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Cayman’s dive industry fights to stay afloat

Discussion in 'Cayman Islands' started by KathyV, Dec 1, 2020.

  1. KathyV

    KathyV ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Midwestern US
    Cayman’s dive industry fights to stay afloat - Cayman Compass

    Cayman’s dive industry fights to stay afloat

    By Norma Connolly - November 23, 2020

    In Cayman’s dive industry, where the vast majority of customers are tourists, operators now are depending on local residents for business and trying to keep their heads above water until the borders reopen.

    A number of dive operators who spoke with the Cayman Compass this month say they were seeing about 5% of the business they normally would at this time of year.

    Furloughs, weekday shutdowns, shorter opening hours and cost-cutting are all part of the norm now for dive companies.

    Even when borders reopen, restarting businesses, bringing staff back on island or replacing those who have left, will also be a challenge.

    Jason Washington, of Ambassador Divers, says, “I don’t think my situation is much different to anyone else’s. I’ve furloughed seven staff and I have two staff on island, not including myself.”

    He, like all other operators, now depends entirely on local divers, but admits that business from that quarter has dropped off.

    “After the lockdown was lifted, we were doing three-to-four dive trips a week. Now it’s only weekends, maybe once a week,” he says.

    The local market is just not big enough to sustain the large number of water-sports operators on island, Washington says, adding, “I fear we are playing this gruesome game of last man standing.”

    Sergio Coni, of Don Foster’s, agrees.

    “Operators are struggling right now because there is a limited pool of local divers. There are a lot of residents diving, but obviously, it’s not easy to maintain a business with this because of all the expenses you have – the overheads still continue to be high.”

    But it is the resident dive community that nonetheless is keeping businesses open, he says. “The local diving population has really stepped up a lot in terms of providing support as much as they can.”

    That group of divers is also expanding somewhat. With no prospect of going on vacation this year, more people have been learning how to dive, or divers who haven’t been in the water in years are doing refresher courses and heading back to visit the reefs, Coni says.

    “We’ve done quite a few [dive] certifications and some people are doing nitrox and advanced classes. … I’ve seen a lot of people who were new divers and now they’re seasoned divers.”

    Coni operates his business on an on-demand basis during the week. If someone wants to go shore diving from the Don Foster’s site, they call Coni, who lives nearby and will come in and give them an air tank. At weekends, Don Foster’s is open for boat and shore diving.

    In East End, Ocean Frontiers has also altered its schedule.

    “We’ve closed midweek, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and on Mondays if they’re public holidays,” says Ocean Frontiers’ Steve Broadbelt.

    “We just had to close. People are working during the week, and those who aren’t working can’t afford to go diving.

    “After lockdown, there was a surge of pent-up demand, but that’s run its course. It was great while it lasted.”

    He says the domestic market has “just slowed down the bleeding” as operators still must pay for health insurance, liability insurance, property insurance and other costs. “But shutting down would be even more expensive. … Everyone is in the same boat.”

    Broadbelt had recently bought new boats for his operation, spending more than $1 million on them. “Now they are sitting empty most of the time. We’re at about 3% capacity,” he says.

    Another worry, Broadbelt says, is “you lose your talent to other places. Chefs, boat captains, guides. I’ve been able to keep our top guys with us. Some left and plan to come back when we reopen.”

    Targeting a new generation

    Residents continue to go on shore dives at Sunset House.

    At Sunset Divers, shore diving remains popular among residents, says Emma Jane Fisher, the company’s sales and marketing manager.

    “Sunset Divers has a strong core of resident divers that use our shore facilities, however we have found it difficult to attract those divers onto our boats. We are able to offer boat trips any day of the week, but do have to meet our minimums to at least break even,” she says.

    Fisher says Sunset is operating with a much-smaller crew of instructors than before lockdown. Like other operators, the company is trying to find new ways to boost local interest, including targeting a new generation of divers.

    “We have a great bunch of youth divers that have learnt to dive together and are now continuing their diving education at Sunset Divers,” Fisher says. “We are offering afterschool guided shore dives … kids’ boats with shallow dive sites and scuba camps during the holidays.”

    Another new avenue the company is exploring as part of its efforts to attract on-island customers is team-building experiences for corporate clients or groups that want to dive together.

    Uncertain border reopening

    At a recent Cayman Islands Tourism Association meeting, industry representatives, including dive operators, claimed there is a lack of transparency from government on the next phase of border reopening. They called on government to introduce pre-arrival COVID-19 testing for visitors, which they say could enable the quarantine period to be cut from the present minimum of 14 days.

    Divetech’s Jo Mikutowicz says it’s vital that the tourism industry get some insight into when the borders may reopen.

    “One thing that is so difficult right now,” she says, “is not having a plan for the business because there is no clear plan on border reopening. The border reopening happening in early 2021 versus the border reopening not happening for another year or longer are two completely different ways forward and it’s very difficult to make a plan about how to move forward with the business when you don’t know how long this will go on for.”

    In the meantime, her operation has been trying to offer different or unique experiences “to keep residents diving and involved in the water-sports industry here in Cayman”.

    “Just having a presence out on the water in general is important to keep that forward momentum going and showing the world that we are still here and waiting for their return,” she says, but acknowledges that “by no means is this sustainable for the long term – we need tourism back”.
  2. drrich2

    drrich2 ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: Southwestern Kentucky
    Given the need to offer low cost alternatives, to glean every bit of business they can, and to entice whatever customers they can in that pursuit...sounds like a good time for some op.s on Grand Cayman to dispense with their opposition to solo shore diving. Require a redundant air source and you can rent out pony bottles, too.

    Grand Cayman is fortunate in having effective shore diving options, and a more diverse economy that just 'diver-focused.' The huge reduction in scuba tourism, coupled with the limbo the cruise industry is stuck in, is an economic tragedy for some of these places.

    Wonder how much worse things are on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac? It's easy to lump them all together as 'the Caymans,' but practically speaking, seems like Little and Brac are in a different situation.

  3. flyboy08

    flyboy08 ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: NYC
    This certainly is sad and I'm sure Brac and LC are in despair as well...
    KathyV likes this.
  4. KathyV

    KathyV ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Midwestern US
    Scuba tourism really is the main economic driver on Brac and Little - especially on Little Cayman. I heard that the Clearly Cayman Resorts (CBBR and LCBR) and other hotels went to the Cayman government with a plan to offer "bubble vacations" to protect tourists and residents.

    They claimed that they would require their visitors to be tested and screened and to stay on the resort property during the entire vacation, and they would implement precautions like masks and social distancing (even during dining) and would also regularly test staff - but the Cayman government rejected the plan.

    ‘Resort bubble’ concept not an easy answer - Cayman Islands Headline News
    drrich2 likes this.
  5. Jcp2

    Jcp2 Literally virtually diving ScubaBoard Supporter

    I’m hoping that the vaccine will allow tourists like myself to visit by mid summer. I probably will be vaccinated by January as I work in a hospital, but my kids are probably near the bottom of the list in terms of priority, and I have no idea where the Caymans and other Caribbean countries will be in their vaccine programs.
  6. tridacna

    tridacna ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 2,500 - 4,999
    Location: New Jersey
    I’m willing to bet that a rich Island like the Caymans will vaccinate their entire population pretty quickly in 2021. Like you I have a trip planned to LC - pretty confident that it will happen.
    shoredivr likes this.
  7. Aviyes

    Aviyes Contributor

    # of Dives: 100 - 199
    Location: Colorado
    Bummer. That would have been perfect! Really enjoyed Cayman Brac last Christmas and was hoping to try Little Cayman.
    KathyV likes this.
  8. Damselfish

    Damselfish ScubaBoard Sponsor ScubaBoard Sponsor

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: Boston
    I’m sure it’s helpful that the Cayman economy is more diverse than some islands. But the fact that their tourism segment isn’t nearly as diving focused as some “dive” islands, I’m not sure that matters. If tourists aren't going there, they’re not going there, doesn’t matter what they were going to do when they got there. As far as shore diving, it’s nice that they have it and it may normally be a draw for some divers to go there - but I don’t think it’s where the money is, and if divers aren’t going there anyway doesn’t matter why they wanted to go.
  9. Divetech Cayman

    Divetech Cayman Contributor

    About 6 months ago, this very issue was raised before the CITA. A CITA watersports meeting was held for discussion of the topic. As was expected, some members were dead set against it, other members were in favor of it, and others had no opinion. (Remember that the CITA watersports segment includes many more snorkeling operators than diving operators.)

    The issue was tabled so the proposal could be more clearly re-written, and it was slated to be voted on again. However since then, CITA held their annual elections and a new BOD was voted in. I am pleased to say that I am one of the CITA Board members, representing the Watersports sector. The current priorities of the CITA Board of Directors is working with Government to formulate a safe reopening plan for the islands.

    A safe plan can confidently be established. The VP of the CITA Board of Directors is Dr. Michael Tibbets (owner of Clearly Cayman,) who along with Kel Thompson have started their own initiative called Reopen Cayman. A Safe & Measured Reopening For The Cayman Islands | Reopen Cayman

    Dr. Tibbets has collected vast amounts of data from other islands that are currently open, examining what works, and what doesn't, and can demonstrate that with a multi-faceted plan, the risk of contracting and dying from COVID19 is very slight. I'd encourage everyone to visit his site and take a look at it.

    Many things are being considered for a safe reopening plan. The border reopening will consist of many things, not just a vaccine. Social distancing, masks, pre-arrival resting (Cayman does not do this currently,) regular rapid testing (data has suggested that frequent rapid testing is a more effective to less frequent PCR tests,) hygiene standards.

    Vaccines are being considered of course, but this is not the magic bullet. As some of you may have seen, there is some reluctance on the part of some residents here to actually take the vaccine. A recent Cayman Compass poll has shown that only 60% of the respondents were willing to take one. Other local polls show even lower numbers. 70-80% of the population must be inoculated in order for herd immunity to take effect. There is also the availability of these new vaccines. Vaccines in and of themselves will not stop the problem, which is why a multi-pronged solution is required.

    cgills, hilljo88, mi000ke and 2 others like this.
  10. KathyV

    KathyV ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Midwestern US
    Shore diving may never be a major "money maker" for Cayman dive ops, but it can be a big draw for dive travelers that want to stretch their budget and get in a lot of diving, like the packages offered by @Divetech Cayman that include unlimited shore diving at their house reef: https://www.divetech.com/packages

    It's also a nice option for divers who are traveling with non-diving family members; it can help them get in some dives when convenient, without taking away too much time from family.

    I don't think that shore diving would ever become a main economic driver on Cayman like it is on Bonaire, but it's an attractive bonus; plus it is fun and inexpensive!
    Schwob, Redfoot and drrich2 like this.

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