|Im starting to get ill from all this travelling, remarks Lea from Harlequin Worldwide Travel, recently returned from two weeks in the Maldives. I dont think I can take another week like that last one. |
Were in the departure lounge at Gatwick for the BA flight to Grand Cayman. Lea is one of those people for whom flying around the world, staying in the best hotels and constant diving is all part of the job description. Im joining a small group of travel operators on what they call a familiarisation trip.
Diving tourism is a major source of income for the Cayman Islands and the success of this visit for the islands will bemeasured by increased exposure in future holiday brochures.
Catherine Leach, from the UK office of the Department of Tourism, meets us at the other end. Sunset House is our base for the Grand Cayman section of our visit and rooms are at a premium, so we must share.
My room-mate, Rob from Hayes & Jarvis, joined the travel industry for a change of scenery. The hotels exactly what I expected, just as its described in the brochure, he says. Seconds later hes having to shout: I didnt know we would be right under the flightpath, though!
The noise subsides. We may have to put that in our brochure, or at least mention it to clients. When people ring up there is only so much you can tell them about a location without having been there.
ANYONE FOR TURTLE STEAK
In the bar a group representing the islands watersports operators association joins us. Soon Sareth from The Barefoot Traveller and Ron Kipp, owner of Bob Sotos Diving, are discussing the effects of the Cuban political situation on the islands.
Kirk from Aquatours has his own views: Ive heard its all cattle-market diving here, everyone being herded around. It will be interesting to compare the island to Cuba, where the diving is still fairly new. However, Cuba doesnt have the infrastructure that this place has to support it.
On a similar trip to Cuba I saw some incredible equipment at the dive centres. However, it wasnt long before I realised it was the same equipment being moved from one centre to another. Thats why I always use rental gear: I find its one of the best ways to judge a dive centre.
Next morning were out in a Sunset House boat with dive guides Erika and Sam. At Eagle Ray Rock the water is crystal blue and I see some interesting gulleys and rocky outcrops, but something is missing. Where were all the fish asks Kirk.
Later Sam sketches out a map of the next site on the Pictionary board used to keep us amused during the surface interval, and draws in several fish. Its a film - Another Country! shouts Kirk. I didnt see that many fish on the last dive!
It is another country - on the dive we see angelfish, tarpon, grouper and moray eels. Thats more like it, announces Kirk back on board. Later he tells me: What a tourist board tells you is one thing, what I get to see can often be a different story. Ive got to be satisfied with a destination before Ill send out any clients. And for Aquatours that means the diving has got to be more than good.
We spend the afternoon touring the island and some of its land-based attractions. For some people the holiday isnt all about diving, Lea tells me as we walk around the botanical park. We have to know what else there is to do.
Catherine has arranged for us to visit different locations for every lunch, dinner and even breakfast. Over dinner she hosts a Q&A session and one topic is how visitors would react to seeing turtle steaks on the menu.
The island hosts one of the worlds only turtle farms with a successful release programme. Every turtle steak ordered boosts business, and if business is good a percentage of the turtles can be released into the wild. The group are divided on whether this is an attraction or something to keep quiet about.
FEEDING TIME AT STINGRAY CITY
The next day, at Indies Divers, Lea wants to see how the hotel refurbishment has gone. We have to make sure our regular destinations are keeping their standards up, she says.
Later we head off to Seven Mile Beach to join the dive boat. At Hammerhead Reef the dive guides expect us to follow them in regimental fashion. Lea intends to raise this issue, as some of her experienced customers would find such control unappealing.
Our afternoon excursion is to Stingray City. I think its going to be a bit naff and touristy, says Kirk, though Sareth reckons it sounds like fun. The attraction, in just 6m of water on a sandbank, was created by accident when fishermen discovered stingrays flocking there to feed on the remains of their catch.
Now its visited several times a day by diving and snorkelling boats. The rays have never inflicted their stinging barbs on any visitor, nor have there ever been any serious injuries.
Because of strong winds the City hasnt been visited in days, and the hungry stingrays are in feisty mood. As soon as we drop to the sand our guide suffers a bruise to her arm from an over-zealous ray, but we spend an hour enjoying the flapping wings.
I still think its touristy, but what an experience! concedes Kirk, while Sareth describes the dive as incredible - brilliant. Back on the dock the group discuss whether their clients would enjoy or even approve of witnessing the effects on marine creatures of over-reliance on hand-outs.
At Bob Sotos, unlike Indies Divers, our level of experience is taken into consideration, though some still prefer to dive with the guide who, after all, knows where the cool stuff is.
At Orange Canyon vast elephants ear sponges decorate the wall and we enjoy a close encounter with a turtle. The best dive yet, is Sareths verdict.
When not diving, the operators dash off to talk business with hotel managers and assess each location, from beach access to condition of the dive shop. Lea times walking distances between restaurants, cafes and hotels. The evenings are filled with more meetings, receptions and meals out.
After two more days of Catherine cracking the whip, we just want to chill out on our last night at Sunset House and discover the delights of the Mudslide, a Cayman Islands cocktail.
NO TIME FOR HANGOVERS
At 5.30 next morning Catherine is in a tizz. We have 45 minutes to reach the airport, its pouring with rain, most of the group are hungover and theres no sign of the transport. With ruthless efficiency she rounds us up just in time to catch our short flight to smaller and quieter Cayman Brac.
At the Brac Reef Resort, run by British expats Gary and Tracy Villiers, the pace of life is slower. Time to relax Not if Catherine has anything to do with it; were straight off on a tour of the island - a few hotels, the caves and their populations of bats, a museum and the Bluff, where the island drops off into open ocean.
Passing the colourful gingerbread-style cottages, Kirk says: I get the feeling this is how real Caymanians live. Grand Cayman seemed to be full of foreigners.
That afternoon we dive the ex-Russian destroyer Captain Keith Tibbetts, an artificial reef that has brought extra diving revenue to the island. The week is taking its toll; I watch Catherine and Lea take turns to pose Kate Winslet-style on the bow.
Later I ask the group how they cope with the schedule. Lea tells me about her recent trip to Bonaire and Curaçao. In just one day I visited 24 hotels. After a while it all became a bit of a blur. The next day I did as many dives as I could to see if the area would suit our clients. The evenings were full of receptions and business meals. It can all get very political - you cant afford to miss anything out. Everyone wants you to dive with them, eat with them and for you to see what their hotel is like.
SCRAP THAT WALLPAPER!
Our last diving day arrives and were off to Little Caymans Bloody Bay Wall.
Its encouraging to see that there are only two other dive boats on the wall and the mooring buoys are well spaced out. Ive been impressed by the discipline of the boats on the dive sites here, says Kirk. Youll never see more than one dive boat on any site and theyre all buoyed. Id heard from a client recently that there were 37 dive boats trying to use the Thistlegorm in the Red Sea!
The site is as spectacular as the Department of Tourism would have us believe. A vertical drop starting in only 7m is coated with fine examples of Caribbean sponges and corals. Kirk and Catherine come across Ben, a well-known giant grouper which seems to enjoy divers company. Kirk and Catherine later describe the experience as religious and one of those unforgettable diving moments.
After a second dive the tour bus awaits. The pattern is becoming familiar: hotel inspections followed by checking out the facilities, the beach and a visit to the dive shop to inspect equipment and boats. Managers and owners are always on hand to answer questions.
The oddest things can alienate an operator. One of them targets the new fish-motif wallpaper in the bathrooms of a hotel: I just dont like it and I dont think my clients will. But most of the time its all-round quality of the hotel, dive boats, the staff that operate them and ultimately the price that matter to them.
Over eight days we have experienced the Cayman Islands in depth. Sareth has fallen for one of the newer properties on Little Cayman and plans to introduce it in his next brochure. Its a special place and will appeal to my clientele. Rob is thinking of introducing a two-island package; Kirk still hasnt made up his mind: It is more expensive than Cuba, but Cuba can be a bit hit-and-miss; here youre guaranteed a good experience.
For many of the group the night flight home provides a chance to unwind before they head straight to the office to arrange contracts and catch up with work. For the unlucky ones, theres a day or two at the office and then another trip, with more hotels, diving, meals and receptions.
What about their holidays It has to be the most relaxing resort in the world, says one. A week in my own house!
For further information on diving in the Cayman Islands contact the Department of Tourism on 0171 491 7771 or at www.caymanislands.ky