GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands (CNS) – The government has entered into a funding agreement with MSC Cruises toward the costs of constructing Grand Cayman’s cruise berthing facility. This is the fourth cruise company that has reportedly committed to a financing deal with the Cayman Islands government, even though the project is being tendered with potential developers as a design-build-finance project. Premier Alden McLaughlin said Wednesday that this fourth deal will prevent the need for public funding for the controversial project and was “a win-win situation for the country, the preferred bidder and the cruise lines.”
However, the announcement comes just as the campaign for a people-initiated referendum on the project is about to complete its petition, which will trigger a national ballot about the proposed project. Government has claimed that if the campaign was successful it would derail the project.
In the statement, issued by the premier’s office and not the tourism minister, McLaughlin said that with four cruise lines (Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Disney and now MSC) committed to the project, it would not be exposed to risk.
“These agreements, coupled with the finance to be provided by whichever entity is eventually selected as the preferred bidder on the project, ensure that no public funding will be required to build the cruise berths and enhanced cargo facility,” he said.
“As well as strengthening the project’s financing structure, having cruise companies financially vested in the project provides assurance that the country’s finances will not be exposed to risk and is a positive indication of their commitment to our islands for decades to come. It is a win-win situation for the country, the preferred bidder and the cruise lines.”
Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell said the agreement represents another key milestone in the project. “MSC operates more than 1,000 routes globally and is one of the fastest growing cruise companies in the world,” he said. “Their commitment to the Cayman Islands will help to sustain and grow our cruise tourism industry into the future.”
The statement also claimed that the cruise berthing facility project “has undergone a rigorous procurement process to identify a preferred bidder to construct the berthing facility within a design, build, finance and maintain framework” — which is disputed by campaigners.
Numerous questions remain unanswered and the government has not responded to a plethora of queries from the press, campaigners and the public about the project. Just yesterday more design images were leaked which indicated that the government has already made decisions about the project, even though the tendering process is ongoing.
It is also understood that the government has not responded to a letter sent by campaigners warning government that the petition for the referendum is nearing completion and that it should avoid signing any binding deals that could, in the long run, cost the public purse dear.
It is not clear how binding the four agreements government has made with the cruise line are, but like it or not, the government will have to hold a referendum on the port project, and given the level of public opinion against the project, it may very well come down against pursuing the project.
Government has said publicly through its anti-referendum campaign that a nationwide vote on the issue would derail the project entirely. But CNS understands that behind closed doors the government expects to win the referendum. Its confidence may not be altogether misplaced, as it will hold all the cards.
Government gets to set the wording of the question, which will be extremely important, and also gets to set the date. It will have access to the public purse to fund its campaign and, most important of all, a people-initiated referendum is already stacked against the people because the vote must reflect 50 percent plus one of the entire electoral register and not just 50 percent plus one of the voter turnout.
Nevertheless, it is not a foregone conclusion. The results of the very first public opinion survey on this project during the first EIA consultation process was three to one against and that level of opposition has been persistent. Straw polls and other online surveys have all indicated that around three-quarters of the people are either opposed or do not feel sufficiently informed to support the project.