The three low-lying Cayman Islands—Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac, with a total area of 262 sq km (101 sq mi)—are situated between 79° 44′ and 81° 27′ W and 19° 15′ and 19° 45′ N , about 290 km (180 mi) WNW of Jamaica, of which they were formerly a dependency. Grand Cayman, flat, rockbound, and protected by coral reefs, is about 32 km (20 mi) long and 6 to 11 km (4–7 mi) broad; George Town, on Grand Cayman, is the capital and chief town. The other two islands are about 145 km (90 mi) to the NE . The mid-2002 population was estimated at 36,273, about 90% of whom resided on Grand Cayman. Cayman Airways is the main air carrier; the principal international airport is on Grand Cayman.
The islands were discovered in 1503 by Columbus, who named them Las Tortugas, from the turtles with which the surrounding seas abound. They were never occupied by Spaniards and were colonized from Jamaica by the British. They were a dependency of Jamaica until 1959, but severed all constitutional links with Jamaica when the latter became independent in 1962.
The 1972 constitution empowers the crown-appointed governor to make laws with the advice and consent of the Legislative Assembly. The Executive Council consists of 4 members chosen by the Assembly from among its 12 elected members, and 3 Assembly members appointed to the Council by the governor. The Legislative Assembly includes 3 ex officio members, 12 elected members, and the governor. Elections, in which all adult British residents may vote, are held every three years. Local administration is in the hands of justices of the peace and vestrymen.
The Cayman Islands dollar ( CI $) is linked to the US dollar at the rate of CI $1 = US $1.20 (or US $1 = CI $0.835). Customs, duties, license and company fees, and postage and stamp taxes are the principal source of government revenue. The absence of taxes on income, capital gains, real estate, and inheritances attracts overseas investors to the region; international financial services and tourism have become principal sectors of the economy. As of 1998, 40,000 companies were registered in the Caymans, including 600 bank and trust companies. Tourism has grown rapidly: in 1997, 1.2 million people visited the islands, about half of whom were from the United States. Tourism accounts for about 70% of GDP and 75% of foreign exchange earnings. Although the soil is fertile and there is some farming, the agricultural sector remains small; the catching of turtles, sharks, and sponges also provides some employment. In 1999, total exports were valued at $1.2 million, while imports amounted to $457.4 million. Remittances from Caymanian seamen serving on foreign ships contribute to the economy as well. The government-owned Cayman Turtle Farm, unique in the world, produces turtle meat for local consumption; exports have waned in recent years due to restrictions by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The islands have 2 hospitals with a total 70 beds, 10 of them for extended care. Education is compulsory between the ages of 4 and 16, and provided cost-free for Caymanians. The population is 98% literate.