Circled with reefs and plunging walls, the Cayman Islands have long been a dive mecca. But the latest proposed cruise ship berthing facility could threaten its top dive destination status as yesterday the Cayman Islands cabinet approved the next step in a mega-cruise berthing project.
Premier Alden McLaughlin and Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell stated on Wednesday that all of the government’s members had backed the move to the next step after vigorous discussions that ended with unanimous support. Although a number of hurdles remain before the dredging begins destroying at least a dozen acres of coral reef, the premier made it very clear he supports the project, regardless of the environmental risk.
Port Design Proposal Review Announced
The environment minister was absent from the press briefing on Wednesday where Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell spoke about the possibility of moving the piers into deeper water to reduce the dredging footprint and mitigate the environmental damage. Government has asked the design engineers reviewing the proposed designs to look at moving the deepest pilings from 50-55 feet to 90 feet so the piers would be further away and the dredging would be reduced thus reducing environmental impact. Government has, however, ruled out other possibilities, such as the cable car or floating dock concepts, and the plan would still include two piers and upland development.
Financing Model Up in the Air
Premier Alden McLaughlin said that looking at possible redesigns was part of the next steps but the main focus would be on the financing model, which they would now discuss with the cruise lines which the government hopes will be behind the financing of the project through increased passenger taxes. The current design still calls for a significant upland area of some seven acres. Many people believe that the reclaimed land will be a factor for the cruise lines, and that if the cruise lines finance the port it will have shops on it and defeat the purpose.
Local economic experts concerned about the project believe that the cruise lines will not commit to significant tax increases to fund the piers without additional gain and access to shore-side retail.
Cayman can’t handle the numbers
Bud Johnson, General Manager of Atlantis Submarines, whose business serves both overnight and cruise visitors, said that Grand Cayman already has a limited capacity to cope with passenger numbers from cruise ships on a daily basis. Grand Cayman currently attracts 1.6 million passengers per year without a dock because of the many unique attractions, in particular the ability to get off a ship and get into the water.
In order to cover the costs of the project, future passenger numbers would need to be around 2.3 million per year. Those arrivals will be concentrated in the winter months, when Cayman would need around 13,000 people daily overcrowding the port five days a week for the entire winter and thus drive away the much more lucrative and stable stay-over tourist business.
Johnson said that the public beaches and attractions like Stingray City would be pushed to breaking point as the damage to the harbour reefs would increase the pressure on the the island’s remaining attractions.
Business Plan doomed to failure
Johnson pointed out the cost and impact of the piers will go well beyond the immediate dredging losses, the indirect reef destruction during construction and the price tag for the project, as he warned there would be further economic and environmental fallout.
Johnson noted that government was about to spend hundreds of millions of dollars pursuing the lowest spending type of tourists. He illustrated the point with the example of Cozumel in Mexico, where the overnight tourism market has virtually collapsed because of overcrowding from cruise tourism and he warned of similar problems in Cayman.
Johnson called for a much more comprehensive national tourism plan, before embarking on cruise tourism development in order to assess the risk. The proposed project threat was far too risky, he said, as he stressed the significant environmental and other costs without any guaranteed benefits.