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Cayman Islands

Grand Cayman cruise pier project stalls following environmental study

By Robert Deaves

grand-caymen

Arguments are reaching fever pitch on Grand Cayman Island over the government’s proposal to build two cruise piers in an effort to boost its cruise tourism sector.

While the benefits to the cruise ships are obvious – more passengers can be brought ashore more quickly – there are serious concerns about the environmental damage the construction will cause. According to some reports it will destroy most of Grand Cayman’s famous dive sites, close to the proposed location.

The proposal has met a lot of opposition. In fact, it is hard to find any person, business or organization in favor of the project, except perhaps the big cruise lines it is being built to serve.

One report estimated the piers would create 1,000 jobs and would be worth US$ 250 million to the economy over the next 20 years. It has also been reported that over 80 per cent of local businesses are against the proposals because of the potential for irreversible environmental damage.

The five dives sites of Eden Rock, Balboa, Cali shipwreck, Soto’s Reef and Devil’s Grotto, as well as Stingray City – a series of shallow sandbars in the North Sound of Grand Cayman where southern stingrays are found in abundance – are the island’s main tourist attractions. All are located close enough to the proposed piers to cause serious worry.

All cruise ships are currently held at one of four offshore deepsea anchorages, with passengers being tendered ashore to the George Town terminal – a time-consuming and laborious operation, especially when four cruise ships are in port at the same time.

During 2015 Grand Cayman is expected to welcome around 2 million passengers and more than 600 cruise ship calls. The tourism sector generates US$ 9 million a year for the country.

A government-commissioned study into the cruise sector recommended the construction of the two piers at the same location as the current anchorages in George Town harbor.

The proposed piers will be 300 meters long and 30 meters wide so that four vessels can berth simultaneously. Two of the existing anchoring points will remain in operation, allowing the port to handle six vessels each day.

Dredging

The piers have been aligned to minimize the need for dredging, but some dredging will be essential to deepen the berths to 36 ft to allow Oasis-class cruise ships to call. An estimated 626,000 cubic meters of spoil will be moved, most of which will be used for land reclamation onshore for the new facilities.

An environmental impact assessment (EIA) reported that several hundred thousand square feet of reef would be completely destroyed as a result of the dredging and construction of the cruise berths, having “significant negative impacts on the marine ecology within the George Town Harbor areas.”
The report revealed that the damage to the seabed and the silt created by the marine works would kill the reef and destroy virtually all marine life in the area. Grand Cayman is famous for its dive sites, which are often ranked as the best in the Caribbean.

Suggestions to relocate the reef have been met with skepticism due to the high cost and the long-term viability of such operations, although similar projects have been successful.

The government sees the development as essential to improve its cruise product as well as boosting the nation’s economy. However, the flipside is that the piers could destroy most of the island’s attractions, which in turn would reduce the attraction of Grand Cayman as a cruise destination.

The nation has been polarized on the proposals, weighing the potential economic benefits against the very real environmental concerns. This has been widely described as the biggest decision the country has had to take for a generation – a turning point in its history.