More than a new port needed

While cruise tourism stakeholders generally agree Cayman needs berthing facilities, they also say George Town needs significant upgrades in order to thrive. Government is surveying the downtown core to recommend ways to make it more walkable.

The Cayman Islands Government tagged China Harbour Engineering Company as the latest contractor for the possible construction of cruise ship berthing in George Town Harbour, which cruise tourism industry stakeholders largely agree the Island desperately requires. Additionally, a general consensus seems to exist that the capital city itself is in dire need of upgrades. Like berthing facility plans, ideas for how to revive George Town have been discussed for years in relation to long-recognised challenges.

“George Town is becoming a ghost town,” said Robert Hamaty of the Association for the Advancement of Cruise Tourism. “And ghost town because of many different reasons. It’s not just cruise ships alone.”

Following a relatively robust winter season, less than 92,000 cruise tourists arrived in Cayman during May 2011, the lowest monthly number since 2000 and a 20 per cent drop from May 2010, according to Cayman Islands Department of Tourism statistics. When the data were released in early July, Premier McKeeva Bush said the lack of berthing facilities would result in a continuing drop in cruise traffic.

Not just cruise berthing

While cruise berthing is the single biggest initiative stakeholders are pushing, it is by no means the only proposal suggested to reinvigorate downtown, which has been criticized as being overbuilt and rundown.

In Cayman’s National Tourism Management plan for 2009-2013, consultants from London-based The Tourism Company wrote: “Compounding the problems of over-development is the poor quality of much of the urban design — and visitor management. George Town, for example, should be a vibrant centre of activity and a magnet for visitors and residents but the waterfront has not been capitalised upon and, with a few notable exceptions, the quality of development is ordinary.”

The consultants criticize downtown for having “few public spaces or pedestrian areas to help generate evening activity”, “poor hard and soft landscaping in key areas, intrusive electricity poles, poor maintenance and lack of attention to detail”.

Hamaty, who is president of Tortuga Rum Company, used gentler language in his appraisal of George Town, which he said was left behind as retailers and offices sprang up along the Seven Mile Beach corridor and in other districts. “It’s a beautiful little town and it needs to be resurrected,” he said.

Pointing to a decreasing flow of customers and stubbornly high rent, Hamaty closed his Tortuga Tipsy Turtle Souvenirs and T-Shirt Shop on Fort Street in late July.

In the national tourism plan, to which the Department of Tourism is not required to adhere, consultants give a list of proposed solutions to improve tourists’ experiences in George Town, including managing traffic better and making it easier to explore downtown by foot.

George Town on foot

The concept of making George Town more walkable is not a new one, even to the point of closing roads to automobiles to allow pedestrians to roam. For example, the National Strategic Plan for 1999-2008 calls for studying the “pedestrianization of central George Town during peak hours” to help handle the influx of cruise passengers. CIREBA president Jeremy Hurst traced the idea back further, saying it appeared in 1989 master plans as well.

Some members of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association are tossing about the prospect of pedestrianization again today, said Trina Christian, the Association’s executive director, who said traffic related to the cargo port in particular is incompatible with recreational activity in town.

“We are aware that the traffic flow in the evening from the Port Authority certainly prohibits George Town from having any form of night life,” she said. “We just had a recent request from some of our members to look at doing something in the high season to pedestrianize the George Town Harbour area even one night a week to allow for a more positive shopping experience, so we’re going to try to meet with some of our members to get some more ideas about how they would envision wanting to see that before we go to [the National Roads Authority] or [Planning Department] or whoever needs to give that permission.”

Christian said the ultimate desired objective is to construct cruise berthing facilities in George Town that would be separate from cargo port facilities. However, she said the Association opposes the proposed East End Seaport for a variety of reasons, including potential impact to the environment, dive sites and “a decided vision to keep East End in more of its natural state”.

“If we’ve already done a significant amount of damage to corals in George Town Harbour, perhaps it’s best to keep the industrial and cruise activity there,” she said.

Separating tourist and commercial activity within George Town certainly poses complexities that could not be solved overnight, Christian said. In the meantime, though, she sees possible compromises that would not necessitate major infrastructure investments.

Christian said, “I think that could be a short-term solution, to have at least one evening where perhaps the traffic is routed a different way. As far as a longer-term solution, there would definitely have to be some modifications so that there is another route that the trucks can take if port activity is going to continue in George Town.”

Measured steps from Government

The Cayman Islands Government is not entertaining proposals to bar automobiles from downtown on a regular basis. However, officials are exploring ways to make downtown more friendly to pedestrians.

According to a statement issued by the Planning Department: “The Department of Planning, in collaboration with the National Roads Authority and the Recreation Parks and Cemeteries Unit, has conducted two walking audits of the George Town Central Business District.”

The first walking audit was conducted 31 May, with surveyors pacing up Elgin Avenue, west on Shedden Road to the waterfront, along Harbour Drive to North Church Street, east on Mary Street, south on Edward Street to Main Street. The second walking audit was conducted 21 June and included the eastern portion of Shedden Road, Dr. Roy’s Drive, Cardinal Avenue and Albert Planton Drive, Fort Street and Mary Street, according to the statement.

“The walking audit is a diagnostic tool to assess the walking environment (walkability) of a street, neighbourhood, campus, and so on. The audit can highlight aspects of highly walkable environments and identify areas that require improvement in less pedestrian friendly areas. The walking audit employs a checklist or spread sheet to identify deficiencies like missing sidewalks or curb ramps, obstacles in the public way and dangerous street crossings, and other safety or trip hazards over the course of the walk. Other environmental factors assessed include active street frontage, the presence of litter bins, inadequate landscaping, shade, (street trees or structures),” according to the statement.

The purpose of the audits is to identify issues, in categories such as accessibility, walkability and transport and propose solutions to those issues. For example, regarding accessibility (or the ease of access by all persons), issues might include an abrupt change in level from a sidewalk to a driveway – with a solution being to cut the curb to ramp down at the change in level. Regarding walkability (or how conducive a place is to walking), issues might include a lack of shade for pedestrians or places to stop and sit – with a solution being to install trees or provide seating. Another walkability issue might be the lack of a safe opportunity for pedestrians to cross a road – with a solution being to put in a crosswalk. Regarding transport, issues might include unsafe collection points for public transit users – with a solution being to put in a bus stop with a lay-by (an area where a bus can pull out of general traffic).

According to the statement, “The walking audits are daylong exercises in themselves; however, the follow up work in terms of cataloguing findings and drafting a report is the next step. The report is in progress and is a collaborative undertaking to prioritise recommendations and suggest potential implementation strategies.”

The Planning Department is also collaborating with the NRA and others to improve connectivity and the public realm – which is described in the statement as “public space between buildings including streets, footpaths, squares, plazas etc.” – throughout Grand Cayman. For now, officials have broken down the initiative into two projects, one focused on the Island as a whole and one focused specifically on George Town. “Assessments will be done in the future for Seven Mile Beach and West Bay in addition to other island wide initiatives,” according to the statement.

The policy initiatives include “the drafting of guidance documents and the creation of area action plans that are short and medium range initiatives”, according to the statement.

George Town living

As Hamaty did, Hurst of CIREBA also described the deterioration of downtown as the product of multiple factors over time, with office developments conflicting with duty-free retailers catering to morning cruise traffic, and with eateries facing competition from new restaurants outside the central business district.

He said the Government’s choice to keep its administrative headquarters in George Town ensures that the capital city will remain the business centre of the Island, with the rear of George Town oriented around commerce, and the centre and front focused on cruise tourism. Hurst said downtown residences could be a potential natural supplement to existing development, especially after the construction of cruise berthing and segregation of cargo facilities.

“I can see the opportunities of creating a pedestrianized area, which allows cafés to spill onto the streets, entertainment in the evening, very much in the same way Camana Bay has done with their product. I think if we can also achieve the relocation or certainly the sectioning off of the commercial part of the dock, you could create a beautiful environment around the new docking facility,” Hurst said.

A concentration of downtown residents would bolster the customer base for restaurants and shops in the late afternoon and evening after cruise tourists return to their ships.

“The market demands what has been built. Up until now it has been a difficult sell to build a condominium complex in the centre of George Town for economic and also for demand reasons, so that’s why it hasn’t happened,” Hurst said. “But if you had a nicely pedestrianized area with certain areas that were communal, it could well be that you for example, could link residential floors to an office building or retail building. Camana Bay has proved that could be attractive.”

He said, “There are numerous examples from around the world where you can regenerate the central business district or port area or dock area very successfully from a residential perspective.”