By Joe Shooman
The Cayman Islands has enjoyed two years of very healthy arrivals both by cruise and air, with the latest numbers revealing a strong consistency.
In 2016, 1,711,849 people arrived on cruise ships, compared to 1,716,812 in 2015 and over 100,000 up on the 1,609,555 that arrived in 2014.
Similarly, air arrivals remained robust with 2016’s total of 385,451 a smidgen higher than that of 2015, when 385,378 arrivals were recorded. 2014 was slightly down, with 382,816 coming in through the airports.
“Cayman’s cruise product, in terms of the attractions favoured by cruise passengers and their overall experience while ashore is generally positive,” said Moses Kirkconnell, Minister for Tourism.
“In addition, the Ministry has worked hard to maintain passenger arrivals by leveraging the relationships established with cruise lines over many years. For 2015 and 2016 while this strategy has provided moderate success, we remain cognisant of the fact that aspects of our cruise visitor experience must continually improve and evolve.”
Mr. Kirkconnell went on to explain that the continued lack of a cruise berthing facility was impacting on Cayman’s ability to grow further.
“Cayman has historically ranked among the preferred destinations in the Caribbean,” he said. “But our cruise tourism industry is under serious risk of being eliminated from future itineraries if we do not provide a berthing facility capable of accommodating the newer, larger ships and which offers passengers the level of comfort and convenience they expect. Walk-on/walk-off cruise piers are therefore a pre-requisite for safeguarding our cruise tourism industry and facilitating its potential future growth.”
Within the industry, the steady numbers have been welcomed, Rod MacDowall of Red Sail Sports explained.
“I think everyone has been happy the last two years in both cruise and stayover sectors,” he said. “Numbers have been good and business has been reflective of that. From a Red Sail Sports perspective, the closing of the Grand Cayman Beach Suites last September and the major renovations at the Westin from July, 2016 put a dent in business.”
He added that numbers for all affected businesses including possibly the restaurants, taxis and other associated tourism-dependent projects ought to rebound in 2017.
The Department of Tourism’s Rosa Harris said that there had been a strategy to position the destination in the forefront of its target visitors over the last few years.
She said: “The growth in arrival figures highlights that the proactive steps that have been taken — such as working more closely with industry partners, realigning marketing activity with the national flag carrier Cayman Airways and introducing new routes through US based airlines to boost capacity – are paying dividends.”
The market had been stimulated with the direct flights from Dallas, she added. The Department had also worked closely with the Cayman Islands Tourism Association and created several new initiatives and promotions to drive tourism, with seven promotional campaigns taking place each year.
“[Our] Cyber Monday destination promotion aligned with American Thanksgiving to increase brand awareness and drive forward bookings in the season of the most active online retail conversation for the United States,” said Ms. Harris.
Another new promotion is The Weekender, which encourages short stays of three to four days on island. That one is in conjunction with a site called Cheap Caribbean, which offers up to US$300 credit for travellers. That site, explained Ms. Harris, was well-positioned to target the millennial and spur of the moment markets. Increased airlift through Southwest, Jet Blue and American Airlines during summer 2017 will assist.
“The modernisation of Cayman Airways will continue to increase visitation as the new planes have larger seat capacity – 40 more seats per flight,” she added.
The United States continued to be the largest market for air arrivals, with 300,571 or 78 percent. Europe brought 29,220, or 7.6 percent, Canada 23, 274 (6 percent) and the remaining 32,386 (8 percent) marked as “other”. Data shows that some travellers arrived from such diverse places as Uruguay, French Polynesia, New Zealand and Mongolia during 2016.
July, 2016 was a bumper year for Cayman arrivals, with a whopping 42,724 reported. That was the most successful July since records became available in 2000. March (45,192) and December (40,296) also hit over 40,000.
Minister Kirkconnell said that there had been a need to increase room stock after the sector had effectively reached saturation point.
“[It] was in need of more rental accommodations to service the steady increase in air arrivals being registered year over year,” he confirmed. “The opening of the Kimpton Seafire in November 2016 was therefore a timely addition to our tourism accommodations product and contributed 266 more rooms to the rental pool.”
“The Seafire is the first new resort to be built on Seven Mile Beach since 2005 and as a four-and-a-half-star property, it perfectly complements the properties within our existing accommodations sector. Internationally, the Kimpton brand is well regarded and has a loyal following that will likely want to visit the Cayman Islands for a vacation and experience the new property.”
With the new Margaritaville also due to open this year, there is a new diversity to what Cayman can offer its visitors, he added.
“[It enables] our destination to offer a range of 3, 4 and 5 star properties at competitive price points,” he noted. “In addition to partnering on joint advertising campaigns, hotels also market directly to their customer bases, which helps to bring awareness of the Cayman Islands to a wider demographic of potential visitors.”
Mr. McDowall noted that Cayman’s discussions around the cruise dock were very emotive.
“[It] will have environmental. economic and long reaching infrastructure impact on the islands if it even goes ahead and the forecast arrival numbers the sector wants are accurate.”
The long-term tourism expert said that the airport expansion would be very positive when finished.
“The big decision is what do we want the Cayman Islands to be, a stayover or cruise destination,” Mr. McDowall said. “I don’t believe it is possible to be both to the levels each sector wants. Both are important but the cruise numbers seem to have the most negative potential on our country and needs to be restricted and managed, even if that is not popular amongst some. Stayover visitors leave much more on island and are here for the long haul.”