(CNS): Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell has said that he expects the negotiations with the cruise lines over financing the proposed George Town berthing facilitates will be “complex and sensitive”. Making the formal announcement that Dutch firm Royal HaskoningDHV had been awarded the civil engineering design works contract by the Central Tenders Committee, he said the costing of the project by the experts would inform the talks but the government was committed to seeing the cruise lines cover the costs while ownership of the piers remained in public hands.
In a release Thursday evening to formally announce the next step in the controversial and costly project, Kirkconnell, who is also the deputy premier, said the decisions being taken were to achieve the best possible outcomes while sticking to the outline business case.
“I am pleased with the steady progress being made, and while we anticipate the discussions with cruise lines will be complex and sensitive, we will continue to keep the public informed of developments,” he said.
Kirkconnell also said, “Following best practice takes time but provides the assurance that the decisions government is taking are based on sound principles, to achieve the best possible outcomes for the country. Once the civil engineering design works are completed and the detailed estimated cost to construct the piers is known, the ministry will be in a better position to negotiate the best possible financing model with cruise lines. Our goal is to arrive at a formula in partnership with cruise lines that will not only fund construction of the piers, but will ensure that they are owned by the people of the Cayman Islands.”
At a press briefing with the media Wednesday on the wider tourism product, the minister estimated that the new price tag for the re-designed port proposal would be around $200 million.
The latest contract follows work done by BAIRD to assess whether the original plans could be redesigned to reposition the docks and construct them in deeper water to reduce dredging and lessen the impact on the marine environment. Royal HaskoningDHV will now “determine the performance standards and specifications of construction”, officials explained.
This work is expected to give a more definitive cost for the whole proposed project and it is expected to be finished before the end of this year. Kirkconnell said that in the meantime the ministry will engage in “productive discussions with cruise lines in relation to their involvement” and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in what the minister described as a careful methodical process.
But at this stage it is still unclear what the cruise lines will want from the deal and how it will benefit the Cayman community as a whole, should the FCO give the government the green light. While a vocal minority of downtown merchants are fully supportive of the project, many tourism stakeholders and the broader public are still opposed to the product. The government’s own surveys came out three to one against the decision to develop a cruise berthing facility at all, with many more opposed to the current proposal.
Given the anticipated costs and the environmental damage it will cause, people are concerned about the project because of the anticipated destruction of coral reef even with the redesign. With news that Cayman continues to attract high-spending overnight guests and cruise calls are rising, many doubt government’s position that without piers Cayman’s cruise tourism industry will collapse.
The Department of Tourism’s exit surveys have indicated clearly how important the marine environment is to all visitors when compared to tours and shopping. Reducing the areas where guests can dive and snorkel, as well as posing untold risk to an already threatened marine environment, is too high a price to pay, many people believe.
With the perception that the piers are only going to benefit a limited number of downtown duty-free stores and tour operators, the proposed project remains controversial.