We continue our series looking at how different sectors within the economy are dealing with the impact of the corona pandemic on their business. This time we look at those entities most vulnerable to Cayman’s border closures.
Cayman has been more fortunate than many Caribbean islands when it comes to the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis because its economy is not solely dependent on tourism, with financial services creating a greater slice of GDP than tourism. Never-the-less, there are plenty of businesses and organisations within the community that have seen their client base all but wiped out since the pandemic. Nowhere within the economy has been more acutely affected by the pandemic than the tourism attractions and watersports sector, a business segment that has relied almost exclusively on tourists for their customer base.
Cayman’s Tourism Attractions Board is a Government entity that oversees the running of Pedro St James, the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, the Hell Geological Site and the Cayman Craft Market in George Town. Its Director, Patrick Thompson, said the TAB embarked on a plan for survival once lockdown took place.
“We immediately developed a strategy to ensure the necessary safety protocols were implemented at our sites and concentrated our marketing efforts locally. Having done this, we were able to reopen the major attractions to the public within a week of the lockdown being ended,” he said, adding that their priority was, and still is, the safety of staff and visitors.
“With all the changes in protocol related to the varying suppression levels and health regulations, we encouraged staff to stay vigilant for themselves and their families and kept them informed of all happenings in order to stay readied for a quick return to posts,” he said. “Once we knew our reopening date, we planned accordingly to abide by the CI Government's social distancing recommendations; we installed hand sanitising stations, placed signage in all pertinent areas, mapped out the six feet distance in all pubic areas and kept staff abreast of any changes.”
Mr Thompson said that unfortunately, the Cayman Craft Market and Hell locations had to be closed down as they depended heavily on the tourism sector being active, however, the larger attractions have been open and serving visitors since the 6th July.
With the financial weight of the Government behind it, the TAB has not had to lay anyone off, for which, Mr Thompson said, they were thankful.
“We have a strong team and worked with core government to redeploy available staff throughout the lockdown. We also managed a shorter work schedule; we reworked shifts and in doing so, we have been able to continue the work of maintaining and preserving the national attractions and their properties during lockdown measures,” he stated.
Finding a way to at least keep some kind of business model working, Mr Thompson said early on the management team recognised a series of smaller events held with more frequency would be safer for visitors on a whole and this, he said, had proven manageable for staff.
They do not anticipate closing attractions any time soon.
“Cayman has a lot of people living and working here and if we all continue to support the local attractions, we will be able to get through this unprecedented time and move into full recovery,” Mr Thompson said. “We certainly hope that no attraction has to close its doors permanently.”
Smaller businesses hit hard
Privately owned businesses, such as the Lobster Pot Diver Centre, without the weight of Government or wealthy investors, paint a different picture, however.
Lobster Pot Diver Center co-owner Nick Buckley said before the pandemic hit the business was doing very well and anticipated an excellent 2020. All that changed mid-March when tourism came to an abrupt halt.
“We took on our last tourist divers on 12th March,” Mr. Buckley confirmed. “That was the last time we had fully paying customers.”
Suddenly, with lockdown in force, they were unable to access their boats or their shop, both of which needed constant attention to ensure they were in working order. Respite eventually came a few months later when they were able to finally access their business with permission from the Government. Around that time their 28 or so staff members were whittled down to just a core of between five and seven, with most staff deciding to head back to their home country due to the uncertainty of their future in the business.
In order to keep the business alive, Mr Buckley said they decided to focus their attentions on the retail side, while at the same time working hard to attract local residents to come and dive with them. They also offered open water and advanced courses and afterschool one tank dives to local school students.
“At the beginning of the summer, we felt we could just about keep afloat with the support of some very loyal residents and, for a while, we were doing OK. We were selling merchandise at the shop and seeing a few people interested in diving. We were not making any money, but we were at least able to pay rent and insurance and give the staff a portion of their wages. July and August were not too bad, with a series of summer camps for children proving successful,” he confirmed.
Meanwhile, there has been no let-up in interest from loyal clients who live overseas requesting to book up for upcoming months.
“Customers have been trying to book with us for the past few months, but I have had to contact them all to explain that, as much as we appreciate their support, tourism is not opening up anytime soon,” he confirmed. “With big resorts all but shutting down I cannot see a return to normal before thanksgiving or Christmas holidays 2021.”
September and October have seen a considerable slowdown in business, as the schools re open and so the dive center is going to have to do some serious thinking about its future in the coming weeks.
“In lieu of this, we are actively pursuing other avenues of revenue, such as weekend dive courses, try dives for non-certified divers and snorkel trips,” he explained.
Another devastating event that has detrimentally affected business is the detection of the Stoney coral disease that was found out on the north wall over the past few months. As it is moving westward along the wall, the Department of the Environment has closed down most of the dive sites to try and eliminate dive spread of the disease, he advised.
“Although we have had the support of some very loyal customers, it would be great to see more local divers taking the opportunity to get open water certified and explore the walls and reefs that Cayman has to offer,” Mr Buckley said. “The future for Lobster Pot Dive Centre is very uncertain.”