Economic Forum highlights concerns over cruise pier project

Cruise ship passengers board a tender to return to their ship in George Town harbor. G- Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Regular readers of the Cayman Compass and other local media are surely used to seeing headlines over the years such as “Cruise dock deal on track,” “Government gives green light to George Town cruise dock,” and “Government plans to go ahead with cruise dock.”

Months later, those headlines are inevitably followed up with new ones such as “Cruise pier project faces delays,” “No cruise berthing contract before election,” and “Port won’t develop anytime soon.”

Nevertheless, government insists that it’s close to selecting a bidder to build a $180 million cruise and cargo dock in George Town Central.

After putting the project out to bid last September, government narrowed down the potential companies to undertake the development to five in April. The Central Tenders Committee met on May 9 to draw up a shortlist for a final round of bidding, and the deadline for those detailed final submissions is in July.

A contract is expected to be awarded in September.

Government officials have long touted the cruise pier project as a way to boost Cayman’s tourism sector and further diversify the territory’s economy, as well as a measure that would help revitalize central George Town. The number of cruise passengers coming here would likely increase from the usual 1.7 million to well more than 2 million per year, and those passengers would be able to come to shore much more easily and reliably.

Currently, passengers have to be ferried in from the cruise ships anchored offshore, and bad weather can hamper this. For instance, stormy seas in January and February 2016 cost Cayman an estimated $5 million in revenue when some 54,000 passengers were prevented from coming ashore.

At last month’s Chamber of Commerce Economic Forum, some tourism officials also pointed out that bringing in millions of cruisers serves as a marketing tool for the jurisdiction.

The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman General Manager Marc Langevin added that cruisers sometimes “window shop” on their trips and return later.

However, wide swaths of the community oppose the project for a variety of reasons. Many of those concerns were expressed during the economic forum.

“There seems to be a general trepidation over what ‘getting it right’ entails, and whether the country can manage a far greater number of visitors when government still struggles with management and enforcement issues at the current levels of visitation,” Cayman Islands Tourism Association President Theresa Leacock-Broderick said of the port project.

The primary concern expressed was about how an influx of cruisers would impact the experience of overnight tourists. With a limited amount of beach space and other tourist attractions, an influx of cruisers runs the risk of crowding out the overnight tourists paying thousands of dollars to come to Cayman for a high-end vacation.

“There are days in high season where we’re already at carrying capacity in terms of beach access and road infrastructure,” said Pilar Bush, the executive vice president of marketing and communications at Dart Enterprises. “Certainly, there are days in February and March where there’s a conflict.”

Oneisha Richards, the deputy director of international marketing and promotions at the Department of Tourism, said a study will be conducted about what the territory’s true carrying capacity for tourists is. However, she said she could not provide a number right now.

Carrying capacity is also an issue that affects the territory’s environment. Environmentalist Guy Harvey brought this up during the Economic Forum, asserting that Cayman is already at its carrying capacity.

“We’re already there in terms of the resilience of some of our main attractions,” he said. “Sand bar is already oversubscribed, especially on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.”

Cruisers have also been criticized for contributing little to the island’s economy once they are here. Chamber of Commerce CEO Wil Pineau mentioned that cruisers have often been referred to here as “peanut butter and jelly tourists” because they pack their own lunches before going onshore instead of patronizing local restaurants and bars.

Along with the traditional concerns, a new one was also mentioned during the financial services portion of the Chamber of Commerce Economic Forum. With the jurisdiction facing a number of attacks from anti-offshore, non-governmental organizations like the Tax Justice Network, government bodies such as the European Union, and intergovernmental agencies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Cayman needs to marshal all the resources it can to defend itself, some people asserted at the forum.

“This is the time to rally the troops and put all other projects on pause – i.e., a $300 million cruise berthing project – at a time when you’re going to lose between 15 and 30 percent of your financial services revenue,” said an audience member during the question-and-answer portion of the event.

Cayman Finance CEO Jude Scott and Financial Services Ministry Chief Officer Dax Basdeo were on the panel, and did not comment on the audience member’s comment. However, Chamber of Commerce President Paul Byles was not shy in voicing his agreement.

“Those are good points for people to hear, especially those outside this room.” Byles said in response.

The economic forum is far from the first place these concerns about the port project have been aired.

When the idea of building a cruise pier was first seriously discussed by government in 2003, then-Opposition Leader Kurt Tibbetts opposed the idea right away, warning against the negative impacts of “huge volumes of cruise ship visitors on the environment, the community and the number of stay-over visitors.”

“[T]he government seems intent on a course of action to encourage even more cruise ship visitors,” he said during a June 2003 budget debate. “It seems like the government is pursuing this course of action despite the overwhelming evidence across the region that concomitant with an increase of cruise ship visitors is a drop in the number of stay-over visitors. Statistics prove that and on reflection it is easy to understand why.”

Criticism has been maintained over the last 15 years, including at an August 2015 public hearing on the matter, when nearly 350 of the 473 comments received contained objections to the plan, arguing that the project would harm coral reefs and historic shipwrecks. Retailers mostly support the project; opposition came mainly from visitors and diving companies.

Despite that opposition, government is pressing full-force ahead on the development this time, having determined a financing model and other details about the project.

And despite some criticism over perceived lack of transparency in the project, the Tourism Ministry has insisted that the process, though slow, had been handled according to international standards.

“While it is a lengthy, methodical and complex process, we believe in its efficacy and are satisfied that by taking this approach, we are doing everything possible to deliver a world-class and affordable cruise berthing facility that will be owned by the people of the Cayman Islands,” the Tourism Ministry stated in April.