Brian Major | October 13, 2015 12:53 PM ET
Cayman Islands Cruise Port Project Creates Tough Choices and Strong Sentiments
Tourism-reliant Caribbean destinations seeking to expand tourism infrastructure to support growing visitor numbers frequently face tough choices and elicit strong sentiments.
Perhaps nowhere has the difficult decision-making process been more evident than in the Cayman Islands, where government leaders, tourism stakeholders and residents are wrangling over the significant economic and environmental impact of a new cruise ship pier and terminal.
The ongoing debate pits pro-cruise port tourism stakeholders against environmental activists, anti-port project officials and a handful of dive-oriented operators who object to the disruption of coral beds in George Town harbor, where the cruise port would be built.
While the sides continue to battle, the war may have already been won. Cayman premier Alden McLaughlin, said earlier this month the country will “proceed to the next stage” in the process, in effect green-lighting the project even before a scheduled final report from project consultant PwC.
Even McLaughlin’s cabinet has not yet issued a formalization of the decision on the project. Nevertheless at a gathering of Grand Cayman city council members, the premier said negotiations would begin with cruise lines to formulate designs and a financing model for the project, which is expected to cost at least $150 million.
McLaughlin’s announcement elicited “stunned silence” from its audience, but in hindsight his go-ahead on the project seems predictable.
That’s because the Cayman Islands government has sought to build a cruise port for at least a decade, as the destination risks losing its substantial and fast-growing cruise ship business due to its lack of a pier that can accommodate the largest cruise ships.
In fact, despite lacking a modern cruise port, the Cayman Islands hosted 1.6 million cruise ship visitors in 2014, the fifth-highest total among destinations tracked by the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO), and a robust 17 percent increase over 2013.
Cruise ships visiting the Cayman Islands currently anchor off shore and ferry passengers into George Town aboard smaller boats. The time-consuming “tendering” process is one cruise lines general seek to avoid for several reasons, including the limits it creates on guests’ time in port and the length of ship calls. All of the four other largest cruise ports utilize fixed piers.
McKeeva Bush, the former Cayman Islands premier and minister of tourism, failed in numerous attempts to get a successful cruise ship pier project off the ground. When McLaughlin replaced Bush as premier in 2013, he named Moses Kirkconnell deputy premier and minister for district administration, tourism and transport. Kirkconnell soon stated that building a modern cruise ship port was among his key goals.
That same year the new tourism minister launched a comprehensive cruise port project evaluation process that included an environmental impact assessment (EIA) that examined what the project would do to George Town harbor's natural ambiance. The EIA’s recent release galvanized an already brewing opposition to the project led by Save Cayman, described in local media reports as a “coalition of voters.”
The group plans an October 17 Grand Cayman protest against McLaughlin’s intention to move forward with the cruise port project. They say the EIA makes it clear that “the project will have significant negative impacts on the marine ecology within the George Town harbor areas.”
The report in fact does paint a destructive picture for George Town’s harbor, where the new facility would be built. “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 reads.
“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,” it adds.
Environmentalists aren’t the only Cayman residents opposed to the project. Ironically, one of the most visible opponents has been Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Cayman Islands’ department of environment. Despite being a member of the administration that proposed the project, Ebanks-Petrie earlier this month rebuked the cruise port proposal in an interview with a public relations company hired by Save Cayman.
She said undue emphasis was being placed on mitigation procedures that would ostensibly reduce coral reef damage created during the construction of the port. Following “careful consideration of the environmental losses,” she said expanding Grand Cayman land facilities to enhance the tendering process, rather than building a new cruise port, “would offer the best solution.”
Ebanks-Petrie did add say her department was “conscious of the contribution of cruise tourism to the economy and the need to improve the experience of visitors.”
Yet on the government side, “contribution of cruise tourism to the economy” remains the key phrase. McLaughlin said the cruise port is in effect too important to the country not to go ahead, despite the acknowledged environmental risks.
“The decision to be made is not whether we want to build cruise berthing, it is whether we want to remain in the cruise business in any significant way,” he said. “The decision is whether many hundreds of people and families who today rely on jobs created as a result of cruise tourism have those jobs next year and in the years to come.”
McLaughlin said the port project would not only “help safeguard our important cruise business into the future,” but include an expansion of the country’s cargo port, protecting existing jobs “and leading to many hundreds of jobs well into the future.” He added that the dredging in George Town would not impact Grand Cayman’s key Seven Mile Beach resort district.
This week the Cayman Compass reported its discovery of emails showing that in early 2012 the Cayman Islands government and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines were “in advanced negotiations” on a renovation of the Royal Watler dock, the country’s existing but outdated cruise pier.
The emails suggest renovations would have allowed Royal Caribbean’s 5,400-passenger Oasis-class ships to visit Grand Cayman. They also indicate that a tentative agreement had also been reached to tender the ships.
The agreement apparently was scrapped in the aftermath of the 2012 sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship in Italy, according to Shomari Scott, then the Cayman Islands tourism director. Scott said the highly publicized event raised public concerns regarding safety of mega-ships and the industry in general, and caused Royal Caribbean officials to back away from the project.
Save Cayman members say the emails prove cruise lines may be open to negotiation on tendering, which they also indicate is logistically feasible.
Yet even the independently produced EIA asserts what Cayman Islands tourism stakeholders have long argued: the Cayman Islands' share of cruise ship calls is declining because the territory lacks a modern cruise ship pier and terminal.
The same report states that tourism accounts for 24 percent of the Cayman Islands’ gross domestic product and provides “significant employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for residents.”
Pro-port advocates have also emphasized the importance of the cruise line industry to the country’s’ economy. “The government’s proposed cruise berthing facility will stimulate growth, create employment opportunities and encourage sound development to produce positive economic benefits for the country,” says a statement from Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future, a group of port project supporters that includes local retailers reliant on cruise ship visitors.
“We support the protection of the marine environment but we are not going to see the economic future of the Cayman Islands shut down,” they added.
Meanwhile anti-project activists are gearing up for Saturday’s rally. “We want to catch (the) government’s attention and change their mind,” said Jessica Lopez, a property manager at Grand View Condos.
Whatever occurs next, Cayman Islands residents are likely to witness many months of debate before a new cruise pier extends from George Town’s shore.
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