GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands -- Cruise visitors arriving in the Cayman Islands last year topped 1.8 million, up from 1.5 million in 2002, 1.2 million in 2001 and 1 million in 2000.

By contrast, air arrivals last year totaled 293,517, down from 302,797 in 2002, 334,071 in 2001 and 354,987 in 2000.

While the annual cruise increases please tourism officials, the numbers have prompted them to rethink the destination's cruise facilities and traffic flow in downtown George Town.

McKeeva Bush, minister of tourism, said that "in the short term, we do not have the facilities to properly cater to our cruise visitors; however, expanded permanent facilities are a critical part of our long-term tourism plan."

"It's a challenge, but we cannot ignore the growth of our cruise tourism market."

The minister is opposed to the imposition of a regionwide cruise head tax; instead, he would prefer to see the price of land tours increase.

For the moment, Bush said, the existing commercial port, which flanks the cruise pier, will be moved to another location, "which will allow us to develop the George Town cruise pier into an overall tourism mecca, with park benches, shops, places to eat and relax."

A new cruise terminal is part of the long-range development plan, the minister said. The proposed $60 million facility would enable four [large] cruise ships to tie up directly in George Town rather than anchor offshore and have passengers tendered in to the dock, as they are now.

Bush said he is in talks with Carnival Cruise Lines, which operates the new Queen Mary 2. "I'm hoping to attract that ship to Grand Cayman, but right now we don't have the proper facilities," he said.

In the meantime, designs for development of the $26 million Royal Watler Terminal Cruise Tendering Facility are on track. Construction starts this month, with completion set for October, according to Bush.

Another innovation slated for completion in October is the development of a second tendering dock at West Bay, a 15-minute ferry ride from George Town.

To contact reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].

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