Cayman: A Growth Story

Expatriate tension less evident in Cayman

  • Glen Gibbons: ran BF&M in Cayman for three years

Tension over race and the presence of large numbers of expatriates is much less evident in Cayman than in Bermuda, according to a retired Bermudian insurance executive who ran a business there.

Glen Gibbons was sent to Cayman in 2016 to take the post of general manager of Island Heritage, a company acquired by his employer BF&M four years earlier.

After 29 years working with BF&M in Bermuda, his mission was to advance the integration of the Caymanian insurer into the group and he went, not knowing what to expect.

Having done the job for about three years before retiring, he said that many things were similar to Bermuda, such as the good quality of the local talent pool. One thing he found different was the level of feeling over the presence of foreigners and racial divisions.

“It’s a very integrated population,” Mr Gibbons said. “I did not feel the racial tension that we feel in Bermuda. And, as the first time in my life being an expat, I did not feel expat tension.”

Caymanians he spoke with generally understood the link between immigration and economic growth, and the benefits for Caymanians in terms of income and opportunity.

The consensus local view, Mr Gibbons said, was: “‘As long as we, young home-grown Caymanians, can get a piece of the pie for ourselves, then we’re all for it — if we get blocked out, then that’s a different matter’, but it was very muted, not like it is in Bermuda.

“One of the disappointing things from my perspective, as a Bermudian, is how divisive the politicking can be in Bermuda in terms of expat bashing and racial tension and the way it is manipulated for political purposes.

“When I was down there, I remember sometimes Caymanians would say: ‘Gibbons, what’s wrong with you Bermudians? Your island is beautiful, you have a great GDP and you have reinsurance. What’s going on?’

“It was frustrating to see that and how they could make it happen. In Cayman, the community was integrated a lot sooner than it was in Bermuda, and that may be one of the keys to their success.”

Another major difference is in immigration rules that map out a clearly defined route to basic rights for long-established expatriates in Cayman. Foreign workers can apply for permanent residency after nine years and for citizenship after 15 years, something Mr Gibbons said had benefited the Caymanian economy and could work for Bermuda too.

“They have a pathway to residency and status down there,” Mr Gibbons said. “It’s well designed and I fully support that. Recognising my position as a Bermudian and my daughters’ position as two young Bermudians, you’re not looking to give away the country, but to identify the guidelines and stick to them.

“I think it comes down to the fact that if you want someone to invest in Bermuda, then you need to have a clearly defined path to ensure that both parties benefit from the relationship.”

The Cayman Government was also smart with its work permit policy, allowing companies to address short-term skills or labour shortages, he added.

“They can entice overseas investment and use it to their advantage and the investor’s,” Mr Gibbons said. “An employer can bring in an employee on a six-month work permit and then they leave. That happens a lot in the hospitality industry.”

Mr Gibbons stressed his belief that Bermuda has been successful, particularly in its international insurance industry, and added that the island still had a larger GDP than Cayman.

However, confidence in the future — a critical ingredient for economic success and prosperity — was in much greater supply in Cayman, he added.

“They’re very gung-ho, there’s a lot of confidence on the island,” Mr Gibbons said. “Where does that confidence come from?”

One reason might the presence of Ken Dart, an American-born billionaire who has made Cayman his home and whose companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into multiple developments. These include Camana Bay, a brand new waterfront town, complete with residences, offices, restaurants and leisure facilities.

“Do people follow his investment and his confidence in the island?” Mr Gibbons said. “I made the mistake of saying that once to Caymanian, who said: ‘I was here long before Mr Dart’.”

Tourism makes up a larger part of Cayman’s economy than it does Bermuda’s. In 2018, visitor numbers climbed 11 per cent from 2017 to 2.38 million, comprising 1.92 million cruise-ship visitors and 463,000 air arrivals. The thousands coming off the ships have an outsize impact on the Caymanian capital of George Town, where most of the passengers come ashore, as Mr Gibbons saw for himself.

“On any given day they have five or six massive cruise ships, parked out in the sound,” he said. “They shuttle the tourists back and forth into the city and the city comes to a standstill.

“A drive from one end of town to the other that normally takes three minutes can take 25 minutes when the cruise ships are in, because of congestion.

“Caymanians sometimes get upset at that, but at the same time they understand that the tourism dollar really helps to drive their economy.”

Tourism’s greater scale in Cayman is reflected by its range of hospitality offerings.

“I thought Bermuda was very good in terms of nice restaurants,” Mr Gibbons said. “If Bermuda has about ten, then Cayman has about 20 or 30.

“In terms of price it’s just as expensive as Bermuda, I’d say, but there are more options and many different kinds of cuisine.”

The atmosphere in restaurants was “upbeat, the servers really wanted to serve you”, though he added it was clear that the vast majority of the servers appear to be non-Caymanian.