The proposed cruise berthing facility in the Cayman Islands has sparked much debate between environmentalists and the government after it issued a policy directive in March 2013 to develop the cruise sector, as part of efforts to boost tourism opportunities.

In its current form, the project would include two piers with space for four cruise ships, including two suitable for Oasis-class vessels – ships which have a capacity for more than 6,000 passengers.

Reports show that the project could attract more than 2.5 million passengers compared to the 1.9 million currently arriving each year, it will cost the public a minimum of $6m annually which resulted in activists questioning its value for money, and whether damage to coral reefs is worth it.

With an aim to get an accurate opinion from residents, the government published its draft referendum bill in October 2019 titled – ‘Should the Cayman Islands continue to move forward with building the cruise berthing and enhanced cargo port facility?’ It set a December date for the poll asking Cayman’s voters to vote for or against the project.

Pending the outcome, we outline the arguments which have been made for and against the cruise facility.


A bigger cruise facility will attract ships which currently bypass the Islands

“A report estimates that more tourism would inject $250m into the economy over 20 years.”

Given that cruise tendering has been vital to the growth of the island’s economy in the past, the Cayman Islands Government initiated the building of the new facility to improve tourism in the islands going forward.

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The government released a dossier which highlighted the risks and benefits involved in the project. It said that several cruises currently don’t stop in Cayman due to the lack of a berthing facility and building one would benefit the islands as cruise tourism will inevitably rise and ships will be motivated to add Cayman to their itinerary. It also estimated that more tourism would inject $250m into the economy over 20 years.

Currently, cruise companies such as Royal Caribbean International, MSC, Holland America Line, Carnival Cruise lines, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise line dock at the islands. However, the Oasis-class ships don’t stop at Cayman due to the lack of berthing facilities.

This was confirmed by the Royal Caribbean director of port business development Miguel Reyna, who at a press conference said that cruise traffic for Cayman “may drop from 450,000 passengers to potentially 250,000 passengers within the next five years” if the project does not go ahead.

“We don’t bring the Oasis-class ships to the Cayman Islands, and Royal Caribbean has no plans to tender the Oasis in the port,” he added.

More tourists will bolster the local economy and create business

“Seeking to grow cruise tourism and further diversify our tourism industry as a whole will mean a positive benefit to the country.”

The Cayman Islands Government claims the facility will have indirect and direct economic benefits for small businesses as well as residents by increasing the number of jobs and revenue coming into the islands.

“Seeking to grow cruise tourism and further diversify our tourism industry as a whole will mean a positive benefit to the country in the form of additional jobs and opportunities,” it said in a statement.

The Association for the Advancement of Cruise Tourism in the Cayman Islands (ACT) believes that small businesses who operate in the port infrastructure, such as water sport companies, tour operators, restaurants, land and water-based attraction owners would benefit from the proposed improvement to the port.

The escalating number of cruise passengers would potentially create nearly 1,000 jobs, the government claims.


Project could cause considerable damage to the marine environment

“Everyone who enjoys Seven Mile Beach should think seriously about the impacts of this proposed dock project on reefs.”

Despite the government promising financial benefits and claiming that there would be no “significant impact” on the islands, the Central Caribbean Marine Institute (CCMI) urges Cayman residents to “consider the long-lasting impacts” of the cruise port development and warned it will affect all Cayman’s beaches including Seven Mile Beach.

The research centre outlined the harmful effects of the facility and urged stakeholders to really reconsider this project “whilst there is still time.” In a statement, it said: “The proposed dock construction will disrupt an entire ecosystem by removing the corals and sand.

“Any removal of depositional material, which is an important part of the overall sand budget and contributes to the formation of the beaches, Cayman’s most iconic tourism product, is detrimental.”

A report showed that the operation will have unavoidable negative effects on the aquatic environment, including the destruction of 15 acres of coral reef, as well as “increased stress on and degradation of” an additional 15-20 acres of reef.

“Everyone who enjoys Seven Mile Beach should think seriously about the impacts of this proposed dock project on reefs, and the part corals play in contributing to Cayman’s tourism product and healthy ocean ecosystem,” the CCMI said.

The organisation said the dredging required for the project would deplete Grand Cayman’s sand budget and disrupt the processes by which the island’s beaches are replenished.

“The downstream and lasting risks of dredging/coral relocation not only include the long-term loss of coral and tens of thousands of other species living within the reef, but also a gross reduction in the capacity for the reef organisms to produce the skeletal sand that makes up the beach,” it said.

Apart from the coral reefs, the dredging for the project will result in the loss of some of the Cayman Islands’ signature dive sites such as Eden Rock, Devil’s Grotto and Soto’s South.

Port construction will cost taxpayers and the government millions of dollars

“We cannot afford to get this wrong from an environmental, financial and socio-economic standpoint.”

Figures released by the government revealed that the Port Authority of the Cayman Islands will lose $2.32 per head in tax concession that will go to the cruise lines. According to campaign group Cruise Port Referendum (CPR), that amounts to a loss of around of $5.8m each year, or $145m over 25 years.

In addition, after calculating that the Verdant Isle Group – the preferred bidder for the project announced by the government – will be re-paid in the region of $450m over the 25 years for a facility that is valued around $200m, activists from CPR argued the project lacks value for money.

Quantifying the impacts in terms of dollars the campaigners estimate that the damage to marine resources will cost Cayman about $100m to $165m over 20 years. They have also inquired a detailed report from the government which details the additional indirect costs that the island will need to bear so that the people are aware before they cast their vote in December.

Former president of the Cayman Islands’ Chamber of Commerce Council Johann Moxam also expressed his apprehension in a statement, saying: “We cannot afford to get this wrong from an environmental, financial and socio-economic standpoint.

“The government needs to take a comprehensive and objective look at what’s down the road. Where does it leave other important aspects of government priorities finances, liabilities and long-term ability to service debt? This is too important for Cayman’s future to get wrong.”

The activists too questioned the feasibility of the project, asking: “Will the promised benefits truly outweigh this enormous economic, cultural and ecological loss of our natural capital?”