(CNS): The war of words on social media and government’s propaganda machine show no sign of letting up, even as the campaign for a people-initiated referendum on the cruise berthing project looks certain to get the required number of supporters to trigger the vote. But a Facebook post by the premier this week, in which he used the craft market as justification for the project, appears to have backfired. Just a few hours previously, a woman who works at the market called into a radio talk show to say that on 30 October, even with five ships in port, she made just $25 because cruise visitors just don’t spend and she depends on overnight guests to make a living.
Earlier this week Premier Alden McLaughlin posted a new video from government promoting the cruise port development, claiming the craft market vendors are dependent on cruise tourism and need the new berthing facility.
However, with the exception of just one comment, the response to the Facebook post was overwhelmingly negative, as people called out the claims made by the country’s leader and once again questioned the need for the cruise piers.
Social media has also been blowing up for the last few weeks with commentators calling out misleading information coming from others supporting the controversial facility. Posts about the need for the facility because of a new cruise berthing project in Belize, which were not entirely accurate, also caused a backlash.
It has now become increasingly clear that government’s claims that opposition to the project is coming from just a few die-hard environmentalists and the tender operators is wrong.
Johann Moxam, one of the team of volunteers spearheading the referendum campaign, said that the constant misinformation coming from the premier, the tourism minister and the pro-port lobby are doing a disservice to their own campaign.
“Our leaders are using public funds and have hired public relations agents to wage a campaign against thousands of citizens who are united by their collective concerns and exercising their rights enshrined in section 70 of our Constitution. Ironically, these same elected officials are sworn to protect our Constitution and the rights of Caymanians,” he said.
“The government and its agents are deliberately misrepresenting facts to suit their narrative on multiple platforms. Government has failed to answer basic questions and be transparent with the public. They have failed to address significant environmental, and economic concerns. The PR campaign can best be described as a fable that is riddled with inconsistencies.”
Moxam accused the authorities of being desperate to undermine and belittle the genuine and, as evidenced by the referendum campaign petition, widespread public concern about the cruise berthing project.
“Their duplicitous messages and the arrogance that has been consistently demonstrated does not help the country,” Moxam said. “To claim they have been following the highest standards of international best practice in the procurement process is laughable at best. Look at the panel at the September public meeting. It demonstrated everything one would need to understand about the integrity of the process, lack of transparency and the lack of respect shown for the intelligence of the general public.”
Moxam said that government’s own actions and mismanagement of the process have fuelled the growing public concern.
“The constant misrepresentation of facts from officials while asking the public to trust them is counter-productive for the project and our country,” he added, as he expressed disappointment that there is still so much to learn about the true motivations and what is happening behind the scenes relating to this process.
He said that it was only a matter of time before “the primary beneficiaries of this government sponsored corporate welfare will be revealed”.
With the campaign to trigger a people-initiated referendum so close to securing the vote, government will soon have to accept that the public wants and will have its say on this project. An honest and open discussion about the real justification is therefore now needed more than ever.
The government is still falling well short of justifying the project, including Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell’s failure to produce any information to back the government’s claim that 900 permanent jobs, over and above construction, will be created by the development of the piers. Government has also not addressed admissions by the major cruise lines that they have no intention of dropping Cayman from the itineraries of most ships, whether or not the piers are built.
By the end of this year, if the passenger arrivals stay true to the current schedules, Cayman could see its busiest cruise year in history, beating the record-breaking year of 2006, when over 1.9 million people visited on board ships.
However, these numbers are already placing a strain on the local infrastructure and dwindling access to Seven Mile Beach. In its own National Tourism Plan, the Department of Tourism raised real concerns about the overcrowding on heavy cruise traffic days at attractions like Stingray City.
It is still not clear what the number of cruise passengers would be if the piers are constructed because government has sent mixed messages. The business case called for an increase from the annual average over recent years of 1.7 million to around 2.5 million to make the project financially viable. But more recently government has spoken about retaining the current numbers but from less ships.
With only one Oasis-class ship currently sailing in the Caribbean and clear evidence from the cruise industry that there will be no more than four or five new mega-ships being constructed over the next ten years, it is not clear what Cayman will be accommodating in the short to medium term with four piers.
But what is becoming increasingly apparent is that with overnight guests representing around 80% of the revenue that government and the private sector generates from tourism, there is a genuine danger that by chasing mass cruise tourism, government could undermine the far more lucrative stay-over product.