid evidence on whether there was a market for mega yachts in Cayman and any ensuing economic benefits, as well as look at potential environmental impacts on the Sandbar.
“We could look at this in a way that was objective, not speculative and subjective and the people charged with the making the decision – Cabinet – would have that information, but the public also would have that information.