(CNS): Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell has defended government’s decision to press ahead with the controversial and costly cruise berthing project and revealed that four engineering consultant firms have been pre-qualified to bid on the next contract in the process. Speaking in the Legislative Assembly Wednesday, he said that consultants to cost out and define the re-design for piers in deeper water would be selected this month and that talks continued over the financing model.
Although Kirkconnell suggested that the project was moving along and is a necessary project to save the cruise sector, only $500,000 has been allocated for the project in the forthcoming 18-month budget, indicating that government is not expecting to get much further along in the process before this current parliament is prorogued next March. However, Finance Minister Marco Archer included the project as one of his drivers of growth over the next 18 months.
With ongoing community concerns about the significant cost of the project and opposition from tourism stakeholders and the public due to of environmental concerns and infrastructure pressures, Kirkconnell, who is also the deputy premier, used his budget address to justify the project.
He claimed it was needed to get cruise passengers onto the island and enjoy the attractions as quickly as possible. With no upland development, there would be no intrusion into established markets but it would boost business for local people in the tourism sector, he said.
In an updated Outline Business Case published in October 2015, the consultants, PricewaterhouseCoopers, found that the data is insufficient to justify the project and in some scenarios it could lead to serious economic losses along with the environmental ones.
Nevertheless, Kirkconnell said government had agreed to review the pier designs to find a more environmentally friendly approach by moving the piers into deeper water.
“Throughout the process the government’s objective is to arrive at an outcome of maximum economic benefit for Cayman with the least impact on the marine environment,” he said, adding that so far the rework of the designs indicated it is possible to do less dredging by moving the piers.
With the request for proposals for the consultants almost complete, he said, government was still talking with the cruise lines over a funding model and once a financial model was agreed, the ministry would report that to Cabinet and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Kirkconnell, who is closely related to the owners of Kirk Freeport, one of the main beneficiaries of the project and one of only a handful of businesses that have publicly declared its full support, said the entire process had followed best practice. The minister insisted it had been open and transparent and government could not have gathered more expert advice or information to inform its decisions.
Stating that government was aware that pursuit of cruise berthing should not be at the expense of overnight visitors, he said he believed the piers would provide economic benefit and maintain Cayman’s competitiveness in the cruise market, especially with the opening of Cuba as a potential port of call.
As well as the certain destruction of coral reef and other marine habitat, there are concerns about the cost. Government still beleives that the project, which could cost as much as $300 million, could be funded by passenger fees, even though, according to figures given by the finance minister in his budget address, the Port Authority’s revenue was down last year, with a $2.2 million shortfall in its targeted surplus, despite an increase in imports and cruise passengers.
Regardless of the many challenges and controversies surrounding the project, Premier Alden McLaughlin also gave his backing to pressing ahead with the proposal, while admitting that the redesign will increase the cost.
“It is planned to move the cruise piers into deeper water, which will doubtless drive up the cost of the project, but will provide greater protection of the near shore marine environment. This next step, which will include civil engineering design works and full costing, represents significant progress and is needed for the financing model for this project,” he said in his budget policy statement.