HERITAGE MATTERS

Incinerating Bermuda's tourism assets

  • By the 1920s, the Hamilton Hotel was probably the largest building in Bermuda.

    By the 1920s, the Hamilton Hotel was probably the largest building in Bermuda.

  • The 1915 entrance of the much enlarged Hamilton Hotel, located at the top of Queen Street.

    The 1915 entrance of the much enlarged Hamilton Hotel, located at the top of Queen Street.

  • The cover of 1915 Quebec Steamship Company brochure that advertised the Hamilton Hotel.

    The cover of 1915 Quebec Steamship Company brochure that advertised the Hamilton Hotel.

  • The first phase of the Hamilton Hotel was located to the north of the expanded facility.

    The first phase of the Hamilton Hotel was located to the north of the expanded facility.


‘Some people think you just turn on the tap and a tourist comes out.' Reggie Cooper, Bermuda Hotel Association president, 1986.

‘…we began to lose the atmosphere of the Living Room.' Larry Burchall, The Other Side, 1991.

‘We started treating customers like pariahs … It started with tourism we started treating tourists like they owed us something instead of as valued customers.' Bob Richards, The Bermuda Sun, 17 August 2011

On 23rd December 1955, Bermuda was presented with an unwanted Christmas present when the premier tourism accommodation on the island, the Hamilton Hotel, burned to the ground. Along with the hotel assets went a pile of government records, as a number of official offices were housed in the hotel, possibly arising from the need to fill rooms in the off-season summer months, for in the first century of tourism at Bermuda, the main period of visitation was the wintertime.

Symbolically, the destruction by fire of the grand Hamilton Hotel, following within three years by the similar death of the Bermudiana Hotel, might be said to mark the beginning of the incineration of Bermuda's tourism accommodation assets by hook or crook, or by neglect and bulldozer. It is perhaps also symbolic that the Hamilton Hotel site has been ever since largely replaced by the wasteland of a parking lot for our convenience, rather than new accommodation for visitors. Equally symbolic is the placement on the Bermudiana site of a grand building of the “exempted company” sector, a division of the ecomony which former governments seemed to state with triumph, nay almost glee, was overtaking or replacing tourism, which they were neglecting to the same degree or more to their support and touting of the “exempted economy”.

What should have always a vital symbiotic relationship between such “hotels of finance” and “hotel for visitors” was presented in recent decades as a winner-take-all contest between the two, the result being, whether deliberate or not, the burning of many of the bridges in tourism, dozens of hotels and guests houses being methaphorically incinerated since Professor Duncan McDowall's end-date of tourism's “Glory Years 195680”. Gone, for example, with little known record of its features, was possibly Bermuda's only Art Deco building, the Castle Harbour Hotel, and a little further east, the St. George's Hotel that was demolished before we appreciated that the architectural heritage of such structures was worth its weight in tourism gold, if restored rather than removed from the face of Bermuda. Not, I hasten to add, that we yet fully appreciate the value of built heritage, from hotels to homes to fortifications, etc., to the visitor economy.

Dozens of other hotels and guests houses have vanished or could no longer function in the devalued tourism economy in recent times. As we ate each golden egg, we failed to understand that a neglected chicken would suffer the same fate as could the neglected assets of tourism on this island.

The Hamilton Hotel was the brainchild of Henry James Tucker, elected mayor of the town in 1851 and the following year soldiers were pressed into digging the foundations. Governor Sir Charles Elliott, KCB (earlier instrumental in the establishment of Hong Kong) laid the cornerstone in August 1852 and by the 1890s, “the Hamilton Hotel was the centrepiece of Bermuda's fledgling tourist industry”. By 1915, when it appears in a travel brochure of the Quebec Steamship Company for its vessel, the SS Bermudian, the Hamilton Hotel had been substantially rebuilt to house 600 guests and “provided with all modern conveniences, including electric bells, elevators, electricity and gas in all the rooms, hot and cold baths, etc.” The Hotel towered over all other buildings of Hamilton, excepting the Cathedral, and being on “Hotel Hill”, it had uninterrupted views of the harbour. Tennis courts and croquet lawns and other amenities rounded out the establishment, the like of which was probably without parallel in the Caribbean region of the day.

Following the success of the Hamilton Hotel, the Princess Hotel was established in 1883 and many guests houses sprang up in Hamilton and elsewhere: the “tourism trade” was on its way to becoming the envy of many other small islands, a dominant position Bermuda held into the 1960s. After the demise of local shipbuilding in the mid-19th Century, the British military provided for much of Bermuda's Gross Domestic Product, with agriculture for the New York market and tourism weighing in at the end of the Victorian period. The military economic input was enlarged with the establishment of the American Bases in 1941 and the US Forces provided a considerable part of the GDP until the base closures at the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

Then came the so-called “International Business” of a financial basis, surely a misnomer, as tourism is the number one international business, according to some economists. International Business ended up holding the government and its leaders in its thrall, so much so that they in retrospect left the tourism chickens to lay whatever eggs they wished, or be entitled not to lay any at all. We are now paying the price for that slow incineration of tourism, which is our fundamental business, if one would dare to disagree with recent remarks of a politician that “our main business isn't international business its international business people”: that person implying that we are doing our utmost to make them unwelcome.

From the heritage of hotels to that of people, Eric Bean Jr and his ensemble “Jaricco Dance” staged a marvellous recital at City Hall last week (on part of the site of the Hamilton Hotel) with a Bermudian cast under the banner of “Return to Paradise”. Conceptualised as a statement against the rise in gun violence in Bermuda, the few spoken words of the performance lamented the loss of our heritage as one of the most courteous people on Earth. For drawing attention to a heritage that could be rebuilt, we should be grateful to Mr. Bean and his team of artists.

Fact is that while we were engaged in the long war of decimating Bermuda's hotel heritage, we had many a skirmish on the side to wipe out some of our heritage as a people. Fact is we seem generally to be treating all visitors, including those who work here, as pariahs who owe us a living. Fact is, in rudeness and wealth, for richer and richer, we have forgotten that visitors entirely support our lifestyle (and many facets of Bermuda's heritage) and that in an apt Caribbean adage, “Greedy kill Piggy”.

On Bernews.com today in response to the bus strike, despite the pen name of “Down de toilet”, one is encouraged that others think: “We must as Bermudians strive to save our tourism trade even if others don't care about it and prove once again that Bermudians are the friendliest and most caring people you would ever meet.”

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480.

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Published Aug 20, 2011 at 8:00 am (Updated Aug 19, 2011 at 8:51 pm)

HERITAGE MATTERS

Incinerating Bermuda's tourism assets

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