Business View Caribbean interviews Moses Kirkconnell, Deputy Premier and Minister of Tourism/em>, as part of Best practices in Cayman Islands Business.
BUSINESS VIEW: Can you speak to the significance of tourism to the entire economy, the jobs it creates, the businesses it supports and its prominence as a primary driver of the economy?
MOSES KIRKCONNELL: At a macro level, tourism is one of the largest and fastest-growing industries in the global economy and has significant environmental, cultural, social and economic effects.
In the Cayman Islands, tourism is the second-largest contributor to our economy. On an annual basis, we welcome approximately 300,000 stay-over visitors – who contribute nearly $300 million or 77 percent of our islands’ total annual tourism revenue – and 1.5 million cruise passengers to our shores.
The tourism industry also stimulates the economy through ancillary service industries, such as construction, hotel and restaurant operations, retail trades, scuba diving and boat rentals. Tourism is therefore a vital part of the Cayman economy and this industry, along with the financial services sector, are commonly referred to as the two pillars of our economy.
BV: Can you share insight as to the important role of your office in supporting/advocating/overseeing the integrity and quality of Cayman’s tourism product?
KIRKCONNELL: As a vital pillar to the economy, tourism is viewed as a leading growth sector and directly impacts national development objectives. These include job creation, SME business development, inward investment and the development of human capital to support the industry.
As minister of tourism, one of my primary roles is to oversee the development and implementation of policies, regulations and services. These are largely designed to facilitate the sustainability, growth and economic viability of the tourism industry for the prosperity and well-being of Caymanians and residents. The Ministry of Tourism also provides strategic guidance to the Department of Tourism, which is mainly responsible for the development and execution of a wide range of marketing plans and promotional activities for the destination.
BV: Can you share insight on particular milestones which have contributed to Cayman’s vitality as a tourism destination, in the distant or recent past?
KIRKCONNELL: The fact that our Islands are conveniently located just 480 miles south of Miami is fortuitous, as it makes us highly accessible and desirable to travelers originating from Florida and its environs. But our reliance on tourism also means that we need to have convenient airlift options from many other key gateways, in order to facilitate and maintain a high level of visitation to our islands.
Having our own national airline – Cayman Airways – provides a tremendous boost to our tourism sector as it enables us, when required, to strategically introduce new routes from U.S. gateways, to support inbound travel. For example, Cayman Airways has resumed service to Chicago’s O’Hare airport and began offering direct flights to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in mid-2012. These new services are paying dividends for the destination as they are proven, key gateways which provide a convenient option for travelers visiting business or leisure purposes, and help us to boost incremental tourism from Texas and the Midwest United States.
In addition to the Cayman Airways routes, which now provide service to and from five U.S. gateways and four countries outside of the U.S., Westjet launched a new direct service from Toronto, which has significantly grown stay-over arrivals from this region.
Delta Airlines also introduced a weekly non-stop service from New York’s JFK Airport, which is timed to allow for European connections. This additional airlift has tremendously increased our seat capacity and is regarded in industry circles as being a vote of confidence in the Cayman Islands by some of the world‘s leading airlines.
In terms of brand differentiation, the Cayman Islands distinguishes itself from other warm-weather destinations in the Caribbean region and beyond through the provision of exceptional service and the delivery of more value for money to travelers. Caymanians have a reputation for being exceptionally warm and friendly, which adds to our vitality and appeal because our Islands are considered as a leading destination for discerning travelers, honeymooners, couples and families.
Additionally, as well as being world renowned for our idyllic beaches and diving spots, and internationally recognized as a sophisticated and diverse financial center, our trio of islands all offer full connectivity, enabling visitors to seamlessly connect to telephone and Internet services on arrival. Although often taken for granted, these are the kinds of creature comforts that visitors want and expect from a home away from home and the fact that the Cayman Islands delivers, enhances our appeal.
BV: Can you speak to any recent initiatives or present strategies essential to bolstering tourism?
KIRKCONNELL: The Cayman Islands tourism industry has undoubtedly been under pressure as a result of the global recession, but having adopted a collaborative and results-driven approach to address the challenges, our stay-over arrivals have continued to trend positively.
For example, the Department of Tourism is working closely with organizations such as Cayman Airways, the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, the Sister Islands Tourism Association and other private sector stakeholders to develop and implement programs designed to stimulate the market, and reinforce the Cayman Islands brand and value propositions.
Recognizing the importance of keeping the Cayman Islands top of mind with prospective travelers, we actively market ourselves to key market sectors in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. The fundamental objective is to strike the right balance between price and value, and to powerfully communicate our brand in a way that motivates consumers to choose the Cayman Islands when deciding where to travel. Given that businesses and individuals are researching more, spending smarter and demanding more value for money, we are doing everything possible to develop better relationships with consumers, and highlight the experiential aspects of our destination.
Another area we have focused on to bolster incremental arrivals is sport tourism. Sports tourism is one of the fastest growing and most lucrative sectors in the global travel industry, and one that is estimated to be worth several billion dollars annually. Here in the Cayman Islands we have been actively developing this sector with the aim of establishing our destination as a preferred sports tourism location, which in turn is designed to deliver long-term, sustainable benefits to the Cayman Islands economy.
Encouraging sports tourism became even more important as we grappled against the effects of the recession, and several new tournaments and events were introduced to the Cayman Islands annual sporting calendar. These ranged from football, swimming, tennis, squash, biking, fishing, volleyball and more. Having successfully hosted those events, our Islands effectively demonstrated that we are an ideal destination for a myriad of sporting activities.
Sports tourism vacations have the benefit of bringing large groups of people together and have a direct and sizeable effect on our economy. The average sports visitor typically brings along friends and family, representing a real opportunity for us to share our tourism messages and interact with this demographic. The initial impact is a cash injection to the economy, but in the process we are also developing relationships with people who will likely return as a result of their positive on-Island experience.
In addition to innovative destination marketing and the facilitation of sports tourism, the Cayman Islands have also bolstered our dive tourism product through the creation of an artificial reef. In January 2011, the Kittiwake – a decommissioned 251-foot, five-deck naval vessel that was once used by the United States Maritime Administration – was intentionally sunk off Seven Mile Beach to create a new and exciting dive site. The sinking of the Kittiwake attracted global media attention and CNN, NBC, CBC, the Associated Press, Yahoo and a host of major networks and publications from New York to New Zealand and Los Angeles to London all covered the event, bringing the Cayman Islands to an audience of several million around the world.
The Kittiwake has become a habitat for a wide variety of marine life, thus enhancing the biodiversity in Cayman’s waters. It continues to attract international media coverage and having exceeded all visitation projections, it is now one of our Islands most popular dive and snorkel sites.
BV: Can you offer insight on particular challenges you’ve confronted and overcome to strengthen tourism?
KIRKCONNELL: Over the last decade, the Cayman Islands tourism industry has been impacted by a slew of natural and man-made disasters including Hurricane Ivan in 2004, Hurricane Paloma in 2008, the economic recession in 2008/2009 and the volcanic ash cloud which descended over Europe in 2010. In the face of such adversities, the Cayman Islands has shown its resilience by focusing our efforts on the attainment of three key objectives. These can be summarized as: 1) stimulating the market through targeted marketing and promotions, 2) delivering excellence by raising service standards, and 3) ensuring sustainability by encouraging and facilitating more Caymanians to become involved in the hospitality industry.
By closely working towards these principles, the Cayman Islands tourism industry is bouncing back, and is on target to achieve several of our established goals. Notwithstanding, we realize that even with the successes that have been accomplished it is not business as usual. With one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean region and a first-world infrastructure, our Cayman Islands tourism product is unique, and we recognize that as a destination we have a great deal of added-value experiences to provide to our visitors. We therefore are committed to continually strengthening our efforts to ensure that our presence in the market is maintained and we remain cautiously optimistic that our innovative strategies and tactics will continue to pay dividends.
BV: What are the challenges, what are the opportunities?
KIRKCONNELL: On reflection, despite the mammoth challenges that we have faced and continue to grapple with in some areas, there can be no doubt that we have also been successful in regards to stay over tourism.
In the four year period ending November 2013, our air arrivals increased for 43 of those 48 months and
May, June, July and October registered the best stay-over arrivals we have seen in 10 years.
From a government perspective, a significant challenge which can also be viewed as opportunity is establishing the building blocks which are necessary to support the continued growth of the tourism industry well into the future.
In addition, we look forward to an increase in our hotel room stock from the new Kimpton Hotel which is expected to come on stream in 2016; new opportunities for Caymanians to become involved in tourism through the provision of hospitality training courses and apprenticeships, and the development of a new pillar to our economy provided by the provision of medical tourism.
BV: Also, while so many often focus on Grand Cayman, can you speak to initiatives involving Cayman Brac and Little Cayman and the unique tourism potential available there?
KIRKCONNELL: Absolutely! Hailing from Cayman Brac myself, the Sister Islands – as we affectionately refer to them locally – are near and dear to my heart. Cayman Brac and Little Cayman are situated less than 30 minutes by air from Grand Cayman, and they each have their own individual charm and unique biodiversity. We like to think of them as providing an idyllic retreat from the hustle and bustle of their cosmopolitan bigger sister.
To help increase visitation to Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, the Department of Tourism is working very closely with the Sister Islands Tourism Association to promote the Sister Islands’ unique tourism product. Additionally, more is being done to increase awareness of their quaint island-style activities, and to ensure that events are slotted into the annual calendar, to provide visitors with just the right balance between having nothing and something to do.
For example, Cayman Brac’s Jackpot Fishing Tournament is one activity that is highly recommended and for carnival lovers the Braccanal Festival and Brac Bash add just enough excitement to pierce through the peace and tranquility. On Little Cayman, the annual Little Cayman Cook-off serves up interesting and unusual recipes featuring lionfish, which most people have never tasted before.
From an environmental perspective, a lot is being done throughout the Cayman Islands generally to support greener travel options and protect our pristine environment for future generations. This is a popular selling feature for visitors wanting to stay in hotels and dive in immaculate waters, while still playing a part in preserving and protecting the environment.
In 2010, the Cayman Islands introduced an environmental project specifically for the tourism sector, through which the Southern Cross Club, Little Cayman Beach Resort and Pirates Point Resort – along with the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, Compass Point Dive Resort and Cobalt Coast Resort & Suites in Grand Cayman – all achieved Green Globe certification. Little Cayman’s Southern Cross Club recently earned its Green Globe re-certification, and Little Cayman in its entirety has previously been assessed to determine the feasibility of earning Green Globe destination certification. Should this be accomplished, Little Cayman would be the first Caribbean Island – and the Cayman Islands the first country in the Western Hemisphere – to achieve this coveted honor.
As well as environmental consciousness and the implementation of best practices, from an infrastructural development standpoint I am excited about the installation of the hold baggage screening system which is being undertaken as part of the Cayman Brac’s airport redevelopment. Hold baggage screening is the automated system that carries checked baggage through the screening and sorting process prior to loading on-board the aircraft. This is a vital behind the scenes process that enables us to be compliant with U.S. security regulations, and will ultimately enable round-trip flights between Cayman Brac and the U.S. In the case of Little Cayman, we are looking at installing a completely new airfield with the capability of facilitating slightly larger planes.