I've never visited any place in the Caribbean like Grand Cayman. I kept failing to recall my whereabouts. Was I actually in some odd town in Florida where people drive on the left side of the road? It sure felt like it. Strip malls are plentiful and then there's the whole decontextualized Caribbeanish nine yards: a Señor Frogs bar, a Hard Rock Cafe. I found some interesting things along the way, but it took a little effort to sort through what felt like the suburban American seaside.
If the Editorial/Opinion page of last weekend's edition of Cayman Net News is anything to go by, similar thoughts are on the minds of many Caymanians. The issue's editorial, a local commentary piece, and two letters to the editor were all devoted to the state of Grand Cayman as a tourist attraction. The editorial lamented the fall in tourist numbers into the Cayman Islands, pondered how the credit crisis in the United States would affect tourism, and noted that several other Caribbean territories are becoming savvier in their marketing efforts, wondering out loud what the Caymans are doing to keep up.
The most interesting article of the lot was provided by a "local commentary" column by Dr. Frank McField, a former Minister of Housing, who framed his inquiry around the question of how the territory can appeal to European tourists. He wrote:
The expectations most Europeans will have of the Cayman Islands is more of what we were in the 1970s and 80s, before we lost the mangoes and coco plum bush to the pre-high rise condominiums. When this group travels they expect to find something they don't have at home, unlike Americans who are mostly looking for duplications of American society and products.
Look at the number of fast food restaurants on the Seven Mile Beach Road; this is partly the result of catering solely to American visitors. Cayman was warned many decades go that, if all things Caymanian were eliminated, we ran the risk of destroying the uniqueness of our island society. This would then adversely impact tourism.
McField depressingly hits the bullseye. Many American tourists in the Caribbean are looking for familiarity above all else. His argument that the strategy of importing the standardized suburban US experience does not represent a sustainable approach is compelling. This strategy eviscerates local distinctiveness in favor of retail products and sensations that feel as if they come from nowhere. McField goes on to question the existence of a "unique Caymanian tourism product based on things Caymanian." Harsh, but again, on-target.
Sure, Seven Mile Beach is lovely, but it's so crowded with hotels and condos that its appeals are necessarily limited. What I enjoyed most about Grand Cayman were the things that are not part of the tourism profile of the island: the sight of a Cayman Islands flag flapping in the wind above bungalows on a side street; chickens pecking their way through a yard; the high foreign population; the cute little houses; roadside cemetery plots. The above fragments make the George Town area distinctive. They're downright interesting and resolutely local.
Even Americans are beginning to look for more local, less standardized travel experiences. Look at the editorial move at Travel + Leisure toward more "authentic" dimensions of destinations. Look also at environmental concerns, which are prompting tourists to move away from all-inclusive excess and toward more thoughtful kinds of accommodation and transportation. These trends are not incidental developments; I'd bet money that they're here to stay. The question is, do they matter to a place like the Cayman Islands? Even if US tourist habits change seriously, Grand Cayman's sanitized appeal is unlikely to vaporize entirely.
Here's a different question: Is it too late to develop a tourist infrastructure in the Caymans that is not about lowest-common-denominator standardization? Is there even a market for a more rustic experience on Grand Cayman? If it's not too late to do so and a market exists, then the Caymans badly need to figure out a rebranding strategy. Extolling the less glitzy virtues of the eastern side of Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac might be one way to do that.