As annual visitor numbers edge closer to 2.5 million, the question arises: Has the Cayman Islands reached the tipping point on tourism?

Some on island are of the view that it is time to take a long-haul look at efforts to attract more visitors and to continue to critically evaluate proposals such as the new cruise port and the issue of private beach access, for example.

Others, however, say that Cayman is far from the point of being overwhelmed by tourists, and that there is still much room for growth in accommodations and real estate development.

In January, it was reported that nearly 2.4 million visitors arrived in the Cayman Islands in 2018, the highest number recorded for a single year. The total air and cruise ship arrivals in 2018 was up 11.05% over 2017.

Each of the first four months of 2019 were record-breaking ones, with a total of 191,883 visitors touching down at Owen Roberts International Airport, compared with 173,227 for the same period last year – an increase of more than 10% on what was previously Cayman’s best year for stayover visits.

In a press release, the Department of Tourism noted that visitor spending was an estimated $305 million in the first four months of this year.

After the January report on visitation numbers, Minister of Tourism Moses Kirkconnell noted the government’s commitment to investing in the cruise port and airports.

“These much-needed upgrades will benefit [our] tourism operators, businesses, visitors and residents,” he said in a press release.

The proposed new cruise port, in particular, has been a source of debate on island for many months.

“Thousands of people are negatively impacted by traffic, yet we are considering significantly increasing cruise ship visitors arriving in George Town,” said Gabriella Hernandez of Save Cayman, a non-profit grassroots organisation with a focus on sustainable tourism.

“What is ultimately important is a clear development plan that takes into consideration what our islands can feasibly support,” she said. “Maybe it is time to consider if more visitors is better, or if we ought to focus on the quality of experience we provide for visitors that would let them choose us for years to come.”

Room to grow

Others believe there is still plenty of room for more visitors, and that the quality of what Cayman has to offer is only getting better.

“We are far from reaching a breaking point for tourism,” said Kim Lund, RE/MAX Cayman Islands owner/broker. “Of over 2 million tourists in 2018, only 463,000 were overnight tourism needing accommodations (there were already 354,000 in 2000). We still have plenty of capacity to accommodate more tourists.

“In the last five years,” Lund said, “capacity increased by 33%. This was due to new tourism development and previously non-rental accommodations becoming available, attracted by strong revenues through Airbnb, VRBO, better rental rates, owner websites, etc.”

A report in the Cayman Compass in February stated that last year, 340 local Airbnb hosts drew 14,600 guests to the islands. Visitors stayed, on average, for about six days, according to data from Airbnb.

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

Lund added that many more tourist accommodations are coming, including the Hilton (90 rooms) and Grand Hyatt (357 rooms), among others.

Having said that, Lund acknowledged that large annual increases in tourism are not sustainable, but that the numbers will eventually level off.

“The Department of Tourism has done an excellent job in targeting high-quality tourism versus focusing on mass market tourism of lower quality and higher volume,” he said. “Our quality tourism spends more on vacation and buys real estate because they are more affluent, while having less impact on Cayman’s infrastructure because of the lower volume.”

Theresa Leacock-Broderick, president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, said, “Of course there could be a breaking point, particularly if the numbers of visitors should ever start to diminish the quality of the visitor experience.

“The National Tourism Plan addresses several situations in need of managing and improving our product as well as visitor experiences. However, in terms of strategy, the unknown, or rather the undeveloped, is the establishment of a manageable capacity limit, particularly in regards to the mix of cruise passengers and stayover visitors.

“Finding the appropriate percentage mix between cruise and stayover visitors and ensuring that the levels are not detrimental to the environment nor our sense of place and harmony” is the best way to achieve a balance with tourism, Leacock-Broderick said.

Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach

Hernandez added: “We have long been known for our tranquility and beauty [but] in more recent years of rapid and unplanned development, this has been compromised, and we hear from many visitors that they are not happy with the direction Cayman is going in.

“A comment we always hear is that if they wanted to be in a place that was overdeveloped, unsafe and stressful, they would stay home or go elsewhere. Now, they feel there are alternatives to Cayman.

“We need to realise and operate on our strengths which have made us a top tourism destination,” she said.

Hernandez’s perspective on the current impact of tourism highlights Save Cayman’s concerns.

“We are experiencing overcrowding on our beaches and sites such as Stingray City, which ultimately degrades the quality of experience for our visitors,” she said. “We as a country are now considering the development of Barkers beach because Seven Mile Beach, our main attraction, is overcrowded with our current visitor numbers.

The best way to achieve a balance between tourism and protecting the environment, she said, is to “engage the community and those with the expertise, knowledge and care to draft a long-term development plan that balances social, environmental and economic needs fairly as they are intertwined”.

Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach

Some sectors, notably government, are pleased with the direction – and the benefits – of Cayman’s tourism.

In a statement released in April, Tourism Minister Kirkconnell said, “Our thriving tourism sector continues to be a major contributor to the growth of our local economy. We are pleased that the investment in our tourism product from both the public and private sector positively impacts Caymanians and those who have made this dynamic sector their profession.”

Leacock-Broderick said, “Timing is everything. Both the public and private sectors in Cayman collaborate well together to attain greater results. There are also significant advertising dollars spent by brands that collectively have an impact on attracting visitors to our shores, including the airlines and airlift opportunities. However, one of the the major influences on our successes are our repeat guests, who simply love the Cayman Islands. They keep returning and telling others about their experiences; word-of-mouth goes a long way in this regard.”

Lund also underscored the benefits of tourism: “While we have an active residential real estate market, tourism provides the demand that necessitates new hotels and condominium developments, retail locations, restaurants, tours and services, etc. It is the engine for creating more jobs, stimulating the economy and improving the standard of living.”

Sustainable tourism

Hernandez looks to sustainable tourism as the key to preserving what Cayman has to offer.

“Sustainable tourism means that we are utilising our resources in a manner that will benefit both current and future generations,” she said. “These days, many younger tourists are keen on authentic experiences, providing greater opportunity and direct access for local, small businesses to share what makes us unique.

“Exhausting our resources for short-term gain is foolhardy and will not create the necessary level of self-sufficiency and long-term economic viability we need to aspire to,” she said. “We can look at other jurisdictions and how they have dealt with these issues for guidance.”

A tender ferries passengers to a cruise ship in George Town harbor. Plans for a cruise berthing dock in Grand Cayman mean tenders would no longer be required. – PHOTO: CHRIS COURT
A tender ferries passengers to a cruise ship in George Town harbor. – PHOTO: CHRIS COURT

CITA President Leacock-Broderick said, “We think sustainable tourism is absolutely necessary if we are to continue to be successful even in the next couple of decades, and more so for 50 years or 100 years.

“Sustainability is multifaceted and is linked to environmental protection and conservation, as well as the creation of career and entrepreneurial opportunities for future generations of Caymanians. It is important to establish pathways right now to ensure we pass on the cultural identity and the economic opportunity in ways that inspires the next generation to be active in tourism while responsibly managing our resources and core values that make the Cayman Islands the wonderful place to live and visit.”

As debates continue over the proposed cruise port, high-rise developments, preserving Cayman’s environment and balancing tourism numbers with the impact on the quality of what the islands have to offer, the question of how much tourism is too much remains unresolved.

“Our real estate industry relies on tourism for business,” said Lund. “We have something very special here. As long as we continue to provide good value through friendliness, safety and quality, there will be a strong foundation for future generations.”

Hernandez said, “What is ultimately important is a clear development plan that takes into consideration what our islands can feasibly support.

“No one wants zero development. What we believe the public wants is to see development with reason, foresight and which is beneficial for Caymanians.

“We are a small island community and our resources are more finite than other nations. We need to be responsible and think ahead.”

Leacock-Broderick noted that the word is out about what attracts people to these islands: “The Caymankind atmosphere is one that is peaceful, friendly and relaxed, yet refined.

“The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism does a great job of being in the forefront of market trends and collaborating with the private sector,” she said. “We believe that this collaboration is an asset to our destination and drives us in the right direction.

“Outside of destination marketing, it is the human capital and talented individuals in our islands that truly act upon that promise of excellence.”