By: Shilpi Chhotray, Mission Blue Communications Strategist
For the residents of George Town Harbour, observing mammoth cruise ships pass through their glimmering turquoise backyard is not uncommon. Since 2000, the small island nation of Grand Cayman has received an influx of tourists from the cruise industry, with a little over one million visitors entering the island every year. By 2015, this number increased to 1.7 million and residents anticipate upwards of 2 million visitors in the coming year.
Recently, the greater George Town Harbour area was selected as one of 14 new Hope Spots around the globe.
Mission Blue’s Founder, legendary Oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle visited the Cayman Islands to see the Hope Spot first-hand. In a recent press release, Dr. Earle stated: “May the George Town Harbour Hope Spot serve as an example to the world, encouraging people to take responsibility and ownership of their environment. The ocean is in trouble, but you can do something about it. We welcome the Cayman Islands to our global community as we work together towards this common goal. We want people to own their ocean and for Hope Spots to become a shared vision large enough to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet.”
Perhaps no surprise to divers and marine life enthusiasts, the George Town Harbour area is one of the best known places in the Cayman Islands to explore pristine reefs and observe a diversity marine animals. Historically used as an active port, the Harbour is home to some of the world’s most accessible reefs and iconic sites like the Devil’s Groto, Soto’s Reef, Eden Rock, Stingray City and the historic Wreck of the Balboa. In short, it’s a paradise for divers and snorkelers!
In order to accommodate for tourists brought in by mega cruise ships like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, the area of George Town Harbour is facing tremendous pressure from the government to open plans for dredging. This isn’t the first time a proposal to dredge George Town Harbour has raised a point of contention among the community. In fact, for years, the island’s residents have rallied together to strike down dredging due the risks being far too great. However, since 2015, a fierce struggle continues to protect the Harbour and its surrounding areas since the Cayman Islands government has decided to pursue dredging regardless of the community’s bold objection towards it.
Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Impacts
By allowing massive cruise ships to come ashore, the fragile historic Wreck of the Balboa and large area of the George Town Harbour’s reef faces serious destruction. The Department of the Environment in Cayman Islands has conducted initial reports which illuminate major environmental impact to the area. And, if the environmental impact assessments aren’t enough to convince skeptical policymakers, what about the cargo ship that slammed into a coral reef in George Town Harbour just a few days ago? More on that here.
The Balboa which sunk in 1932 while traveling from Cuba to Grand Cayman is of cultural significance to many of the island’s residents, many of whom lost loved ones when it sunk. Although the government claims the shipwreck could be picked up and moved, residents believe it will be completely destroyed– not to mention disrupt the coral and fish that have moved in.
Because Cayman Islands cannot afford the new cruise ship infrastructure, the government is asking the cruise lines to pay for it. In this scenario, the cruise line owns all the commerce that goes into the area and may not take local needs into consideration. Long time family owned businesses face getting elbowed out by the cruise ship and associated businesses they may bring in.
Another major concern is capacity: the island simply does not have more room for cruise ship passengers. The most popular sights like Stingray City are already at their maximum limit for tourists. Since the island is less than 75 square miles, Georgetown Harbour’s streets are heavily congested. Without significant investment in the terrestrial infrastructure, supporting the mega-ships and their visitors will be a monumental task with grave repercussions.
Save Cayman is an environmental group committed to advancing eco-tourism and environmental stewardship in the Cayman Islands. They strongly condemn the decision to dredge in favor of the cruise industry. After hearing their government commit to support the infrastructure for more cruise ships, Save Cayman mobilized the community to organize a protest. Three different petitions were circulated and one received over 30,00 signatures against the decision to dredge in George Town Harbour.
Save Cayman strongly believes the government should not make a decision from an economic standpoint alone. As Caymanian Angela Martins states; “We can fix cars, we can fix houses, but we cannot glue the environment back together. We didn’t make it in the first place.”
Given the magnitude of concern towards dredging in George Town Harbour, the government announced plans to create a new proposal with less environmental impact. However, it’s been a year and there has been no update of the report to date. Resident’s are wary that in May 2017, which marks a new election, the current office may shirk their promise of a new report by leaving the proposal for the next administration to deal with.
The Pristine Paradox
The reason visitors are so eager to experience Cayman Islands is for its abundant marine life and pristine reefs but the question remains, what happens when the product being marketed will cease to exist? Many residents of Cayman have already seen how quickly things disappear; by uniting together, they hope to preserve their local resources within their lifetime for generations to come.
Mission Blue applauds Save Cayman’s work to create awareness about marine protection with an emphasis on encouraging environmentally sound action that takes the needs of their community seriously.
Photos courtesy of Ellen Cuylaerts, Underwater and Wildlife Photographer.