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Resolving our tourism identity crisis

Bermuda wasn't your father's Oldsmobile. In Stephen Birnbaum's expert opinion, by the late 1980s the island's tourism product was actually something closer akin to your great-grandfather's Model T Ford.

He might have been parodying a popular advertising slogan of the period, but there was nothing at all good-humoured about his assessment of the island's rapidly fading tourism industry.

Birnbaum was perhaps the best-known brand name in American travel journalism throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

An astute and hugely industrious commentator, he played an outsized role in shaping the American travelling public's tastes and preferences. Birnbaum seemed to be everywhere at that time: hosting travel segments on morning network talk shows and on radio, publishing pieces in newspapers as well as glossy magazines such as Esquire and Playboy, and editing a bestselling line of travel guides that bore his name.

It was considered something of a marketing coup for Bermuda to attract him here to compile a series of in-depth reports on the island for his various media outlets. However, the conclusions he drew about Bermuda tourism proved to be decidedly mixed.

Birnbaum was enchanted by the island's scenery and crystal waters, judging them to be among the wonders of the natural world. And he pronounced the Bermudian people to be among the most gracious and welcoming that he had ever encountered in his travels.

But as a holiday resort, he found Bermuda to be passé and tired. For him, it was a once fashionable resort that had come perilously close to fulfilling the stereotype of a destination now only of possible interest to the newlywed and the nearly dead.

He rightly chided the unresponsiveness of Bermuda's tourism chieftains for sitting by idly as the island's traditional well-heeled market niche literally started to die off. Without a concerted effort to reposition the island as an alluring, upmarket destination for a new generation of traveller, he predicted Bermuda's hospitality industry would soon go the way of its North American customer base.

Given the necessary image makeover, Birnbaum believed the island still had all of the amenities and qualities necessary to allow it to thrive as a smart, upmarket island resort. What it clearly lacked, though, was the will, the focus and the commitment to tourism. Of course, this was precisely at the time Bermuda was shifting its primary economic focus away from tourism and towards the global financial services sector.

Preserving and upgrading the hospitality industry became very much an afterthought during the gold-rush stampede to lure new industries and vast new revenue sources to our shores.

Revamping our brand to build a new, younger audience for Bermuda tourism in face of changing demographics, shifting tastes and increased competition was never much of a priority.

Various half-hearted, piecemeal remedies that achieved little were undertaken by the successive governments, which then presided over Bermuda's tourism development and marketing efforts. But, all the while, air arrivals continued to plummet and more and more hotels, cottage colonies and guesthouses were transformed into housing for offshore-sector employees and those in its satellite industries: today Bermuda boasts only 3,000 of the 13,000 hotel beds that it had on offer in 1987.

For the next two decades, Bermuda tourism continued to suffer from what might be termed a brand identity crisis.

The old marketing concepts that had worked so well for us from the 1930s right the way through the late 1970s were entirely obsolete. The new ones we haphazardly experimented with over the years were either inappropriate or ineffective. And a reputation for staidness continued to cling to our tourism product like the smell of mildew.

Only when the island's fiscal implosion urgently underscored the need for Bermuda to maintain a viable second economic sector was some long-overdue, remedial action finally taken. The creation of an independent Bermuda Tourism Authority guided more by market requirements than entrenched bureaucratic considerations has provided us with far more flexibility and a wider range of options geared to revitalising and selling our tourism product.

There have been encouraging signs of a modest and continuing revival in tourism and tourism-related economic activity in recent years. Visitor air arrivals are on an upward tick. There's ongoing investment in the tourism infrastructure. And next year's America's Cup sailing championship being staged in Bermuda provides the island with an unparalleled opportunity to reintroduce itself to a worldwide television audience as a first-class destination for discerning vacationers.

Simultaneously, some highly creative marketing initiatives developed by both the BTA and the private sector have managed to throw off at least some of Bermuda's reputation for fustiness.

Portraying the island as more vibrant than has customarily been the case in tourism promotions without sacrificing our longstanding reputation for a certain laid-back charm, it's clear we are finally in earnest about actively pursuing a younger, savvier and more dynamic clientele.

In relatively short order, tourism has gone from being the chronically overlooked stepchild of Bermuda's economy into an area of increasing activity and growth.

The will, the focus and the commitment that Birnbaum identified as being essential for a full-scale Bermuda tourism revival 20 years ago are all very much in evidence these days. And that needs to continue to be the case if the present, positive trends are to continue.

In fact, actor and producer Michael Douglas was underscoring the importance of precisely these fundamentals, along with a necessary degree of patience, just this week.

One of Bermuda's favourite part-time sons, he has a more than casual interest in the health of our tourism industry, given his role as the prime mover in the Ariel Sands hotel redevelopment.

As Mr Douglas remarked: “This is not a time to be divisive — this is a time for the island to unify and show its best colours.”

He's absolutely right. Otherwise, we will never finish refurbishing the antique jalopy that is our tourism product, let alone get around to making it roadworthy again.

Fresh perspective:tourists enjoy the day out on the water in St George's Harbour. It's clear we are finally in earnest about actively pursuing a younger, savvier and more dynamic clientele (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

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Published August 12, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated August 12, 2016 at 12:13 am)

Resolving our tourism identity crisis

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