Cayman Islands could limit cruise ships in shift to ‘more balanced’ tourism

Feb 26, 2021

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The Cayman Islands appears to have hit a breaking point when it comes to cruise tourism.

Speaking at a briefing on Tuesday, the premier of the self-governing British Overseas Territory, Alden McLaughlin, said his government was likely to place limits on the number of cruise ships and cruisers that can visit the island destination when cruising resumes — a major policy shift that will have ramifications for more than half a dozen major cruise lines.

McLaughlin suggested that residents of the Cayman Islands, including business leaders, had made it clear they want a more balanced approach to tourism.

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“I think we have a very clear signal from just about every source that … we can survive without those large numbers [of cruisers] and … we need more balance. We need to not overwhelm the systems that we have by [the] sheer volume of people.”

Home to just 64,948 people, the Cayman Islands draws more than 1.8 million cruisers a year who arrive on hundreds of cruise vessels. At times, four or even five large cruise ships will visit the destination in a single day, depositing more than 10,000 cruise tourists in the destination’s capital, George Town.

In addition to cruisers, the Cayman Islands draws resort vacationers who come for such resort properties as the Kimpton Seafire Resort. (Photo by Scott Mayerowitz/The Points Guy)

Only two other Caribbean destinations — the U.S. Virgin Islands and Cozumel, Mexico — receive more cruisers in a year.

McLaughlin suggested that the limits on cruisers that his government may impose wouldn’t just be a short-term measure related to ongoing efforts to keep the island safe from COVID-19. It would be a permanent shift in the destination’s tourism focus.

“We are trying to diversify the whole tourism industry,” McLaughlin said. “What I foresee … is less focus on growing cruise tourism.”

Related: Where to use hotel points in the Cayman Islands

McLaughlin also announced that his government had decided not to proceed with the development of a cruise ship dock for Grand Cayman Island, something that has been controversial in the Caymans. The announcement marks a sharp about-face for McLaughlin and his government, which had supported the dock development until now.

The experience of living without cruise ships for the past year, McLaughlin suggested, has shown Cayman Islands residents and its leaders that they could survive without mass cruise tourism.

All cruise ship sailings to the Cayman Islands stopped in February 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and have yet to resume.

“I think there is a silver lining always somewhere if you look hard enough for it,” McLaughlin said, referencing the coronavirus pandemic. “Having had to do without cruise tourism for a year, I think, has told us what the consequences of that [are].”

The islands will need to find new work for residents involved in cruise tourism whose jobs might be affected by a decline in ship visits, he added.

“Obviously, we still have significant numbers of our people who are unemployed or underemployed [due to the lack of cruise ship arrivals], because that was what their focus was, and we have to continue to find ways to give them the opportunities that they had or better for making a living,” he said. “But I think it is the clear signal that we have from the business community [and] from local people that we don’t want to go back to the large number of [cruise] visits.”

McLaughlin’s government faces an election in April. If it loses the election, decisions on future cruise tourism would fall to a different administration. But even if that happens, McLaughlin said a tourism strategy focused on fewer cruisers was likely to happen anyway.

“It is probably the only logical position that any government can come to,” he said.

He did add that cruise tourism wouldn’t be going away. It would just be capped.

“I’m not suggesting for a moment that we do away with cruise tourism, but that we cap the numbers so that our current system can accommodate [cruisers] in a better way, and the experience for those who do visit can be better.”

Major cruise lines that regularly send ships to the Cayman Islands include Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, MSC Cruises and Holland America.

A spokesperson for the main trade group for the cruise industry, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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