Dive and hospitality pioneers Bob Soto and Ms. Hebe Connors (Briggs) were honored by the Cayman Islands government as early tourism heroes in a January celebration in George Town’s Heroes Square. Several hundred people were recognized as tourism contributors, but only a few were distinguished as heroes of the industry.
Bob Soto started recreational diving in Cayman, and Ms. Hebe housed his dive customers in guest rooms at her seaside cottage on outskirts of George Town. Mr. Soto became one of the best-known names in diving, and Ms. Hebe’s guest house became Sunset House, now one of the Caribbean’s best-known dive resorts.
“She was a strong woman who worked hard to support us, so I’m glad to see her honored for that hard work,” said her son Adrien Briggs, who was also recognized as a tourism pioneer at the ceremony. In addition to Sunset House, Briggs also owns Red Sail Sports, a top dive operator, and the Rum Point Club, a popular island beach attraction.
“I am honored at the recognition, but I know there are many other people who deserve recognition for their contributions to dive tourism as well,” said Mr. Briggs.
Diving and watersports are key components of Cayman’s tourism product — surveys reveal that 1 in 8 visitors will dive, the rest snorkel and go to the beach.
Neil van Niekerk, Administrations Manger of the Southern Cross Club in Little Cayman and former president of the Sister Islands Tourism Association, was named an emerging pioneer.
“I’m deeply honored – it’s an amazing award,” he said. Van Niekerk is also active in the watersports division of the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, helping steer the island’s dive industry into the future.
“Neil would be a rising star wherever he worked,” commented Peter Hillenbrand, owner of the Southern Cross Club, himself recognized for long service to tourism. “The fact that he continues to be dedicated to the sustainable growth of the Cayman Islands tourism product is a great asset to me and my business as well as the Cayman Islands.”
Ron Kipp, who owned Bob Soto’s Diving for many years, honored as a tourism pioneer. Cayman’s “Stingray Man” Pat Kenney, credited as co-founder of the deeper Stingray City dive, one of the most popular tourism attractions, was among the honorees for long service to tourism.
“I’m grateful and honored to be among the large group who were recognized for our years of service in the tourism industry,” he said.
Walter Findlay, a long-time watersports manager with Red Sail Sports, was also at the celebration receiving kudos for his long service to tourism.
“I am extremely grateful and honored to be recognized,” said Findlay, who has been on the frontline with Cayman tourists for almost 25 years. “I find tourism a natural fit because I enjoy talking to people and helping them, and that’s a reflection on Red Sail Sports and the services that we give.”
Customer service is one of the reasons Cayman is today a vacation hotspot, as are its variety of accommodations, world-class restaurants, superb diving, and professional dive services. It’s come a long way from the day a seaplane landed in the waters of George Town with the first visitors 70 years ago. In 2016, 385,451 visitors arrived by air in the Cayman Islands, 80% of them from the U.S. More than half are expected to return because, per exit surveys, their experience was very good compared to other Caribbean destinations they have visited. Good news for a tourism industry expecting a banner year in 2017.
Peter Hillenbrand sums up the dedication of all those who work to make the Cayman Islands the best tourist destination.
“I am looking forward to the future and continuing to be involved in moving Cayman’s tourism product and conservation efforts forward,” he said.