Two years ago, MPs rejected proposals to allow cruise ships to open their casinos while in port.
That decision was taken against the background of a better economic picture than todays, and in the midst of extreme bitterness over then Premier Dr Ewart Browns handling of the Uighur Crisis. It also needs to be remembered that the Premier tried to get the bill passed by taking advantage of the absences of several key opponents.
So, rightly or wrongly, the debate was framed in a very different context from todays renewal of the debate. Although Dr Brown warned then that not giving permission to the ships to open their casinos would lead to their departure, his credibility was so low that many MPs did not know whether to believe him or not.
Bermuda, because of its isolation, is different from other cruise ship ports in that the ships tend to stay in port for several nights. In other cruise areas, they usually stay in port for one day and sail to the next destination overnight, and are thus able to open their casinos and shops while at sea.
Bermudas refusal to allow the casinos to open is now being blamed for at least one line cancelling visits next year, and there may be worse to come in the future. In that sense, the argument seems clear cut. Allow the ships to open their casinos and keep the economic contribution they make, or lose them and the revenue that comes with them.
But that raises the question of exactly how much of an economic contribution they make. The fact the ships no longer dock in Hamilton and St Georges has already reduced much of the spending visitors once did in port, and this has not been replaced by spending in Dockyard. The concentration of ships in Dockyard has also strained the Islands transport infrastructure and at the very least, this will require additional spending or cuts in public transport to accommodate the visitors and to avoid a repetition of last years transport problems.
If the ships casinos and shops are allowed to open in port, this will further reduce spending by the visitors in port because they will be back on the ships. Given that cruise ship passengers already spend significantly less than air visitors, this further reduction begs the question of how much they are worth.
The answer of course is that they are still worth quite a lot. In 2011, they will have spent around $65 million and they will also contribute to Government tax revenues. According to Transport Minister Derrick Burgess, they were worth $85 million to the economy in 2010, which is not be sniffed at. By contrast, about half the number of air visitors spent $322 million in 2010 and will have spent more than that in 2011.
That shows that air visitors remain more valuable than cruise visitors. So the question that has to be determined is, leaving moral qualms aside, is whether the reduction in spending that may come if some cruise lines stop visiting is a greater loss than the reduction in spending that will come if the passengers have even less reason to come ashore at night.
The likelihood is that the reduction in calls will cost Bermuda more. So on an economic basis, it is likely that allowing the cruise ships to open their casinos in port is worth it, although it is not entirely clear cut.
That brings the moral argument to the fore. Bermuda has endlessly debated the pros and cons of gambling. The recession has sharpened the argument and appears to have swung popular support around in its favour, along with, possibly, a decrease in the church-going population. Nonetheless, it is unwise for this debate to be conducted in a piecemeal fashion, or as a result of knee jerk reactions. If it is allowed on ships, it wont be long before the hotels will want it too. And their contribution to the economy is far greater.
To avoid a slow slide into gambling without the proper framework in place, Bermuda needs a full and measured debate, and it needs it now.
Gang members invited to join peace walk
We have no bananas: pest hits imports
Economist warns to expect deficit of $30m
Santucci defends public schools system
Candidates agree Olde Towne needs a boost
Defence opens case in Gibbings murder trial
Having designs on the carnival scene
Momentum grows for global minimum tax rate
Dickinson: no bailout for retailers
End of the road for Longbird Bridge
Miles Outerbridge: 1933-2020
Dickinson pressed on immigration and debt
Pioneering Gil always looks ahead
At an economic crossroads
Paget Primary takes dose of health history
Woman pushed police officer in chest
Take Our Poll