Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands (17 October 2019) – Norman Bodden, OBE, is one of the few old guards who remain in Cayman today. No one can question his stellar reputation in both business and community or his contributions to the religious, corporate, governance and private sector development of these three islands.
Today he still stands well-tempered, like Damascus steel. Though diplomatic and eloquent, he does not and has never cut both ways, only the straight and narrow way, and in a direction that bodes best for his beloved islands.
So then, what is the essence of this proposed cruise-port facility debate, in his eyes?
“We have a tendency to resist change, but we need a progressive plan, if you can call it that,” he says. “Development is necessary to keep the economy going, but we just have to be careful in our forward-planning. We need to retain the things that have attracted people here. And yes, we’ve lost some things along the way, but we can carefully manage what we still have left.”
To decipher his exact opinion on the sensitive matter takes a bit more understanding of the man.
As a teenager, Mr. Norman, as he is affectionately known in Cayman, never received the traditional call to become a seaman. After graduating in 1953 at the age of 18, he secured a “good job” in Cayman with LACSA airlines earning a grand sum of 10 pounds sterling monthly. Thus began his relationship with the travel and tourism industries. He went on to work many years with Cayman Brac Airways and then Cayman Airways.
“Cayman is a different kind of place, which is why tourists still like to visit here,” he explained. “I’m pleased to have seen our progress, and the development of our country. Even so, we need to maintain our culture and our careful approach as we go forward. We still have many great ‘Things Caymanian’”.
Explaining why early Caymanians were enamoured by cruise ships and stayover visitors in the early years of tourism development, he shared an unusually moving reason.
“Our seamen played an important role in our early development where most of our local families had fathers, sons and uncles far away at sea. As such the visitors were surrogates for their loved ones. We loved to entertain those cruisers and stayover guests, for this was a way to compensate for our own men who were at sea, hoping that they were receiving the same hospitality wherever they were in the world. Ever since, our tourism industry has survived, as we always have, by us improvising and making sacrifices to get ahead.”
As for the present twin-pier proposal, Mr. Bodden says he’s aware of the plans to enhance the facility and to revitalise George Town, and that the Government must be careful to make it attractive to those who visit Cayman as well as those who live here.
Mr. Bodden was elected as a political representative in 1980 and served as Minister of Tourism from 1984 to 1992. His new government embraced the dramatic tourism boom in this phase of Cayman’s history and in the early 1980s hired a New York advertising agency to develop the prime Florida and New York travel markets.
“Our TV spots worked, and soon many Americans were learning about this undiscovered gem some 400 miles south of Miami,” he recalls. “The number of cruise passengers was not high in the early times – only about 200,000 in 1984. That picture changed dramatically when bigger cruise ships began bringing wealthier travelers, as well as middle-income cruisers”.
Mr. Norman says his Government’s original business plan was simple – to attract North American families to a safe, relaxed and comfortable destination.
“Our ad-spend was small too,” he admits, “but we realised that cruise visitors were a great tool to supplement our ongoing tourism development as well as the fledgling financial services industry. Our reasoning was that cruisers would help spread the word about the Cayman Islands and a certain sector would fly back to Cayman as return visitors, newly committed to these pristine islands and make investments here that would benefit all – as is said “the tourist dollar trickles down” to benefit everyone. To some extent, that still occurs today.”
Soon condo/hotel developments, restaurants and other amenities were popping up along the Seven Mile Beach corridor. This proved beneficial to many locals – especially as Caymanians could now find good work in their own country.
A staunch commitment to preserve the environment, especially the marine life, was another key component of the Government’s strategy as SCUBA diving and other water sports soon emerged as intrinsic to the tourist product.
Cayman’s cruise port was upgraded in recent years, but still only small tender vessels are able to use the three passenger terminals, and any one of these are best known for their congestion on days when there are two or more cruise ships in town. The cargo port was built some 40-plus years ago to cater to modern steel-hulled vessels and Mr. Norman remembers that the facility was built, through the efforts of the late Berkley Bush, amid much national protests. That facility, however, has also endured the natural forces of hurricanes, storms, decomposition and heavy use but the vital lifeline for imports and trade also needs to be upgraded to meet the needs and demands of a rapidly growing population.
The early “boom” in Cayman’s popularity occurred faster than most could consider the ramifications, but the crystal-clear waters and the talcum powder-like sand still continue to draw millions of cruise and stayover vacationers each year. Today, as history prepares to repeat itself, with mega-ships now plying the Caribbean waters (but unable to berth in Cayman), Mr. Norman says about the future of cruise tourism:
“Many people today, through convenience or necessity, prefer getting off the cruise ships smoothly so the berths would be a plus but everything has to be well-balanced. If the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) prove that there will be no damage to Seven Mile Beach, I will be satisfied that there will be no adverse effects. And I am not being political, just practical”.
“In our growth and development, we have just invested in a modern and attractive airport terminal and the waterfront should not be left behind. Having a berthing facility and an upgraded cargo port done together seems the practical way to go.”
The weight and relevance of his final comments are reflected in the images on the wall of his office. In the reception area are three framed sepia-toned photos, two of local sailors of decades gone by, working on the deck of a locally-built schooner – the maritime workhorses of the northern Caribbean. The third appropriately shows the George Town harbour as it was, a crude ironshore landing area for ships, with sparse wooden seaside buildings, the spire of Elmslie Memorial Church the only recognisable landmark.
Hanging above his office chair is a watercolour painting of the modern-day waterfront. Just how much does the sea mean to him? With a smile, the astute 84-year-old says, “Whenever I decide to retire, I’m taking those pictures home with me.”
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