2011 was an up and down year for Cayman’s tourism with stayover arrivals continuing to rise but cruise ship numbers falling. Cayman Islands Tourism President Harry Lalli looks back at the year and says the association is aiming to up arrivals from two new markets in 2012.
There are two key hubs that Cayman must look at, says Lalli.
“Dallas has been on the radar for a while. It is a big diving market up there and in fact our hotels report to us that they take a lot of Texan addresses already. A direct flight would certainly boost that market.
“Additionally, it is a hub for American Airlines so West Coast traffic from the United States and Canada could get here a lot easier. It would be a huge boost for groups. Currently it is not easy for travellers from California, Seattle and so on to get to Cayman,” he said.
The tourism association president also noted that Panama continued to be somewhere Cayman ought to connect.
“Panama would attract the South American market. Brazil has a strong economy, for example, and they have been consistently pushing tourists into other Caribbean islands but of course not Cayman.
“To get here at the moment they would have to travel through Miami which would require visas. This also affects their ability to get to Europe. They are already using Havana and Kingston as jump points to get to Europe and Cayman could also service this [through the British Airways flights].”
Lalli acknowledged that cruise numbers had dropped apparently dramatically in many months of 2011, with October being a particularly low month. He explained that Hurricane Rina had affected nearly two weeks of calls, which was reflected in the numbers.
“It did not affect land-based tourism but really hurt watersports and the George Town stores. Two weeks with no cruise ships was very bad as we had no safe harbour for them to dock in.”
The continued lack of movement on the cruise berthing construction project has frustrated the tourism industry on the Island, said Lalli.
“Cruise ship companies have been pushing berthing as something that is very needed for customer satisfaction. While we debate who would be building a facility or paying for it, other islands are going ahead, building ports and wooing the cruise ships.
“Cruise companies are also investing heavily in the Caribbean, which means more competition for us and of course they are going to call at their own ports where they have invested,” he noted.
However, the fact was that Cayman remained a sought-after destination because in part of its geographical location.
“We are centrally-located and close to the United States and ports including South Florida East and West, Galveston, Louisiana and so on. This is important because it means the cruise companies do not have the added expense of flying people in to San Juan, Puerto Rico, as they do for the Eastern Caribbean itineraries. Is is a saving grace for us.
“But berthing is a big concern for us. Had we been able to get twice-monthly calls from the Royal Caribbean mega-cruise ships we could have had 10,000 additional visitors per month. It is very disheartening that now we hear that the deadline is March but we are still hoping that a berth will be built to keep us in the market.”
Lalli said that the continued delays on starting the project had created a ‘sombre’ mood amongst some sections of the tourism industry.
“Some now think it will never happen,” he revealed.
“In the meantime it is heartbreaking to see those large lines of tourists still not sheltered from the sun and the rain. We will be pushing for the Port Authority and merchants to assist to help customer satisfaction and create more seating. We need to look after these people; that impression of Grand Cayman is not a happy one if they are being made to wait. No matter how great a day they may have had at Stingray City or wherever, that is the experience that they will remember ultimately.”
Another bullet point for the tourism association in 2012 is to up the awareness of the Cayman Islands brand, specifically through social media.
“It is the way forward in marketing,” said Lalli.
“We need a very good presence and redesigned websites. We are intending to make a much more user-friendly website where members can log in and download meeting minutes, for example.”
The Caymankind rebranding had been a success of 2011 and the president hoped that going forward a lot more people would take pride in ‘being Caymankind’.
“It’s about greeting tourists with a smile and making them feel welcome when they come here. That personal touch is what they will remember - the human connection is so important.”
There have been successes in 2011, continued the tourism boss. One of those was the sinking of the ex-USS Kittiwake to become an artificial reef and dive attraction.
“That brought potentially unlimited possibilities of exposure for the Cayman Islands and we had coverage all over the world including CNN. It really was great. And from a CITA point of view, the 2011 Taste of Cayman festival was one of the most successful ever.
“We also introduced a real-time condos booking engine called Caydirect, which we will see many benefits from.”
And whilst cruise remains a sticky wicket, the Cayman Islands had a good stayover innings during 2011.
“The hotels had a good winter season, which dipped a little in May and picked up again in June and July, which did better than expected before the downturn in August. We were helped that no weather came in early on that one.
“Stayover is in a sense the mainstay for many members of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association and the Canadian market was very positive indeed. Their economy is strong compared to the United States and we have had US-Canadian dollar parity which has not happened in a very long time. Westjet continuing flights over the summer helped this become a year-round destination for Canadian visitors,” he said.
Remediating the landfill
Another important tourism development could be the proposed agreement between Dart and the Cayman Islands government, part of which would include remediating the George Town Landfill.
“The dump is an eyesore,” blasted Lalli. “It is the first thing that cruise ship passengers see. It is a real downfall for the Cayman Islands that the first thing visible is a giant garbage pile. We are very happy to see that something may be done.”
A part of the deal would facilitate the refurbishment of the former Courtyard Marriott, possibly into a five-star hotel.
“We are trying to attract influential travellers in the higher income bracket. Certainly, another five-star property would do wonders for the tourism business, but it could not work unless it was beachfront.
“It would definitely increase revenue for all restaurants and bars on the Seven Mile Strip.”
Finally, Lalli thanked outgoing executive director Trina Savage for her work over the past three and a half years, and welcomed her successor Jane Van der Bol into the position.
“Trina did a fantastic job and indeed is still volunteering at Taste of Cayman. We are excited to work with Jane, who has impressive organisational skills and follow-through. She will do a fine job and we can move on in leaps and bounds I am sure.”