Cruising Into Disneyland
is the story of George Town, Grand Cayman Island. On the whole, Grand Cayman has a surreal paradise like quality. Seven Mile Beach is a stunning stretch of pristine sand, washed by clear turquoise waters, and lined by beautiful hotels and white beach umbrellas. Everyone is smiling and friendly. Driving around the island, buildings are bathed in brilliant saturated color. Crime rates are incredibly low on the island. But there is also an uncanny and unsettling feeling that can be hard to pin down. The native life of the island provides an oddly quiet and sleepy backdrop to masses of wealthy tourists passing through. And the wealthy tourists populating luxury hotels are contrasted starkly by the masses of cruisers who drop by on a daily basis.
In 2018, nearly two million visitors arrived via cruise ship. George Town itself presents a stage set like facade of almost cartoonish color and exaggeration, rows of souvenir shops and high end jewelers, a backdrop against which masses of cruise ship visitors are herded through a zoo-like maze of gates and check points to briefly descend and just as suddenly sail away. The visual vocabulary of shape and color that describe the buildings bears a striking resemblance to the aesthetic of Disneyland. Guy Debord defined tourism as “human circulation considered as consumption … fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal”. Tourism here isn’t different here from any place else in a particularly substantive way. But as it is the island’s primary industry, Grand Cayman offers a sharp crystallization of the ideals, artificiality, and consumerism, that define tourist culture. As “authentic tourism” becomes more and more of a buzzword, there is a refreshing honesty to this place which on the surface doesn’t seem to purport to be much more than a tourist destination anyway.
Some of the popular spots which reflect a little of the island’s cultural history, and not just a history of consumption and off shore bank accounts, include Stingray City and the Turtle Center. And part of what island paradises like Grand Cayman offer, after all, is an idyllic form of communion with nature. That communion itself - the descent of hundreds of thousands of tourists - threaten the pristine quality of that nature. But as long as it holds value for visitors, it has the potential to serve as a reminder to take care of natural resources and of what stands to be gained from slowing down. Unfortunately, those are qualities can easily be lost when the island is seen through the lens of a hyperreal port town visited for an hour or two.