The Cayman Islands’ proximity to the United States, allied to a high-class top-end tourism set up, ought to make the destination a must-do for the private aviation industry.
But it appears that not enough is being done to attract these literal high-flyers.
“Over the years the Department of Tourism has not consistently targeted this niche market,” admitted Director of Tourism Shomari Scott.
“However, in the last two years we have made a concerted effort in partnership with the Cayman Islands Airports Authority and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Cayman Islands to employ a variety of tactics that reach this specific market. This includes representation at some of the industry’s premier annual conferences, thus providing opportunities to directly engage pilots who have expressed interest in flying to the Cayman Islands.
“As part of our strategic approach to growing this market, we are continuing to develop additional methodologies that will encourage more uptake in our destination,” said Scott.
Jim Parker, an expert on private aviation who has led special fly-ins to Cayman over the years, said that the market segment needs more investment.
“Fewer than 200 private aircraft visit The Cayman Islands each year – compared to about 55,000 flights a year to the Bahamas. So this lucrative tourism market has not been on the radar screen, so to speak, at the Tourism Department. The Cayman Islands has attended a few aviation events in the US but there is no strategic plan in place to effectively grow this important market segment.
“Spending $500,000 a year on this market segment, as does The Bahamas, is not a budget option for The Cayman Islands. However, for about $25,000 a year, The Cayman Islands could implement a comprehensive strategy using a widely recognised island aviation expert who would serve as a 24/7 contact point in the US for private pilots, organise fly-ins, liaise with US aviation organisation, aircraft owner associations, flying clubs, et cetera, and insure that there is a consistent and effective presence at major aviation events,” said Parker.
As far as return on investment is concerned, he added, past fly-ins organised by his company, Caribbean Flying Adventures, have pumped over $1,000,000 of tourism dollars into The Cayman Islands economy.
Scott said that evaluation of the competition had indeed pegged the Bahamas as Cayman’s primary competitors. However, that destination had various advantages over Cayman.
“Specifically, the Bahamas is the closest destination to the US, making it an easy destination to fly in to. They have many out island air strips affording the pilots to plan different itineraries with return visits.
“The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism employs several people that are dedicated to this market. This has proven, over the years to have been a successful tactic and the destination attracts private planes in the thousands. Currently, our budget would not support a dedicated resource against the number of current arrivals in this segment,” noted the director of tourism.
The Bahamas, continued Scott, also had an established network of ‘flying ambassadors’ abroad that assisted pilots in getting to the destination.
“We recognise that this is an important aspect for this market and one that the Cayman Islands is also looking to establish.
“While these methodologies have enabled much success for the Bahamas, these strategies also make up parts of our own plan as well,” said Scott.
The capacity at peak is around 45 to 50 aircraft, said Caston Powery, dispatch supervisor at Island Air, which provides fixed base operations at the airport.
“We do have a restriction on aircraft types overnight on the ramp such as the Gulfstreams and Global large aircraft type as their wing span is extensive.
“We tentatively accommodate the first 10 requests of large type aircrafts and after the 10th request we let them know they can only operate on date of travel. They can drop or pick up passengers on the day of operation. If they want the aircraft nearby we’ll advise them to go Cayman Brac, which can accommodate three to four large type aircraft, or Jamaica. As for small and medium type aircrafts we can accommodate them,” said Powery.
Attendance at airshows such as Oshkosh and Sun n Fun – the two biggest in the United States – is essential, said Parker, because hundreds of thousands of aviation enthusiasts plus thousands of aeroplanes are there.
Scott said that this also allows the Department of Tourism to correct misperceptions about over-flying Cuba, to also build databases of potential visitors and to keep up to speed with developments and expectations in and of the private aviation market.
“Based on the numbers that the competitive destinations get, this market can be potentially lucrative,” concluded the tourism boss.
“ We’ve learned at the various shows that the primary reason we don’t get our share of the market is that these pilots don’t know how close we are, and there is an unfounded concern about flying over Cuba. Once we educate them, they become much more comfortable about considering the Cayman Islands for a future visit.
“If we were to attract just a fraction of the pilots looking for alternatives to their current destinations, we could potentially quadruple the number of visits in a short period of time. Additionally, we know that these private pilots are always accompanied by other visitors who together spend several days in the destination. Based on the fact that they own the aircraft, they have the propensity to spend a significant amount of money on accommodations, attractions, food and retail goods,” said Scott.
Indeed, Parker noted, private aircraft owners spent about $500 million annually in the Bahamas.
“[But they spend] almost nothing in The Cayman Islands. So the market potential is enormous.”