Position: 19°18’N, 81°23’W – Georgetown, Grand Cayman
In his novel The Firm, John Grisham wrote about the mafia laundering money through the Cayman Islands. Before Enron collapsed in 2001, the corporation avoided paying millions of dollars in US taxes by channelling money through subsidiaries registered here. There has been no shortage of bad publicity about the place, with someone once describing it as “a sunny place for shady people”. So this week we ventured out around Grand Cayman to find out a bit more.
Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1503, the Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory in the western Caribbean. In the past they have been home to pirates (including the legendary Captain Morgan), refugees, sailors and slaves. Today the population of approximately 55,000 is made up of local Caymanians - descendents from the early English and African settlers - and a significant expatriate community from countries all around the world.
The renowned ‘tax haven’ status of the island means that people working here don’t pay income tax and companies registered here are not liable for corporation tax. Since the first international bank opened here in the 1950s, this tax neutral environment has attracted many wealthy individuals and large corporations from all over the world. They open bank accounts or register companies here as a way to safely and legally reduce their tax bill in their home country. Overseas Ministers of Tax or Finance may consider it immoral but it is a perfectly legitimate activity and for the most part, the sources of finance arriving in Cayman are sound. Listening to the local residents, the days of flying in on a private jet with a suitcase full of cash seem to be well and truly in the past, and Caymanians are keen to correct the questionable reputation that has hovered over the islands in recent years.
While the booming financial sector is obvious in downtown Georgetown, a short drive from the CBD opens up a whole new world. Clear, blue waters and an abundant sealife make Grand Cayman a paradise for snorkelling and diving. Nowhere in the world have we seen such a superb standard of sea protection. Even in the main harbour at Georgetown which hosts up to four cruiseships a day, the pristine water is home to turtles, tarpons, tiny colourful fish and even the odd stingray.
|Spotting the world beneath|
|Swimming with stingrays|
As an island nation, the sea has always been important to Caymanians, so much so that their country motto is “He hath founded it upon the seas”. Most Caymanian families have a seafaring history, with their forefathers earning a living making boats, fishing or working on merchant ships.
|A memorial in central Georgetown...|
|...dedicated to Caymanians lost at sea|
|Remains of the Cali|
The sea has brought food, people and development but it has also brought tragedy through storms and shipwrecks. On our trip around the island this week, we dived down to see the wreck of the Cali, a 200ft long cargo ship that sank in Georgetown harbour in the 1960s. We floated above the skeleton of what was once a mighty ocean-going vessel, its steel ribs radiating up from the hull like a huge ribcage splayed open along the sandy ocean floor, its heart and soul ripped out long ago by the power of the ocean. It’s a tragedy for any boat to go down and as boatowners especially, it’s a scary sight to see a boat below the water instead of on it.