(GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands)— Cayman Gifts & Souvenirs would lure cruise ship travelers into its shop with fashionable island clothing waving in the wind and the bold “Sale” sign. Like pirates searching for treasure, the tourists would risk the danger of crossing the busy street to get to the store. At the storefront, mannequins would greet the tourists who would pay their respect by putting on a mask and sanitizing their hands before stepping inside. The store clerks are prepares for an influx of shoppers. Today, however, there is only one customer.
It’s been two years since the Cayman Islands welcomed cruise ship travelers. Amidst the island’s anniversary of the March 2020 lockdown souvenir businesses pine for the return of tourists.
Many cruise ship travelers, when looking for souvenirs to capture the memories of their visit to the Cayman Islands, turn to the islands’ well-known souvenir icon: Cayman Gifts & Souvenirs. 19th Fort St.,Jack & Jill Building is home to the store’s wide array of souvenirs and gifts for tourists who disembark at the George Town Cruise Port, for a quick walking tour of all the George Town Harbor has to offer.
“Our business cash reserves will last for about the next one to three months,” said George Kamal, 40% shareholder of Cayman Gifts & Souvenirs. “It’s been really hard and there is nothing we can do but to just hold on,” he said.
In 2019, the business had seven employees. However, during the pandemic four of the employees resigned.
“We were unable to pay them[the three remaining employees] a full salary [employees received half of their salaries], but we took care of them; their medical expenses too,” said Kamal.
According to the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, in 2018, before the pandemic, the islands experienced a 11.1% rise in cruise visits with a total of 1,921,057 cruise ship passengers. In 2019, only 1,831,011 cruise ship passengers were welcomed, representing a 4.7% decline in business on the eve of a pandemic. Since March 2020 to date, cruise ships have been restricted from entering Cayman ports. This prolonged lack of cruise ships to the region have had a knock-on effect on the souvenir shop’s business model. The managers had to redesign a plan for the successful operation of the business to identify: new revenue sources, customer base and products.
“We had to change the business model to target local customers, which we never did before,” Kamal said, “We started buying and selling fashionable clothing and female undergarments to attract locals—they didn’t need souvenirs.”
During the height of the pandemic, Cayman Gifts & Souvenirs depended on word-of-mouth, Facebook and Instagram for marketing. In September 2020, the business benefited from the government’s establishment of the Cayman Islands Global Citizen Concierge. This program recognized a new type of tourist, the professional wanting to escape the pandemic rigors of their home country to work remotely in the Cayman Islands.
Kamal recalled offering customers the convenience of WhatsApp ordering and getting their souvenirs delivered.
The change was welcome.
“I had an excellent experience with Cayman Gifts & Souvenirs. During a 14- day hotel quarantine period I decided to buy 50 postcards from them to send to friends and family around the world,” a customer wrote in a September 2020 Tripadvisor review. “Without a local sim card, I messaged Cayman Gifts & Souvenirs on WhatsApp, they replied instantly and had no issues delivering 50 postcards.”
Despite the shop’s ability to identify new revenue sources and customer base, this was not enough to increase profit.
“Turnover has decreased by more than 50% over the last two years,” said Kamal. “The warehouse is full of merchandise due to a backlog in sales,” he said.
Kamal explained that importing costs had increased three times over the last two years.. He added that the usual three month shipment now takes six to eight months, due to the restrictions placed on goods and services from China and U.S. suppliers. Additional paperwork, changes in transportation cost, increased Cayman Islands custom duties and tariffs are some of the challenges the business continues to maneuver.
“They [the Cayman Islands Customs Agency] need to waive the duty and reduce charges,” Kamal said.
Kamal further explained that unlike other small businesses, he didn’t qualify for government funding or support, due to the fact that the business is not a 100% Caymanian-owned company.
“I would strongly suggest that the government [Cayman Islands Government] compensate [provide funding and support] to all local businesses, because the government makes money from import tax from everyone [both 100% Caymanian-owned and half expat-owned businesses],” said Kamal.
On the other hand, on Feb. 25, Kenneth Byan the Minister of Tourism and Transport, announced the resumption of cruise ships to Grand Cayman, beginning March 21. Bryan said “many businesses that support the cruise sector have been down and out of business for quite some time.” He added, “We thought it was important to give them as much time as possible to prepare themselves.” The minister stated that this should be an added relief to businesses.
Kamal said that he is yet to feel relieved.
“The government has given us less than a month to prepare,” Kamal said. “I can’t say 100% [with certainty] that it’s going to be normal again, due to lots of protocols and restrictions—it’s a trial run to see how it works—I’m not sure right now,” Kamal said. “Only 74,208 cruise passengers are allowed,” he said.
Despite the unknown outcomes of the reopening plan to the cruise ship industry, Kamal is preparing his staff and organizing the store.
Surrounded by the island’s undiscovered treasures, store clerk Andrea Morgan meticulously arranges each item, row and shelf leaving nothing out of place. She works diligently like a homemaker; getting her house in order. Her attitude of expectancy signals hope for cruise ship travelers who might soon walk through the door.