Improving the product to win cruisers back

Cayman’s comprehensive programme to convert cruise tourists to stayover guests has recently been unveiled by the Department of Tourism. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull places the cruise industry under a microscope as it relates to Cayman, examining ways to enhance the cruise passenger experience so that they will want to choose Cayman for a longer vacation destination in the future.

Cruise tourism has developed in Cayman to such a vital level that it accounted for US$69.5 million in employee wages from May 2008 to April 2009, according to a survey carried out by the Business Research and Economic Advisors for the Florida and Caribbean Cruise Association. The survey, titled Economic Contribution of Cruise Tourism to the Destination Economies, also found that cruise tourism accounted for US$174,400,000 in cruise tourism expenditure into the economy as well as providing 3,731 jobs in the Cayman Islands.
The survey also found that the Cayman Islands ranked high in the overall list of top cruise destinations for visitors (in order of favour – the US Virgin Islands, Cozumel, the Bahamas, St Maarten, Puerto Rico, the Cayman Islands and Jamaica). These destinations accounted for 69 per cent of the total cruise tourism expenditure among the 29 destinations surveyed.

Room for improvement
However, the Cayman Islands does not rank at the top in any of the survey’s findings on cruise visitor satisfaction, of crucial importance if the jurisdiction is to successfully convert one-time visitors into taking perhaps a week- or two week-long vacation, during which time it is anticipated the visitor will spend considerably more into the economy.
According to the survey of passengers as to whether the destination met their expectations found that the Cayman Islands ranked only 15th out of 29 with 82.5 per cent saying Cayman met or exceeded their expectations. Cozumel came first with 90.2 per cent, followed in order by Huatulco, Mexico; St Maarten; Curacao and the US Virgin Islands. 
In a survey of onshore welcome satisfaction, Cayman dropped even lower to 20th place. Top place went to Guatemala with 94 per cent satisfied, followed in order by Honduras, Cozumel, Huatulco and the Bahamas. Only 85.2 per cent were happy with their onshore welcome in Cayman.
In purchased tour satisfaction, Cayman came out even worse, at 26th place, ranked only above Nicaragua; Cartagena, Colombia; and the Dominican Republic with 83.8 per cent of those who purchased a tour happy. St. Vincent and the Grenadines topped this list with a 96.7 per cent success rate, followed in order by Cozumel, Honduras, Costa Rica and Dominica.
With regard to the satisfaction cruise visitors had with historical sites and museums, Cayman again fared low on the list at 25th place. Cozumel, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Belize and Cartagena all ranked highest.
Prices were also an issue for cruise visitors, ranking Cayman 21st, with Guatemala, St Maarten, the US Virgin Islands, St Kitts and Cozumel the top five for value for money.
Cayman’s redeeming factor was its friendliness of residents, ranking 11th, with Cozumel, the US Virgin Islands, St Maarten, the Bahamas and Acapulco the top five most friendly destinations.    

Initial impressions are crucial

Cayman is one of only two cruise destinations in the Caribbean on the major cruise line routes without a berthing facility. Belize is the other. This means that passengers have to alight from their ship onto a tender, thus eating into valuable shore time on island.
Managing the cruise passengers when they first arrive in Grand Cayman is seen as an important stage in whether a cruise visitor enjoys the destination. Unfortunately, the average experience for a cruise visitor to Cayman is overwhelming. The Royal Watler Port is a large space and was much needed in order to manage cruise visitors when the inadequate north and south terminals were the only piers in use; however, industry experts do not believe it is used to its full advantage, with the end result that valuable time is wasted while cruise visitors try to fathom where they are supposed to be going.
Brynley Davies from the Image Group and a member of the Association for Cruise Tourism says: “After getting off the ship it is all about first impressions and Cayman does not excel here. The Royal Watler Port has little shade, public seating and foliage. It is not an inviting place and is not terribly efficient at moving people to where they would like to go and need to be. Although there is retail on the port this is limited. Signage is not very evident.”
A berthing facility is planned and estimates are that this will be a two-year project.
Robert Hamaty, president of Tortuga Rum Company and also a member of the association, says, “Local people look upon the Royal Watler Port area as an airport, i.e. a place that they would not choose to visit unless they had to. We need to make it a far more welcoming place not just for cruise visitors but for locals as well.”
Although the Department of Tourism has an information booth at the Royal Watler Port, it appears overwhelmed and does not serve as a central focus for visitors.

Running the gamut
Another issue that is continuously objected to by cruise visitors is the barrage of independent tour operators that bombard visitors the minute they set foot on Cayman soil.
The survey found that on average 57 per cent of cruisers purchased a tour. Out of that figure, 77.5 per cent purchased the tour via the cruise lines themselves, 17.7 per cent purchased the tour from onshore tour operators and 4.8 per cent purchased the tour from a travel agent.
This means that over three quarters of cruise visitors who have purchased a tour have already done so by the time they arrive in Cayman.
“When you visit St. Maarten there is an area set up specifically for all ground transportation. If you want to take a taxi into town there is a shaded area where guests form a short line whilst they are assigned a cab. The price is standard and there is no jockeying for business. It’s efficient, orderly and gives a great first impression of the island. Compare this to Cayman, which has none of these things and the experience could not be more different,” Davies said.

Once onshore

Almost no resident of Grand Cayman would voluntarily visit George Town during busy cruise ship days for fear of being caught up in the congestion of vehicles as well as people downtown. While Cayman has some of the finest shopping in the Caribbean (it rated 10th in the survey with 85.2 per cent of respondents happy with their shopping experience in Cayman), the congestion might put people off from revisiting for longer.
Davies says: “Cayman does boast some of the best shopping in the western Caribbean and we need to continue to evolve and grow this if we are to stay ahead of our competitors. George Town is not cruise visitor friendly and we need to take a long term approach as to how we are going to improve this. This may include some kind of pedestrianisation in some parts, which may be permanent or just when there are ships in town. Obviously this has profound effects on the traffic management of the whole Island and we need to provide a comprehensive plan, which recognises the needs of all businesses, resident and visitors alike.”
Hamaty said: “We have to manage George Town better as a cruise visitor destination otherwise the town will die. We desperately need the berthing facility to keep cruise visitors on Island (and therefore spending) longer. George Town now competes with so many different shopping centres in Cayman, including the Countryside Shopping Village in Savannah and Governor’s Square in West Bay, so we have to concentrate our efforts on enlivening George Town, especially at night.”
Visually, Cayman could enhance its product to attract visitors back to shore.

Read more about the competition next month.