Archive for March 24th, 2013

The Brac: a casino or bust

The Brac: a casino or bust

| 24/03/2013 | 55 Comments

Most of the money circulating around Cayman Brac is sourced from government, in other words the majority of the jobs on the island are either within the public service or rely on public servants as customers. This plus a high social services tab means that the Brac economy is heavily dependent on government funding – a very unhealthy situation for all concerned, including people on Grand Cayman who have to pay for it.

For all the money that has been spent on the Brac over the last four years (such as the lovely dual carriageway with roundabouts in the middle of nowhere, the Hurricane Hilton, and the paving of private parking lots), absolutely nothing has been accomplished towards the long-term economic health of the island. Creating a few more government jobs doesn’t count. What Cayman Brac needs is a major boost to its private sector to make it less dependent on government, not more.

The one rather wobbly leg of private sector industry on Cayman Brac is tourism, which received a body blow when the Divi Tiara Beach Resort, one of only two hotels on the island at that time, suddenly closed in September 2006, and not just because of the 37 people who lost their jobs. Improving airlift, one of the main reasons cited by Divi for closing the resort, is even harder to justify with fewer passengers, so tourism suffers generally.

The only major project started under the UDP/UDP Lite administration (too late to see it anywhere near finished) that would have long term benefits to the Brac economy was the expansion of the airport, including the all-important addition of the baggage screening equipment required by the US for flights into that country. So far, only the enabling work has begun, and with scandal engulfing the Cayman Islands Airports Authority (CIAA), it’s uncertain now whether or not this project will continue.

Either way, Cayman Airways (or any other airline) could not add jet flights between the US and Cayman Brac without a guarantee of more passengers coming to the island or transiting to Little Cayman. In order to achieve this, the island needs the development of a good sized hotel, say 200+ rooms, but any developer prepared to build a resort of that size would need to feel confident that they could fill it.

So what does the Brac have to offer?

Both Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, which is a short hop away, offer world class diving. It’s why visitors have been coming here since the 70’s, and for this reason, if for no other, the people of Cayman Brac and their elected representatives should take the greatest care to protect the reefs and the creatures that inhabit them.

Rock climbing the Bluff is also world class, according to the serious climbers that come here. Skip Harper, author of an excellent travel book Adventuring on Cayman Brac, discovered the potential of the Brac as a climbing destination in the mid 1990’s. Since then, the climbers have created a number of climbing routes with titanium bolts, which they paid for themselves. What is needed now is a government that truly supports the development of rock climbing – already largely in place – so that it can be promoted as a primary attraction for the island, not more non-committal ‘yes, we’re looking into it’, which has become the norm for successive administrations.

The development of nature tourism on the island has been ongoing for the last 15 years, and will be an important secondary attraction for as long as it is adequately protected, especially the island’s limited wetlands. More boardwalks along some of the trails, some of which are pretty rough going, would have been a better investment in the island than paving the bank’s parking lot for free.

But there’s little else to bring travelers here – not much of a nightlife, no shopping to speak of, little in the way of protected waters for watersports, and no golf course. Rock climbing isn’t for everyone and the Brac’s nature tourism, given all the beautiful places in the region competing for this market, is never going to be a primary attraction for significant numbers of visitors.

Cayman Brac desperately needs another major pull to bring people here, and the only thing that would not destroy a large section of the island’s very limited natural resources but make a real impact on tourism is a casino.

Could the Divi Resorts Group be induced to rebuild on the Brac if a casino licence was on the table? Possibly, but we won’t know until the Cayman government (the next one) starts negotiating to find out what it would take. Tourism from the US and Canada is currently on the upswing, so it would seem to be a good time to reach out to them before they decide to invest somewhere else.

Sandy beaches protected by a reef barrier, of the type a major investor would be looking for, are in short supply on the Brac and are confined to a small corner in the southwest of the island. The property owned by the Divi Group, the site of the old Tiara, is prime beachfront land and Divi could have sold it many times over the last six and a half years. But they haven’t and have repeatedly stated in press interviews that they intend to rebuild, keeping the door open to a return to the Brac even while they were investing heavily on other Caribbean islands.

Divi has a chain of resorts – five in Aruba (where they also have a 30-foot artificial rock climbing wall), as well as hotels in Barbados, Bonaire, St Croix and St Maarten. Aside from Barbados, which has several golf courses available to guests, all of their resorts offer casinos as a major attraction, some of which are owned and operated by Divi itself – the Alhambra Casino in Aruba, the Divi Flamingo Casino in Bonaire, and the Carina Bay Casino in St Croix. So, clearly they have the experience to operate a casino on Cayman Brac and, importantly, the marketing resources to make it work.

But the other question is whether Brackers would accept the idea of a casino and lobby government to change the laws to legalise it, at least for the Brac if not for all three Cayman Islands.

To my mind, the question of gambling has been answered, as it has on Grand Cayman, by the ubiquitous presence and general acceptance of the illegal numbers racket. Any politician or concerned citizen who is truly against gambling on moral grounds should be working with the police to stamp it out. If they haven’t provided the RCIPS with a list of players and sellers, either they don't know what's going on or their protests are half-hearted at best. A casino would at least be legal, and therefore controlled, and a licence could be confined to hotel guests, thereby eliminating the negative social effects on the community (unlike numbers).

With the inevitable tightening of government spending, many of the unnecessary jobs on Cayman Brac and government handouts could dry up in an economy where people and businesses are already hanging on by their toes.

So, if it came down to a choice between a casino and the gradual demise of Cayman Brac, what then?

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