The next few months are going to be ‘make or break’ for Cayman’s peak tourism season - and the wider economy - if visitor arrivals continue to flatten.
The sobering conclusion was given by president of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association (CITA), Mark Langevin, in an assessment of the first month’s business since the borders were re-opened on November 20th.
Appearing on last week’s edition of the Caymanian Times programme, The Panel, Mr Langevin's assessment of the current situation is “crawling back instead of bouncing back”.
Although interest among regular visitors and potential travellers remains high for the destination, one of the drawbacks is the inability of unvaccinated children to travel with their parents.
The government has said that it is reviewing this regulation.
“Right now, with the current regulation that does not allow the families to come back, it’s clearly a problem and we have cancellation after cancellation,” Mr Langevin stated.
Another area of concern is the current limited airlift into Cayman especially with American Airlines delaying their return until around February.
While other major carriers have begun returning and the national carrier Cayman Airways continues to add to its schedule, the CITA president says this remains a major hurdle as visitor passenger traffic is low.
“We looked at the composition of what is coming in and out and we are going to carry potentially much less than 10 per cent of all our load capacity for arrivals right until February when American Airlines comes back. And then eventually that might project us to 20/25 per cent of capacity we had before, and then later on we will have 40 per cent in March if nobody gives up on us," he analysed.
"So that is going to also have a limitation on why we are only crawling back out of the situation we have.”
Another point of concern revolves around who is travelling.
According to Mr Langevin, residential travel far outstrips visit arrivals at present.
“I went to a trade show last week in Europe. I came back and I pretty much knew everybody on the plane. What did that tell you? That plane coming back from Miami was occupied mostly by locals doing business potentially like me or whatever they were doing. But clearly indicates that there were not too many tourists on that plane. So we have a lower capacity.”
Despite the slow pick-up in tourism as Cayman enters the peak season, Mr Langevin, who is also the general manager of the Ritz Carlton which has just reopened, says the focus is on the future.
Hotels and others in the industry have been looking forward to an increase in tourist business, especially into next year’s US President’s Day holiday and Springbreak.
But according to CITA president Langevin, whereas a month ago they were forecasting a gradual increase growing from 10 per cent and peaking at around a probable 60 per cent, that outlook may now have to be drastically revised downward.
“Unfortunately a month later, instead of growing we have decreased…We have lost what we had on the books because people realise that they cannot travel with their children.”
He says one of the setbacks might be in the messaging and marketing of the destination as Cayman navigates its way out of the current COVID-19 restrictions.
“Instead of growing and sending a message that the destination is opening, there's the confusion," he stated, explaining that "the hardship(difficulty) is that when we communicate to our travellers what is required to come to Grand Cayman, it is actually reducing our ability to attract more people.”
Mr Langevin disclosed that during a recent promotional trip to Europe he spent more time addressing questions about Cayman’s travel restrictions than actually promoting his hotel and the destination, a development which he felt was “unfortunate”.
He summed it up this way: “Right now we have a major crisis that is not being addressed...Every day we are losing ground.”
With bookings up to three months in advance, the CITA head and Ritz Carlton boss is sceptical about the outlook for the season.
"Because our business is booked for 60 days to 90 days in advance and right now we are so far behind that, I don't even know how we can catch up. And if we absolutely lose the opportunity especially President’s Week and Spring break, I am going to tell you that for all the tourism industry we're not going to rebound.”
In that scenario, the CIA president expressed a concern that tourism workers will be hit the hardest if the outlook continues to be bleak.
“The stipend workers are going to be staying stipends workers for the year because right now hotels are operating with what we have. But we need to bring back people to work and we need guests, so it’s one of those vicious circles,” he noted.
Mr Langevin's might however be alleviated as the Cayman Island Government (CIG) announced in the past few days that it is reviewing the policy of denying entry to unvaccinated children, one of the main obstacles seen by the tourism industry to kickstarting the sector and saving the peak travel season.
(Hear the full discussion on this edition of The Panel on Caymanian Times website, Facebook and YouTube pages)