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Improving tourism

There was some good news in the 2011 tourism figures released on Monday by Tourism Minister Wayne Furbert.

Mr Furbert, who took over the Ministry in the October Cabinet reshuffle, was able to announce that total arrivals increased by 12 percent to a near record 655,236.

However, this rise was almost entirely due to cruise ship arrivals, which surged by 19 percent to a record 415,711.

That’s good news, although it explains why the public transport infrastructure ran into so much trouble last summer; adding almost 70,000 visitors over a few months was always going to cause difficulties. And given that cruise ship passengers spend less than air visitors, the gain from this kind of increase was not as much as one might have hoped.

To be sure, half a loaf is better than none. But the goal with cruise ships must be to attract the higher end vessels where the likelihood of them spending more ashore is greater.

Air arrivals rose by two percent, but this increase was due almost entirely to convention visitors who almost doubled as the Fairmont Southampton Resort enjoyed very strong convention bookings throughout the summer.

This is entirely welcome, and an area that the major hotels and the Department of Tourism need to build on. There are reports that the companies that literally took over the hotel last summer are coming back, but in smaller numbers, so this trend may not continue.

For other forms of air visitors, the news was good, but not great. Vacationers, who make up the major segment of the market, rose by one percent to 144,513, while business visitors rose by just 0.34 percent. People staying with friends and family dropped almost five percent, presumably because expatriates have left the Island, taking their houseguests with them.

The small increase in vacationers is concerning, and may be a result of Bermuda’s low marketing profile in 2011. With no agency and no increase in budget, it is not a great surprise that the numbers did not increase more. What is needed now is an aggressive push to let people know Bermuda exists. Government faces a major budget squeeze, but it must recognise that if Bermuda is to grow its way out of recession, it needs to market itself in tourism and international business. That is especially so because the soon-to-be-named advertising agency will have to go to market with a new campaign very quickly.

Despite the slight increase in hotel guests, 2011 continued to be a difficult year for hotels. Average occupancies rose by two percent to 56.3 percent, which is headed in the right direction. But hoteliers will admit that an occupancy rate of 56 percent is unsustainable.

It is also worrying that the number of beds available continued to fall. Bermuda had two fewer properties in 2011, and 292 fewer beds to sell. Despite that, the number of bednights visitors spent in hotels and tourist accommodations rose by 3.6 percent. However, when friends and families are included, the total number of bednights dropped, albeit by less than one percent.

Mr Furbert is a relentless optimist, and he has already injected energy into the tourism sector, something it badly needs. But it needs more than that. Bermuda needs to raise its profile. It needs to offer value for money, and for cruise ship visitors, it needs to give them reasons to stay ashore. Given the slight improvement in the US economy, tourism could improve in 2012, but it will need all the help it can get.

Minister of Business Development and Tourism, the Hon. Wayne Furbert JP, MP, announces the 2011 year end visitor arrival statistics on Monday. (Photo by Akil Simmons)

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Published February 15, 2012 at 1:00 am (Updated February 15, 2012 at 6:44 am)

Improving tourism

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