Spectacular coral reefs teeming with diverse sea life make the Cayman Islands a mecca for divers. But some wonder whether the industry gets its due when it comes to luring tourists.
In fact, an industry dive leader is advocating for a new economic impact study to determine the contributions the sport makes to the economy. He believes it will prove the importance of the dive industry to the islands.
Keith Sahm, general manager of Sunset House and a watersports representative on the Cayman Island Tourism Association, says the last study he knows of that includes economic information was published in 1995 using 1993 data. That study – titled “Diving in the Cayman Islands: Economic Impact & Requirements for Maintaining its Premier Status” – found that divers spent $69 million in 1993 for diving and non-diving activities including lodging, meals and shopping.
“Divers contribute heavily to other non-diving activities while visiting Cayman. … Thus, the diver tourism amounts to about 10 percent of the GDP and 34 percent of total tourism revenue,” the study concluded.
Nearly 20 years later – despite Cayman’s being home to the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame and routinely cited by divers as a top spot for dive operations and underwater experiences – Sahm says there is a dearth of economic data locally about the sport.
“I think it’s important for the diving industry down here as a whole to see what we actually represent to the gross national product,” said Sahm. “Right now, i don’t think anyone knows what these numbers are. Pick any industry – what does that mean to the economy… If you don’t know, you can’t say it’s a successful program or it’s contributed so many tax dollars or what it does for the economy of the Cayman Islands. The sport of scuba diving – in our minds, it’s huge.”
‘Pillar of the economy’
Sergio Coni, operations manager of Don Foster’s Dive, calls diving “one of the biggest pillars” of the economy, adding, “Little Cayman’s population depends totally on the dive industry.”
Coni said many tourists first discover diving on a trip to the islands “and having experienced it, now they want more. And they continue diving, here and new places, purchasing gear and talking to friends who in turn may want to try it, too. We do not mind if people get addicted to diving. … They will take that and spread the gospel of the sea, favoring the economies of other places too.
“I would love to see a study where the actual benefits are shown, and ways to improve the industry moving forward to benefit the islands in an even more conscious way. In my mind, the only way we should go forward is with sustainable tourism, with strong views in protecting the environment – enhancing the possibilities without changing the natural beauty [like canals, golf clubs, docks] and trying to cater to the younger generations of tourists who seek to see things the way they are in nature rather than buildings or man-made attractions.”
Sahm and Coni cite multiple attributes – both below and above the surface – that make the islands attractive to divers: the clarity of the water, professional operators, the “Dive 365” initiative that highlights the sheer number of moored dive sites for people of all experience levels, the ease of air travel. Also on the list: “The Caymanian people are warm people. It’s safe down here,” Sahm added.
Indeed, divers back up those claims.
Patricia Wuest, editor in chief of Florida-based Scuba Diving and Sport Diver magazines, cited the islands’ ranking in annual surveys.
“I have longtime experience with how the Cayman Islands rank as a dive destination. We do a reader survey that is called the ‘Top 100’ and the Cayman Islands are perennial winners. Last year it won number one for best overall destination in the Caribbean/Atlantic,” she said. “It comes out on top or in the top five for just about every category.”
The islands won so many awards that when the magazine kicked off a new series spotlighting dive destinations last year, the Cayman Islands were the first to be featured, Wuest said. The islands are also among Wuest’s favorite dive destinations: “Ever since they put the Kittiwake down, it’s just one of my favorite places in the world to go, and it really added to Grand Cayman’s dive portfolio. And the walls are just unmatched in the Caribbean.”
By the numbers
According to the Department of Commerce & Investment and labor survey data, 625 people are employed by the dive industry, which consists of about 30 operators. The most recent immigration data available from the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism shows 15,942 visitors in 2013 listed “Dive” when asked the purpose of their visit, accounting for 4.6 percent of air travelers in 2013.
But dive operators’ own data are an indication those figures may be under-reported.
Sunset House – one of the larger dive operators on the islands – hosted 4,876 divers last year, Sahm said. Those figures, when factored into the immigration data, would mean Sunset House hosted 31 percent of all divers in 2013. Those divers also made multiple dives during their stay.
Don Foster’s reported hosting about 7,300 certified divers in 2013, in addition to another 2,600 or so people who participated in “Discover Scuba” adventures.
Another key statistic: Tourists arriving by air have climbed each year since 2009, with the 2013 total the highest in the last decade. Air travel is crucial to the dive industry, as such travelers tend to stay multiple days versus cruise ship visitors.
As part of any study, Sahm would like to see spending habits of divers. According to a 2013 Scuba Diving magazine survey, readers reported that they and members of their household spent an average of $6,673 on international dive trips/vacations in the prior 12 months. Forty-one percent of readers said they planned to travel to the Caribbean in the next 12 months, followed by 32 percent who cited Mexico/Central America.
Sahm said one reason he is pushing for updated figures is that he worries money spent by the Department of Tourism on promoting the dive industry is getting smaller every year, and new data may lead to a renewed commitment of such support.
Oneisha Richards, deputy director of international marketing and promotions for the Department of Tourism, said diving is one of the “niche” areas the department focuses on.
“We spend quite a bit in terms of marketing and promotions,” she said. “We’ve always had a very vested stake in diving. We consider it very important.”
She said the department currently spends 6 percent of its advertising dollars “on specific dive marketing placements.”
“We’ve talked about doing an economic study for tourism” on diving and other niche tourism areas, such as destination weddings, she said. The earliest such a study could be under way, she said, would be late 2015 or early 2016, adding, “these type of studies would take quite a bit of resources.”
One of the department’s recent initiatives to promote the islands as a dive destination is an overhaul of www.divecayman.ky – a website that is run and managed by the Department of Tourism. Richards said the revamped site should debut by early December.
She also cited the department’s representation at the DEMA (Diving Equipment and Marketing Association) trade show held Nov. 19-22 in Las Vegas, Nevada. “Our role at the show was destination marketing,” she said, adding that part of the mission was to encourage dive centers in the United States to promote the islands to their customers.
The department offered incentives to do so – giving away prizes as part of its “T’anks A Lot” program. This year’s grand prize winner – from Michigan – won the use of a Porsche for a year.
The lure of diving
Diving enthusiast Sahm, who has deep ties to Grand Cayman – coming first as a tourist from Indiana in 1981 – is heavily involved in protecting the fragile reef system in the waters surrounding the islands.
One of his latest efforts – along with dozens of volunteers in the diving community – involves restoration work on 12,000 square feet of coral that was damaged when the Carnival Magic cruise ship mistakenly dropped anchor on a reef just off Don Foster’s Dive.
“It really gives you a sick feeling when you go down there and look at it – 450 feet of chain literally dropped on the reef. A kid’s drowning, you jump in and go save him right? So that’s what we’re doing.”
He also was among several dive operators to team up with the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism for “Legends and Lions,” a weeklong scuba celebration held in early October to showcase the islands’ diving, honor those inducted into the Hall of Fame and, at the same time, fight invasive lionfish.
“That reef systems is very, very key to supporting the dive operators that end up supporting the government. If we don’t have a reef, we don’t have any place to take people diving.”