Tourism is in need of attention
Whoever is elected our next Government on December 17 will have no time to waste in taking the wheel of our troubled tourism industry, which hasnt significantly improved since the last election five years ago.
Air arrivals through the summer fell to 187,888 compared to 243,294 from January through September 2011.
There are glimmers of hope with the unveiling of the National Tourism Master Plan and the launch and related buzz of the So Much More campaign: third quarter air arrivals rose to 81,083 from 79,917 last year and Tourism Minister Wayne Furbert said hotel bookings were up from January through to March and British Airways has reported booking to the Island through July, 2013 is up 39 percent.
Ironically, Bermuda continues to be named the best island in the Caribbean/Atlantic by Condé Nast Traveler; this was the seventh consecutive year Bermuda has taken the top spot.
So why is it so hard to return to the industrys 1980s heydays when we attracted nearly 500,000 air arrivals to our shores? Why does tourism account for just five percent of Bermudas economy and international business nearly 70 percent?
Most urgently for our next leaders to tackle: What will it take for a new world-class luxury resort to finally break ground?
What can be done to save the hotels that are left, some of which are weighed down by tens of millions in debt?
How can we breathe new life into the Hamilton waterfront and the Town of St George, which has been haemorrhaging tourist-related businesses, and address the concerns of cruise lines and now some of the airlines?
And will the next Government finally allow gaming and casinos, which is supported by many hoteliers? Cruise lines also want gaming allowed on board, when they are in port here.
Five years ago more than a dozen planned resorts were touted as part of a platinum period for tourism that, as we know, never materialised.
In the months before his re-election, then Premier Ewart Brown said he expected the Island would have three or four new five-star hotels by 2011.
Alas, it now looks like we will be lucky to have one or two break ground by the end of next year.
Carl Bazarian insists he could break ground on part of the beach club for his planned Park Hyatt resort in St Georges by the end of this year; Government and the US and local principals behind the planned St Regis hotel and residences in Hamilton insist the project is proceeding, despite having missed deadlines to start again and again.
Buyers are yet to be found for some prime oceanfront sites on the Island including Pink Beach Club (put in receivership), and the former Sonesta resort site (for sale since 2011). Other properties such as Ariel Sands and the Grape Bay Hotel are sitting empty in a state of disrepair, while 9 Beaches awaits major reinvestment to reopen.
Other major issues for the next Government: booking concerns in the cruise industry and now by at least one US airline.
Top executives from JetBlue Airlines flew to the Island recently to meet with the Tourism and Transport Ministers to try to increase weak passenger numbers during the shoulder and off seasons.
Calling their meetings very serious, the chief commercial officer for the airline Robin Hayes said: We have to stimulate demand to Bermuda.
Added JetBlue founder Robert Land: Were concerned with our performance off-peak.
The airline has been flying to Bermuda since 2006.
On the cruise liner front, the Island's forthcoming ship schedule shows a drop in the number of overall calls to Bermuda, according to a shipping source.
Next year's cruise schedule will deliver 35 less ships for the season, from 163 this year down to 128.
Low sales were given as the reason for the drop in calls from the two Royal Caribbean International services.
However, a draft of the schedule shows 22 calls from the new liner Norwegian Breakaway. Much of the Island's performance will rise on projected numbers for that vessel. Its top capacity of 4,000 passengers should more than compensate for the loss of the Veendam.
That ship, which carried roughly 1,370 passengers per trip and made 19 trips to the Island over this past season, will not be returning next year.
Regular caller Explorer of the Seas, a large vessel which this season carried about 3,225 a trip, is expected to make 26 calls, down four from 30.
Grandeur of the Seas — the replacement of Enchantment of the Seas and with the same top capacity of 2,446 — will stop 15 times in Bermuda, down ten trips from 25.
Norwegian Dawn will hold steady at 22 calls, as it has since the 2011 season, and Summit will continue with this year's 19 visits.
The OBA says its plan to rejuvenate the industry includes the following:
l Move with urgency in the first six months to put professionals, rather than politicians, in charge of our tourism industry by setting up a professional, results-oriented and accountable Tourism Authority to rejuvenate tourism, and create jobs;
l Invite blue-chip hotel owners, operators and developers to Bermuda for a hospitality-development summit that would deepen our understanding of their investment requirements. Armed with that knowledge, it plans to make Bermuda attractive to new hotel developments, thereby stimulating the construction and tourism sectors of our economy;
l Invest in the marketing of our World Heritage Site jewel, leading to an increase in visitors to St George's and creating jobs in the tourism and retail sectors;
l Go back to basics on the marketing of our tourism product and provide sufficient resources to get Bermuda back in the minds of our critical NE US customers;
l Streamline and modernise the cumbersome and inefficient Hotel Concessions Act to stimulate job creation and training for Bermudian hospitality workers;
l Expand the programmes offered by the Bermuda Hospitality Institute;
l Partner with Bermuda College, hotels and restaurants to organise culinary training programmes that will ensure a good source of trained and qualified Bermudian chefs.
Tourism Minister Wayne Furbert recently called on Bermudians to start believing in the product, citing safety and friendliness as two favourable traits of the Island reported by visitors.
On the So Much More brand campaign, he stated: Its definitely having an impact.
He said tourism was being pursued in hub US cities, with the New York team aggressively campaigning.
Based on the new plan, Mr Furbert also delivered sweeping predictions for ten years on, saying he expected to increase annual air arrivals from 236,000 to 481,715 by 2022.
In that time, jobs in the tourism sector would rise from 3,600 to 6,157, and GDP from $300 million to $513 million, he said.
Another major boost for the tourism industry, which could fuel a rise in residency tourism, was the Governments announcement that owners of resort/hotel-type residences in Bermuda would be given the right to stay year-round. Owners of units were previously only allowed to stay on the Island for 90 days at a time.
Said Mr Furbert: This restriction has proven to be an obstacle for the sourcing of development financing and has been a significant factor in stymieing hotel development.
According to the Minister, more policies will be introduced to create an attractive environment in order to increase investment in Bermudas tourism infrastructure. He said there will be a push for mixed-use hotel development products that include condo hotel units, residence clubs and hotel villas.
In St Georges, PLP candidate Dame Jennifer Smiths view on widening Town Cut to allow larger cruise ships to visit is that it is not worth it.
Widening the channel and eliminating three islands is not an ecological response and I believe the Minister of Transport is in fact actively looking for an alternative response, she has said. Further, I know that current shop owners have noticed the impact of the amount of tourists landing by ferry. And they are quite pleased with that. But they notice that St Georges in actual fact is not quite ready to take on much larger numbers than that at one time.
We need to focus on cultural tourism that is people who are coming there to see our fortifications and our 17th century living town as opposed to people who may be looking for more activity offered by Hamilton for instance.
More must be done to make St George the tourist hub that it should be, according to Independent Kim Swan.
He has listed the closure of the St Georges Golf Course and related facilities, along with the demolition of the St Catherines Beach Pavilion and a lack of dedicated cruise ships visiting the port as examples of actions that have hurt the area.
In addition, the failure of successive government administrations over a 20-year period, to increase the hotel beds in the town of St George has also adversely impacted our marketability, he has stated.
The City of Hamilton will be one of five tourism destination hubs, according to the new Tourism National Plan. The aim is to turn it into an iconic modern city with Bermudian flare. This would include conference facilities and services, performing arts, signature restaurants, high-end retail, live entertainment, nightlife venues and waterfront enjoyment.
The new plan also sets out the need to target the luxury market, convert cruise visitors into air arrivals and extend the tourism season into the winter months, creating more than 6,000 jobs over the next decade.
Tourism Board chairman Maxwell Burgess has said casinos are crucial to revitalising Hamilton, while gambling is also mentioned in the National Tourism Plan.
Legislation paving the way for a national referendum on gaming was tabled in the House of Assembly this month, though no date for the poll was set.
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