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2018 Tourism Conference: How much tourism is too much?

Balancing quantity with quality should be a key consideration for tourism destinations like the Cayman Islands, according to two guest speakers at the 2018 Annual Tourism Conference.

Economist Marla Dukharan, the keynote speaker at the event at the Westin resort, said Tuesday the issue was a deep philosophical question that many islands across the Caribbean were facing.

“Do you really want more tourists, or do you want more spend per tourist?” she asked.

She said the Cayman Islands was the “gold standard” in the region for a well-run economy and praised the new national tourism plan and the process government has gone through, including a business case and environmental impact study, as it considers the cruise port development.

But, she said, the island would also need to determine what level of tourism it considered optimal in the long term.

“Most countries are just trying to grow numbers,” she said.

“There is an optimal number of arrivals. You don’t want to grow ad infinitum; you don’t want to grow forever and end up crowding out locals.

“It is about quality versus quantity. Insofar as you have hotel rooms to fill, you want quantity, but there comes a point where you ask, how many more hotels are you going to build, how many more planes can you land. Don’t you just want to have more quality and more spend per capita rather than just continuing to grow?”

Ms. Dukharan was speaking generally, rather than about cruise tourism in particular. She said the question was a key consideration for destinations across the Caribbean.

Bryan Kinkade, publisher of AFAR Media, a travel media company, touched on the same point in a later panel discussion. He said larger, faster planes and generally cheaper travel were opening up more and more destinations to a growing middle class all over the world. In some destinations in Europe and the U.S., he said “over-tourism” was a bigger problem than attracting visitors.

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“The number of tourists are really starting to have an impact on the infrastructure and the quality of life, as well as with the tourist experience,” he said. “You can only imagine what that would look like here [in Grand Cayman] in five years if not properly managed.

“How do you spread people out more? Stingray City with 50 boats crowded around sunset could very quickly become an unsustainable experience that tourists wouldn’t want to return to.”

Ms. Dukharan compared Cayman favorably to its Caribbean neighbors, saying very few other islands had a comprehensive national tourism plan.

She said the Caribbean, in general, was losing market share in the tourism industry, partly because of a lack of strategic planning.

According to the International Monetary Fund, she said, the number of flights was the biggest driver of tourism to a destination. Surprisingly, she said, adding new hotels had almost no impact in itself on tourism arrivals. She also highlighted IMF statistics that show the region as the most expensive in the world on the “week at the beach” price index.

Many Caribbean destinations, she said, are compounding the problem with excessive airline and airport taxes. In some cases, taxes cost more than the ticket itself, she said. The Cayman Islands is somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as airport taxes go, levying US$58 per passenger. Ms. Dukharan said it was a “perverse approach” for Caribbean islands to overtax tourists.

“I think we should make it cheaper for people to come here, and when they come, encourage them to spend that money on experiences and goods and services,” she said.

She also highlighted the gender gap in the Caribbean and in the tourism industry in particular, saying there were very few female tourism ministers, CEOs or company owners.

She said women were a huge under-used resource, and countries like Iceland had demonstrated that progressive policies on child care and flexible working hours could help bring more women into the workforce and boost the economy.

Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell also spoke at the conference, highlighting some of the achievements made in tourism in Cayman over the past few years and the future hotel growth expected in the coming years. Director of Tourism Rosa Harris gave an update on the department’s marketing plans and recent campaigns, including an advertising campaign using actors Grace and Trai Byers to market to couples.