The talented Mr Burt
In the recent Cabinet shuffle, David Burt took on responsibility for tourism, having already taken charge of economic development in an earlier round of appointments.
Doing so creates some risks for the Premier.
There is no doubt that these two portfolios are vitally important for Bermuda, especially now as the Government must help to rebuild the economy — already weak before — after it was shattered by the Covid-19 crisis.
However, as important as they are, these portfolios do not represent the entirety of government. By taking responsibility for these specific areas, the Premier will have less time to devote to the overall management of the Government, which should be a concern.
Mr Burt has form in this. When the Progressive Labour Party returned to power, he took the finance ministry as well the premiership. He ran it until Curtis Dickinson was sufficiently familiar with Parliament to take on the job.
In handing over the finance portfolio, Mr Burt was tacitly conceding that managing both the premiership and finance was too much to ask; indeed, it can be argued that no one has combined both jobs and done them well. Doing so may have cost former premier Paula Cox her seat in 2012, while the late Sir David Gibbons was a vastly better finance minister than premier.
Looking after tourism and economic development, especially when these areas are overseen by nominally independent agencies such as the Bermuda Tourism Authority, the Bermuda Business Development Agency and the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation is arguably easier than the finance ministry, but if Bermuda was ever in need of focused leadership in these areas, it is now.
Some will argue that Mr Burt is recognising this by putting them under his own direction. But it can be countered that if they are that important, they should have the singular attention of one minister — not one who must be equally concerned with the continuing Covid-19 crisis, the massive reforms under way in education and health, and the myriad other responsibilities of a head of government and the leader of a political party.
If Mr Burt had a Cabinet colleague in whom he could really depend on to deliver in these areas, he would no doubt appoint that person. It seems clear that for the Ministry of Finance this was not the case until Mr Dickinson won his by-election.
Both Jamahl Simmons and Wayne Furbert have held this exact portfolio at different times. Presumably both were found wanting or they would be doing it now. Mr Burt may have been satisfied by former tourism minister Zane DeSilva and Wayne Caines has the CV for economic development as former chief executive of Digicel. But both danced off the stage at Blu.
Apparently, Mr Burt, having cast his eye over the government benches and found that no one who was willing was able, and no one who was able was available, decided that only he can do it. That would be acceptable if Mr Burt had a track record in these areas, but his one big idea — turning Bermuda into a financial technology hub — remains a work in progress, and even that description is overly generous.
Still, the lack of success in financial technology and cryptocurrencies has not diminished the Premier’s confidence.
In his statement to the House of Assembly on Friday, he made it clear he has a great many opinions about tourism; so critical is he of Bermuda’s performance that it is a miracle Mr DeSilva survived in the portfolio as long as he did. Based on Mr Burt’s comments, his government has failed to impose its, or his, views on tourism in any way, such is the litany of failures.
Irrelevant, top-heavy, inward-looking, a staid and boring product. No must-attend events.
That, in Mr Burt’s opinion, sums up Bermuda tourism. This newspaper has not agreed with every decision made by the BTA, least of all the stack of containers at the Birdcage, but it is undeniable that the agency turned in several years of record results, reversed a decades-long trend of decline and brought new tourism properties to the market.
Having said that, the BTA should be held accountable and new ideas should always be welcome.
So what are Mr Burt’s new ideas?
Based on his statement, there aren’t any, at least no new ones. There is one old one, and that is a rather tired marketing trick — apparently, what Bermuda needs is celebrities promoting the island through events. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is, and that is not a reference to the Fyre Festival.
Instead, who can forget the Bermuda Music Festival, which brought celebrities to Bermuda at massive expense for minimal return. Instead of music, Mr Burt identifies three areas where Bermuda has fallen short.
According to Mr Burt, Bermuda’s International Film Festival is not a “real home film festival”, Bermuda is not a “real haven” for the arts and it has no “fully supported” fashion week.
No doubt the Bermudians who for years have worked tirelessly with minimal government support to build up these areas will welcome Mr Burt’s promise to strike out in these areas in “targeted and meaningful” ways.
There is a certain irony in this. Had the PLP not been hellbent on first disparaging and then ignoring the America’s Cup, Bermuda might now have had three or four years of annual “must attend” sailing events, which would have drawn the very high-income individuals that Mr Burt rightly says Bermuda needs to attract.
The America’s Cup was never supposed to be a “short burst of economic activity”; it was supposed to be the springboard for putting Bermuda back on the map after years of the very irrelevance Mr Burt now decries. For Mr Burt, it was a “boat race for billionaires”. The Premier’s idea, apparently, is to have a film or fashion festival for millionaires. What exactly is the difference?
Those looking for a tourism revival should exercise some caution. Mr Burt has been more directly involved in economic development than tourism since 2017, and even leaving aside financial technology, the record is poor.
Three years into the PLP’s term, Mr Burt announced seven initiatives that the Government has under way. These include amendments to trusts legislation, marketing efforts in Asia and Hong Kong, family-office legislation, marketing for the economic substance regime, a fee structure for subsea cables, residential construction schemes in the Economic Empowerment Zones, and more changes to digital-asset rules.
Many of these ideas are valid, but they beg the question: what has Mr Burt been doing for the past three years and, given the lack of economic development Bermuda has experienced, what in this list of too little, too late efforts makes anyone think he will do any better in tourism?
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