Paving Paradise

Cruise Ships
in Grand Cayman

by Phlebas & Shaw

Grand Cayman’s tax-free status is a magnet for major international companies and it is now the ninth largest financial centre in the world. Nevertheless, tourism remains its greatest earner, accounting for 50% of its GDP. The built-up parts of the island may be uninteresting to the tourist who has visited, say, Jamaica or Grenada, but its underwater coral coastlines are judged to be amongst the most beautiful in the world.

Situated to the south of Cuba in the Caribbean,  the horse-shoe shaped Grand Cayman, at four miles wide and 22 miles long, is the biggest of the three tiny Cayman Islands. Its highest point is only sixty feet above sea level. Its main tourist attractions are good weather, spectacular beaches and world class SCUBA diving: it is ranked amongst the top ten world diving areas. The island is surrounded by coral reefs and is most renowned for its wall diving opportunities. The Cayman Trench which skirts the island drops abruptly to 2,000 feet forming coral-covered walls of immense beauty within a short boat ride from the shore. The Trench drops to 25,000 feet as it runs towards Jamaica.

These natural treasures are threatened with strangulation and destruction as a consequence of ever-increasing tourism. 19% of the world’s coral reefs are already regarded as lost forever mostly because of anthropogenic activities and in the Caribbean the figure is closer to 30%. Grand Cayman has not been spared. Fortunately the extensive area of Grand Cayman’s reef spreads divers relatively thinly and large areas of healthy coral survive.

Grand Cayman, in common with many Caribbean ports, is regularly visited by huge cruise ships, each carrying up to 2,500 passengers. These vessels arrive shortly after dawn, disgorge their human cargo for the day and depart by sundown. Currently they remain just outside Georgetown harbour mouth, either anchoring or maintaining their position by running their bow thrusters all day.

The effect is to devastate the coral in this area. From a lush coral reef, the underwater terrain has been reduced to rubble-strewn, sterile, rocky gullies.

But cruise ships bring in 36% of gross tourism receipts. There are up to five cruisers in the bay during the peak season. Add the number of visitors they bring to the number of non-cruise tourists – averaging 5000 per day anyway, peaking at 7,700, for example, in March 2008 – and during daylight hours you have a total increase of the population on this little island from 50,000 to 70,000.

Against this figure is posited the argument that cruise ship attendances have been falling in the last few years with a loss of market share to islands with better docking facilities.  The reason given is that cruise passengers do not like using the small-boat service which ferries them back and forth from ship to shore.

The Port Authority has been studying the problem for many years and has concluded that a re-development of the port facilities in Georgetown is the best solution. A proposal has been made for a harbour extension to provide four large cruise ships berths and a separate cargo terminal. This would allow easy docking and passengers’ direct access to the shore. The separate cargo facility would solve the current problem of cargo having to be handled at night once the cruise ships have left.

Two of the four proposed cruise ship berths will be able to take the next generation of super-cruise  ships with up to 5,400 passengers each. It has also been mooted that if the dock capacity is insufficient to meet expected increases in tourism, that other liners will still be allowed to anchor off-shore as they currently do. This would permit an increase of daily visitors to 20-30,000 two or even three times the present numbers.

If the Port Authority proposal is accepted, what will be the consequences?  Dock construction is a messy business. The already devastated local reef will be further damaged over a larger area with the inevitable adverse effects on water flow, wave energy and sand distribution.

Currently, large numbers of boat tourists are ferried away from the port to attractions around the island and are landed in reasonably ordered groups of about 300 at a time. In contrast, the new Port Authority proposal will enable twelve to fifteen thousand people to descend en masse on tiny Georgetown after a ship’s breakfast. Already the roads groan under the weight of the tourist rush-hour and one may anticipate an escalation of problems from beach-crowding to pick-pocketing.

How will the island be able to cope with substantial increased demands for energy, water, and sewerage facilities?  Already there is a major trash disposal problem. Grand Cayman has no effective procedure to deal with rubbish and there is no re-cycling facility on the island. Rubbish is simply tipped onto a huge dump, known locally as Mount Trashmore. Depending on wind direction, the smell reaches dive boats up to half a mile offshore. Ecologists are wondering how efficiently local government is estimating the limits of the carrying capacity of the island with these multiple impacts on environmental and social sustainability.

Anyway, the Port Authority project could self-destruct.  Do tourists really want to be herded around in buses, to be squashed together on the beaches, to battle their way through over-crowded shops? And then there are the local residents to consider.  The balance between their quality of life and the financial gain of living on the island will deteriorate.

Meanwhile there are urgent local projects competing for funds.  Aside from funding needed for a recycling facility and a new waste-plant, the island is in great need of a large new primary school for its children, with all the costs this would entail, from building to staffing.  The cost of merely these two urgent projects  is in competition for the one hundred million US$ that the Port will eat up.

Which would be of more benefit to the Caymanian people?

Currently the pros and cons of the Port extension proposal are being assessed. Amongst the islanders the mood is one of weary resignation that no “assessment” will carry enough weight to halt the Port development: there are fortunes to be made and too many vested interests.

Right now there seems to be little hope of saving paradise.


Phlebas & Shaw are a skilled SCUBA diving team committed to monitoring and revealing ecological devastation which development is causing to relatively unspoiled coastlines. Phlebas is also engaged in academic research in sustainable development for a higher degree in the UK.

Photo Credits:  Sandy Shaw (c)