July 23rd, 2023
Video Link: https://youtu.be/xe6rBLDuyjM
We have all seen the headlines announcing the decline of our cruise business, with one newspaper noting that Cayman’s cruise sector must sink or swim in the new dynamic.
It has been curious to watch the Minister of Tourism, The Hon. Kenneth Bryan, maintain a smile while effectively telling the public, including some of his constituents, that the cruise industry will shrink substantially under his watch. This decline translates to less business and less money for our tour operators, retail salespeople and everyone who relies on cruise passengers to make a living.
The Minister readily admits that the decline in passengers is because the cruise lines will send fewer ships to Cayman as there are no cruise piers here.
So despite announcing last year that he intended to get cruise back to 2019 numbers, the Minister quickly had to backtrack that pledge after speaking to cruise executives.
Sadly, the Tourism Minister, like the rest of the PACT Government, seems comfortable describing the problem, but he has no real idea what to do about it.
At a recent sitting of Parliament, the Leader of the Opposition asked Minister Bryan when the Cruise Tourism Strategy he announced in September 2022 would be completed and made public.
The Minister responded that he had a change of mind and that no holistic strategic cruise tourism plan would now be done. Instead, the Minister decided that Government entities, along with a cruise line, would develop what he termed a “series of actions and policy directions” on handling the tourism traffic from cruise passengers.
The Minister also insisted that a comprehensive cruise strategic plan was not required since the cruise passenger numbers would decline by 25% over the next three years compared to the 2019 pre-Covid numbers.
Let me repeat that. The Minister sees no need to develop a fully considered cruise tourism strategy during a decline in the cruise business, with the jobs of several thousand families dependent on cruise tourism at risk. It is very likely that the decline will be more than 25% and will last longer than the three years mentioned by the Minister.
The PACT Government has been in office for over two years now. Throughout that time, the Progressives Opposition has consistently banged the drum about the need to reimagine Cayman’s cruise tourism industry.
We said in our manifesto at the last election that if returned to office, we would, within twelve months, start a review and national discussion about the future of the cruise sector and identify the changes that are necessary both in the short term and the long term.
Even in opposition, we have consistently pushed the Government to take this approach. Many times, over the past two years, we have spoken about the need to have a conversation about what we want for cruise tourism. But the Minister and Government ignored the advice and blundered ahead without knowing where they were going.
The need for the review stems from three causes.
First, as we predicted during the debate over the potential for cruise berths, bigger ‘floating resort’ mega-ships with higher-spending passengers are beginning to pass by Grand Cayman. While, for the next few years at least, smaller ships will still call here, they will do so in decreasing numbers. We must recognise this reality and the constraints on potential visitor numbers.
Secondly, the cruise market and the sector itself are changing. Changes include, for example, demand for premium experiences and VIP access arrangements. This opens opportunities for Cayman if we can prepare ourselves to take them. This is not a secret, it has been known for some time. Sadly, we have wasted at least a year that could have been used working on such a possible transition.
Finally, the demands for more sustainable tourism practices will require adaptation in both shoreside management and marine activity. This requires our cruise sector to understand the future direction that the industry will take and to be ready to adapt its offers accordingly.
But as we have learned from the Minister, not only is he not interested in a national conversation on the future of cruise tourism, but he is now of the view that the need to develop a holistic strategic cruise tourism plan is not as pressing as it was when he mentioned the need for one just late last year. As I mentioned earlier, Minister Bryan said this change was a result of declining cruise tourism numbers in the future. So, there will be no strategic plan contemplated to help transition and support an important but declining part of our tourism sector.
Strangely, in his Strategic Policy Statement to Parliament, the Premier told the House that the Minister of Tourism ‘has a plan’ that will, among other things, expand tourism markets, diversify our tourism product and reimagine cruise tourism.
By now, Premier Panton will have realised that the Minister has no such strategic plan to re-imagine cruise tourism.
Without an actual holistic strategic plan, the Government has tried to proclaim the success of its approach to cruise tourism by referring to the numbers surpassing projections. It is not hard to surpass a very low projection.
But look at the real numbers. In the five months of the pre-pandemic 2019-20 peak season (October to February), we welcomed nearly 950,000 cruise visitors to Grand Cayman. In the comparable months (October to February) of 2022-2023, that number was only 625,000 – down by more than a third.
As the Minister and the cruise lines have told us – the numbers will not be returning to where they once were. Compare that to some of our regional competitors, and the once mighty Cayman cruise tourism sector is struggling.
As we know, fewer visitors mean hardship to those whose livelihoods depend upon cruise visitors. Thanks to the Progressives’ campaigning, the Government did keep the COVID stipend payments in place for longer than they had initially intended. But we need a viable, long-term solution to ensure that many Caymanian families and businesses who rely on cruise passenger spend have a viable path to remaining employed and putting food on the table and a roof over their heads.
We welcome the Government’s initiative to help businesses to develop new attractions, including in the eastern districts. But Minister Bryan, where does that fit into an overall strategy for the future of cruise tourism for our Islands and our people? Our people deserve to know.
Thank you for listening to me. May God continue to bless our beloved Cayman Islands.