Last updated: 05:28 PM ET, Thu July 02 2015

Cayman Island Tourism Stakeholders Divided On New Pier

Destination & Tourism | Brian Major | July 02, 2015

Cayman Island Tourism Stakeholders Divided On New Pier

PHOTO: A $150 million cruise pier project would impact Cayman Islands dive sites according to a recent environmental impact statement. (Courtesy of the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism).  

Cayman Islands tourism stakeholders are choosing sides in a widening debate over the construction of a $150 million cruise ship facility viewed by some as key to the country’s economic future.

The debate follows the publication last month of an environmental impact statement (EIS) commissioned by the Cayman Islands’ Ministry of Tourism and Transport and the Port Authority of the Cayman Islands.

Opponents of the cruise pier point to significant negative impacts the EIS says the project would have on the natural environment in the harbor of George Town, the Cayman capital, where the facility would be built.

In fact, the EIS states “The development of the proposed project will have significant negative impacts on the marine ecology within George Town harbor, in particular the coral reefs and associated habitat surrounding the project site.”  

The report adds, “The volume of dredging and the operation of large cruise ships in the near-shore area” would generate “key ecological impacts [including] coral destruction, habitat fragmentation and reduced biodiversity.” Should the project proceed, the EIS recommends “a significant coral relocation program be designed and implemented.”

The environmental impact on the harbor is seen as unacceptable by some Cayman residents. “Several acres and hundreds of thousands of square footage of reef will be completely destroyed as a result of the cruise berthing facility that government is proposing to build,” according to a statement issued by Save Cayman, described in local media reports as a “coalition of voters.”

The statement, posted on the group’s website, adds “The report also made it clear the project will have significant negative impacts on the marine ecology within the George Town harbor areas.”   

The group has launched a drive to convince registered voters in the Cayman Islands to sign a petition which would require the government to hold a public vote on the facility’s construction.  

Another group of protesters led by Courtney Platt, described in media reports as a local photographer, last month gathered a reported 2,000 signatures in a separate petition that also opposes the cruise pier.

This week opposition to those efforts emerged in the form of a “public information” group named Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future. The organization issued a full-page Cayman Compass newspaper ad labeling the anti-pier groups’ arguments as “inaccurate, unsubstantiated scaremongering.”  The ad sought to highlight “benefits” of a new cruise port.

Chris Kirkconnell, an owner of the Kirk Freeport duty-free jewelry store in George Town and a spokesman for the group, described Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future in a Compass article as “a consortium of concerned businessmen and individuals who wanted to ensure the public had access to accurate information about the impacts of the port project.”

Kirkconnell said the group includes tour operators, taxi drivers and “individuals who supported improved cruise and cargo facilities for Cayman.”

Yet the project’s economic impacts are likely to be mixed for local tourism stakeholders. Pier construction would negatively impact dive operators and related activities in George Town harbor, as two shipwrecks and other underwater sites popular with divers would be severely impacted by dredging.

“Revenues generated by watersports businesses which rely on tourism and recreation opportunities provided by the marine resources within George Town harbor will be adversely affected,” the EIS states.

However, “it is anticipated that these adverse impacts will be offset, to some degree, by the diversion/displacement of activities from within George Town harbor to other locations and/or activities and attractions in George Town and around Grand Cayman Island.”

The completed pier would accommodate four vessels at berth and two vessels at anchorage. The Cayman Islands hosted 1.6 million cruise ship visitors in 2014, fifth-highest among destinations tracked by the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO).

Yet the island is the only one of the five that does not operate a modern cruise pier and terminal. Cruise passengers visiting the Cayman Islands are forced to shuttle to and from shore aboard tendering ships, a practice most cruise lines seek to avoid.

The project clearly presents the Cayman government with difficult choices. While the project’s environmental cost is stated plainly in EIS the report also observes that tourism represents 24 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, providing “significant employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for residents.”  

Moreover, “approximately 85 percent of visitors to the island arrive by sea, predominantly by cruise ship” and in recent years, “Cayman has been gradually losing [cruise] market share in the Caribbean region.”  

The report continued, “This declining trend is likely to continue, with resultant impacts on the tourism sector and economy of the Cayman Islands, unless a berthing facility is constructed to facilitate the movement of passengers to and from cruise ships and significant investment is made in port infrastructure.”

Yet for opponents, winning a public referendum will not be a simple task. According to a Cayman Compass report, 25 percent of the registered Cayman Islands voters, a total of more than 4,600 people, would have to provide verified signatures on the document. Should a public referendum result, a majority of registered voters – more than 9,200 people – would be required to block the project.

The Cayman Islands has sought for nearly a decade to develop a modern cruise ship terminal and in recent years seemed to inch closer under the current effort, led by the government under the administration of Moses Kirkconnell, the Cayman Islands’ deputy premier and tourism and transport minister.

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