To berth or not to berth….

| 30/10/2009

That used to be the question, but with the decision imminent over who will develop the George Town cruise berthing facility it now seems to be a moot point. Even though it is probably too late, a report from the FCCA this week shows the argument that Cayman’s cruise tourism needs this facility to survive may be greatly exaggerated.

As speculation mounts that the Dart Group, partnering with a consortium of local contractors, will be officially awarded the contract anytime now, the question of whether we actually need this facility at all has been forgotten. Forget the environmental argument (which from a personal perspective I believe should have closed the discussion down years ago), there is a very solid economic argument against it as well.

Despite the fact that the berth is reportedly not going to cost us a dime — or so government keeps saying though there are plenty who disagree — the development may well cost the cruise industry more than it bargained for. While both political parties are sold on the idea of cruise berthing after being persuaded by the voices of the Association for the Advancement of Cruise Tourism and the leadership of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association (if not all its members), the report, published this week by the FCCA, makes it quite clear that Cayman is not only holding its own on the cruise front but is already doing better than some islands with berthing facilities.

Regardless of the long touted complaints that passengers don’t come off the ship because of those pesky tenders, the report revealed that 90% of passengers who come to Cayman aboard a cruise liner get off and visit. That’s one of the highest percentages of all the destinations surveyed. Other destinations with berthing facilities recorded only 80%. So even though the passengers can just saunter off when they feel like it, the passengers still stayed on board, contrary to what we have been told by those in the industry.

The other myth that was debunked by the FCCA report was the length of time cruisers spend on island. Again, the average time cruisers spent in Cayman compared very well to other destinations with piers. Although some of the major resorts where the ships dock over night scored higher than the Cayman Islands, this jurisdiction faired better than many others, with passengers spending well over three hours here. Moreover, the length of time passengers spend at the destination is obviously directly related to how long the ship is in port and the cruise liners coming to Cayman leave early, not because of the tenders but because the casinos are itching to open again. After all, we must never forget what is the leading money-maker for the ships.

Another issue is the money spent on food and drink, which Cayman businesses enjoy even though almost no ships stay in Cayman for the evening. With pier passengers easily tempted to return to the ship to enjoy a free lunch, the need to wait on the tender to take passengers back means those visiting Cayman are more likely to stay in the port and eat so they can enjoy the destination longer. Compared to other jurisdictions with berthing facilities, Cayman again did very well when it came to cash spent in local restaurants.

As Cayman’s average passenger spend was almost $97 per head, when compared to the Bahamas where it was less that $84, Jamaica $93, St Lucia $68, Turks & Caicos $67 and a mere $45 in Dominica, it is hard to make the argument that the lack of a pier is making cruisers in Cayman skinflints.

The danger is that, given the easy-peasy pier for passengers to alight and board at will, the restaurants at the very least will suffer, but so may many of the shops as well. Berthing could see the time passengers spend in Cayman reduced and therefore the overall spend may well decline because of the very fact they can get off and on whenever they like.

The debate obviously has two sides and there will be those who, I expect, will be quick to shout me down — after all, what do I know about cruise tourism? (It’s a good question as I am just an overworked and underpaid hack. In my defence, though, I read the entire report.)

However, judging by the comments made on the CNS website in the last few days, there are a number of people working in the tourism business better qualified than I who are not entirely convinced that the berthing facilities will make all Cayman’s tourism dreams come true.

The gap between the interests of businesses dependent on stay-over tourism and those on cruise tourism is a difficult one to bridge.  At a recent public forum on the future of the industry, McKeeva Bush bemoaned the fact that the tourism sector does not speak with one voice and the goal of a common vision was elusive.

It is, however, hardly surprising. Those who cater to the needs of the tourists that come here for a vacation will tell you that the development of facilities for cruisers is exactly why they have stopped coming. Too many people in George Town, too high taxi prices, crowded beaches at peak cruise times, the arrival of Margaritaville and Senior Frogs, for example, are the things that drive those who come to stay on Seven Mile Beach away.

Cayman’s tourism product does have something of a bi-polar disorder, but no one really seems to know what meds it should be taking. So, how do you reconcile the needs of a tourist staying at the Ritz Carlton seeking seclusion and exclusivity with their Mai Tai with those of a cruise passenger looking for a giant lime green cocktail souvenir glass?

What is clear is the development of cruise berthing is hardly likely to be the cure, and if anything it may even push the jurisdiction into full blown case of paranoid schizophrenia. 

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  1. Anonymous says:

    I have been a visitor to your beautiful island many times, both on a cruise ship and, more often, as a week or two land visitor, which has been my  preference, by far.  We began our visits at the Holiday Inn, when there wasn’t much more than peace and tranquility and relaxation.  Over the many years, the island has become crowded, overbuilt, outrageously expensive, etc.  We still come back from time to time, but some of the charm is gone.  I cannot even imagine what it would be like with ship berths in town.  I think that would be the end of it for us.  WE have cruised many, many times…tendering has never been a problem.  I agree with those that believe revenues will be lost with the ease of getting on and off the ship for free meals, to take a nap, etc.

    You, as we all do, have much more urgent needs for our money. 

    Does Barrack Obama have a hand in this??????????

  2. Anonymous says:


    Good review of issues but You missed a few points that lead to the decision to berth.

    1. The ships are getting bigger…much bigger, and they will not be able to successfully tender. too many passengers( 6,000-8,000 persons per ship) in the time. The smaller ships are being sent to Europe, South America and the smaller ports. The Caribbean will see the big ships first. Western Caribbean by December this year and they will have to bypass us.

    2. Two reasons ships leave early. The first you correctly got relating to the stores and casino ( not sure why we do not let them open them in harbour, all local retailers support this idea) but the second reason is to reach their next destination by morning. Those going to Mexico are likely to not leave much later. Those going to Jamaica can leave a lot later. The newer, faster ones will leave later as well.

    3. The passengers WILL eat onshore. I have cruised 7 times and any opportunity to eat off the ship was welcomed. This has been proven in Cayman already. Speak to Casanovas when there is a ship in late. The “spend’ will go up. Some will go back on ship but as Cayman is usually in the middle of the itinerary, they have been eating ship lunches for 2-3 days by the time they arrive here..they will love the change.

    4. Time for shopping is compromised in Cayman due to the 1/2 wait to get off and the 1-1/2 hour line up to get back on the ship. Work the numbers, 6 hours at $97 vs. 7-1/2hours at $121…..that equates to an additional $40M more in the economy per year. It will also allow longer tours and activities thus spreading the impact more evenly. Think Cayman Brac, East End , Pedro St James and North Side. Look at the time in port in Cancun/Cozumel and where the passengers actually end up,….. many, many miles away. Been there and done that so I know.

    5. The average age of cruisers is going up again. Once upon a time only older folks could afford to cruise. that changed however recently the average age is going up again. Tendering is very difficult for these folks even if they do it.

    While I agree we need to work on our stay-over tourist, and seriously as well, we cannot afford to ignore the cruisers. And as a cruiser, I have only visited one destination that I wanted to go back as a stay over…that cruisers can become stay-over tourist is a myth worth noting as “Busted” therefore.

    • Lachlan MacTavish says:


      I agree….."Cruise to stay over" is a myth…..

      Disagree…….the huge ships is an even better excuse to not berth. The congestion of 6000-8000 at one time is to much. Tendering will get the quality spenders ashore and leave the non spenders on the ship.

      Enhanced tenders, some going directly to the beach, pre clearance on ship, more streamlined shore processing center along with enhanced docking for tenders solves the problem for decade.

      Most of the worlds governments are trying to cut costs and reduce Capital expenditures.

      If you have to spend money put it in education and stay over tourism. Two areas that benefit more Caymanians and residents.

      • frank rizzo says:

        The Genesis Class boats do not tender. No berth = no Genesis. If we don’t want the new boats, that’s another story. If you can show me that the FCCA/Royal Caribbean are bluffing about the berthing requirement, I will shut up about tendering.

    • Anonymous says:

      Cayman Brac as a port activity for George Town?  are you serious?  How would that work? Fly round trip for the day?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Think about how easy and cost effective it would be to enclose the current port, make a world class all weather tender port, with a Marina for local boats and visiting yachts and 1 large pier for the ONLY cruise ship in the world that can’t tender… All people satisfied…

  4. david miller says:

    On a recent cruise to Alaska, thank you for clearly talking from experiences about your cruise vacation.

                 If even half of you were in the cruise ship business it wouldn’t be so bad. But by your comments thats obviously ,no. 

                  Where any of you here during hurricane ivan? Thank god McKeeva allowed the cruise lines to come back. I would’ve lost my house and Tour bus if he didn’t. I am one of the people who sees the benefit from having a berthing facility. More money will be spent from the cruise lines side just from ease of coming and going to the ships and more signage . Cruise ship business has been very positive from the late 70’s. Its the reason that georgetown has so many stores with so much choice. 

                  I have worked at Casa bertmar, short time in sunset house, seaview hotel , galleon beach hotel , holiday inn , and royal palms. I have work as a front desk reservation to night auditor to bar tender to night manager to diving instructor to boat captain. I believe i have a lot of experience in the tourism sector. But i have also worked with my father in omega properties and prospect park  dredging the north sound  and filling in house lots in the 70’s. So i feel qualified to tell any one who is willing to listen who doesn’t have an another agenda . Nothing is going to happen to seven mile beach from building the dock. We will finally have what we have been missing  for over 20 years infrastructure . The ships in the past have hit  soto’s reef central and eden rock because they have anchored offshore and the wind turned them around. 

                  Ships coming to georgetown have never been a problem for anyone who shops in town . Anyone who shops in town simply needs to visit caymana bay first then come as the crowds go to lunch or now to dinner. What about opening stores on sunday?


  5. Anonymous says:

    do you think any cruise port with berthing facilities honestly regrets building it?

    people on here advocating tendering are living the dark ages……

  6. anonymous says:

    Berthingnot needed!

    I agree with most others posters here. We should long ago have concentrated more on stay over tourism and on making their visits as enjoyable as possible so as to attract them to return and also to tell their family, friends, associates and colleagues. This alone would have decreased the massive budgets that DOT have sqaundered for decades.

    Cruise tourism should be welcomed BUT limited! Four to five ships maximum on any one day. And the arrival/departure areas should be enhanced.

    Immigration and Customs only board the ships and clear the Manifest (list of persons aboard)…they do not clear every passenger individually as this would take far too much time. So this does not lead to any delays. The passengers just need a more comfortable area to wait for boarding the tenders. Many passengers find the tenders exciting and adventurous (adds to their memories) as the experience is different from most ports.

    And for the Govt. to stubbornly go ahead with such a development with no proper environmental study and no socio-economic study, is simply alarming. If the reefs and/or seven mile beach is negatively impacted, and if stay-over tourism is further negatively impacted by the masses from cruise ships (which is more likely than not) then even fewer tourists will come here as time continues…if any at all will come.

    The leaders of CIG have become far too greedy and shortsighted. This knee-jerk reactive governing will only ruin Cayman.

    Things really na lookin well ya.


    • Lachlan MacTavish says:

      The environmental and socio-economic studies are extremely important. GT cannot handle the cruise traffic now. It is mind boggling to think what it would be like with 20,000 passengers all at once. All services would grind to a hault.

      Anchoring and tendering has damaged the inner/outer harbour along with South towards Eden Rk and North towards Soto’s Reef. Water clarity and fish life has declined steadily over the past 2 decades. To think that this massive project will not impact the west side of Grand Cayman especially during storms is just naive.

      Why bypass the studies? If there is no impact then do the studies and prove to the people that  Cayman’s world wide attraction, Seven Mile Beach, will not be adversly affected.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Maybe the fact that more cruisers are getting off, spending more time & more money is simply because there are less of them therefore they have a better experience which lead to these better results. Even tendering is better with less ships as there are more tenders to go around. The shops & tours are less crowded so they stay longer and spend more.

    This has been talked about for a long time. Maybe we are actually seeing the results. Maybe we should pay attention for a change. More is not always better.

    With a sensible level of cruise tourism the stayover vistors would also benefit. More of them may come back as well.

    • Lachlan MacTavish says:

      I read a post somewhere on CNS……the comment was something like….."why is it the CIG always thinks that spending money will correct the issues". Sorry Wendy….this might be a little off topic but I can start with the dock. The world, USA and Cayman economies are in major distress. I don’t care who spends the money for the dock. It will have to pay for itself with income which will come from…..landing fees, usage fees, tonage fees etc etc. If the cruise passenger landings is increasing why not run with this trend right now. Spending money  is sometimes not the answer. 

      Why not stabilize the local economy. 1) Streamline cruise entrance procedures and the terminal. Create less congestion downtown on cruise days. Hold off on the berthing facility. 2) Downsize CAL to 2 planes with only MIA/CAL route. Drop airfares to $150.00 return all inclusive and subsidize the short fall. Stay over tourism will increase and hotel taxes will climd and hopefully help out CAL. 3) Downsize the DOT by 50% and create a "tourism authority" with the private sector and finally turn stay over tourism around. The reduction in the DOT cost to go towards CAL.  4)  Reduce the professional services fee structure. Make getting permits simple and non political. Watch teh business flow in. 5) Privitize the prison, water authority, sewage, garbage, the hospital, technology, accounting and public works to start with. If the CIG cannot get its head wrapped around this theory…..sell these departments at a fair and reasonable price with a "buy back agreement" at a fair and reasonable price formula. That way when the the departments are slim and mean and making money if the CIG want something back… for it….it will be a profit maker. 6) Reduce the Civil Service by 30% and start to change the "entitlement generation" concept. 7)  STOP all non essential CAP projects now.

      Then once the country and economy is stable and the world and USA settle down re evaluate. Focus on education and tourism. The professional services should be running just fine. Educate our children ….once and for all……so they can get the jobs. get stay over tourism back on track and get Caymanians working and running their tourism businesses again.

      Be smart…….

  8. Anonymous says:

    How wonderful that our ability to institute a referendum will come into effect the same week that the contract is supposed to be announced. It means there might still be a small window of opportunity to voice our objections to this project in a way that sticks.

  9. Anonymous says:

    There seems to be a universal political belief here in the Cayman Islands that all problems will be solved by the spending of millions of dollars.

    It is sad and somewhat pathetic because it is a naive and childish view of the world.

    What seems to escape the current leadership is the possible downside to a berthing facility in George Town. The erosion of 7 mile beach is a possible downside that amazingly does not concern the powers hat be.

    Building all these high dollar faciities does very ittle for the Cayman Island tourist product as it is the warmth, friendliness and easy going pase of the island that draws people back, if people want Disney Land they will go to Orlando.

    Unless the teachers and administrative support are incorporated into the education program the high dollar schools will add nothing to the education of young people in the country.

  10. Anonymous says:

    CNS keeps getting better! Excellent work!

    For about one tenth the price of the berthing facility we can get larger more comfortable tenders, have an air conditioned arrival and departure cruise hall for customs and immigration clearance.

    We can even throw in permanent moorings for 6 ships…all of the above for under $25 million!

    Simple as that we have solved the problems of tourist waiting in long lines in hot sun and rain,  preserved our uniqueness, improved our efficiency, saved the country $175M (believe me, we will pay dearly for any facility that goes out on that port!) 

    P.S. No matter what the FCCA says, there are no ships built or planned that cannot be tendered!

  11. Joe Average says:

    Never really thought of that Wendy.  If tourists can get off the ships easily they can just as easily get back on.  For free lunch?  Why not?  I do feel for them however, when I see everyone crowded onto the tenders or trying to gain a footing in a chop at the dock.  But they are afterall on a cruise and not on a train.  Though we could do much more to make disembarking and embarking easier.  An overhead walkway?  Somehow we have to instill a more relaxed atmosphere for when people do arrive and not treat them so much as a herd.  I’ve always liked the wagon pulled behind the jeep.  More like them?  It’s an outdoor experience rather than being jammed onto a bus. 

    We could also ask boat tourists what they would like rather than making expensive guesses.


    There might be another reason for the push for docking facilities…  The British Invasion Fleet!  Where they come to "restore order" and "good governance."  They will need a good-size dock.  I suggest cannons on the roof of Margaritaville.  Defending a country can be thirsty work.

    Speaking of which.  Here’s a toast to CNS.

    • Anonymous says:

      On a recent cruise to Alaska, I noticed for the first time (my first cruise) why passengers prefers docks to tenders. It’s so much easier, particularly if you are not as frisky as you once were. We did not ever return to the boat until the last possible moment because we knew we didn’t have to line up early for tenders etc. Plus, there were great (ie reasonable) shops and restaurants to enjoy art every stop plus pleasant, non smelly, not-smelling-of alcohol locals to transport us at pretty reasonable cost to where we wanted to go. It’s the contents of my last sentence which are some of the bedevilling factors in our product here.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I say to berth…

  13. Anonymous says:

    I agree with one of the other posters. Why not focus more on stay-over tourism instead of putting all eggs in one basket? As it has been said over and over again, the cruise ship passengers come at a very high percentage off the ship and spend a good amount of time, despite there being no berthing facilities. So why fix something that doesn’t appear to be broke?

    What is the berthing facility supposed to accomplish? More cruise ships? This means more cruise ship passengers spilling into GT, and how is this to be dealt with because the roads etc are still going to be the same.


    • Lachlan MacTavish says:

       I have debated this topic for years. Why do we need berthing facilities. Why not just a better tender facility… GT and the South Sound. No berthing facility can handle a norwester. I have visited every island in the Caribbean where cruise ships stop. Cayman     by    far     is the cleanest, most crime free (during day) beautiful water and beach of any other destination. THE CRUISE SHIPS WILL COME EVEN IF WE DON’T HAVE A BERTHING DOCK.  With the lack of impact studies you cannot convince me that there isn’t a chance that the eco system , beach, water clarity, won’t be destroyed. So….let’s just crash ahead and build it anyway and ……see what happens holding breath. Why not create an outstanding tender facility…….pre immigration on board with large landing barge drop offs at beach and further north….AND concentrate on stay over tourism and get the locals back to work and have their businesses flourish.


  14. Anonymous says:

    An excellent article.

    If only our fearless leaders could see through the same eyes, we could save a lot of money, maintain our uniqueness and still be competitive.

    The proposed berthing facility will eliminate any possibility of the stayover tourits being able to shop in our downtown area? Who spends more, the stayover or the cruiser? The answer is blatant!!! 

    All for the sake of the almighty dollar to benefit only a few. And of course the inflated ego of others!!!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Does anyone know how the cruise passengers are going to  get from North Church Street into town? There are no sidewalks or pedestrian crossings and it is a long way to walk in the Summer heat. After such a walk I don’t imagine they would be too keen on coming off the ship for a hot afternoon of shopping. A nap would be more likely.

    I am sure the developers of the dock have considered this and must have lots of taxis lined up ready for the throngs of paying passengers. Has anyone seen the plan or know about this predicament and how it will be dealt with?

    I am against the idea of dredging in this sensitive area of the Island since the open ocean currents lie far offshore and would be less likely to wash away the sediment from construction and dredging. Cayman’s reefs are already suffering from coral bleaching. Silt and sediment would surely kill what little remains of any healthy reef in this area. I am shocked that such a project is being considered without first doing an extensive environmental impact study. Not just of the ocean and reefs but also of the land, traffic and socio-economic impact as well as infrastructure and noise problems.

    As a retailer in Georgetown for over 20 years, I can say that this is far more trouble than it’s worth. We should be directing our efforts at attracting more long-term tourist by making Cayman less expensive so as to support our hotels, restaurants and condos. Lower duties and electricity rates would serve our future much greater than a couple of ill-placed cruise ship docks.


    • Senor Caballo says:

      I suspect they will be disembarking on the new bridge which will be going straight from the ships in through Senor Frogs and down the stairs on to Fort Street.

  16. Caymanian at Heart says:

    Great article.  Another interesting study is would be to look at the effects of Cruise Ship Tourism on the islands.  From what I have personally seen it;s not positive.